NFL draft preview, running backs: Where are all the backfield stars?

Minneapolis Star Tribune - If you fear that the days of the highly hyped running back have passed, this year's NFL draft (April 25-27) might provide the most convincing supporting argument in some time. It's not only that there aren't any ball carriers the caliber of say, Trent Richardson last season, Darren McFadden in 2008 or Adrian Peterson in 2007, it's that the draft's first night might come and go without a single back selected.

Not since 1963 has the first round of the draft been running back free. And only three times in the past half-century has the draft produced only one first-round running back: 2011 (when Mark Ingram was picked 28th); 1984 (Greg Bell, 26th); and 1964 (Joe Don Looney, 12th).

In a pass-happy league, the quest to land franchise quarterbacks and big-time receivers and reliable defensive backs has become a pressing priority. And this year, the draft pool also is as deep as it's been in the trenches in some time. On both sides of the ball.

That means even the best backs in this draft might be stuck playing the waiting game next week.

The teams most in need of running backs are Green Bay, Cincinnati and Pittsburgh. But don't be surprised if none of those organizations uses its first-round pick to plug that hole.

THE FRONT-RUNNER

Eddie Lacy, Alabama

A true workhorse back with obvious power, Lacy also is nimble for his size (5-11, 231 pounds). He waited his turn with the Crimson Tide behind Mark Ingram and Trent Richardson, then put together his own highlight reel full of bruising runs. Lacy's draft stock could be hindered by his limitations as a receiver and blocker. Plus he has been slowed during the predraft process by a hamstring injury.

THE CONTENDERS

Giovani Bernard, North Carolina

Bernard led the ACC in rushing (1,228 yards) and scoring (114 points) last season. Not only does he have an array of nifty moves out of the backfield, but he also is adept as a pass catcher and can be an explosive return guy as well.

Montee Ball, Wisconsin

An undeniable college standout, Ball produced 5,140 career rushing yards and 77 touchdowns as a Badger. But at the combine, his 4.66-second time in the 40-yard dash renewed the skepticism of many NFL scouts, who just aren't convinced Ball has the burst to make a difference at the next level.

Marcus Lattimore, South Carolina

Before there was Louisville's Kevin Ware, there was Lattimore, whose gruesome knee injury last October became a YouTube draw for anyone who could stomach it. At full strength, Lattimore's quickness and vision is intriguing. But with season-ending injuries to both knees the past two seasons, durability is a concern.

THE SLEEPER

Onterio McCalebb, Auburn

His senior season production (94 carries, 570 yards, six TDs) was modest at best playing for a struggling Auburn squad. Then McCalebb turned heads with a 4.34-second run in the 40-yard dash at the combine, fastest of any running back. Might that be enough to propel the 5-10, 168-pounder in the NFL?

(Distributed by Scripps Howard News Service, www.scrippsnews.com.)

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