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NFL Draft | RUNNING BACKS

Big gains could be made by waiting

Early run here seen as unlikely

By Shalise Manza Young
Globe Staff / April 21, 2011

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Mark Ingram may be the first running back selected in this year’s NFL draft, but that doesn’t necessarily mean he’s the best player available at the position.

Ingram has the name, and the hardware: He was the 2009 Heisman Trophy winner, the first ever from tradition-rich Alabama.

But he isn’t head and shoulders above the other backs, according to many observers. The lack of a standout at the position, coupled with the belief that a reliable back can be had in the later rounds, has some teams believing that only Ingram is worthy of a first-round pick, and some believing he shouldn’t even be taken until the second round.

There are plenty of examples of lightly regarded running backs coming out of college becoming effective pros. Start with New England: Neither BenJarvus Green-Ellis nor Danny Woodhead was drafted. Arian Foster of the Texans, who led the NFL in rushing last year, also went undrafted.

Illinois junior Mikel Leshoure has great size, coming in at 6 feet, 227 pounds, and last fall had a shade under 1,700 yards (6 yards per carry) to go with 17 touchdowns. He has power and quick feet.

“He’s a big back,’’ said analyst Mel Kiper Jr., classifying Leshoure as an every-down back. “You like the fact that he has very good vision; usually that makes the first defender miss. You can make the argument that he’s the second-best back in this draft.’’

Connecticut’s Jordan Todman, a Massachusetts native who led Dartmouth High to the MIAA Division 1 Super Bowl in 2007, was a workhorse for the Huskies, with 569 carries over his final two seasons — including an eye-popping 334 last year.

Knowing that running backs have only so many carries in their legs, Todman opted to enter the draft. Given his size — he measured 5-9, 203 at the Combine — there are questions about Todman’s ability to be an every-down back in the NFL, despite his durability at UConn.

He isn’t the only running back on the small side. Oklahoma State’s Kendall Hunter, Pittsburgh’s Dion Lewis, and Oregon State’s Jacquizz Rodgers are 5-8 or shorter.

Ryan Williams of Virginia Tech is an interesting prospect. He had one stellar season as a redshirt freshman, with 1,655 yards (5.6 per carry), but last year was slowed by a torn hamstring, which has him wearing the dreaded “injury concern’’ label.

Ingram, Leshoure, Williams, and Todman are among the backs the Patriots have worked out or visited with.

Shalise Manza Young can be reached at syoung@globe.com. Follow her on Twitter @shalisemyoung.

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