2011 draft watch: Heisman winner Mark Ingram the only sure bet in class

With the college football season approaching, it’s time to begin evaluating the talent pool for the 2011 draft. Sporting News draft expert Russ Lande and his team of former NFL scouts will take assess each position in the coming weeks. Next up: running backs.

Lande’s take: The list of the running backs likely to be in the 2011 draft is not nearly as impressive as the quarterback class. There are some interesting prospects but no sure-fire top 10 picks after Alabama’s Mark Ingram. However, with so many running backs playing a bigger role in NFL passing games, smaller guys like Penn State’s Evan Royster, West Virginia’s Noel Devine and Oregon State’s Jacquizz Rodgers hold more draft value than a decade ago.

After breaking down game film all summer, here is our scouts’ rankings for the top junior and senior running backs entering the college season.

* — underclassman

1. Mark Ingram, 5-10/215, Alabama *
He is a strong and physical runner with rare instincts and vision. He is excellent at finding open spaces and making quick cuts to get through the hole. He runs with excellent body lean, gets his shoulders down to make himself a smaller target, runs through contact and gains yardage after contact. He will get downgraded by some personnel men because of his lack of elite speed, but we view him as an Emmitt Smith-like back with enough quickness and speed to be an elite NFL back.

2. DeMarco Murray, 6-1/216, Oklahoma
He is tough and competitive, consistently running through contact. Often runs upright but is improving at lowering his shoulder to deliver a blow to would-be tacklers. He shows the footwork and agility to make sharp jump-cuts and bounce runs outside. He shows the instincts to locate holes and burst through them. He has good—but not elite—speed and thus struggles to outrun defenders with the angle. He must learn to wrap up the ball better to avoid fumbling.

3. Graig Cooper, 6-0/205, Miami (Fla.)
He is versatile and productive as a ballcarrier, receiver and kickoff return man but is recovering from a Dec. 29 torn ACL. He is expected to play in ’10, but few players return to pre-injury form in the first year back from that injury. Cooper must stay healthy in ’10 and then show marked improvement at the Senior Bowl and NFL Scouting Combine. When healthy, Cooper has the athleticism, agility and elite speed to make big plays. He is an instinctive runner who finds the hole and has the explosiveness to score on any touch.

4. Daniel Thomas, 6-2/228, Kansas State
A junior college transfer, Thomas burst onto the scene in ’09. He is big and well built and keeps his legs churning and fights for every last yard, often dragging tacklers for extra yardage. He lacks the explosiveness or elite speed to excite personnel men but could have just enough to be an NFL power back.

5. Jacquizz Rodgers, 5-7/183, Oregon State
He is quick and explosive and makes big plays. He is an elusive back who makes would-be tacklers miss and turn short runs into touchdowns. He easily outruns defenders with the angle. He is short but well built, able to absorb hard hits and keep on going. Despite lack of size, he is a productive and durable feature back in college. He reminds us of the Chargers’ Darren Sproles.

6. Evan Royster, 6-0/209, Penn State
He lacks the speed to gain the corner, the elusiveness to make defenders miss in the open field and the acceleration to be a big-play threat. He is most effective between the offensive tackles, securing the ball and breaking arm tackles and falling forward, but he is not in the mold of an NFL power back. In the passing game, he shows soft hands and the ability to adjust to off-target passes. He runs good routes out of the slot, too, often beating linebackers or safeties off the line. But he lacks the speed to run away from man-to-man coverage. He is smart enough to identify blitzers in pass protection and shows good strength to finish blocks.

7. Noel Devine, 5-7/174, West Virginia
He is lightning fast, a big-play threat in the return game and as a situational player on offense as a runner and receiver. He shows unmatched ability to change direction, explode through creases and score on any given play. Noel’s frame is a big concern, though. He is short and can get swallowed up by defenders. He will struggle to break arm tackles in the NFL. Durability is a definite concern. And he struggles to find open spaces in the red zone.

8. Da’Rel Scott, 5-11/195, Maryland
He is quick and explosive but got hurt last year and then had to share touches with Davin Meggett. However, Scott has many of the tools to make game-changing plays in the NFL if used correctly. He has the ability to find space and make would-be tacklers miss, contributing as a ballcarrier and receiver from different alignments. With a big senior season, Scott could fly up draft boards.

9. Roy Helu, 5-11/220, Nebraska
He was a big-time high school recruit who has developed into a good college back. He has a thick build with the size, strength and balance to run through contact and make big plays. He is a surprisingly good athlete, making sharp cuts to get through holes in a blink. Helu has the physical talent to be a high draft pick with a big senior season.

10. Kendall Hunter, 5-8/199, Oklahoma State
He is a short but thickly built back who was on the verge of becoming a star—leading the Big 12 in rushing in ’08—before struggling through an injury-filled ’09 season. He shows more quickness than pure speed, working surprisingly well in tight quarters. As a receiver, he is dangerous when getting a pass beyond the line of scrimmage because of his quickness, instincts and running skills. He must stay healthy and return to form in ’10. If he plays like he did in ’08, he could move into the third round.

This story appears in July 21’s edition of Sporting News Today. If you are not receiving Sporting News Today, the only digital sports daily, sign up today.

Former NFL scout Russ Lande evaluates college players for Sporting News’ Pro Football War Room and GM Jr. Scouting LLC.

With the college football season approaching, it’s time to begin evaluating the talent pool for the 2011 draft. Sporting News draft expert Russ Lande and his team of former NFL scouts will take assess each position in the coming weeks. Next up: running backs.

Lande’s take: The list of the running backs likely to be in the 2011 draft is not nearly as impressive as the quarterback class. There are some interesting prospects but no sure-fire top 10 picks after Alabama’s Mark Ingram. However, with so many running backs playing a bigger role in NFL passing games, smaller guys like Penn State’s Evan Royster, West Virginia’s Noel Devine and Oregon State’s Jacquizz Rodgers hold more draft value than a decade ago.

After breaking down game film all summer, here is our scouts’ rankings for the top junior and senior running backs entering the college season.

* — underclassman

1. Mark Ingram, 5-10/215, Alabama *
He is a strong and physical runner with rare instincts and vision. He is excellent at finding open spaces and making quick cuts to get through the hole. He runs with excellent body lean, gets his shoulders down to make himself a smaller target, runs through contact and gains yardage after contact. He will get downgraded by some personnel men because of his lack of elite speed, but we view him as an Emmitt Smith-like back with enough quickness and speed to be an elite NFL back.

2. DeMarco Murray, 6-1/216, Oklahoma
He is tough and competitive, consistently running through contact. Often runs upright but is improving at lowering his shoulder to deliver a blow to would-be tacklers. He shows the footwork and agility to make sharp jump-cuts and bounce runs outside. He shows the instincts to locate holes and burst through them. He has good—but not elite—speed and thus struggles to outrun defenders with the angle. He must learn to wrap up the ball better to avoid fumbling.

3. Graig Cooper, 6-0/205, Miami (Fla.)
He is versatile and productive as a ballcarrier, receiver and kickoff return man but is recovering from a Dec. 29 torn ACL. He is expected to play in ’10, but few players return to pre-injury form in the first year back from that injury. Cooper must stay healthy in ’10 and then show marked improvement at the Senior Bowl and NFL Scouting Combine. When healthy, Cooper has the athleticism, agility and elite speed to make big plays. He is an instinctive runner who finds the hole and has the explosiveness to score on any touch.

4. Daniel Thomas, 6-2/228, Kansas State
A junior college transfer, Thomas burst onto the scene in ’09. He is big and well built and keeps his legs churning and fights for every last yard, often dragging tacklers for extra yardage. He lacks the explosiveness or elite speed to excite personnel men but could have just enough to be an NFL power back.

5. Jacquizz Rodgers, 5-7/183, Oregon State
He is quick and explosive and makes big plays. He is an elusive back who makes would-be tacklers miss and turn short runs into touchdowns. He easily outruns defenders with the angle. He is short but well built, able to absorb hard hits and keep on going. Despite lack of size, he is a productive and durable feature back in college. He reminds us of the Chargers’ Darren Sproles.

6. Evan Royster, 6-0/209, Penn State
He lacks the speed to gain the corner, the elusiveness to make defenders miss in the open field and the acceleration to be a big-play threat. He is most effective between the offensive tackles, securing the ball and breaking arm tackles and falling forward, but he is not in the mold of an NFL power back. In the passing game, he shows soft hands and the ability to adjust to off-target passes. He runs good routes out of the slot, too, often beating linebackers or safeties off the line. But he lacks the speed to run away from man-to-man coverage. He is smart enough to identify blitzers in pass protection and shows good strength to finish blocks.

7. Noel Devine, 5-7/174, West Virginia
He is lightning fast, a big-play threat in the return game and as a situational player on offense as a runner and receiver. He shows unmatched ability to change direction, explode through creases and score on any given play. Noel’s frame is a big concern, though. He is short and can get swallowed up by defenders. He will struggle to break arm tackles in the NFL. Durability is a definite concern. And he struggles to find open spaces in the red zone.

8. Da’Rel Scott, 5-11/195, Maryland
He is quick and explosive but got hurt last year and then had to share touches with Davin Meggett. However, Scott has many of the tools to make game-changing plays in the NFL if used correctly. He has the ability to find space and make would-be tacklers miss, contributing as a ballcarrier and receiver from different alignments. With a big senior season, Scott could fly up draft boards.

9. Roy Helu, 5-11/220, Nebraska
He was a big-time high school recruit who has developed into a good college back. He has a thick build with the size, strength and balance to run through contact and make big plays. He is a surprisingly good athlete, making sharp cuts to get through holes in a blink. Helu has the physical talent to be a high draft pick with a big senior season.

10. Kendall Hunter, 5-8/199, Oklahoma State
He is a short but thickly built back who was on the verge of becoming a star—leading the Big 12 in rushing in ’08—before struggling through an injury-filled ’09 season. He shows more quickness than pure speed, working surprisingly well in tight quarters. As a receiver, he is dangerous when getting a pass beyond the line of scrimmage because of his quickness, instincts and running skills. He must stay healthy and return to form in ’10. If he plays like he did in ’08, he could move into the third round.

This story appears in July 21’s edition of Sporting News Today. If you are not receiving Sporting News Today, the only digital sports daily, sign up today.

Former NFL scout Russ Lande evaluates college players for Sporting News’ Pro Football War Room and GM Jr. Scouting LLC.

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