Running commentary: Draft’s five most intriguing backs

The past two NFL drafts have produced several dynamic running backs who quickly became some of the league’s top playmakers. Good news for teams that still haven’t hit on the right backfield combination: The 2010 class has its share of similar athletes.

Of this deep and talented pool of running backs, here is a quick look at the five most intriguing prospects, based on their immediate-impact potential, versatility and how much interest they are bound to draw from playoff-caliber teams:

C.J. Spiller, Clemson

What he offers: He is a highlight-reel player who can score on any touch. He is the rare back who runs below 4.4 in the 40. Former Cowboys G.M. Gil Brandt, now a draft analyst for NFL.com, likes the fact Spiller is both fast and strong. "He really creates mismatches because of his speed," Brandt said.

Best fit: San Francisco 49ers. The Niners already have gifted athletes around QB Alex Smith and running back Frank Gore, namely tight end Vernon Davis and wide receiver Michael Crabtree. They still, however, are missing that special oomph. Spiller’s speed would work nicely in relief of Gore, and his open-field skills would be a major upgrade in the return game. He should be considered with the either the 13th or 17th pick, both held by San Francisco.

Ryan Mathews, Fresno State

Many teams will covet the between-the-tackles running of Ryan Mathews.
Many teams will covet the between-the-tackles running of Ryan Mathews.

What he offers: Mathews was wise to enter the ’10 draft because he is the most durable between-the-tackles power runner, better than the more popular Jonathan Dwyer of Georgia Tech and Toby Gerhart of Stanford.

Best fit: Houston Texans. The Team had trouble keeping backs healthy last season and never found someone to deliver in goal-line and short-yardage situations. Mathews is the ideal finisher to complement the Texans’ prolific passing offense, and there is a great chance he will be available at No. 20. He could become an instant star in Houston. "Their offensive line is a little bit better than people think," Brandt said.

Jahvid Best, Cal

What he offers: For those teams who can’t afford to use a first-round pick on Spiller, Best comes with similar skills. "He’s a game-changer type," said an AFC team scout who likes Best’s potential second-round value and variety of roles he can fill. "It’s getting three players in one because he is a good punt and kick returner."

Best fit: Green Bay Packers. He could provide the big-play pop the Packers’ running game has lacked. QB Aaron Rodgers could use another cog on third downs, and Best also would provide a much-needed spark on special teams. Green Bay should hope to take him with No. 56-overall pick.

Dexter McCluster, Ole Miss

What he offers: McCluster — a little bit running back and a little bit wide receiver — has a lot of explosiveness packed into his 5-8 3/4, 178-pound frame. Previously, his lack of size might cause teams to shy away but now can fill a niche role. "He has outstanding quickness and football instincts," the scout said. "He’s a great receiver and change of pace."

Best fit: Atlanta Falcons. McCluster is cut from the Darren Sproles and Percy Harvin mold, and the Falcons need that kind of open-field threat — especially on the fast track of the Georgia Dome — to elevate their promising offense. McCluster can do plenty with 10-12 touches as a complement to Michael Turner, lining up in the slot in multi-receiver sets and returning punts and kicks. The middle of the third round, at No. 83, seems right.

Joe McKnight, Southern Cal

What he offers: McKnight got plenty of attention going into USC as a top recruit, and because the Trojans were so loaded in the backfield he never quite lived up to the potential of being "the next Reggie Bush." In a pro offense with a strong supporting cast, he has the speed to fulfill his potential.

Best fit: San Diego Chargers. There’s no reason for an established playoff team such as San Diego to reach for a back in the first round, when it has equal needs on the defensive line — which are tougher to meet later. The Chargers happen to have a pretty good option in their backyard who be a steal. McKnight is likely to be around when they pick in the third round, at No. 91.

Vinnie Iyer is a writer for Sporting News. E-mail him at viyer@sportingnews.com.

The past two NFL drafts have produced several dynamic running backs who quickly became some of the league’s top playmakers. Good news for teams that still haven’t hit on the right backfield combination: The 2010 class has its share of similar athletes.

Of this deep and talented pool of running backs, here is a quick look at the five most intriguing prospects, based on their immediate-impact potential, versatility and how much interest they are bound to draw from playoff-caliber teams:

C.J. Spiller, Clemson

What he offers: He is a highlight-reel player who can score on any touch. He is the rare back who runs below 4.4 in the 40. Former Cowboys G.M. Gil Brandt, now a draft analyst for NFL.com, likes the fact Spiller is both fast and strong. "He really creates mismatches because of his speed," Brandt said.

Best fit: San Francisco 49ers. The Niners already have gifted athletes around QB Alex Smith and running back Frank Gore, namely tight end Vernon Davis and wide receiver Michael Crabtree. They still, however, are missing that special oomph. Spiller’s speed would work nicely in relief of Gore, and his open-field skills would be a major upgrade in the return game. He should be considered with the either the 13th or 17th pick, both held by San Francisco.

Ryan Mathews, Fresno State

Many teams will covet the between-the-tackles running of Ryan Mathews.
Many teams will covet the between-the-tackles running of Ryan Mathews.

What he offers: Mathews was wise to enter the ’10 draft because he is the most durable between-the-tackles power runner, better than the more popular Jonathan Dwyer of Georgia Tech and Toby Gerhart of Stanford.

Best fit: Houston Texans. The Team had trouble keeping backs healthy last season and never found someone to deliver in goal-line and short-yardage situations. Mathews is the ideal finisher to complement the Texans’ prolific passing offense, and there is a great chance he will be available at No. 20. He could become an instant star in Houston. "Their offensive line is a little bit better than people think," Brandt said.

Jahvid Best, Cal

What he offers: For those teams who can’t afford to use a first-round pick on Spiller, Best comes with similar skills. "He’s a game-changer type," said an AFC team scout who likes Best’s potential second-round value and variety of roles he can fill. "It’s getting three players in one because he is a good punt and kick returner."

Best fit: Green Bay Packers. He could provide the big-play pop the Packers’ running game has lacked. QB Aaron Rodgers could use another cog on third downs, and Best also would provide a much-needed spark on special teams. Green Bay should hope to take him with No. 56-overall pick.

Dexter McCluster, Ole Miss

What he offers: McCluster — a little bit running back and a little bit wide receiver — has a lot of explosiveness packed into his 5-8 3/4, 178-pound frame. Previously, his lack of size might cause teams to shy away but now can fill a niche role. "He has outstanding quickness and football instincts," the scout said. "He’s a great receiver and change of pace."

Best fit: Atlanta Falcons. McCluster is cut from the Darren Sproles and Percy Harvin mold, and the Falcons need that kind of open-field threat — especially on the fast track of the Georgia Dome — to elevate their promising offense. McCluster can do plenty with 10-12 touches as a complement to Michael Turner, lining up in the slot in multi-receiver sets and returning punts and kicks. The middle of the third round, at No. 83, seems right.

Joe McKnight, Southern Cal

What he offers: McKnight got plenty of attention going into USC as a top recruit, and because the Trojans were so loaded in the backfield he never quite lived up to the potential of being "the next Reggie Bush." In a pro offense with a strong supporting cast, he has the speed to fulfill his potential.

Best fit: San Diego Chargers. There’s no reason for an established playoff team such as San Diego to reach for a back in the first round, when it has equal needs on the defensive line — which are tougher to meet later. The Chargers happen to have a pretty good option in their backyard who be a steal. McKnight is likely to be around when they pick in the third round, at No. 91.

Vinnie Iyer is a writer for Sporting News. E-mail him at viyer@sportingnews.com.

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