Why I’m looking ahead to the 2012 running back class

By Kip Earlywine

While Seattle’s record has so far been a disappointing 2-5, in many ways, the roster is shaping up exactly as John Schneider and Pete Carroll hoped it would.

The defense has been death to the run and surprisingly solid against the pass, thanks to the emergence of young potential stars in the secondary such as Kam Chancellor, Walter Thurmond, and Richard Sherman (Brandon Browner has been a useful contributor as well).

On offense, the team has weapons and a quarterback who seems competent enough to get the ball to them, but is being undermined by other aspects.  In my view, there are some areas of this team which strike me as being even bigger problems than quarterback.  Don’t get me wrong.  I don’t think Seattle should just forget about drafting a quarterback.  Even if Tarvaris Jackson continues to improve and becomes a legitimately good stop gap option, he’s still only a stopgap.  Seattle needs to invest in a quarterback soon, especially if they choose the developmental quarterback route in a player like Robert Griffin III.

That said, when I look at how this team ranks statistically in every offensive/defensive category, Seattle is doing surprisingly well, but there are two areas that really leap off the page for concern:  Seattle’s offensive line ranks 32nd in the NFL in sacks allowed, and Seattle’s running game ranks 31st in the NFL in yards per carry.

The Seahawks have already invested very heavily in the offensive line.  I do not think further high investment in the line is indefensible, the same way that picking first round receivers for years didn’t deter the Lions from drafting Calvin Johnson, but suffice to say, drafting another first round lineman would not be my first preference.

However, there is another way to improve our offensive line performance, and that is by finding a special talent at running back who fits a zone blocking scheme.  A truly great running back can make his offensive line’s run blocking look better than it really is, and the threat of a viable running game and play action can also take some of the teeth out of a pass rush.  And the last two seasons, that just hasn’t been happening.  Marshawn Lynch hasn’t had a productive season since 2008.  Leon Washington is a 3rd down back.  Justin Forsett is a 3rd down back who at least appears to have lost a little something this year.  Seattle needs to get more production out of their offensive line, but the running back group isn’t helping much and, in my opinion, does not have much of a future here.  When your most promising back isn’t a workhorse and turns 30 next season, its time to start thinking about finding some new blood.

Fortunately, the 2012 draft is shaping up to be a very solid draft class for running backs.  Its not going to be like 2008 when a very hyped class produced five running backs that went in the first round.  But this is a running back class that has a few potentially under-rated backs who will prove to be value picks in the first three rounds.  Here are a few backs that figure to be on the NFL’s radar next April:

Trent Richardson


Alabama’s star running back is the consensus #1 running back and has a real chance to be a top 10, possibly even top 5 pick in the 2012 draft.  Richardson has a rare blend of size, speed, shiftiness, power, and toughness.  He reminds me a lot of a slightly smaller Corey Dillon, or a bigger Frank Gore.  How those two running backs were not first round picks I’ll never know, and they went on to make the rest of the league look foolish for it.  It doesn’t appear that NFL teams will be caught overlooking Richardson though.

Lamar Miller

Highlights (nsfw)

I like Miller quite a bit.  He might be the shiftiest back in this class.  Miami has been no stranger to producing NFL backs:  Clinton Portis, Frank Gore, and Willis McGahee have come out of Miami in just the last decade.  The video above makes an interesting comparison between Miller and Clinton Portis.  Portis was shiftier and lost less speed making cuts, but its fair to say that the similarities are somewhat striking.  I think I actually like Polk more than Miller for the Seahawks offense, but Miller is generally rated a little higher by most draft sites.  I can see why.

Chris Polk


Polk might be the most unique member of this running back class because he actually converted from wide receiver in high school.  It shows too.  He runs the best routes for a running back that I’ve seen since Reggie Bush.  Polk is also a strong blocker, and a consistent rusher, despite playing behind perhaps the worst offensive line of any player on this list.  His vision, toughness, durability, start-stop, and decision-making are excellent, and I like how he lowers the shoulder into defenders and is adept at falling forward for extra yards.  He might be the very best back in this draft at “getting skinny” at the first level, which is a huge factor for the Seahawks putrid run blocking.  He’s also nearly identical in size to Richardson, which helps.  One of the more natural born zone blocking scheme running backs I’ve seen in a while.  He may not make huge plays every time he touches the ball, but he will win you over with quality performances week in and week out.

LaMichael James


Maybe I’m the first person (who’s not a Duck fan) to use this word regarding James, but has he somehow become under-rated at some point in the last year?  People talk about him like he’s a 3rd round pick, yet all the guy does is explode for long touchdowns.  From what I’ve seen of him, he seems like a solid receiver and could be a real weapon as a 3rd down back.  But something that doesn’t get talked about, and its something that I like about James a lot, is his ability to get skinny and slip through where no running lane exists at all.  Its no accident that many of James’ biggest runs were right up the middle, which is very unusual for a scat-back type.  James may not survive long with a 300 carry workload in the NFL, but there is no reason to pull him off the field on first and second downs.

Montee Ball


I don’t know if Ball is a great fit for Seattle, as he benefited immensely from some great blocking at Wisconsin and he isn’t especially quick or shifty.  But he does have excellent vision and is a very smooth, powerful runner, somewhat akin to LaGarrette Blount in Tampa. I like how, like Chris Polk, Ball has a good habit of keeping his legs going which helps him pick up yards after contact.  I do not know if Ball would be worthy investment early for the Seahawks, but I do think he has a very bright future ahead of him somewhere else where the blocking is better than what Seattle offers.  Knowing how some of my predictions turn up though, I might have just jinxed Ball into becoming a future Seahawk.

Texas  A&M’s deadly duo:  Cyrus Gray/Christine Michael


Cyrus Gray is kind of this year’s version of CJ Spiller.  Which isn’t to say that Gray is as gifted as Spiller, only to say that they both fall into a the same category:  not a workhorse back, but plays with good moves and big play speed.  The difference between the two is that Spiller put up some gaudy numbers which helped get him over-drafted, and Gray has actually been somewhat quiet this year as he’s shared carries with another quality back in Christine Michael.  Seattle needs an every-down back and Gray doesn’t really fit that bill, just like Spiller hasn’t in Buffalo, but Seattle might want to start looking for a successor to Leon Washington.

Michael is a very similar back, and I’d rate the two almost identically.  If Seattle is interested in acquiring a back like Gray, but only Michael is left, then drafting Michael would make sense too.  I prefer Gray between the two of them, as he appears just a touch more explosive on video.

Knile Davis


Davis was injured at the very beginning of the 2011 season and is considered highly unlikely to declare for the 2012 draft.  On the off chance that Davis does declare though, I’d probably put him very high on this list, perhaps higher than Chris Polk and LaMichael James.  Every game I scouted for Ryan Mallett, Davis had a phenominal game.  In fact, over the 4 game sample I watched, I think Davis actually contributed even more to the offense than Mallett did, which says an awful lot.  His size, acceleration, and intangibles (knack for the first down marker) was reminiscent of Terrell Davis.


  1. Alex

    My favorite is Chris Polk or Knile Davis. Polk is a power runner that can really wear an opposition down. He can also catch and block well. The only thing he doesn’t have is a top 40 speed, but that’s fine if he can consistently gain solid yards each carry. I don’t know as much about for Davis, but I was also really impressed with him last year in the game against LSU. He really took it into the teeth of the LSU defense. If we were to be in the situation of maintaining our 2nd and 3rd round picks (presumably from failing to trade up), I wouldn’t mind a RB in the 2nd round and an OG in the 3rd round, etc. As much as I’m afraid of Okung getting another injury, I will bang my head if we draft another OT in the 1st round (3rd YEAR in the ROW!). I would just play out Okung and hope for the best. We’ve already invested a sh*t ton of money in him.

  2. Colin

    Great article Kip, I could not agree more that Seattle needs an upgrade at running back badly. I will forever love Lynch for that one majestic run against the Saints, but other than that, he isn’t what we need. He’s slow to the hole and would be a better fit for a power run team.

    I think he and Forsett will be gone after this season. Someone’s gotta fill those shoes.

  3. Hawkspur

    I think I recall Rob saying that he believed that Bevell wanted to draft Mark Ingram in the draft just gone, so I think that there’s a better than even chance that given the struggles of the run game this season that the Hawks would be considering a running back in the first couple of rounds. I like the look of Polk too. Explosive, hard and decisive. The touchdown catch was a very nice play as well.

    • Rob

      My source said that Bevell really liked Ingram. The thought was that a running back in round one would’ve been a luxury last April.

      • Hawkspur

        I wonder if it’s still regarded as a luxury now, or if round 2 is considered too high also.

      • Kip Earlywine

        So it was Bevell.

        He just won some respect points from my camp. Ingram was one of those college players where the sum is greater than the parts.

        • mattlock3

          Given that Bevell was part of the front office that drafted AP, and that he loved Ingram, I can’t see Richardson not giving the Seahawks serious pause if he’s available and the top one or two QB on their board is gone.

  4. Ralphy

    Which of these guys would likely be gone by the 8th pick in the second round? Possibly only Trent Richardson? Barkley then Polk for the Hawks?

    • Hawkspur

      And Logan Harrell in the third?

      • mattlock3

        This would give me warm fuzzy feelings.

  5. cliff

    I think we need to get a RB in the third. See which back falls. Maybe Polk doesn’t put up a good 40 times and drops. Or LaMichael weights in at 180 lbs and worries teams about his size. One of those two in the third would be awesome to me.

    2nd round pick needs to be the best DE/CB or WR if a super talented one drops. Though i wouldn’t hate Miller or Polk in the 2nd

    • Rob

      I suspect Miller will be a first round pick – and maybe Polk will be too.

      • Kip Earlywine

        Miller certainly, and Polk is getting there. Polk is the kind of guy I think that wins scouts over more than fans, because he contributes in so many small ways.

        • Hawkspur

          In this situation I wouldn’t mind seeing a move back into the backend of the first for Polk, just like Detroit going back in for Best. I think they essentially traded their 2nd, dropped a bit in round 3 or 4 and gave up a 7th rounder.

          We really could do with an upgrade at RB.

          • Kip Earlywine

            I like Detroit’s front office, and I thought that was one of their better draft moves. Best is a stud for the zone blocking scheme, and prior to his just recent injury, he was having a great 2nd season.

  6. Jim Q

    I know David Wilson from Virginia Tech is an underclassman and may or may not go into the draft this year, however I feel you may want to at least include him on this list somewhere. After all, he has more yards per carry this year than those shown and his 6.9 YPC isn’t too bad either. Oh, and he’s also supposed to have 4.42 speed, the same # as LaMichael James (and he’s bigger). I like Polk or Davis ahead of him and Miller, James after him as far as draft positioning.

    Link: http://realsportshype.blogspot.com/2011/04/2012-nfl-mock-draft.html

    David Wilson* #4 rated RB @ cbssports.com, #74 overall
    Experience: *Junior | School: Virginia Tech
    Height: 5-10 | Weight: 205 lbs.

    Last Game at Duke (10/29):
    23 Attempts, 148 Rushing Yards (6.4 YPC)

    2011 Season Stats:
    171 Attempts, 1,188 Rushing Yards (6.9 YPC), 7 TD; Receiving TD

    2010 Season Stats:
    113 Attempts, 619 Rushing Yards (5.5 YPC), 5 TD

    • Kip Earlywine

      I almost included Wilson. There were actually quite a few more I thought about including but I didn’t want to drone on too long. I consider Wilson to be a 3rd-4th round prospect, and in the future (distant future) I’ll have a post about mid to late round gems at RB, and Wilson will be on that list.

  7. Matt

    How about Isaiah Pead from Cinn. 5ft 11in, 200lbs, runs with power and looks like a good back to me.

    • Ben H

      Agreed. He would be the one back I’d add to the list above. Here are highlights…
      He’s a little tough to judge since Cinn runs the spread but he seems to have excellent vision and cuts on a dime which is an ideal combination for ZBS. He couldn’t be a franchise back but would be a nice piece in a committee. I was also fairly impressed with his balance.

  8. darnell

    I’m kinda liking Rex Burkhead as a mid-late rounder that could really be solid.

  9. Don

    While we are listing good alternate RB, kenyan Barnard of U of Oregon (Go Ducks, beat UW) is as good as LaMicheael James and could be had in the 3rd. The dawgs will be seeing a lot of him from behind heading to the end zone this weekend.

  10. Jarhead

    So Kip is my new favorite contributor at this site. Draft prognosticators need to LEARN who Seattle drafts. Also what Seattle’s identity is. Chris Polk is already a household name in Seattle, and he would be a steal in the early second round. He is an excellent receiver, and as much as Barkley likes to checkdown, and will need to early on, Polk is money in the that area. He can take the ball 25 times a game and is INTELLIGENT!! Watch an interview with Lamar Miller, sorry but even at RB intelligence counts in this league. Seattle amalgamation of former first round OL picks will most likely improve next season, so CP could make the ‘hawks instant contenders with a young and hungry QB. Nice review!

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