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Path to the Draft: RBs


Arkansas running back Darren McFadden is the top running back in the draft.

At the end of 2007, the Texans' running back situation seemed tenuous at best. All-Pro veteran Ahman Green was coming off an injury-plagued year. Chris Taylor was still rehabbing the knee injury that kept him sidelined all season. The bright spot was the emergence of undrafted rookie free agent Darius Walker, who averaged a team-high 4.6 yards per carry.

Now, things look much brighter in the Texans' running back camp. Rest has helped to heal Green's knee, and he is pegged to be the starter in 2008. Taylor will also be healthy and ready to compete for a spot in the backfield rotation.

The team did not re-sign last year's leading rusher Ron Dayne but opted for free agent Chris Brown, a slashing runner with breakaway speed.

Still, general manager Rick Smith has said that the team wants a "stable of running backs." He and the team's scouts have taken a long, hard look the talent entering the draft.

The Texans could follow the Denver philosophy and draft a back in a later round, but they could also take the best ball carrier available with their 18th overall pick.

Top prospects

1. Darren McFadden, Arkansas (6-1, 211): McFadden proved to be a special talent during his three years at Arkansas, where he set a school single-season record in 2007 with 1,830 yards rushing and 16 touchdowns on 325 carries. That topped his old UA mark of 1,647 yards set in 2006.

His performance at the scouting combine solidified his status as the premier running back entering the draft. McFadden ran a 4.33 in the 40 and drew comparisons to rookie Pro Bowl MVP Adrian Peterson.

"I admire Adrian Peterson," McFadden said to Texans TV. "He's a great running back, and I feel like if I go in and do all the work that I should do and put in the right work necessary, I could have the type of season he did."

McFadden and Peterson have different running styles, but both are strong and quick. McFadden possesses vertical speed that allows him to go the distance just about any time he gets the ball.

Some scouts believe McFadden could go as high as No. 4 to the Oakland Raiders.

2. Jonathan Stewart, Oregon (5-10, 235): Stewart finished last season ranked ninth nationally and atop the Pac-10 with a school season-record 2,481 all-purpose yards.

He has the complete package at running back. His thick build and low center of gravity make him difficult to bring down. Stewart also possesses the speed and cutback ability to make the first defender miss.

Stewart's stock was hurt by lingering turf toe issues, but he has been assuring pro teams that the injury is healing as expected. Now, scouts think he could go as high as 15, and Arizona has shown interest in him with their 16th selection.

3. Rashard Mendenhall, Illinois (5-10, 225): Mendenhall, a unanimous All-Big Ten Conference first-team choice, started all 13 games and carried the ball 262 times last season as he set school season-records with 1,681 yards rushing and 17 touchdowns.

On the field, he exhibited almost every positive trait a running back can possess. His rock-solid frame helps him power through defenses, but he also has some wiggle to him and can catch ball.

"I definitely feel like I'm a complete back," Mendenhall told Texans TV at the combine. "I'm a guy that can make you miss and a guy that can go the distance as well. I'm big guy, a three-down back. That's why I feel like I'm towards the top of this class."

Mendenhall's postseason 40-yard dash times were in the 4.45-second range, which is excellent for a player with his size and power.

He is projected to go in the first round and possibly could stay in-state and go to Chicago with the 14th selection.

4. Felix Jones, Arkansas (5-10, 207): Jones started just three of 13 games in 2007 but gained 1,162 yards with 11 touchdowns on 133 carries, as his average of 8.7 yards per attempt set an SEC single-season record. The Razorbacks' tandem of McFadden and Jones amassed 2,992 yards on the ground last season.

Jones decided to forgo his senior year and make a name for himself away from McFadden in this year's draft, where he is projected to go late in the first round.

"I have great vision," Jones said at the combine. "I have very good body control. I make great moves. I'm also a kickoff return specialist. I have been a feature back in high school. I never did have the chance to be in college because of me and Darren, but I believe I have the attributes to be a great NFL running back."

Jones wasn't at his best in Indy, running the 40-yard dash in 4.44 seconds and recording 33.5" in the vertical jump. But he did shine in the 20-yard shuttle, where he ran the second-fastest time in 4.19 seconds.

5. Chris Johnson, East Carolina (5-11, 197): After overcoming injury problems in 2006, Johnson established himself as a big-play artist his senior year. He led the nation with an average of 227.69 all-purpose yards per game, ranked fourth nationally in scoring with 11.08 points per game and 18th in kickoff return average with 28.03 yards

Still, Johnson was a relatively unknown prospect until he took center stage at the Senior Bowl, making catches in the backfield and blazing through holes as a ball carrier.

At the combine, Johnson showed off his speed, running the 40-yard dash in 4.24 seconds, which ranked as the best time at the combine this year.

Johnson has generated first-round buzz, but many predict he will go in the middle of the second round.

Honorable mention: Texas' Jamaal Charles (5-11, 200) ran for 1,619 yards and 18 touchdowns as a junior, averaging 6.3 yards per carry. The former track star possesses lightning-fast speed but had a bit of a fumbling problem at UT, although he impressed scouts during workouts at the combine. Rutgers' Ray Rice (5-8, 199) is a productive, under-sized back very much in the mold of Maurice Jones-Drew, but many have wondered if he is too short to succeed at the next level. Tulane's Matt Forte (6-2, 217) has been climbing up draft boards since solid Senior Bowl and combine performances. He ran the 40-yard dash in 4.46 seconds, the seventh-fastest time for running backs, and did 23 reps on the bench press at the combine.

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