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Houston Texans

Running backs grab combine spotlight


INDIANAPOLIS – The Fab Five has arrived at the NFL scouting combine. Junior running backs Darren McFadden, Rashard Mendenhall, Jonathan Stewart, Felix Jones and Ray Rice have established themselves as the top ball carriers in this year's draft and as the media darlings of Indianapolis.

On Friday, McFadden, who is projected to be the top rusher off the board, attracted a hoard of reporters during his turn at the combine podium. When asked if he was the best player in the draft, the Arkansas prospect matter-of-factly stated:

"I feel like I am the best player in the draft. I can do a lot of different things. I feel like I'm a very versatile player. I can go out there and line up at receiver. I can line up in the backfield and block, line up back there and run. I can throw a pass if you need me to."

McFadden, who rushed for 4,590 yards in three seasons, said he doesn't care where he goes in the draft. He just feels that he deserves to be the first overall selection.

{QUOTE}It is rumored that Miami will not draft McFadden with its No. 1 pick, but that he will be gobbled up early because many in the NFL believe he's the next Adrian Peterson - the Minnesota Vikings' first-round pick in 2007 who broke the NFL's single-game rushing record against San Diego as a rookie.

"I admire Adrian Peterson," McFadden said. "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."

Last season, Peterson rushed for 1,341 yards for the Vikings, earned AP Offensive Rookie of the Year honors and was named MVP of the Pro Bowl. Not too shabby.

And the prospect of acquiring an immediate game-changing player has a lot of NFL executives rethinking the running back position.

For years, Denver set the standard with coach Mike Shanahan's philosophy that teams can find running backs in later rounds of the draft and develop them.

Peterson broke the mold, and the Fab Five could set a new standard if all five juniors are selected in the first round.

The Texans, holding the 18th pick, are weighing their options. They have needs to fill at left tackle and cornerback, and head coach Gary Kubiak is a Shanahan protégé who still ascribes to Denver's run-heavy West Coast offense.

Nevertheless, it would be hard for the Texans to pass up one of these junior rushers if one of them is still around when the team makes its first-round selection.

Mendenhall, who finished the year with 1,681 yards on the ground for Illinois, had experts thinking after the weigh-in that he could be a better prospect than McFadden. Stewart of Oregon also generated buzz, weighing in at 235 pounds. Mendenhall was 225, while McFadden was 211.

"I definitely feel like I'm a complete back," Mendenhall said. "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."

Jones, McFadden's backup in Arkansas, also grabbed his share of the spotlight at the RCA Dome. Over the past two seasons, Jones recorded 1,788 yards and 17 touchdowns in his limited role.

"It was good for us," Jones said of playing with McFadden. "It happened for a reason. I'm just blessed to be at a school that supports good running backs and supports as good a team as the Razorbacks."

Rice of Rutgers is another junior that carried his team on his back, reminding many scouts of former New York Giants running back Tiki Barber because of his compact frame and excellent cutback vision.

Jamaal Charles, a junior from Texas, showed last year that he can be a big-play back who could complement an NFL power rusher. He possesses world-class speed, which should help increase his draft stock.

"I like him - a fast kid, an explosive kid, a good runner," Texans general manager Rick Smith said of Charles. "I think he started a little slow this year, but he came on as the year progressed. He had a couple fumble problems and those types of things, but, boy, you watch him in the mid to later part of the season and he really came on and had a productive season. I think he is going to be a good back in this league."

With so much talent in the running back class, the Texans might be able to pick up a strong ball carrier in the third round. The team lost its second-round pick when it acquired quarterback Matt Schaub from Atlanta in a trade last offseason.

Chris Johnson of East Carolina impressed scouts at the Senior Bowl and has been compared to a bigger version of Philadelphia Eagles running back Brian Westbrook. Johnson predicted this week that he would run a 4.2 in the 40.

"I've got to come out here, show my speed and catch the ball in my workouts and I should be good," Johnson said.

Also flying under the radar are Tashard Choice of Georgia Tech, Matt Forte of Tulane and Kevin Smith of Central Florida.

Smith rushed for 2,567 yards last season and his big frame looks like it can take a beating. His downside is his speed. Smith will have to run at least a 4.5 in the 40 to make his draft stock rise.

"We are looking for ability is what we are looking for," Rick Smith said of evaluating running back prospects. "Certainly, if a guy has not had the pounding that another guy has, maybe that guy has a little edge. But by and large, what you can count on is how good a runner is he? Does he fit your system?"

The running backs will go through speed and strength tests on Sunday, which will help to clarify their ever-changing draft rankings.

One thing is for certain, though. All eyes will be on the Fab Five.

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