Running backs hope to change perception at NFL combine

INDIANAPOLIS (AP) — Kenneth Walker III believes NFL scouts may treat running backs unfairly this year.

Walker perceives that there is a group of talented and multifaceted players. More than one would deserve to be selected in the first round of the draft that will take place in April.

In fact, Walker could be at the forefront of this class, after his standout 2021 season with Michigan State. It is possible that he will succeed if he performs well in the tests that take place between now and the draft date.

The problem is that many teams find it more valuable to wait before picking up a running back. So Walker and about 30 players who play in his position will spend this week trying to change the minds of recruiters at the annual NFL combine in Indianapolis.

“I feel like that’s a goal that I have in my mind, to be drafted early,” Walker said Thursday. “And it would also be good for the other riders. I think it would be nice to get them elected soon.”

It won’t be easy to convince scouts to change their minds.

In this year’s draft, the big guys — the members of the defensive and offensive lines — could stand out, as well as the receivers. There doesn’t seem to be as much interest in the available players who occupy positions behind the line.

Even the quarterback class has been criticized for being lacking in stars.

But as much as coaches talk about winning championships on the run and how important it is to slow down the running game, running backs have been hit the hardest in recent drafts.

Only four have been drafted in the first round during the past three seasons. And only twice in the past nine years have four or more riders been drafted in the top 50.

Although some consider this year’s class to be strong and diverse, it could also be the first time since 2014 and the second in 22 years that no rider was selected in the first round.

“I love this group of running backs,” NFL Network analyst Daniel Jeremiah said last week. “I insist, I don’t think there will be one that comes out in the first round. I was talking to a personnel director the other day and he said, ‘We’re just going to book the fourth round. You have to have a great runner in the fourth round.”

Things have changed a lot since recently, when running backs like Todd Gurley, Ezekiel Elliott, Leonard Fournett and Saquon Barkley were drafted in the top 10 in four straight years starting in 2015.

Since then, no running back has ranked higher than the 24th overall pick.

The trend is unlikely to change this year, even though there is a large group of prospects.

Walker finished as the best running back the previous season, with 1,646 yards. He was 15th in rushing yards with 6.22 and tied for eighth in rushing touchdowns with 18.

Jeremiah thinks Walker has more running power than his 210-pound weight suggests. And this running back’s goal is to run the 40-yard hurdles in 4.4 seconds at Indianapolis.

But he’s not even Jeremiah’s highest rated runner.

That honor belongs to Texas A&M’s Isaiah Spiller, who had 1,000-yard seasons in 2020 and 2021. Over three seasons, he had 74 receptions.

Other running backs of note include Iowa State’s Breece Halt, as well as Zamir White and James Cook III, Dalvin’s younger brother, who plays the same position for the Vikings.

White and Cook formed a title-winning duo with Georgia.

The list is completed by Brian Robinson Jr., from Alabama.

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Running backs hope to change perception at NFL combine