Potential Patriots: Running backs

It’s safe to say that no one could have imagined that the combination of BenJarvus Green-Ellis and Danny Woodhead would account for 1,555 rushing yards and 18 touchdowns in 2010.

The two undrafted free agents carved out their own niches on an offense that saw Tom Brady post his best regular season of his career.

Green-Ellis, while unspectacular, consistently ran hard, averaging 4.4 yards per carry on 229 attempts.

On the other hand, Woodhead emerged as an all-around threat once Kevin Faulk went down with a torn ACL. The former Division II Heisman trophy winner was a big playmaker and seems to be a good replacement if Faulk retires or does not return in 2011.

However, ever since the departure of Corey Dillon, the Patriots still have a need for a dynamic every-down back. This team could really benefit from a runner who other teams need to account for.

With no first-round locks in this year’s draft outside of Mark Ingram, there are many mid-round options the Patriots could take a look at.

Here are the five top running backs that should be on the Pats’ draft board:

1. Mark Ingram, Alabama: Often drawing comparisons to Emmitt Smith, Ingram is a well-built back who makes up for his lack of elite straight-line speed with terrific instincts, power and acceleration. In 2009, he led the Crimson Tide to a national championship as he won the Heisman trophy after rushing for 1,658 yards and 17 touchdowns. However, as a junior, Ingram missed some time early in the season following knee surgery and never recaptured his 2009 form. He finished with only 875 yards and only rushed for more than 100 yards in two games. It will be interesting to see how fast Ingram runs at the combine this week as his forty time could really help or hurt him. Expect him to come off the board between picks 15-25.

2. Mikel LeShoure, Illinois: It’s hard not to compare the junior to former Illini star Rashard Mendenhall. He has great size at 6-foot-0, 230 pounds and posted huge numbers in 2010. He rushed for an absurd 330 yards on 30 carries against Northwestern and tore up the Baylor defense for 184 yards and three touchdowns in the Texas Bowl. LeShoure is similar to Ingram in that he packs a lot of power in his lower body and constantly breaks tackles. The combine will also be important for LeShoure to demonstrate he has the agility and speed to be an every-down back at the next level. He is expected to come off the board late in the first round.

3. Ryan Williams, Virginia Tech: After exploding onto the scene as a redshirt freshman in 2009 with 1,655 yards and 21 touchdowns, expectations were high for Williams. However, due to injury, he had a disappointing year and only ran for 477 yards and nine scores. Even with a down year, the talent is undeniable. Williams has a compact build at 5-foot-10, 210 pounds, and has a good combination of speed, agility and physicality. Williams could be a steal in the second or third round since he has first round potential.

4. Kendall Hunter, Oklahoma State: Hunter battled back from a poor 2009 year lost to injury and posted his second 1,500-yard season of his career. He is a versatile back who also caught 20 passes his senior year. His calling card is his speed and home-run ability as he uses his patience and great balance to make defenders miss in space. While he doesn’t have great size at only 5-foot-7, 199 pounds, his playmaking ability makes him an intriguing option in the second or third round.

5. Shane Vereen, California: Measures in at 5-foot-10, 210 pounds and should run under 4.5. He comes from a school that has churned out NFL running backs for years (Jahvid Best, Marshawn Lynch, Justin Forsett). Vereen can do it all, rushing for 1,167 yards while catching 22 passes. He also has a nose for the end zone, scoring 35 career touchdowns. As a prospect that’s a bit under the radar, he’d be a good value in the third round or later.