Ryan Williams will likely be the next running back off the board after Mark Ingram.

Let’s invite a mirage for a moment.

Allow your mind to relax and drift to a long-forgotten fantasyland with no NFL lockout. It’s mid-August, and before preparing another round of sizzling steaks to go alongside your ill-advised decision to buy a case of Natty Light, you check on Team X.

Team X is your favourite team. You have a magnetic depth chart above your bed, and a nifty little cell phone shaped like a football with Team X’s logo (a giant X). Last spring’s draft is now a distant memory, and you’re watching the rookies climb and descend that depth chart throughout training camp–that’s why the magnets are so handy.

Every year though you hear the same thing: of all the positions, rookie running backs can make the most impact. That trend has been bucked somewhat in recent years, with several quarterbacks–namely Matt Ryan and Joe Flacco–performing well immediately. The three-year rule with wide receivers is one step away from the trash can too, especially after Tampa Bay’s Mike Williams was a Rookie of the Year candidate, an award Dallas’ Dez Bryant probably would have won had he stayed healthy for the entire season.

But the belief in rookie running backs still lingers, and deservedly so. Over the last five years, 15 running backs have been selected in the first round. That group has produced a couple duds (Marshawn Lynch and Laurence Maroney) but has still churned out 10 Pro Bowl appearances, two backs who played vital roles in a Super Bowl championship (Reggie Bush and Rashard Mendenhall), and one stud–Chris Johnson–who holds the league record for most yards from scrimmage.

Yet despite the consistency of the rookie running back, it’s highly likely that only Mark Ingram comes off the board in the first round this year. The lack of first round RBs in 2011 is simply a reflection of the talent pool at the position, an aberration of a year in which only Ingram is worthy of a high investment. Teams have also become wary of being too aggressive at the position early in the draft after an undrafted LaGarrette Blount thrived for the Buccaneers, and James Starks made a significant contribution to the Packers’ championship after being a sixth-round pick.

So what about the second round and beyond? Traditionally there’s still plenty of value at the position in the second and third rounds.

Last year four running backs were selected in the second round. The Chiefs benefited immediately from the explosiveness and versatility of Dexter McCluster (but please Dexter, stop singing). Toby Gerhart provided the ideal change of pace behind Adrian Peterson, and Montario Hardesty and Ben Tate have bright futures despite lost seasons after training camp injuries.

The names likely to be called in the second and third rounds this year carry both questions and potential. Here’s a look at a few of them.

Ryan Williams

College: Virginia Tech

2010 stats: 477 rushing yards, 109 receiving yards, 8 total touchdowns, 0 fumbles

Williams’ production for the Hokies was slowed in 2010 by a hamstring injury that kept him on the sidelines for four games. The injury may have hurt his draft stock a bit too. Most mock drafts have him projected right on the edge of the first round, with ESPN’s Todd McShay tabbing him to fortify the Patriots’ backfield with the 33nd overall pick.

Mikel Leshoure

College: Illinois

2010 stats: 1,697 rushing yards, 196 receiving yards, 20 total touchdowns, 0 fumbles

Another player highly projected for the second round, Leshoure rushed for 100 or more yards nine times for the Fighting Illini this past season. His workhorse potential was further showcased during a 30 carry, 330 yard game against Northwestern.

Leshoure’s scamper up draft boards because of his 2010 season has drawn comparisons to a similar ascent by Ryan Mathews a year ago. Both Leshoure and Williams could creep into the first round

Kendall Hunter

College: Oklahoma State

2010 stats: 1,548 rushing yards, 101 receiving yards, 16 total touchdowns, 0 fumbles

What’s impressive about Hunter isn’t just his totals from 2010, it’s who he ran over. A likely third rounder, Hunter posted 201 yards and two touchdowns against Nebraska, exploiting the one weakness of the nation’s 11th ranked defence.

If the Patriots miss out on Williams, Hunter could play a similar role alongside BenJarvus Green-Ellis and Danny Woodhead at a much cheaper price.

Jacquizz Rodgers

College: Oregon State

2010 stats: 1,184 rushing yards, 287 receiving yards, 17 total touchdowns, 0 fumbles

One of the draft’s largest backfield pass-catching threats, Rodgers had 522 receiving yards in 2009. He’s pegged for late in the second round or early in the third largely because of his size (Rogers is only 5’6″, 196 pounds) and the durability concerns that come with a small running back.

If he’s in a system that primarily asks him to catch passes and utilize his speed in the flats, Rodgers will thrive, and he should thank Woodhead. The undersized Patriots running back re-established the pass-catching running back this year with his 466 receiving yards.

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