Running back fight night

Competition level, production, postseason workouts and injury concerns all seem to play a major role every year when evaluating prospects for the NFL Draft. Today, the National Football Post takes a look at two of the nation’s top running backs -- Fresno State’s Ryan Mathews and Tennessee’s Montario Hardesty -- and breaks them down to determine who has the better NFL potential.

The matchup

Tennessee RB Montario Hardesty vs. Fresno State RB Ryan Mathews.

Tale of the tape

Hardesty: 6-0, 225, 1,345 yards rushing, 13 touchdowns, 4.8 per carry, 4.49 40, 1.51 10-yard split, 41-inch vertical, 10-foot-4-inch broad jump, 4.14 short shuttle, 6.87 three-cone.

Mathews: 6-0, 218, 1,808-yards rushing, 19 touchdowns, 6.6 per carry, 4.37 40, 1.49 10-yard split, 36-inch vertical, 10-foot-1-inch broad jump, 4.33 short shuttle, 7.00 three-cone.

The preview

What we have are two physically imposing backs who showcase the power in their lower halves to break tackles on contact and are at their best when asked to press the hole initially off the line of scrimmage, make one cut and slash their way through traffic. However, despite their similarities, it’s been Mathews who has shot up draft boards in recent weeks because of the elite size/speed measurables he’s displayed during postseason workouts. Regardless, we’ll tell you why we think it’s Hardesty who’s the better overall prospect for the NFL game.

The breakdown

As a size/speed prospect, there might not be a better overall athlete at the running back position than Mathews. He possesses a thickly built upper body and strong core and accelerates extremely well for his size when attacking the line of scrimmage. Last season, he consistently displayed the ability to outrun and overpower his level of competition once he got into the open field and is considered one of the draft’s top big-play threats because of it. However, whenever I pop in the tape of Mathews, something just doesn’t feel right when projecting his game to the next level to call him an “elite-level prospect.”

The first thing is his overall pad level. He has a tendency to get too upright as a runner and expose too much of his frame when pressing the hole. This causes him to go down too easily on contact at times, especially in short-yardage and goal-line situations where a back his size needs to win with leverage (see Wyoming).

The second thing is his overall lack of lateral wiggle and lateral quickness when asked to break down and make a man miss in a phone booth. Now, once Mathews picks up a head of steam and gets into the open field, he does have the natural coordination and power to sidestep/break tackles. However, he just doesn’t show me the type of compact footwork needed to cleanly change directions in tight areas and create for himself inside. He reminds me a lot of Donald Brown in this aspect. Brown displayed the ability to create in space last season as a rookie, but any time a defender squared him up and forced him to make a man miss, he wasn’t nearly as effective. And that’s what I see a lot in Mathews.

As for Hardesty, he’s also a very strong, powerful inside runner in his own right, but he doesn’t have nearly the type of acceleration when asked to get up to full speed as a guy like Mathews. Where Hardesty does have the advantage is in his short-area quickness, patience and overall pad level inside.

It’s rare to find any kind of instance in the 2009 season where Hardesty gets stonewalled on contact inside, as he has the feel to sense tacklers around him and then combines his lower body strength and lateral quickness to sidestep tacklers in a phone booth and make his way up the field. And unlike Mathews, Hardesty does a great job sinking into his hips out of his breaks, maintaining a low, balanced base and then punishing defenders on his way up the field.

Also, make no mistake, Hardesty is a gifted straight-line athlete in his own right who has the speed to consistently out-pace would-be tacklers to the corner and can create at the second level. However, it’s just not to the same extent of an extremely gifted linear athlete like Mathews.

The wild card

No matter how talented any running back might be, durability is always one of the main conerns as we evaluate their potential at the next level. And no running back in this year’s class might have more questions surrounding his durability than Montario Hardesty. Hardesty has already undergone three knee surgeries, and his ability to check out medically is key in terms of not only his draft status, but also his overall long-term availability at the next level.

Mathews, on the other hand, isn’t perfect either, but he has a lot cleaner medical record than Hardesty. Mathews was forced to deal with some nagging knee and foot injuries during the 2008 season, which cost him five games. What worries me more, however, is his determined, upright running style, which isn’t exactly conducive to staying healthy in the NFL.

Even so, Mathews has shown the ability over the long haul to carry the load on a more consistent basis compared to Hardesty, who is coming off only his first real year as a full-time workhorse.

The verdict

Based on the potential good/average health of both prospects – which is an unknown -- from the pure tape study and evaluations I’ve done, if I were asked to make a decision on the better running back prospect at this stage, my vote would be for Hardesty. This isn’t to say I don’t see Mathews finding success in the NFL if put into the right situations or scheme. However, it’s the patience, short-area lateral agility and pad level that Hardesty runs with inside that gives him the overall edge in my opinion. Mathews is the better overall straight-line athlete and has more potential as a big-play threat once he gets into the second level. But being able to create plays in the NFL as a running back is half the battle, and I would much rather trust Hardesty in those situations.

NFL player comparison

Ryan Mathews = Kevin Jones, Chicago Bears

Montario Hardesty = Marion Barber, Dallas Cowboys

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