Draftniks can argue that University of Arkansas running back Darren McFadden is the most talented runner in this year's draft. However, it's tough to overlook his collegiate position mate, Felix Jones, who helped to form arguably the best backfield tandem in the nation last season.
Like McFadden, Jones decided to enter the draft following his junior season after rolling off 1,162 rushing yards in 2007. He had originally intended to attend Oklahoma State but instead went to Fayetteville, where he impressed with 626 rushing yards and three touchdowns as a freshman in 2005. He followed that by compiling 1,829 yards from scrimmage in his sophomore season on the way to earning All-Southeastern Conference second-team accolades. He was an Associated Press third-team All-American as an all-purpose back and All-SEC first-team selection as a kick returner (second-team as a running back) in his final season at Arkansas.
The 5-foot-10 1/8, 207-pound back made his name mainly by his big-play ability. Jones averaged 7.6 yards per carry during his college career, the second-highest average for a college back in NCAA history since Army back Glenn Davis averaged 8.26 yards per carry from 1943-46. Besides Davis, current New Orleans Saints running back Reggie Bush (University of Southern California) and former NFL back Mike Rozier (University of Nebraska) stand with Jones as the only players to average more than seven yards per carry during their college careers.
Jones has the physical makeup and raw athleticism to make an impact as a breakaway back. He is generally regarded as one of the better outside runners in this draft class, and scouts point to his propensity to quickly locate running lanes. His defined, sturdy lower body has helped him to develop into a proficient jump-cut runner. Unlike McFadden, Jones is more likely to avoid contact, which could make him less likely to experience an overdose of punishment as an NFL season wears on.
His excellent kick returning ability will likely factor into his draft stock; Jones displayed his strength of shifting speeds during the runback to draw defenders into committing to a tackle before making a fake. Whether as a tailback or returner, Jones has shown the patience to wait for blocking to develop in front of him. He showed an improvement in ball security during his final collegiate season, and his improved receiving is exemplified in his ability to extend his hands from his body.
Jones posted a 4.44 40-yard dash time while being clocked in the 4.37-4.53 range at the 2008 NFL Scouting Combine - not eye-popping times, but Jones has shown in college he has breakaway speed and a rare second gear that can leave defenders in his wake. His ability to contribute in both the running and passing games along with his skills in the return game make him one of the draft's most versatile backs.
Jones tends to run with an overly upright stature, which could end up hurting him when carrying into the line of scrimmage. Sometimes he takes this to an extreme level by involuntarily running on his toes like a ballet dancer to fit vertically between blockers and around defenders; this bad habit could prevent him from gaining proper balance.
He has a problem transferring his weightlifting prowess to his blocking game. Any advantage created by his ability to avoid contact on the run could be negated by his inability to hold up against oncoming defenders. His lean frame might not be enough for him to hold up in blocking. His lack of strength also makes it difficult for him to move the pile and could make him a liability in short-yardage situations.
As much as Jones has broken out of McFadden's monstrous shadow, he still might not be able to become anything more than a complementary back. He carried the ball just 133 times during his senior season, and his ability to carry the load in the NFL is questionable. Jones unlikely will be able to immediately assume the role of a third-down back in the NFL; his receiving ability is hindered by his tendency to round out his cuts, something that faster professional defenses likely will pick up on.
Expected Draft Placement
Jones' speed and playmaking ability will likely have teams drooling over the possibility having him in a two-back system. Jones could go as high as pick No. 18 to the Houston Texans, who could use a big-play back to put some shine on their messy backfield. The Tampa Bay Buccaneers (No. 20) could use some insurance for halfback Earnest Graham given the uncertainty surrounding the long-term prospects of running back Cadillac Williams (knee). The Dallas Cowboys (No. 22) have been a popular target for him; he could be an ideal fit to pair with powerful running back Marion Barber III. The Green Bay Packers (No. 30) could use someone reliable to complement starting tailback Ryan Grant. Jones is arguably a top-five back in this year's class, and his skills in the return game should be an added incentive for possible suitors. Expect Jones to be taken either late in the first round or early in the second, at the latest.
About Tim Heaney
Tim's work has been featured by USA Today/Sports Weekly, among numerous outlets, and recognized as a finalist in the Fantasy Sports Writers Association awards. The Boston University alum competes in Tout Wars and LABR and has won several industry leagues in both baseball and football.
During baseball and football season, hear him every Wednesday on 1570 AM WNST in Baltimore. On Thursdays, he visits 106.1 FM WMTI in New Orleans and Sirius XM Fantasy Sports Radio, where he often crashes other shows, as well.
Don't miss these great reports....