Unique skill set makes James special
Last season, Maurice Jones-Drew led the NFL in rush attempts, with 343. That's a hair more than 21 carries a game.
It was the lowest total to lead the NFL since 1990. It also points to a larger trend across the NFL, one that coaches, GMs and scouts alike all buy into. The days of a true bell-cow back are over. If you want to have a good running game, you better be deep, and you better have different looks.
LaMichael James is a runner who in a different time would have been seen as more of a luxury running back, a pick to be made later in a draft. He'll probably play at under 200 pounds, which immediately sends off warning signs to some. And he's going to be referred to as a speedster, a devastating threat as a decoy and a pass-catcher out of the backfield, but one who needs to escape quickly to the edge so he can be shoved out by corners, not drilled by defensive tackles.
But in the modern, pass-first game, James is a guy who should go much higher. For one, even Darren Sproles was very good rushing between the tackles last year (not 20 times a game, but still), and if you have a running back who isn't a threat as a receiver, in some ways you've become easier to defend for defenses that are built to defend the pass.
James is the second-best back in the draft because he has track-star speed, is stronger between the tackles than people realize (he can easily run inside a dozen times a game) and can catch the ball, providing that Sproles-like dimension that terrifies opposing linebackers.
I think his explosiveness can provide an element that the other backs lack, and it makes him a great fit for a creative coordinator. This class isn't loaded with running backs -- it truly is Trent Richardson and the rest.
But James is going to be a touchdown-maker in the NFL; he'll provide a different kind of threat. And for my money, he's the second-best back on the board.
Mel Kiper has been the premier name in NFL draft prospect evaluations for more than three decades. He started putting out his annual draft guides in 1978, and began contributing to ESPN as an analyst in 1984. For more from Mel, check out his annual draft publications or his ESPN home page. He can also be found on Twitter here.
Receiving prowess separates Martin
It took a long time for me to make Boise State's Doug Martin the No. 2 running back on my board, in large part because Miami's Lamar Miller, Virginia Tech's David Wilson and Oregon's LaMichael James have such impressive flashes on film.
Wilson runs hard and has good straight-line speed, Miller is the fastest of the bunch and has elite agility, and James is lightning quick. All three, especially James and Wilson, also come from higher-profile programs and get more national exposure.
However, after in-depth film study, it became clear that Martin has no glaring weakness in his game.
First, he shows very good patience and feel when getting to the hole as an inside runner, and has enough burst through the hole to get to the second level.
Secondly, Martin runs with a good center of gravity and good pad level, and although he does not have overwhelming power, he does fall forward at the end of runs and churns out yards after contact.
Finally, Martin is clearly superior to the others in the passing game. He is a natural route-runner who knows how to separate from man coverage and operate in space against zone. Martin plucks the ball naturally on the run, can adjust to throws outside his frame, and his willingness and toughness in pass protection are outstanding.
He was seen carrying the ball away from his frame at times, but Martin's fumble percentage is not a concern. He is also durable, starting 40 of 41 games during his final three seasons.
It's not a perfect comparison, but Martin is similar to current 49ers back Frank Gore. They have similar body types, and although there is a little more power in Gore's game, Martin is a bit more shifty. Neither is a burner, though, and both are solid contributors on third down.
Teams will not be clamoring for running backs early in the draft and it's hard to pinpoint teams that might have interest in Martin, but I do believe he belongs among the top 35 overall prospects.
The worst-case scenario could be Tampa Bay failing to get primary target Trent Richardson at No. 4 overall and then picking up Martin in the second round at No. 36.
Todd McShay is the director of college scouting for Scouts Inc. He has been evaluating prospects for the NFL draft since 1998. Follow McShay on Twitter: @McShay13