Possibility of teams endless for Mendenhall

By Kyle Betts

The NFL draft can be a dream or nightmare for fans and general managers. I know I still wake up in a cold sweat thinking about the horrors of Cade McNown.

After months of combines, interviews and analyzing, a crucial draft day selection of an impact player can power a franchise for years to come. Or, an organization can ruin any hopes of success in the near future by throwing away millions of dollars on a bust pick at a vital position.

Last week, the draft declaration deadline for underclassmen passed, and we now know who will be foregoing their senior season for the NFL, including Illinois’ standout junior running back Rashard Mendenhall.

Experts think Mendenhall has the size and speed to be a solid runner in the NFL, but he is fairly inexperienced – having only started for one year at the college level – so there are questions about whether he can carry the load for a full season, or if he will be successful outside an option-based college offense.

According to Scouts, Inc. writer Todd McShay, Mendenhall is the fourth best running back available in the 2008 draft, and he predicts Rashard will be picked No. 25 overall by the Seattle Seahawks.

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    With so many teams needing running backs, though, there are a number of backfields Mendenhall could be featured in next season.

    Chicago Bears (Pick No. 14).

    I can’t see Mendenhall going any earlier than this. Arkansas’ Darren McFadden and possibly Oregon’s Jonathan Stewart will most likely be picked earlier, so this is where teams will start to look towards Mendenhall.

    Mendenhall would fit well in a Bears offense that desperately wants to put emphasis on the running game despite being one of the worst in the league last season. Cedric Benson proved he could not be the lone running back on the team, so a Benson/Mendenhall combo could do some real damage. The problem for the Bears is that they have too many other needs, so they will only select Rashard if there are no good quarterback or offensive tackle prospects available.

    Arizona Cardinals (Pick No. 16).

    Edgerrin James had a solid season in 2007 but he isn’t getting any younger. The Cards have no suitable backup or replacement in mind for the 30-year-old back who will begin his 10th NFL season next fall.

    They could get Rashard with this pick and then groom him by sharing carries with James. That way, Mendenhall can slowly develop into the strong runner, blocker and receiver they need in this pass-first offense.

    Dallas Cowboys (Picks No. 22 and 29).

    Jerry Jones will be losing Julius Jones to free agency this year, and the Arkansas alum would love to replace him with one of the Razorback running backs available in the draft: McFadden and Felix Jones. McFadden will certainly be gone at this point, though, and the small but speedy Felix Jones doesn’t fit the mold the Cowboys need. Mendenhall makes sense here because he is a big, physical runner, much like the departing Julius Jones. The combination of Mendenhall and Marion Barber III would make for a solid all-around running attack that has been working for the Cowboys the last few years.

    Seattle Seahawks (Pick No. 25).

    McShay’s pick makes sense to me because the Seahawks need a fresh, young back to carry the ball 25-30 times a game, largely because former MVP Shaun Alexander looks to be figuratively, and literally, running on his last legs. The Seahawks offense is centered around a passing game that requires running backs to make catches downfield and Rashard has underrated receiving skills out of the backfield.

    Green Bay Packers (Pick No. 30).

    Even though the Pack have Ryan Grant, who has shown flashes of brilliance, I’m not totally convinced he is the elite back people are ready to anoint him as. The end of Brett Favre’s career may soon be upon us, but if Grant can keep defenses honest with the same production next year, then I’ll be convinced.

    I do believe that if Mendenhall is still on the board at this point, the Packers will jump all over him. At the very least they need depth, because after Grant they have nothing at the position.

    Of course I would love to see Mendenhall play for the Bears next season, but my prediction is that he will be picked No. 22 overall by the Dallas Cowboys. I tend to agree with McShay’s choice of the Seahawks, too, but Rashard is almost an exact copy of Julius Jones physically, but with better speed and receiving skills. I don’t think the Cowboys will be able to pass Mendenhall up if he is still available.

    Kyle Betts is a senior in Communications and can be reached at [email protected]