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Draft Spotlight: Could Cal's Daniel Lasco be the steal of the draft at RB?

The running back isn’t dead yet. Certainly not in the eyes of Daniel Lasco.

His former college roommate, after all, scored the game-sealing touchdown in the Super Bowl.

“The running back, an offensive line and the run game are the heart and soul of the NFL,” Lasco said. “That’s where teams win the game — through a running game. We’re very valuable.”

The Buffalo Bills agree. They invested a $40 million contract in LeSean McCoy and signed a fulback last off-season, then locked up the left side of their offensive line this off-season. Greg Roman’s run game is renowned as one of the most intricate in the game — it's the basis for everything Buffalo does on offense.

And, true, the Denver Broncos bloodied the Carolina Panthers behind a punishing defense and steady diet of C.J. Anderson. So all teams must decide how high to prioritize this position. Sure, the New England Patriots reach deep into the $5 DVD bin at highway rest stops for its starters. This year’s draft class, like the one in 2015, offers two more first-round talents in Ohio State’s Ezekiel Elliott and Alabama’s Derrick Henry.

Well, Lasco believes his name should be right there next to Elliott and Henry.

“There’s no doubt in my mind,” Lasco said, “that if I was healthy this past year, I’d be right up there with the names you just mentioned.”

The California running back could’ve turned pro after a banner junior season — he rushed for 1,115 rush yards with 12 touchdowns and another 33 catches for 356 yards — but chose to return. He wanted Cal in a bowl game. Yet as the Golden Bears did improve from 5-7 to 8-5, injuries dogged Lasco.

Hip and ankle ailments limited the 6-foot, 209-pounder to only three starts. He rushed for only 331 yards on 65 attempts.

Then... he starred at the NFL scouting combine. Lasco’s 4.46 in the 40 was fourth-best among running backs. His 41.5-inch vertical was first (by 2.5 inches). The 135-inch broad jump? Also first. Teams searching for a back, teams that still value backs but don't want to use a high pick on the position might turn to Lasco.

He laughs that he’s not like Anderson at all as a runner. About 20-25 pounds heavier, Anderson “wobbles when he runs,” Lasco said, and is more apt to drop his pads and run through you. He's more of a speed back himself. Lasco points to his hands, his route running, his vision, the fact that he could be a human missile on special teams.

“As of right now, a lot of teams don’t want the running back to be the star,” Lasco said. “There’s a lot of other things that I can do. I can play on every single special teams and do well on special teams. I bring a different aspect there where all these other running backs probably didn’t play special teams before.”

Elliott, Henry, even Utah's Devontae Booker are all considered the cream of the crop. If everyone’s healthy, “absolutely,” Lasco says he's in their stratosphere.

“There’s not a doubt in my mind," he said. "I know what I can do. I know what I have done before. I’ve still have yet to peak in my performance. Once I get to the NFL, into the system I’m in, I know they’re going to pull the best out of me.

“I’m as good, if not better, than these people who are highly rated.”

Yet injury concerns, justifiably, linger.

Lasco is only a week of hamburgers above 200 and plays with contact-loving abandon. As he lists off his attributes in rapid-fire succession — picking up “A”-gap blitzers, running a post route as a receiver, being a three-down back — you have to wonder if his body can hold up in the NFL.

One loop of highlights reveals such an eclectic running style, one full of spins, jukes, yards after contact and springboard leaps over the goal line.

“I can do it all,” he insists. “There’s not one thing I’m struggling with, but I just know I’m going to get that much better once I get to the next level.”

So Lasco leaves no regrets, even though his draft stock would be much higher if he left school early. He says he grew as a person as a senior. And the good news is he opened up eyes at the East-West Shrine Game with 62 yards on six carries, then lit up the Combine.

He worked out for the Houston Texans and had visits with the San Francisco 49ers and Oakland Raiders scheduled.

Many past backs have slipped through the cracks after injury-riddled final seasons in college, and performed in the NFL. Could Lasco be next? He has no clue what to expect himself.

“If a team lends a hand and picks me up,” Lasco said, “they’re going to get the best Daniel Lasco and I’m excited to see what that is because I haven’t seen it yet. But it’s going to be there.”

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