After three years of riding shotgun in the Auburn University backfield with a guy named "Cadillac," Ronnie Brown has emerged as the Rolls Royce of running backs entering this year's NFL draft.
Carnell "Cadillac" Williams was far more celebrated during his college career, but most NFL scouts believe Brown is the better pro prospect.
"It's a great comment for me being able to be in the backfield with a guy like Carnell and still get recognition," Brown said at the NFL scouting combine in February. "I'm definitely glad people give me a little bit of respect."
Scouts love Williams, too. Auburn could become the fourth school since the 1970 merger and first since Texas A&M (Roger Vick and Rod Bernstine) in 1987 to have two running backs drafted in the first round in the same year.
In fact, some people believe Brown and Williams will go higher than any tandem ever.
"I think it's unusual to have two players of that ability play in the same backfield," Arizona Cardinals coach Dennis Green said at the NFL owners meetings last month. "I think they found a way to make it work. Both of them had great confidence in themselves. Both of them love to compete. Both of them probably will be in the top 10 in the draft."
Williams rushed for 1,165 yards (4.9 yards per carry) and 12 touchdowns, while Brown had 913 yards, eight touchdowns and added 34 catches to help lead Auburn to an undefeated season.
Brown is considered the most complete back. He played tailback, fullback and split wide as a receiver. He's a physical runner who can blow by defenders or run over them. He wowed scouts at the combine by running the 40-yard dash in 4.43 seconds at 6-feet and 233 pounds. He also is a strong blocker and an outstanding receiver.
"He might have the best hands that I saw in the Combine," said Tampa Bay coach Jon Gruden. "The ball is easily caught. He's like a center fielder. He's 233 pounds running well below 4.5 and he is a great kid. Brown can line up in any formation. He's not a fumbler. Ronnie Brown's hands are rare . . . exceptional hands."
Williams is a smaller back (5-11, 213 pounds), but he's an extremely tough and shifty runner with tremendous acceleration, vision, balance and a knack for breaking tackles.
He also is not short on confidence.
"I mean, there's not too many athletes that want to be the best like I want to be the best," said Williams, who earned his nickname because of his smooth running style. I want to be the best in everything I do and I also want to be one of the best to ever play this game. I just feel I'm the total package. I bring everything to the game."
Another running back expected to be a top-10 pick is University of Texas All-American Cedric Benson, one of five backs in NCAA history to rush for more than 1,000 yards in each of his four seasons (1,834 yards and 19 touchdowns in 2004). His 5,540 career yards is sixth-highest in NCAA Division I-A history and ranks second only to Ricky Williams' 6,279 yards (1995-98) in Texas' record book.
The 5-10, 225-pound Benson is an explosive back whose physical style draws comparisons to his childhood hero, Ricky Williams. But Benson makes it clear he admired Williams' game, not his lifestyle. Benson even shaved his trademark dreadlocks before reporting to the combine to further distance himself from Williams.
"I don't know Ricky's personality that well. Who does know his personality that well?" Benson said with a laugh. "We are different. I think what I've done on the field speaks for itself."
There is a pretty wide gap between Brown, Williams, Benson and the second tier of running backs in the draft. Florida junior Ciatrick Fason and California's J.J. Arrington appear to be the backs most likely to follow the Big Three. Fason lacks great speed but has excellent physical tools. Arrington is an explosive runner coming off a 2,000-yard season.
At least five teams drafting in the top 10 are believed to be eyeing a heavy-duty running back. The Cardinals might be too low at No. 8 to grab one of the Big Three, so trade talks with the Buffalo Bills for running back Travis Henry could be revived. Indianapolis' Edgerrin James and Seattle's Shaun Alexander were tagged as franchise players, but their teams reportedly are willing to deal them.
NEXT: wide receivers
Top 10 running backs
Player School Ht. Wt.
1. Ronnie Brown Auburn 6-0 233
2. Cedric Brown Texas 5-10 225
3. Carnell Williams Auburn 5-11 213
4. Ciatrick Fason Florida 6-1 207
5. J.J. Arrington California 5-9 214
6. Vernand Morency Oklahoma St 5-10 212
7. Marion Barber III Minnesota 5-11 221
8. Eric Shelton Louisville 6-1 1/2 246
9. Kay-Jay Harris West Virginia 6-0 243
10. Ryan Moats La. Tech 5-8 210