Kenjon Barner: 5-foot-11, 195 pounds.
LaMichael James: 5-foot-9, 195 pounds.
James went in the 2nd round of the 2012 NFL draft (61st overall). He was the 5th running back taken. He can’t get off the bench in San Francisco right now, and is buried behind Frank Gore, Kendall Hunter, and Brandon Jacobs.
Will Kenjon Barner go higher in the 2013 draft?
The knock on James during his college career was that while he was quick, he wasn’t blazing fast (4.5 40 at the Combine), and he was too small and probably not durable enough for the rigors of the NFL. Sure, he had nine games as a sophomore with 20+ carries, but all anyone wants to remember is his 13 for 49 yards against physical Auburn in the title game. James had seven 20+ carry games during his junior year, but he still wasn’t viewed as a between-the-tackles runner the way Doug Martin was (same height, but 25 pounds heavier).
So what to make of Barner? Will we have to wait to judge him until after Oregon plays Alabama in the BCS title game? Barner only had one game with 20+ carries as a junior, but now that he’s the feature back, he’s being fed much more: he’s had two 30+ carry games this season, and is averaging a staggering 7.3 ypc (James as a junior: 7.2). Still, Oregon runs around you more than through you, and unless Chip Kelly gets the Cleveland job, or Barner lands in Washington/Carolina, he’s not going to be running much read-option in the NFL.
Barner’s speed will also be a question. Is he the guy who reportedly ran a 4.28 40, or the guy who ran a 4.54? Barner ran track relays in 2011 on the same team as James. At the Oregon Relays in April 2011, Barner finished 2nd in the 100 (10.87), which isn’t Olympic-good, but was a hair faster than James.
Barner will be compared to James up until April, but what might help him get drafted higher is the terribly weak running back class. Marcus Lattimore’s devastating injury takes him out of the first round, and I don’t see a back going in the first 32 picks. (This is not a draft for teams that need offense. As we noted recently, the QBs are struggling.) Here’s a very early look at some of the best backs in the 2012 draft (juniors included):
Andre Ellington, senior, Clemson, 5-9, 190
Stepfan Taylor, senior, Stanford, 5-11, 210
Giovani Bernard, redshirt sophomore, North Carolina, 5-10, 205
Ray Graham, senior, Pittsburgh, 5-9, 190
Le’Veon Bell, junior, Michigan State, 6-2, 240
Eddie Lacy, junior, Alabama 5-10, 220
Mike Gillislee, senior, Florida, 5-11, 210
At this juncture – 14 weeks to the combine – Barner could be anywhere from the first RB off the board to the eighth.