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Stanford's Gerhart one of most intriguing prospects in NFL draft

Labels and stereotypes can persist in the NFL as they do in society, and that's why the biggest obstacle standing between Stanford's Toby Gerhart and the pursuit of a career as a featured NFL running back -- emphasis on the "running'' -- might be the specter of Tommy Vardell, the former Stanford rusher who was wildly overdrafted by Cleveland in 1992.

"Touchdown Tommy,'' who was taken ninth overall by none other than Bill Belichick and the Browns that year, never remotely lived up to the hype created by his successful collegiate career. He spent most of his eight NFL seasons as a plodding fullback who cleared holes for others, topping 500 yards rushing in a season just once.

It may not be fair to ask of last year's Heisman runner-up, but in order to get NFL scouts to see his potential as a No. 1 running back, the 6-foot, 235-pound Gerhart has to first make them not see Vardell, whose Stanford career rushing records he obliterated. Gerhart's task is to push back against the prejudical notion that a big white running back is destined to play fullback, which in and of itself is a bit of a dying position in the pro game.

"When I met him, I was expecting the next Tommy Vardell,'' said one NFL personnel man who has scouted Gerhart this spring. "But this guy's a better player than that. He's got way more run skills, with pretty good feet. You have this impression of a big, sluggo of a white running back. But he's got more ability than that.

"I remember Vardell had those heavy feet and he sounded like a damn Clydesdale when he ran by," the personnel man went on. "But this kid isn't heavy-footed at all. He's a good player, and he's been very productive in high school and in college. At worst, he's a rotational back, and I think he's better than that, and can do more than that. It's just that he doesn't fit the typical NFL perception at the running back position.''

The question of what exactly Gerhart will be in the NFL and which team sees him as he sees himself makes for one of the most intriguing storylines of this year's draft. Watching where he lands should make for some must-see TV, and not just because he's something of a throwback prospect in an era where speed reigns supreme and power runners are relegated to the short-yardage and goal line packages.

COMPLETE DRAFT PROFILE OF TOBY GERHART

In an informal mini-poll of NFL decision-makers this week, I discovered plenty of enthusiasm for Gerhart as a lead running back, with many expressing their pleasant surprise at the amount of athleticism he exhibits. That's basically code for: He runs pretty good for a white running back, which helps explain how he won the Doak Walker award last season as the top collegiate back, and led the nation in rushing (1,871 yards) and touchdowns (28) -- despite finishing second behind Alabama running back Mark Ingram in the Heisman voting.

The consensus seems to be that Gerhart carries a second-round grade in the draft and there is a growing level of excitement about his ability to potentially front a team's rushing attack.

"I see no fullback,'' said one NFL general manager who has evaluated this year's running back crop. "I see a running back. I've heard the fullback stuff, especially in the past three weeks. But I think he's a unique talent with unique skills. Based on his production, he was a running back in high school, he was a running back in college, and he'll be a running back in the NFL. Now, how successful? We don't know that yet. But I don't think he poses any challenge to anybody in how to use him. He's a big back, but he's a running back. We're looking at him and I'm not interested in fullbacks.''

In a league that worships at the altar of speed, Gerhart has enough of it to get the job done. He ran 40s in the mid-4.5s this spring, and teams were also impressed with his 38-inch vertical leap, 22 reps on the bench press, and his score of 30 on the Wonderlic, best among running backs in this year's draft. What he lacks is wiggle and top-notch elusiveness. Gerhart's running style is fairly straight forward, with the key word being forward.

"The key question is, Is he moving the chains,'' the NFL G.M. said. "He's got good enough speed but he's clearly not a home run guy. If he kicks it in space and goes, he's going to get you a chunk of yards. But he's not going 78 or 88. And don't forget, the trend now in the NFL is to have a 1-2 punch (in the backfield). A lot of (teams) have it, and a lot of (teams) will continue to seek it.''

TOP 10 RB PROSPECTS IN THE DRAFT

Gerhart's stock is on the rise, said NFL Network draft analyst Mike Mayock, because the more teams see of him, the more rock-solid every facet of his game appears. Mayock, who I consider the best of the draft-season talking heads, envisions a team selecting Gerhart with the added value in mind of filling two positions with just one player.

"What I like about him is that I think he can play two positions for you,'' Mayock said in a Wednesday conference call. "He reminds me a little bit of [Le'Ron] McClain from the Ravens, where he could play some fullback for you if you needed him to because he's tough enough and I think he'll block. But he can also be an I-tailback that can push the pile. And to me the I-tailback that can push the pile has more value.

"I don't see him making a living just trying to knock down defensive ends and linebackers (as a fullback). I think his feet are too good for that for his size. You're talking about a 235-pound guy with great feet. So I like him athletically. I like him playing tailback. I think he's a real solid second-round value.''

It's not real tricky to figure out the teams most intrigued by Gerhart's skill set. He has visited running back-needy San Diego, as well as Philadelphia and Baltimore in recent days, and conducted private workouts for Denver and the New York Jets. I think New England has him on its radar screen too, maybe if only to allow Belichick to finally get past that Vardell pick of 18 years ago. Former Pats linebacker Tedy Bruschi said recently that Gerhart is Belichick's type of player.

"He's a guy that runs hard,'' Bruschi said. "The way Bill likes to see running backs run is 'Get yardage. Just get what you can get and then get out. So run straight up the field.' This is what this kid is. You see him running through guys, straight up the field, north-south. Get the yards. Stop dancing and then here we go: Second-and-2, second-and-1. That's what everybody wants.''

My hunch is the Broncos and Chargers are higher on Gerhart than anyone, and are hoping he's there for them in the second round -- especially Denver, which now owns an extra second-rounder (43rd overall) thanks to Wednesday's Brandon Marshall trade. How cool would it be if the Broncos were to take a player who wore No. 7 at Stanford, just like an ex-Denver quarterback named John Elway?

Gerhart has stated a preference for where he plays, and it's anywhere that gives him the ball in lead-back formations. He's not ruling out that he might pull some fullback duty, but he's intent on proving that the label of plowhorse-type back doesn't remotely fit.

"I see myself as a running back at the next level,'' Gerhart said at the NFL Scouting Combine in February. "If (fullback) is asked of me I'll do it. The team's above all else. But I firmly believe I have the skill set to play running back at the next level.''

Ever since the breakthrough success of black quarterbacks in the NFL, we like to think the league has come a long way on the whole matter of racial stereotypes. Then along comes a player like Gerhart, and makes us reconsider the issue from a different perspective.

"I was talking to (ex-NFL safety and fellow Stanford man) John Lynch and kind of joking around, because he was kind of in the same situation as a safety,'' Gerhart said in Indianapolis. "I've been compared with the other white guys that have played my position. I get compared to (John) Riggins, (Mike) Alstott, and stuff like that. But I'm color blind. I'm a running back. I compare my running style to the likes of Eddie George or Corey Dillon, those types of guys.''

Baltimore coach John Harbaugh actually doesn't buy Mayock's comparison of Gerhart to Ravens running back Le'Ron McClain, a swing player who has excelled at both fullback and lead back at times in Baltimore. Harbaugh said you can't peg Gerhart's multi-faceted game to that limited of a scope.

"There's not a better pure running back than Gerhart in this draft,'' said Harbaugh, whose younger brother, Jim Harbaugh, was Gerhart's coach at Stanford the past three years. "He's way faster than Le'Ron. Le'Ron's 270 pounds and is truly a fourth-quarter type back, a downhill runner. This guy is much more of a runner. He's a big powerful back, but he can move well. And he can slip tackles and is more elusive than people think. He's hard as hell to tackle, and that's the bottom line.''

Gerhart's running style is more upright than most NFL scouts prefer, but he gets high marks for running with good, low pad level, and as he acknowledges himself, he's going to have to learn to avoid some contact in the NFL without abandoning his physical style of running.

"This is a kid in college who proved he can dominate and take over a game by himself,'' John Harbaugh said. "That's pretty impressive. Any scout worth his salt can see through the stereotypes and all the negative stuff you hear. Woody Hayes always said you evaluate a back by how many tackles he makes people miss, and how many guys he runs over. That what Gerhart does. Watch him. This guy leaves a lot of guys in his wake.

"And they didn't throw it to him much at Stanford, but Jim swears he's got great hands, and is just a beast in pass protection. This is a guy who can be on the field all three downs for you. He won't have to ever come off the field.''

On whose field will Gerhart be playing this fall, and in what role? A starring one, or merely a complementary capacity? Next week's NFL draft should at least start to answer the intriguing questions that surround Gerhart.

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