Who is Rashard Mendenhall? We all know his name, but we didn't spend much time discussing him here at The Curtain because, well, we didn't think it likely he'd even be available. But with NFL teams unloading the vast majority of their first round drafting capital on defensive talent and the outstanding tier one group of offensive tackles, the Steelers found themselves looking at a draft board that included Mendenhall.
Pittsburgh pounced and the team gets a premier talent in the first round that most fans weren't expecting. More on why I like the move in a moment, but first, a little background on the tailback from Illinois.
Rashard Mendenhall enters the NFL after three seasons of college ball. As a true freshman, he saw action on a bad offensive team, rushing 48 times for 218 yards - 4.5 per carry. He took a big leap forward as a sophomore, upping his yards per attempt to an eye-popping 8.2 yards per attempt. However, the Illini grossly underutilized their emerging star and Mendenhall finished with 640 yards on only 78 carries, including 5 touchdowns.
Finally, in Mendenhall's junior season, he became the feature of the offense, exploding for 1,681 yards on 262 carries, including 17 touchdowns. For good measure, Mendenhall caught 34 passes out of the backfield, picking up 318 yards and 2 more touchdowns. By season's end, he'd helped lead his team to the Rose Bowl and been named the Big 10 Offensive Player of the Year.
If you're the scout-y type, you'll love the reviews of this kid :
Has an athletic build with good muscular definition, big biceps, firm midsection and hips, thick thighs and calves...More quick than fast...Has excellent agility and balance through the rush lane...Tough, competitive athlete who has played behind some very average offensive lines, having to create a lot on his own...Instinctive runner with a good feel for the cutback lanes, doing a good job of setting up his moves in attempts to elude...Studies the game and, unlike most running backs, he has a good blue-collar work ethic...Shows good courage challenging bigger defenders and runs with a pitter-patter style...Makes good decisions and precise cuts into the hole, as he moves on the snap with no hesitation...Has good instincts, setting up and using his blocks well and has the vision to avoid and create on the move...Slides through the smallest of creases and knows how to get "skinny" and get through the spaces...Has the vision that lets him see things most backs don't...
As far as negatives, there aren't many. His top end speed isn't going to be the tops in the NFL, but Pittsburgh's need at tailback involves a reliable between-the-tackles runner. FWP, who certainly doesn't lack top speed, isn't an ideal inside runner, though he's been effective enough to be a terrific everydown back.
The bottom line is that when Pittsburgh found itself drafting, the best player on the board was an outstanding, muscular running back. Rashard Mendenhall was perhaps not our expected draftee. But given the situation, I'm inclined to think he was the right one.