ESPN draft analyst Mel Kiper Jr. had high praise for San Diego State running back Rashaad Penny and expects Penny to be SDSU’s highest-drafted running back since Marshall Faulk.
“I have him right now as the fifth-highest-rated running back,” Kiper said Wednesday during a national conference call. “He could end up being the third-highest-rated running back and, after all is said and done, maybe the second-highest rated.”
Penny will have an opportunity to improve his standing in front of NFL talent evaluators at next week’s NFL Combine in Indianapolis, where he will be joined by SDSU fullback Nick Bawden, cornerback Kameron Kelly and tight end David Wells.
Kiper lists Penny behind Penn State’s Saquon Barkley, LSU’s Derrius Guice, Georgia’s Sony Michel and USC’s Ronald Jones II, and just ahead of Georgia’s Nick Chubb, among running backs.
In his latest mock draft, Kiper has three running backs going in the first round — Barkley second to the New York Giants, Guice 20th to Detroit and Jones 25th to Tennessee.
Could Penny climb into the first round? Kiper wouldn’t go that far, but he did say: “I think he’s, at worst, a mid-second-round pick and could be an early second-round pick.”
SDSU hasn’t had a player selected as high as the second round since tight end Gavin Escobar was taken in the second round by the Dallas Cowboys in the 2013 draft.
The Aztecs have had only three running backs go in the top two rounds — Marshall Faulk in the first round to Indianapolis in 1994, David “Deacon” Turner in the second round to Cincinnati in 1977 and Don Shy in the second round to Pittsburgh in 1967.
Running back D.J. Pumphrey was a fourth-round selection last year by the Philadelphia Eagles.
Touting Penny’s talents, Kiper said: “He has the ability to catch the ball out of the backfield. He had a really good career returning punts and kickoffs.
“He ran the ball extraordinarily at San Diego State. You say, ‘Well, defenses allowed some of that.’ Yeah, they did, but he was spectacular.”
The 5-foot-11, 220-pound Penny led the nation in rushing this past season, gaining a school-record 2,248 yards. He also had 19 receptions for 135 yards and two TDs.
Penny’s kickoff return for a touchdown against Nevada was the seventh of his career, matching the FBS record in the category. Penny added a 70-yard punt return for a TD against the Wolf Pack — on the first punt return of his career.
NFL.com lists Baltimore, Cleveland, Miami and the N.Y. Jets as the four teams with running back among the team’s top three position needs.
The Browns pick first and fourth in the first round and could fill needs at both quarterback and running back with those picks. If they don’t choose a running back in the first round, it could create an opportunity for Penny when the Browns select first at the start of the second round. Cleveland also owns the third and 32nd picks in the second round.
The draft will be held April 26-28 at AT&T Stadium in Arlington, Texas.