San Diego State's Rashaad Penny is the potential steal of NFL Draft

When Rashaad Penny recently landed in Buffalo for a pre-draft visit with the Bills, the former San Diego State running back climbed off the plane without a coat or long sleeves, despite the bone-rattling chill.

Penny is fearless when taking on tacklers — and winter itself.

“I wanted to show my toughness,” he joked.

The Southern California native’s wardrobe is hardly built for the NFL’s rugged northern climates, but his game fits perfectly. With any team. In any city. For anyone.

A general manager might step up and surprise, but the odds remain strong that Penny could become one of the steals of the draft that begins Thursday at AT&T Stadium in Arlington, Texas.

The location is interesting, given the Cowboys seem to be the only NFC East team not actively involved with Penny during his dizzying ramp-up to the draft. The Redskins plan to visit San Diego, Penny made a trip to Philadelphia and there have been talks with the Giants, agent Brian Hannula said.

Half of the NFL has been engaged in conversations with or about Penny, according to Hannula. His client is one of the most unique players in the draft — a first-round talent with second-round buzz and the best special teams resume in the class.

Penny is bigger than every projected feature back in the NFC South — and half of the NFL in all. His 40-yard dash time of 4.46 seconds at the NFL Combine was third best among running backs and better than Derrius Guice of LSU and the Georgia tandem of Nick Chubb and Sony Michel, players projected to go earlier.

We’ve always known Power 5 optics matter. The measurable arguments for Penny speak loudly, though.

A story by Pro Football Focus ranked Penny No. 1 among 58 draft-class running backs for yards after contact when hit at or behind the line (3.32 yards). Saquon Barkley, the consensus first pick among backs, stands 57th at .46.

The same publication’s “elusive rating” also ranked Penny No. 1, citing 80 broken tackles on rushes and two more in the passing game. That outdistanced the next-best back by more than 20, according to the story.

As soon as someone trots out stats like those, someone else will groan about the level of competition in the Mountain West.

Penny’s answers: He piled up 353 all-purpose yards and three touchdowns — a 95-yard run, 99-yard kickoff return and 33-yard reception — at Arizona State … ran for 175 yards to topple No. 19 Stanford … and finished as the leading rusher, with a 73-yard touchdown catch, in the Senior Bowl.

The most legitimate question mark would be pass protection, especially for a player groomed at a run, run, run-some-more program like the Aztecs.

“I could care less about the media talk,” Penny said. “Talking to GMs and head coaches, I know they’re high on me. There’s always going to be a chip on my shoulder. I could be a seventh-round pick, but I can prove it on the field.”

Proving it is what the NFL is all about, after all. The league offers plenty of examples of ball-carriers from outside the Power 5 who found a way to juke the doubts and whispers.

Heading into this season, alone: David Johnson of Arizona (Northern Iowa), Rob Kelley of Washington (Tulane), Kareem Hunt of Kansas City (Toledo), Isaiah Crowell of the Jets(Alabama State), Mike Davis of Seattle (Georgia Southern), Jay Ajayi of Philadelphia (Boise State) and Marlon Mack of Indianapolis (South Florida).

Hannula recalled a recent dinner with an NFL running backs coach. When the agent mentioned Penny as a Top 2 talent at the position, the coach said he’d heard the former Aztec was more like 5 or 6.

“For guys on the West Coast and for players in the Mountain West, it requires people go out of their way to study film,” Hannula said. “Guys like Chubb and Michel, those are SEC guys who get more TV coverage.

“So he asked why Penny should be Top 2. I said, ‘His vision and footwork are the best in this class. He runs between the tackles better than anybody.’ I think he sets up linebackers better than anybody.

“Look at the last decade of drafts and his size, speed and production are all first-round. That doesn’t even factor in special teams.”

That’s what agents are paid to say, of course, but it doesn’t make him wrong. League lust has shifted away from running backs to quarterbacks and elite pass-rushers.

Penny provides a special mix, though.

In addition to raw skill, there’s unique durability. He never missed a game in his career. He also possesses a head and heart that spurred him to keep plugging away, despite all the money waiting, to finish his college degree.

Penny is wrapping up three classes, including the one that made scheduling NFL visits a little trickier — geology on Wednesdays.

“I just got done doing labs, learning about soil moisture and solar radiation,” he said.

Penny will be at SDSU on May 13 to walk across the stage and receive his diploma. Why?

“Because I felt like if I promised my mom something, I needed to do it,” he said.

Size and speed. Durability and dependability.

Sounds a whole lot like a first-rounder, doesn’t it?

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