Scouts, Inc.: 7th
Strengths: Thickly and powerfully built back. Possesses adequate height, a strong lower body and enormous arms. Runs with adequate pad-level and will generate lots of yards after initial contact. Drives his legs and always seems to be falling forward. Vision and patience are adequate to good. Shows above-average initial quickness and outstanding burst when bouncing runs outside. Very few backs his size share such a noticeable second-gear (see: 2008 Rose Bowl vs. USC). He is a reliable pass-catcher with a good feel for getting open underneath. Can pluck the ball on the run and is dangerous in the open field with a head of steam. Is more than willing in pass pro and possesses the size/strength to anchor versus blitzing linebackers. Does not have a lot of wear on his tires and his best football should be ahead of him.
Weaknesses: Not overly elusive and won’t generate many yards by making defenders miss in space. Had some fumbling issues earlier in his career. Only one season as fulltime load carrier at collegiate level. Will need some time to adjust to blitz pickup in NFL. Awareness in that regard is only decent. While he has been a productive receiver, he needs to do a better job of catching with his hands rather than allowing it to frequently get into his body. Off-season conditioning has never been his strength. Doesn’t have much room left on frame to add bulk, so he will need to guard against adding unnecessary weight.
Overall: After graduating high school early and arriving on campus in the spring of 2005, Mendenhall contributed immediately as a true freshman. In 10 games, he ran for 218 yards on 48 carries and had 13 receptions for 82 yards and two touchdowns. In 2006, he ran for 640 yards and five TDs on a Big Ten-best 8.2 yards per carry, adding another 164 yards and a score on 12 receptions. As a junior, Mendenhall delivered 1,999 total yards and 19 TDs in 13 games. He led the conference and ranked eighth in the nation in rushing yards (1,681). Mendenhall peaked as a junior, which was his first season as a fulltime starter at Illinois. While he still can improve as a football player, there are no glaring weaknesses to his game. Mendenhall is a powerful runner with the burst to hit the occasional homerun. He also is more than capable in the passing game both as a receiver and blocker. With good coaching and attention to detail, Mendenhall has a chance to rank among the upper-echelon starters in the NFL a couple years from now. Mendenhall is worth a mid-to-late first round pick and he should be the second or third running back selected in April’s draft.
Rick Gosselin: 10th
Mel Kiper: 10th
Authoritative runner with a major league burst through the hole. Mendenhall’s hard-charging style makes him difficult to get to the ground.
Great pick. The Steelers continue to be the best value drafters in the league. They probably didn’t need a running back here. But how do you pass up top 10 talent at the 23 spot?
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