Monday, March 12, 2012

2012 NFL Draft: Running Backs

So here's my run down of the running backs for the 2012 NFL draft. As always this may not be a complete list, but it will certainly cover most of the big names. Please note as well when reading this that running backs are notoriously difficult to judge due to the huge influence that offensive line play has on their careers, both past and future.

- Trent Richardson, Alabama: You knew he was going to be number one on the list. The question is whether Richardson lives up to that hype and deserves his spot? In my opinion, and despite the difficulties with judging running backs, I think he more than deserves his place at the top of any list of running backs for consideration in the 2012 draft.

In fact I'm going to go one further and say that there is a possible case for Richardson being considered as the number one overall pick. In light of the Redskins trade up to the second spot and coach Mike Shanahan's predilection for running backs, I wouldn't be surprised if he made the move to get Richardson. It's not as likely as the Griffin pick, but if it happens then it shouldn't come as too big of a surprise to you.

Simply put, Richardson embodies everything about what you might call an "old school" running back. He's a downhill runner, a hitter, a banger, a short powerhouse with excellent agility and great patience. It's not so much three yards and a cloud of dust as it is 8 yards and a pile of bodies.

Richardson has remarkable length strength which, coupled with his excellent balance, makes him very difficult to bring down, even when you have two or three men hanging off him. He does an excellent job of bending his knees, keeping his hips low and slowly, patiently picking his way through the holes in the defense. Any time he gets stopped he then uses that uncanny agility and occasionally a sweet looking sideways shimmy to get around defenders before turning the all ahead plough back on.

His determination just adds to this. I can't count the amount of times I've seen him get hit at two yards past the line of scrimmage, only to keep his legs churning relentlessly and use his strength to go get another two or three yards on top of that. Part of that comes from the low pad level as he ducks and dives through the line, hitting tacklers with his shoulder the way a good running back should.

All of this happens with the ball tucked high and tight in the perfect position for ball security. He truly is a wonder to watch as he picks apart a defense. Throw in a solid commitment to pass blocking and sufficiently good hands and you have yourself a near complete, 3 down running back.

If there was any one knock on him then it would be that his speed in the open field isn't "elite" level, but that's not really the kind of back that Richardson is. He's not so much a game breaking, home run hitter, as he is a short range, consistent back. He's the kind of player who will drive you forward 5-8 yards on first down, then come back and do it all again on second down.

Consistency is the name of the game with Richardson and consistency is certainly what you get. Consistently going forward, consistently weaving in and out of defenders, consistently keeping the chains moving. He's a pounding, morale destroying back who grinds opponents into the ground with every run and pushes his team ever closer to victory.

I really can't speak highly enough of Richardson. I can't see him getting out of the top five, let alone out of the top ten. It's very rare (re; never) that I advocate running backs as first round picks because of the influence of the O-line and because quality backs are normally available as low down as the fourth or fifth round sometimes. But I'll make the exception for Richardson because I believe he is genuinely an exceptional player. Could lead the league in yards his rookie year.

- Chris Polk, Washington: I hearby dub thee, "The Human Pinball". In fact I could almost swear that Polk deliberately runs into defenders at times just because he loves the contact. He's certainly not afraid of it.

Polk is a no nonsense back who you hand the ball to and then just sit back and watch as he slams into the line at full speed. Patience is not a word Polk seems to be familiar with. It works because of the tremendous speed he builds up as he attacks the line and because he doesn't hesitate in or around the hole. He just runs full tilt through the nearest gap in the line and keeps running until he hits something, at which point he will try and run through it, or until he ends up in the open.

Polk's blunt running style and speed mix very well with the "one cut" demands of the zone running styles so prevalent in the NFL. He's also a good pass catcher out of the backfield and runs some fairly solid routes.

The biggest knock on Polk would be that a physical running style such as his, combined with his 5'11, 216 pound frame, could cause long term durability issues, with whiplash presumably being one of those concerns.

As a second round pick though, maybe even a late first, Polk might turn out to be good value. His style is relatively straight forward so as long as his coaches just let him rip and don't try to toy around with his technique too much then he should be fine. He's also all kinds of fun to watch and I can't help rooting for someone who plays the game in the style that he does.

- LaMichael James, Oregon: Anyone who watched Darren Sproles with interest last year will be keeping a close eye on LaMichael James. The parallels between the two are a little uncanny. Like Sproles, James is very much on the short side for a running back, relying on his speed to get him through games.

And I do mean that literally. Against tougher defenses where strong D-lines have pushed Oregons O-line around, James has struggled at times. He's not a hard hitter and lacks the strength to break tackles or push back a pile.

James is totally reliant on either a) the offensive line creating a sizable hole in the middle of the defense or b) using his speed on outside zone plays to simply out run the defensive pursuit to the sideline. Without either of these, James is toast.

Once you do get him out in space with the ball in his hands though, either by a run or from a pass, then hold on to your rocket boots because James can fly like you wouldn't believe. I don't care what his 40 time is. In pads and on a grass field you're not catching James once he gets going.

That will be the decision that coaches wrestle with. How badly do they want the home run hitting ability of LaMichael James? He's not an every down back and he's not going to pound away 30 times per game, not if you want him to last until the end of the season. But he can be that explosive hitter that flips a game on its head with one play.

- David Wilson, Virginia Tech: Ball security is an issue that plagues many a running back. Running hard for 60 yards is all well and good, but if you fumble it at the end then it's nothing more than a glorified punt. That's the main issue Wilson has to deal with, having developed a reputation for butter fingeredness(?) that easily surpasses that of any current NFL running back, in a league where turnovers have proven to be incredibly costly (the team that wins the turnover battle wins about 80% of the time, or something like that).

In Wilson's favour is speed and the ability to make quick cuts in the open field. I wouldn't say Wilson was the greatest runner between the tackles but once you give him a bit of space to run he can be lethal.

Unfortunately he also has a bad knack of being somewhat indecisive, a trait that was eminently demonstrated when he lost 22-yards on one run down in the red zone. This, along with the fumbles, will make people very wary. It's this kind of hesitant running that nearly ruined Chris Johnson's reputation recently.

Overall I think Wilson's speed and general athletic ability will guarantee that he finds a taker, but buyer beware. His speed advantage will be reduced at the next level and his indecision could prove costly against more disciplined defensive fronts.

- Lamar Miller, Miami: Hit and miss. Speed is pretty good as is his agility, but has a tendency to turn back into trouble instead of running around it. With the prevalence of zone running schemes in the NFL right now I wonder how he will get on as he has real issues with stopping and dancing in the hole. Once in the open field though Miller has plenty of speed.

Not sure if he'd really make a three down back and could struggle in short yardage with a lack of power in the legs. That kind of narrows down his usefulness which subsequently could hurt his draft stock. Some people seem pretty high on Miller but there are other backs who can do all the things he doesn't and some backs who can do the things he does do, only better.

For me that kind of begs the question as to why you would draft him over them? Ultimately his speed will earn him a few big games here and there when he gets loose, but it's unlikely to build him a stellar career in the long run. Average back.

- Doug Martin, Boise State: For a team that passes so much, it was surprising to see how well Boise State could (re; didn't always) block in the running game. It's tempting to say that Martin was the product of playing a lot of bad defenses and to a degree that's true, but he did have some speed on the field.

I say "did", and not "does" because he ran a poor time in the 40 at the combine, while posting an impressive bench press. His weight also appears to have gone up, which suggests he bulked out a little for the combine. That raises issues for me, along with his relative lack of lower body strength on the football field, especially given the leverage advantage he should achieve from his height.

My concern is that while Martin is pretty quick in the open field, a sufficiently capable pass catcher and also a pretty good pass blocker, does he really have the strength to run hard between the tackles when needed? In college, he would go down on the spot almost every time he was hit with any force, something which the best running backs in the NFL today shake off for a few more yards.

There's a lot of attention around Martin but I'm not sure as he'll ever achieve that status as one of the top backs of his class, let alone the league. I guess it's swings and roundabouts again as so much depends on the O-line, but to me Martin looks like he will have an average career in the NFL.

- Bernard Pierce, Temple: A downhill runner who is not especially fast, not especially strong and not especially agile. Was often contained (except in circumstances of wide open running lanes) by much lesser opposition than some of the backs in this years draft have faced. Not exactly a lot here to sell him as anything more than an undrafted after though.

- Terrance Ganaway, Baylor: Not a pass catcher really and pass blocking is limited. He's committed enough to the cause, trouble is he's just not very good at it. Lacks strength and cutting ability in tight quarters. All of that could be erased though with his speed.

Ganaway is a perfect example of why I hate the 40 yard dash in general as a measuring tool. Olympic sprinters, who run 100 meters instead of just 40 yards, focus the majority of their off season and in season training (excluding weight training) on the starting portion, from the blocks to the first 20 yards or so where they make the transition into full stride sprinting.

The reason for this is because so much time can be won and lost during this phase of the run. Ganaway had a poor 10 yard split which negatively impacted his overall time. In the open field though, once he hits full stride, his 6' height gives him an advantage over many of the other backs in the draft. Carrying the ball like Adrian Peterson (in his wrist, well away from the body) also helps, while also being just as fumble prone.

The question coaches will ask themselves then is do they feel they can get Ganaway out into the open field with the ball? If yes, then Ganaway has the potential to break off some big runs. In general though Ganaway is too much of a one dimensional back without enough additional traits to warrant taking him over some of his draft counterparts.

- Isaiah Pead, Cincinnati: Keep hearing good things about Pead. Keep wondering when I'm finally going to stumble across the game where all this magic took place.

Pead is being lauded for his pass protection but all I've seen so far is him being bowled over and pushed aside. Like Ganaway it's commendable that he tries, but trying and failing should not be mistaken for success at a given task.

His cutting ability is pretty good but for a small back he seems to lack the bursting acceleration that you'd expect. I just don't think there is enough here with Pead to hook a team into being super crazy about him. Might fall further than many expect, we'll see. At the NFL level I think he'll struggle to stand out, unless it's for his well documented issues with fumbling.

- Vick Ballard, Mississippi State: Not the strongest running back in the world despite his bulk, but does have two things that work heavily in his favour and could make him a very attractive later round prospect with a surprisingly bright future.

Number one is his breakaway speed in the open field. Once he gets a full head of steam up, he can leave cornerbacks trailing in his wake. Number two is his deft cutting ability in tight spaces. This is a trait he shares with Trent Richardson, and also NFL guys like Maurice Jones-Drew and Ray Rice.

That ability to make major cuts in confined spaces, stopping on a dime (indicative of great hamstring strength) and accelerating in a new direction allows running backs to pick their way patiently through a defense and then explode into the open space on the other side.

It is an incredibly desirable trait, at least among coaches if not scouts, and it promises to give Ballard a shot at becoming a legitimate starting back in the NFL who can pile up yards against even tough defenses.

Again, and sorry to sound like a broken record, there are no guarantees in football or life in general. As Clint Eastwood once said, "if you want a guarantee, buy a toaster". But Ballard certainly has one of the most impressive potential careers of any running back in this draft, at least by my estimation.

- Tauren Poole, Tennessee: Not the fastest player you'll ever see wearing a set of pads, but still pretty quick. Did remarkably well considering the reshuffling that has taken place on the Vols offensive line of late. His greatest asset is his ability to make sharp cuts, though perhaps plays with his pads a little too high which can hurt him in tight quarters. Projected not to be picked until day three, I think Poole could surprise people with the right offensive line.

- Cyrus Gray, Texas A&M: Hmmm. That's that sound I make when I can't quite decide how I feel about a player. On the one hand, Gray can be pretty quick and he's got some shifty moves, but on the other hand he never really does anything that makes you nod and say to yourself "that was impressive". He's just very run of the mill, average.

- Marc Tyler, USC: So you're a running back for a major college football program, you're out on the town, you're drunk, now what is the one thing you should probably avoid saying to someone with a camera? That's right, that your college is paying you to play, or "breaking bread" as he put it in response to a question about illegal payments. To then go on and describe USC as standing for "University of Sexual Ballers... oh wait, that's USB..." didn't help much either.

Drunken comments to TMZ aside, Tyler looks about as athletic as I do after 10 pints. He doesn't have anywhere near the kind of speed that an average running back in the NFL would and for a big running back he lacks strength too. Frankly I'm beginning to wonder how USC has managed to win so many games in recent years.

- Robert Turbin, Utah State: Looks clumsy and slow, and that's against the type of opposition that Utah faces on a regular basis. Imagine what that would look like against an NFL defense. Now stop scaring yourself.

- Keola Antolin, Arizona: Not exactly setting the presses alight with interest, Keola Antolin features on almost nobodies list. Except mine, obviously. At 5'8 and 195 pounds he might be pushing the very lowest end of what NFL teams will except for a running back, but I think he might be worth a shot to bring into a camp.

He's not the strongest back in the world and you shouldn't expect him to be. He is fast though. Pretty damn fast. As a result of his size he also has great cutting ability in the open field and a knack for sending defenders the wrong way.

Didn't get all that many carries in college but is still a prospect worth looking at for my money. If Arian Foster can go undrafted and then explode onto the scene, maybe Keola Antolin could to? We'll see, but I have a good feeling about him.

- Taimi Tutogi, Arizona: I'm not even entirely sure that Tutogi is draft eligible. For that matter I'm not sure Antolin is either. As far as I'm aware though, both are going into the 2012 draft and personally I like Tutogi as much as I like his team mate, though for different reasons.

Tutogi is a fullback through and through. He is the size and power that Antolin doesn't have, without Antolin's speed. He's a good blocker in both phases, a good pass catcher and has a distinctive, powerful running style.

He also has a rather crafty move up his sleeve, where he hesitates just before being tackled and is somehow able to fold himself over forwards in order to stay on his feet. It's difficult to explain in words, but trust me, it's effective. I think Tutogi (presuming he's in the draft) is worth a look and could make a career for himself despite the age of the fullback gradually dying out.

- Ronnie Hillman, San Diego State: Bit of a sideline to sideline guy. Has difficulty running hard up the middle. Not overly quick or agile in the open, and his tendency to shy backwards or run paralell to the line of scrimmage to avoid tackles really hurts him. Overall not a great back, though his speed as he hits the hole sometimes sees him pick up some good yards.

- Bobby Rainey, Western Kentucky: Another back who I think has potential despite some short comings. He's not the quickest player in the world for a start and his size (5'8) will again count against him with scouts. But as for cutting, especially in confined and loaded out boxes, he has no problems. Another back who really excels at grinding away, getting you 4-8 yards per down as opposed to being a big hitter. I like him.

- Edwin Baker, Michigan State: Some speed for a big dude. Not blinding speed, but good speed. Has the ability to stick his foot in the ground and make some tight cuts now and again. Likely undrafted, but someone to keep an eye on if your team picks him up. Don't expect miracles, but just remember the name.

That's your lot for the running backs. I've probably missed some and indeed I might come back to them again at some point. Next up is wide receivers, although the looming free agency could interfer with that, depending on how quickly I get through them (I have a list that tops 30 names). I've also gone back to the quarterbacks and edited it to include Dan Persa, who I somehow missed the first time around.

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