Saturday, March 29, 2014

2014 NFL Draft: Running Backs

"Momma's don't let your kids grow up to be running backs".

That's the new in vogue phrase for football. But considering even the lowest paid running backs in the NFL make more money in one year than the average American will make in six, I don't think growing up to be a running back is such a bad thing.

They are the unwanted children of football right now though. As the game shifts to an ever more pass orientated format, and with the NFL commissioner and the competition committee doing everything within their power to keep it that way, the value of running backs has declined.

The simple fact is this; player salaries are defined by the rules of economics. Economics is founded on the principle of supply and demand. The demand for running backs is not that high, while the supply of quality running backs is. Such is life.

Unfortunately for running backs (or at least their bank balances) there are lots of people who can do a reasonable job of running with the football. And so the running back market has dried up, at least until the next athlete like Adrian Peterson comes along. Will the 2014 draft produce such a player? Let's find out. And again, remember that these lists are not placed in my order of preference, it's just the way the list I'm working from is arranged:

Carlos Hyde, Ohio State
One of the problems with assessing running backs in college spread offenses is that the offense itself is often conductive to easier running. This is one of the main reasons that spread offenses became popular; to create inside running opportunities by drawing defenders out of the box.

This is compounded by offenses like those run by Urban Meyer because the quarterback becomes a key part of the running game, which makes the defenses job of stopping the run all the more difficult. This can lead to artificial numbers that don't translate well to the NFL.

This is my issue with Carlos Hyde. Actually it's one of a number of issues. For example, I call bullsh*t on him being 230 pounds. 230 pound men do not get brought down as easily in the open field as Hyde was. In some cases he was brought down by the sort of arm tackles which someone like Adrian Peterson at 210 pounds would blow through with no problem.

He does run like a 230 pound back though, by which I mean he often seems to lack the speed in the open field to run away from defenders. In fact, scrap that. He often lacked the speed just to maintain a gap with most defenders.

To give him his due he did take some hard hits and in many cases was able to spin and reach for those few extra yards, but he really is nothing special by NFL standards. LaGarrette Blount is still a free agent as I write this, and Blount can do everything that Hyde does. Only better.

Supposedly Hyde is a first rounder. Not on this evidence he's not. Call it a hunch but I suspect as we move down the order I'll find at least five more backs who are the equal of Hyde. And probably a few who are much better. Wasted pick.

Jeremy Hill, LSU
A little stronger than Hyde, but not by much. A little faster than Hyde. But not by much. Worse 'vision' than Hyde. By a lot. In fact at times he seemed to be deliberately running away from holes and into his own offensive linemen or a tackle.

That could mean one of three things a) he felt bad for the opposition and wanted to give them a chance, b) he knew someone who was betting against LSU each game and wanted to help them make their bet, or c) he just has really poor 'vision'. Again, there are free agent running backs in the NFL with more experience and more talent. Wasted pick.

Just before we move on, I want to briefly talk about 'vision'. Where absolutely possible I try and avoid using "scout speak", partly because it's mostly babbling nonsense designed to make the user sound more impressive and knowledgeable, and partly because I wish to disassociate myself from people that talk about how they "love his eyes zones and intangibles, but are concerned about his motor" etc, basically parroting word for word the phrases that they hear Mike Mayock use on the NFL network, often in a completely random order, and applied to players who absolutely do not demonstrate said skills.

But with running backs there really isn't a better word to neatly describe the ability of the back to see holes developing in front of him and/or the ability to anticipate whether a hole will develop by the time he reaches the line. 'Vision' really is the best word for this and as such I will use it throughout, where applicable. I hereby apologise in advance for this.

Tre Mason, Auburn
Speaking of vision, Masons is very good. The problem is not his eyes or his brain, it's the rest of him. To the point, he's just not athletically capable of realising his potential. A guy with his knack for finding holes in the defense should be blazing massive holes in people, but he just isn't quick enough or strong enough. In the NFL that athletic gap will close even further.

In his defense Auburn used him as a pounder, sending him up the middle on a repeated basis when he probably would have been better used running to the outside, but the difference wouldn't have been huge. Further, watching running backs trying to pass protect always amuses me at this time of year and Tre Mason doesn't disappoint. Unless you value your quarterback, in which case he does.

Once again, there is little to commend Mason over most free agent running backs, other than being cheap as a rookie.

Bishop Sankey, Washington
Ok, now we're getting somewhere. For a start Sankey can actually pass block, which among running backs is quite a rare attribute. His vision is pretty good, not the greatest in the world, but good. He's generally well balanced and has a decent turn of speed once he gets going.

Is he better than an experienced free agent? Probably just a little, on account of being a bit quicker and with less miles on the clock than most experienced backs. He's still not a real stand out player, but he did well. Should be able to clock up a 1,000 yard season with the right offense.

Ka'Deem Carey, Arizona
God only knows what Carey was doing at the combine because he looks a lot quicker than a 4.7 sec 40 on gameday. Other than that though, there's not a lot to say about him. He's quick, yes, but he's also not that strong. He seems pretty average at picking holes through the defense and generally doesn't have a lot about him that jumps out and makes you want to pick him.

Again he's another back who will probably do average in the NFL, not great, but not bad. Easily replaceable though.

Lache Seastrunk, Baylor
Now we're talking! Seastrunk, unlike many of the other running backs in this class, is an athlete. He's quick in the open field. He's very agile, especially when it comes to making almost horizontal type cuts. He has good vision and accelerates really quickly after making his cuts.

You get the sense that every time he touches the ball he has the potential to take it all the way to the endzone. If doubled up as a special teams return guy I can see Seastruck having a solid impact on the team that drafts him. He's a little small though, so you don't want him taking too many hits or he wont be around in the league for long.

Charles Sims, West Virginia
I feel sorry for Sims having to play behind that offensive line because they were truly awful. Sims meanwhile was pretty good.

He's quick. He at least tries to pass block even though he's not very good at it. He has excellent vision and superb agility, cutting away from tacklers and into gaps quick as a flash. I came away very impressed from watching him and I think he has 1,000+ yard potential in him. Doesn't seem to be the greatest asset in the passing game but as a runner he's head and shoulders above some of the earlier players on this list.

Tyler Gaffney, Stanford
Gaffney basically had the reverse problem to Sims in that he played behind quite an exceptional O-line. In fact, it's very risky trying to project Gaffney into the NFL because some of the holes he was running through were big enough to fit a bus. 

If you narrow it down to only those plays where there wasn't a huge, gaping hole through the defense then broadly speaking Gaffney seemed to have below average vision, often missing opportunities to cut and run. In the open field he's reasonably quick but he's not going to be pulling away from people in the NFL.

He's pretty tough and on occasion can take two tacklers with him as he drives for the extra yards. He does seem to give up a little easily though, as opposed to keeping the legs churning on every play. His lateral movement is good but nothing special.

All in all it's hard to come to a decent conclusion about Gaffney. A product of the system? Stanford is pretty run heavy and they're pretty good at it, but I think that might be doing him a little disservice to just pass it off onto the team. There's probably a 1,000 yards in him with enough carries, but without being an exceptional back that will light up the field.

Devonta Freeman, Florida State
My god, not only a running back that blocks but one that blocks well!

I think Devonta Freeman deserves some serious credit. His blocking ability in the passing game means that he can serve as a three down back, which in other words means that you don't have to take him off the field on third down and medium-long, and replace him with a blocking/pass catching back.

He has excellent vision in the running game and in particular has demonstrated the ability in the open field to set up defenders behind his blockers, by which I mean he will take a few steps in a given direction (say, towards the sidelines) in order to draw a defender into a position which makes it easier for his blocker to get on, before he then cuts off the block.

And he can cut pretty well. He has decent speed, though again no the fastest back in the world. He definitely keeps the feet moving and is prepared to fight for extra yards. He keeps the ball under good pressure while running, even in the open field, which is something a lot of running backs forget about.

When all is said and done Freeman may not be the fastest back in this draft class, or the strongest, or the most agile, but so far he strikes me as the most complete back, the one that blends most of the important attributes together into one package. He's graded out roughly as a third to fifth round pick by a lot of people and I think that's a fair landing spot. One to keep an eye out for.

Andre Williams, Boston College
Another back who will have to contend with question marks over whether he was the product of his offense or whether he can genuinely reproduce his college numbers in the NFL (or close to them).

It's a tough call because that O-line was generally very impressive. I didn't see a big run that didn't start with a big hole first. On a couple of plays even that wasn't enough as he oddly cut back into trouble. Considering Boston College uses quite a simple rushing scheme that's a real worry.

In the open field he lacks the speed to keep defenders at bay, though in his defence he does run through arm tackles so if you're going to bring him down then you need to get right on him and wrap him up. 

Pass protection was not there and supposedly he was awful at the combine in the receiving drills, which explains his zero receptions in 2013. Overall that puts some hefty limits on his playing time and combined with his other flaws that could be bad news for Williams. I'd pass.

Marion Grice, Arizona State
Mixed bag in the passing game. He can catch it and run with it, but you don't want him staying in to protect your quarterback that much is for certain. In the running game Grice can be pretty physical and break some arm tackles, but without a wide open hole he typically goes nowhere. There's no reason other than the cost factor to use a pick on a back who could be replaced by a better veteran player in free agency.

Terrance West, Towson
For a guy that's 5'9" he runs like he weighs 275 pounds. Sometimes he can barely run 40 yards without coming to an almost complete stop. Either he never trains or he smokes like a steel plant. He absolutely ripped apart sub par FCS opposition thanks to a decent O-line, but I suspect in the NFL it'll be West that gets ripped apart, presuming he has sufficient endurance to make it across the line of scrimmage.

Storm Johnson, UCF
How can you not like a guy called Storm Johnson? Mainly because he's not that great. Vision is poor. Bit of the old butter fingers going on with the pass receptions (or should that be attempted receptions?). Not the quickest back in the world though he held his own a couple of times in sprints versus defensive backs. Not sure I'd want to burn a pick on him.

James White, Wisconsin
Quite a versatile back which, again, should make him an attractive prospect for NFL teams. He can run. He can catch. And he's not afraid to go toe to toe with a pass rushing linebacker and deliver a hit.

Like Devonta Freeman he's not the greatest running back that ever lived and he has his flaws, but the combined package of things that he does well should attract some interest. Pretty solid.

Antonio Andrews, Western Kentucky
Not a bad back in college, especially considering that offense. Trouble is he's quite slow. Looking at his combine time just reaffirms that. In the NFL you have to wonder whether he'll be able to make much of a difference as the quality and athleticism of the opposition jumps up to a different notch.

Alfred Blue, LSU
Did better behind the LSU offensive line than Jeremy Hill. Blue showed some nice skills and pretty good vision, but he's not really athletic enough to take the full advantage of this. Perhaps if he shed maybe ten or fifteen pounds to pick up some speed in the open field he'd be a more attractive prospect.

Henry Josey, Missouri
Sprightly little back, quick in the open field and with some nice cuts. Not the greatest pass blocker technique wise but at least he has the balls to take on pass rushers who are much larger than him, even if it means throwing himself at them. You have to give him credit for that, especially as he often engages them early which gives his quarterback time to see any danger and take appropriate action.

There are durability concerns around Josey, not least because at 5'8" and less than 200 pounds he doesn't really have the size to take ten years of pounding between the tackles, but as a late round pick in an offense geared for speed such as a zone running system he could surprise a lot of people with his production I think.

Isaiah Crowell, Alabama State
If Crowell hadn't had a run in with the law and a couple of run ins with his coaches in Georgia then I suspect we would be talking about him now as a first rounder. As it stands he was given a shot by Alabama State and by all accounts he's taken this second opportunity with both hands and tried to rebuild his reputation.

He's still a risk though and for that reason you'll see him slip down the draft order. But really once you get past round 4 the percentage of drafted players that ultimately pan out as long term contributors starts to go right down anyway, so taking a flyer on Crowell is not that risky beyond that point.

And I think Crowell is well worth a shot. He's quick enough to keep the distance from chasing secondary players, he's strong, he has pretty good vision, and even when he does make mistakes and picks the wrong lane he still has the ability to salvage something from it. He can run outside, inside, he can catch passes, make people miss in the open, and he occasionally chucks himself at a pass rusher as well. 

If had to take just one running back from this class, Crowell would be my guy.

James Wilder Jnr, Florida State
Has the sort of size about him that gets scouts excited, but I doubt many will be for James Wilder jnr. That's largely because he runs like he has feet made of clay. His size permits him the ability to bundle through holes in college, but running as upright as he does he's likely get creamed in the NFL before the end of his first season.

De'Anthony Thomas, Oregon
There's one reason and one reason alone that Thomas has sunk down draft boards and that's because of his size. At 5'8" and barely over 175 pounds he's one big hit away from being shelved for good. His size and lightweight also make him easy to tackle.

But those very same traits that have seen him slide down everyones list of running backs are also the same traits that will be critical to why I think he's going to be a great back. His cutting ability is insane and his acceleration and top end speed make him practically uncatchable in the open field. 

With a more developed route tree to add the passing game to his repertoire, Thomas has huge potential as a home run hitting running back. I can see why some people have some misgivings about his size, but with his vision, agility and quickness he really does jump out at you on gameday. Someone is lining up a steal of a pick.

Raijun Neal, Tennessee
Not a bad back by any means. Neal is generally a straight ahead runner, doesn't dance around in the hole, doesn't try to push a run all the way out to the sideline. He has a decent eye for the openings in the defense and has the power and turn of speed to get some decent yardage. 

He's probably never going to be a big time home run kind of guy, but he's a solid enough back who will get you some good, tough yards up the middle. I kind of like him, he's the sort of running back I would want on my team to compliment a guy like De'Anthony Thomas.

George Atkinson III, Notre Dame
Atkinson is kind of hit and miss, but I like him. He has good size physically and track athlete speed in the open field, combined with a decent nose for a hole. Sometimes he's going to run to the sideline and not make a cut, but so often that it becomes a problem.

When you consider that he has the size to run inside and the speed to run outside, is quick enough that normally you're not going to catch him once he's past you and the cutting ability to pick his way through traffic I think Atkinson could be a real sleeper pick. He's likely to go late because he wasn't a feature back in college, but with his running skills and the experience as a special teams return man Atkinson has real potential. 

Damien Williams, Oklahoma
Williams has pretty poor vision, and that's saying something consider Oklahoma has a pretty good O-line. What goes in Williams's favour is his tremendous straight ahead speed. He hits the hole like an absolute bullet and if he makes it out the other side then forget about it because he can keep most chasing secondary players at bay.

That aggressive, blunt running style can sometimes frustrate because of the missed opportunities, but it also means he picks up decent yards when running inside and always looks like a threat to break off a big run. For the late round pick that he'll probably cost he's good value.

Jerome Smith, Syracuse
Runs more like the old fullbacks from the seventies than a modern halfback. He's really not a speed guy, his 40 time at the combine seems to confirm that, but he does have a certain speed to him in pads. Maybe he just had a bad day at the combine?

He's not going to burn away from anyone, but he might just run them over as he loves to come into contact with the pads forward, delivering shots to defenders all the way. I can see Smith being a decent rotation back, perhaps a closer for someone that already has their prime running back in place. Not great, but not all that bad.

Silas Redd, USC
Meh. Slow, not that strong, and he's already had a number of knee problems before hitting the NFL. That does not bode well.

Roderick McDowell, Clemson
And last but absolutely not least, Roderick McDowell. And we may well have found ourselves another little bargain basement prize here.

McDowell has excellent vision, pretty good speed, good cutting ability and he can break arm tackles. A quick poke around the Internet suggests that lots of people seem to have McDowell as a seventh rounder/undrafted free agent. At that price he is an absolute steal and half. Maybe not the greatest back in the world but certainly worthy of better than the bottom end.


Right, that's the running backs done with. Next up we will go wide receiver I think and some interesting first round prospects to look at. If you haven't already done so then check out my previous post looking at the 2014 quarterback draft class. And don't forget to hit the share button of your choice at the bottom to share this with your friends on Facebook, Twitter etc.

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