by Matt Waldman
-Former University of Miami Head Coach Larry Coker, July 26, 2004
College coaches are prone to hyperbole, but when the coach comparing Frank Gore to Sanders has not only coached the NFL Hall of Famer, but Thurman Thomas, Edgerrin James, Clinton Portis, and Willis McGahee as well, these were words worth heeding. Gore lived up to that praise early in his Hurricanes career, but ACL injuries to both knees robbed him of opportunities to compile the portfolio he'd need to be a first-round pick. Those injuries also robbed Gore of his lightning-quick lateral agility and the third gear to pull away from defensive backs.
Although Gore still had enough in him to become one of the most respected runners among NFL defenders over the past decade, the third-round pick left his true potential behind in Miami. Gore’s college injury history validates the cliché that football is a game of inches. Those fractions of a second have made a difference on the field and in the payroll ledgers of the 49ers front office.
More than height, weight, strength, speed, or college program, injury is the single greatest factor that differentiates players entering the NFL Draft. Nothing can drop a player’s stock like a season-ending injury that forces a prospect to miss his senior year. Limiting injuries have a large effect on stock as well. Gore looked like a fraction of the player he was as a freshman, and ultimately would become in San Francisco, when he played on a knee that wasn't fully rehabilitated from his second ACL surgery as a senior.
A running back that's in a similar situation this year is Pittsburgh’s Ray Graham. The Panthers running back never drew comparisons to Sanders in terms of talent, but a healthy Graham is a closer match to Sanders’ style than Gore ever was. Graham had great footwork, unusual balance to change direction, and quickness with his cuts that rivaled the likes of Jamaal Charles and Marshall Faulk.
Graham was having an All-America-caliber season in 2011 before he tore his ACL against Connecticut. In a little more than seven games, Graham had 958 yards, nine touchdowns, and averaged 5.8 yards per carry. He was by far my favorite college runner to watch on Saturdays.
Although Graham’s skill at changing directions fits along a continuum of players where Sanders is at the top end and Faulk and Charles are on the same street, the 5-foot-9, 190-pound runner isn’t in the same neighborhood as those three runners when it comes to tackle-breaking strength. Graham relies more on his sweet feet than most NFL prospects, which makes his recovery a pivotal factor in earning a call from a team before the third day of the NFL’s selection process.
Because this week’s Futures is focused on his elusiveness, acceleration, and balance -- before and after his knee injury -- the analysis will link to sections of video in addition to using static screen shots. What the before and after looks show us is that Graham has the same great feet, but the balance and explosion of his change of direction are not the same yet.
I like to view a player pre- and post-injury because it gives me a chance to see a range of potential for that player when his physical skills are able to keep pace with his conceptual understanding of the game.
The first play is a nice illustration of Graham’s skill to cut back against the grain and time a crease that many backs would not succeed in doing, much less dare to attempt. This is one of Graham’s first runs against South Florida, in a formation where Pittsburgh liked to motion Graham from the slot and give him momentum to the edge. It's a variation of a fly sweep. The Panthers use a wing back to the play side to seal the edge defender inside as Graham takes the exchange and heads to the flat, where he has a receiver blocking on the perimeter.
The backside pursuit and defender over the top have angles on Graham to force him outside and make a play before the runner reaches the first-down marker. Regardless of the wisdom, Graham demonstrates his rare agility on this play and opts to cut inside and split these defenders. At this stage of the run shown above, Graham has his knees and hips angled to the outside, stretching the run to the sideline, but he’s setting up the cutback.
Graham makes a hard plant with his outside leg and begins to duck his head and shoulders to squeeze through the tightest crease against the grain of these two defenders’ pursuit angles. As you can see with the shot above, Graham’s outside lane is not a great option, but he still had a chance to get his pads low, make contact with the defender over top, and drag him the final three yards. This is the conventionally coached way to run the ball. Graham’s skills, when completely healthy, make convention a bad option.
Now that’s a cutback. Graham clears both defenders, untouched, and this gives him a better angle to the first-down marker compared to the outside path, where he’d have to deal with at least three additional opponents. Graham gets the first down and another six yards.
The next run is from a pistol alignment with two runners in the backfield that features a pair of double teams from the offensive line. This is a common blocking scheme that the Cincinnati Bengals have used in single-back sets this year.
On this play, Graham is running a variation of a wind-back play where the fullback works across the formation to the backside end and Graham presses the hole towards the center/right guard double team before working to the backside of the line.
As Graham presses the cutback lane, the penetration up the middle is good enough to force Graham to make a jump-cut early in his run. I would be surprised if Graham is even thinking about the safety over top until he clears the defensive tackle, but not long after making this evasive maneuver, he has to get in position to make another move to avoid the defensive back entering the hole.
After a second clean cut that leaves the oncoming safety on the turf, the only thing stopping Graham from a potential trip to the end zone turns out to be the official. As I mentioned in the Futures column on Eddie Lacy, jump cuts don’t tend to be as effective in the NFL game due to the speed and knowledge of linebackers and defensive lineman. But Graham flashes the quickness and, most importantly, the selective judgment to pull it off when healthy.
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In addition to his skill at taking sharp angles on cuts or using jump cuts, Graham’s excellent footwork extends to his ability to layer moves in succession so he can avoid multiple defenders in tight spaces. This segment from the USF highlight video is a good demonstration of Graham working towards the inside, hopping to the edge, and immediately dipping between two defenders to the inside within a short space.
A shotgun draw play with 0:21 left in the half displays Graham’s feet, change of direction with multiple moves, and the speed to reverse his field and get the corner at the opposite edge for a 12-yard gain. This play should have been cut short for a loss in the middle of the backfield. It was a run (and outcome) reminiscent of Barry Sanders’ skill and style. While I’m skeptical of any runner executing this play consistently in the NFL, I think a healthy Graham has the quickness to do it.
Another aspect of Graham’s game that makes him a viable weapon for an NFL team is his skill as a receiver. He has good hand-eye coordination and the skill to adjust to the football. Here is a strong adjustment to a pass on a route where he releases from the middle of the line of scrimmage and breaks to the left flat.
The pass is thrown behind Graham, but he manages to turn and make a one-handed stab on the ball with his left hand and tuck it under that outside arm as he turns up field.
Graham's awareness to account for the defender in the middle of the field and make an adjustment of this nature is a great display of confidence in his hands. It also shows knowledge of his surroundings to generate an angle where he can maximize his ability to get down field. It’s the kind of on-field awareness and talent that is eye-opening even if his decision-making is risky.
I’m still in the process of watching Graham’s performances later in the 2012 season, but his performance in a September match-up with Cincinnati offers some telling indications of his progress. This second-and-7 run with 12:50 in the first quarter from a strong-side I-formation illustrates that Graham still has the ability to make sharp cuts.
Graham approaches the line of scrimmage, sees the penetration from the strong side end, and feels the backside drifting away from its contain. He executes a sharp cut similar to what we saw from Ray Rice on his fourth-and-27 reception against the Chargers.
The plant portion of this cut isn’t on the injured knee, but at the angle Graham is changing direction towards, he still has to rely on that injured leg to make the turn to the outside.
Graham’s surgically-repaired knee is strong enough that he can execute a tight turn off the initial plant and cut so he can accelerate to the corner and earn it, even with four unblocked defenders at the edge.
Although he doesn’t beat No. 25 up the sideline for the first down, he still gains six to set up a reasonable third-and-1. The burst and acceleration from cuts may not be all the way back to pre-injury form, but this play is a good indicator that it’s on the way.
Graham still hasn't completely recovered at this early point of the season, because he’s unable to maintain balance on every play where that leg has to support a cut off an initial plant. Here’s a run to left end with 14:50 in the half where Graham works to the edge and tries to cut up field.
Graham spots the safety over the top and is about to plant on his healthy outside leg to cut inside. The surgically-repaired knee will support the change of direction while helping him accelerate through the cut to work behind the safety and still beat the backside pursuit.
Although difficult to see with a screen shot, the video does a better job of showing Graham’s knee buckle just enough that he stumbles through the change of direction and falls before he’s wrapped. This is something I saw repeatedly in this game. Here’s a run to right end where Graham reaches the sideline and tries to cut it inside, but the knee gives just enough that he opts to exit the boundary. You can see Graham dragging his foot at the end of the play as if the knee just isn’t responding.
One of the reasons is the heavy brace he has on the knee. It may provide stability, but it also limits flexibility. A perfect example is this touchdown run where Graham barely reaches the end zone because he cannot lift his repaired knee high enough and at a fast enough rate to drive through a wrap.
When Graham stumbles in this game, several times it’s during an attempt to lift this knee during his stride, and his toe hits the ground rather than the ball of his foot. There are a few points during this long run where Graham displays a lot of his pre-injury skill to stop-start, cutback, and layer moves where he appears to be dragging that leg just enough to limit the sharpness and burst of the cuts. What I didn’t see was the ability to spin off that leg that he used to have.
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I’m encouraged by what I see with Graham’s recovery. He removed his brace not long after this game and began to flash some of the extra burst, balance, and agility missing from the Cincinnati game. His 172-yard performance against Notre Dame that included a 55-yard run up the middle should be a convincing indicator that he’s on his way back, but even in that game he’s slipping on cuts off that leg that he’d have maintained before the injury.
In fact, what I like about this play is that he’s decisive, anticipating the opening, and opts for the small crease with a downfield style rather than bouncing the play outside. Sometimes the silver lining that comes from injuries to great physical talents at the position is that they learn to run with more patience and determination in blocking schemes. DeMarco Murray was a great example. Even before I interviewed him at the Senior Bowl two years ago, Murray was among my favorite running back prospects that year specifically because of what I saw from him as a runner while he was working through injuries.
Although I think Graham’s weakness is his lack of power between the tackles, he runs with good pad level and he will keep his feet moving. I always thought Jamaal Charles was an ingenious runner who, like Graham, took risks that few backs could pull off. One reason I liked Charles’ NFL potential was that he knew how to run in traffic even if he wasn't necessarily powerful. I think Graham is similar to an extent, although he's not as explosive as the Chiefs star.
If Graham can stay healthy, I think he’ll be a bargain for an NFL team that wants a back with dynamic skills in space who can be a third-down player and eventually grow into the lead back in a committee. I still believe there’s hope that Graham could become a feature back in the right offensive scheme, but I’m skeptical he’ll be drafted with that idea in mind.
I think teams like the Bengals, Raiders, Colts, Rams, and Lions could be good fits for Graham. These organizations need help at the line of scrimmage and Graham will likely be around long enough to get a lineman and land the running back between the third and fifth rounds. All five teams could use a space option from the backfield with a high potential ceiling.