Futures: Arkansas RB Knile Davis
by Matt Waldman
When I saw the 2012 Lewin Career Forecast, I had already studied Russell Wilson. In fact, I told a panel of draft analysts on a National Football Post podcast (beginning at the 17:42 mark) that included Josh Norris, Wes Bunting, and Josh Buchanan that Wilson was my sleeper quarterback in this draft. I was cynical that Wilson would be picked before the third round, but once Seattle opted for the N.C. State-Wisconsin quarterback, my immediate thought was that Wilson would be a pivotal test case against height bias in the NFL.
I think there’s another potential test case in the draft this year, but on the opposite end of the spectrum when it comes to the dilemma of prototypical skills vs. prototypical measurements. The lead actor in this draft-day drama could be Knile Davis. If an NFL team selects Davis in the first three rounds of this draft, it will be a telling indication that they relied more on Davis’ Combine performance –- and to some degree sabermetrics –- than the opinions of scouts and draft analysts who lean hard on the game tape.
Davis was an All-SEC selection in 2010, rushing for 1322 yards and scoring 13 touchdowns. In 2011, the Arkansas running back missed the season with a broken ankle. Davis underwhelmed in 2012, losing the starting job to reserve Dennis Johnson and only showing flashes of what he did in 2010.
Fast forward to the 2013 NFL Combine, and the 227-pound runner put on a show: a 4.37 40-yard dash and 31 reps on the bench press. It was an impressive performance that vaulted Davis atop Football Outsiders’ Speed Score metric for running backs. According to Danny Tuccitto, a Speed score below 80 is "a giant red flag," a 100 Speed Score is "average," and "anything above 120 serving as a giant neon sign."
This makes Davis’ Speed Score, "off-the-charts good." If you listen to Davis talk about NFL players of comparison, his self-perception is also top-notch. Andrew Gribble reports that Davis describes his style as on par with Arian Foster and Adrian Peterson.
If you ask me, Davis has some sort of dsymorphic disorder isolated to running backs and American Idol audition candidates. He has the idea that he performs differently than he does. Davis’ style is nowhere close to that of Foster or Peterson. When it comes to talent, if Davis is one of the top-ten runners in this class, then it’s a stretch to place him among the top seven in what is a deep class that lacks superstar talent at the top.
While I can’t be definitive about an exact ranking because I’m about two days away from the month-long task of compiling my 24 months of analysis into rankings this month, I can say that I have similar concerns as other writers (such as Rotoworld’s Evan Silva, NFL.com’s Josh Norris, and Bleacher Report’s Sigmund Bloom) who have studied Davis.
Foster and Peterson don’t come to mind when they watch Davis run. The running back mentioned most often among them was Shonn Greene.
Stylistically, I understand certain aspects of their comparison. I think the way Greene has underwhelmed is fitting, but I’m a stickler about stylistic comparisons. I think Davis is a less talented runner in the style of DeMarco Murray. Davis has a similar pad level and gait as the Cowboys runner, but there are some minor differences that have a major effect on production. I had few concerns that Murray’s style wouldn’t work in the NFL. I’m more skeptical about Davis.
My first impression of Davis after a 26-carry, 139-yard performance against Ohio State in the 2010-2011 Sugar Bowl was a mixed review:
His nine first downs against the Buckeyes provided little validation of what I saw from Davis: Arkansas’ offensive line did a nice job of opening creases and Davis demonstrated nice patience, especially on plays where the lanes don’t appear immediately. However for a back with his size (6-foot-0, 220 pounds), he did not flash the power one would expect. In my estimation, Davis broke one tackle in this game and his running style was a significant reason.
Early this fall, Bloom provided analysis that was even more skeptical:
What Davis can do with his bulk is wear down a defense. He has great stamina, and in the fourth quarter of games, more of those tackle attempts become weak enough for him to break. Davis' burst is intact while the defense is dragging from having to wrap him up so many times earlier in the game.
Davis is Shonn Greene with more urgency, or Ron Dayne with more burst. Does that equal a productive starting NFL running back? With the amount of talent at the position, I have my doubts. Like Greene, I expect Davis to get drafted in the 50-100 range, assuming his ankle checks out at the combine. His lack of a well-rounded skill set or clear union of gifts and playing style make Davis a second-tier back, although he could be in a class without a clear first-tier back if Marcus Lattimore struggles this year.
Then this week, Silva summed up his experience watching Davis via Twitter (edited to remove Twitter jargon) and the review wasn’t pretty:
Grinding lunger. Lacks quick twitch. [I] watched two high-volume 2010 Knile Davis games –- two from `12. Very disappointing both years. Combine a lie. Fascinating how over-drafted he’ll be.
Upon watching Davis run a blazing 40-time at the Combine I told my followers on Twitter that if given the chance to take Johnathan Franklin –- a back Mike Mayock described as a complementary prospect, which earned a text from Franklin’s coach Jim Mora, Jr. explaining that Franklin was better than Warrick Dunn -– over Davis, I’d do so 10 times out of 10.
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Like Norris, who agrees with me on these points, I believe Franklin has better vision, more versatile footwork, more balance, and better functional power despite the fact that Davis is bigger, stronger, and faster. In other words, Franklin is a more gifted runner conceptually. When both runners in this comparison have enough size, speed, and strength to earn NFL consideration, I’ll take the back with a better grasp of the position.
This doesn’t mean Davis completely lacks NFL qualities. I just don’t believe Davis’ high-end Speed Score will make him a special back on the field. Here are some of the things that I see in Davis' game.
Before I began watching football this intently, Barry Sanders and Marshall Faulk were players I considered as the prototypes for good running back footwork. These two backs are on the highest end of the spectrum in this category because they can alter their footwork in a broad spectrum of ways to earn yardage.
However, good footwork can also exist in a far more economical style. A good example is watching former Bengals running back Rudi Johnson on the Tire Juke Drill at Auburn.
Watch at least a couple of minutes of this video and you’ll get the idea that good footwork is also about altering steps to stay in as straight of a line as possible.
The first three runs from Davis against Texas A&M in this clip below are good examples of Davis using economical footwork to avoid backfield penetration and eliminate potential losses.
I like how Davis chops his stride on this first play -– a second-and-10 run with 11:54 in the first quarter. He eludes the backfield penetration, finds a crease inside the left guard, and gets downhill. Note Davis’ pad level at the end of this run. It’s a good thing that he often falls forward, but I’ll show you later why his style limits his natural strength.
The second play -– a first-and-10 with 8:22 in the first quarter –- exhibits a nice bend away from penetration and a change of stride to turn through a wrap and fall backwards for extra yards. The third play features an inside-out dip to avoid a loss and reach the line of scrimmage.
None of these are great runs, but they are important examples showing that Davis can make small changes of direction in tight spaces. These moves help him maintain a line downfield or find a new crease. Although it’s easy to conclude after watching his performance against Ohio State that he’s a product of the Arkansas system, Davis is not just a back who benefits from gargantuan holes.
Here’s one of the better runs that you’ll see from Davis that showcases this economical style in traffic.
It’s a lot of small-step changes that illustrate functional balance, but plays like this still lack an explosive factor. Davis isn’t accelerating in and out of cuts. He isn’t running with the kind of flexible bend in his hips that generates power to shear through wraps and hits as efficiently as his fellow prospects.
Davis fails to impress where the better backs in the league succeed and that is the skill of lateral agility. He isn’t the type of back to plant and cut at hard angles or execute dynamic jump cuts to get east and west. Although he compares himself to big backs like Peterson and Foster, these two can do this. It’s clear to me that Davis doesn’t see himself accurately when discussing his running style.
This short-yardage, I-formation play with 4:25 in the first quarter is a good example of the style of penetration that Peterson, Foster ... and I’ll include Matt Forte for another example, can avoid with a sharper cut.
Freeze this clip at the 1:36-mark and check out the amount of room Davis has before he has to hit the hole up the middle. Also note the amount of room at his left where there are good seal blocks to the inside. With a harder plant and cut, Davis can bounce this play.
Here is Forte and Foster making these plant and cuts on similar plays. First Forte:
Here is Davis trying a lateral cut and falling:
The Arkansas runner plants off the wrong foot and slips. It’s not the only time I’ve seen Davis limit the scope of his change of direction or negate his balance when forced into a position to make a lateral cut.
Like pitchers, tennis players, or boxers, running backs have at least one changeup move in their repertoire. When a simple bend or dip away from pursuit won’t work, Davis will opt for the spin move.
This spin against LSU works well, and Davis has an economical style with it. It reminds me of the way Rashard Mendenhall uses it –- sometimes too much -– as a changeup. Still, Davis lacks the agility to change the axis of pursuit at the second and third level of a defense the way dynamic backs like Forte, Peterson, or even a healthy Ryan Mathews can in the NFL.
Although he ran a blistering 40, Davis’ 4.38-second short shuttle was a middle-of-the-road outcome among his peers and it shows when the pads come on. Here is a good opportunity to reverse field behind the line of scrimmage with realistic room to avoid the linebacker and reach the opposite flat.
I think Davis’ game-breaking ability is limited to open space or lanes so big that he can generate momentum through the first and second level without a major change of direction. This makes Davis more of a boom-bust style of big-play threat. What’s more troubling is that there is enough lacking with his style that he may have trouble becoming a chain-moving back.
One of the things about Davis’ game that he can fix is his consistent lack of ball security. When he has a lapse of technique he displays one of two issues: He carries the ball tight to his body but low-slung to his abdomen, or the ball is high, but with his elbow loose from his side.
Both styles invite defenders to strip the ball. This is especially prevalent when he has to make a more dramatic change of direction than what suits his running style. For a big back with low pad level, a narrow stride length, and straight hips, east and west running is not Davis' strength.
Here’s a fumble where the ball is high but his elbow is loose as he bounces the run to the edge.
Correctable issues, but all you have to do is look to a talent like David Wilson to see that ball security issues won’t be tolerated long or forgiven easily unless you have Peterson-like gifts. Davis’ ball-security issues and straight-line speed are the two stylistic points where I agree with the Arkansas back about his likeness to Peterson.
While I agree with Evan Silva that Davis’ burst on the football field doesn’t always match his impressive Combine showing, there are examples to the contrary and this includes moments against teams with good athletes like Texas A&M and LSU. The play below is another good demonstration of Davis’ footwork and Darren McFadden-style acceleration on a curve.
What’s impressive about this play is Davis avoiding a shot to his ankles while accelerating around a corner and still maintaining a line inside the boundary. The fact that Davis runs with such economy can make his feet and speed underwhelming.
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I had this same difficulty when scouting McFadden. Not that I contested McFadden’s speed and acceleration, but I didn’t believe his reliance on bending runs in lieu of the variety of cuts and other types of footwork that aren’t strengths of his game would work in the NFL. While I’m still not a fan of McFadden’s game because I think his style is limited and lends itself to injury, I have learned to recognize that his ridiculous skill at bending runs like a street motorcycle makes him an exception to the rule.
The way Davis bends this run outside at the 35 and then accelerates around the corner to the left flat is a lot like McFadden and Murray. However, McFadden has an extra gear on the football field with his turns and Murray has the lateral agility and power that the other two lack in tight spaces.
I also think to a lesser degree this style -– and injuries -– is what turned some analysts off when they watched Murray. To me, Murray represents a prospect who I was able to see accurately because of the lessons I learned from my mistakes about McFadden.
Low Pad Level: Too Much of a Good Thing?
The best backs run with low pad level or know when to lower the pads into contact for yards after contact. Davis consistently runs with low pad level, but his style marks a tipping point where runners can become too encased in their pads and possess an insular quality to approach to contact. In other words: Davis may finish with low pads and fall forward, but he’s not maximizing his power.
This is another issue that McFadden had at Arkansas. It’s also a reason I believe McFadden has struggled in a zone-blocking scheme. However, in a gap scheme, McFadden’s speed and willingness to hit a hole like a sledgehammer is a good fit.
This run Davis makes against LSU from a strong-side twin, offset I-formation is a good example of his pad level limiting his options as a runner.
Davis takes this run to the weak side, bending it to the left tackle with a safety entering the gap. In theory, this is the type of play we like to see from runners because he’s bending the run outside in to get downhill as quick as possible and try to cut inside the safety.
While it's nice to see low pad level on the finish of the run, watch this run a few times. Davis’ pad level in this situation is more akin to bracing for impact and falling forward than attacking and defeating the contact.
Also note that Davis has the ball under his inside arm and the angle he takes inside should allow him to use his outside arm to ward off contact. If he didn’t have his torso hunched into his pads like this, he could potentially run through more of the collision. With his natural strength, he could have knocked the defender to the ground and continued up field.
Davis’ pad level here is so low and compact that he has no room or balance with his body position to use that stiff arm. Picture a turtle insulating himself in his shell and that’s how I see Davis using his pads.
That insular quality makes his power base too narrow and unbalanced. This is one of the ways he "leaves yards on the field."
If he learns to use his free arm more often like he does on this run through the line of scrimmage, he will become more consistent at generating yards after contact.
This is a smaller crease behind a pulling lineman and Davis displays patience to reach the hole, let it open, and burst through. While he doesn’t attack the defender reaching for him at the line of scrimmage, Davis does shake off the wrap by raising his pad level and extending an arm towards the defender. Then he finishes the play with the low pad level and leg drive.
Unfortunately, as top-heavy as he runs, Davis’ movements appear more often as if he’s preparing to fall rather than fight. Here is a more common example:
Although the defensive back does a fine job of cutting across the body of Davis in the open field, the runner makes it easy for the defender. He doesn’t extend his arm into contact, doesn’t attempt a lateral move, and his pad level bends so much at the waist that he goes down too easily.
If he ran with a longer stride, hips bent, and brought his knee up a little more, he would be a more effective runner at the point of contact. Because he is not a quick-twitch, short-area runner and his best lateral moves often require more open space than his peers, I am skeptical of Davis becoming a running back with productivity commensurate with his Speed Score .
I think Davis has the skills to be an effective runner behind a good offensive line, but I don’t think he’ll consistently flash the big-play skills and tight-space creativity that the better backs in this league display. It’s difficult for a runner to alter the carriage of his body and his stride, but that's what I think it will take for Davis to have more than limited success in the NFL.
Matt Waldman authors the Rookie Scouting Portfolio, an online publication devoted to play-by-play analysis of offensive skill position prospects. Now in its eighth year of publication, the RSP provides pre- and post-draft rankings, analysis, and stylistic comparisons. Waldman also includes all of his play-by-play notes, grading reports, and a glossary that defines and explains his grading criteria. The RSP is available for download every April 1 and 10 percent of each sale is donated to Darkness to Light, a non-profit devoted to preventing sexual abuse in communities across the country.