By Matt Waldman
Indulge me in a bit of fantasy. Imagine an old football field. It’s a practice field at the rear of an abandoned high school with woods surrounding it on three sides. Behind the north goal post is an equipment building no bigger than a backyard storage shed with a green tin roof, white cinderblock, and a steel blue door held three-quarters shut with a rusted chain and pad lock.
Squeeze inside this dark, dilapidated building and you’ll find Craig James’ concussed son -– wrong story. Let’s try again...
Squeeze inside this cobweb-filled space and you’ll find nothing but a bench press station with a torn vinyl cushion. Reach into the tear of the cushion and there’s a switch that opens a trap door in the floor near the entrance that reveals a long, torch-lit spiral staircase made of stone that leads to the secret laboratory of M. Waldman, mad scientist of offensive skill talent.
The demented (but good) doctor is pouring over plans to create Bo Jackson 2.0. He has set up shop in the southeastern United States because of regional and socio-economic factors that point to it as the best area to produce a rare athlete for the game. He’s hacked into the medical records of pediatrician offices and narrowed the field of candidates to boys who are projected to develop into young men between five-foot-nine and six-foot-one and have the skeletal-muscular potential to carry 210-to-225 lbs.
Like a formula to determine the tensile stress of a material for an engineering firm, Football Outsiders’ Speed Score would have an ideal application in M. Waldman’s secret lab. The problem wouldn’t be constructing the running backs, but preventing Nick Saban from breaking them before they reach the NFL.
In the reality of the NFL Draft, the Speed Score provides a layer of analysis that illuminates the players with desirable physical skills. The idea is a fine one: if they’re big and explosive, they’ll have the strength-speed-agility to measure on a spectrum that ends with terminates at Bo Jackson.
But we know that good running backs come in all shapes and sizes. Darren Sproles and Brandon Jacobs illustrate how the range of height, weight, speed, strength, and agility of successful players at the position is wider than any in the NFL.
The differences in size are also indicative of the specialization of the position that has evolved over the years. The New Orleans Saints three different types of runners on its depth chart:
- Darren Sproles -- A hybrid of a scat-back, slot receiver, and return specialist.
- Pierre Thomas -- A utility back that does his best work in pass protection, draws, and screens.
- Mark Ingram and Khiry Robinson -- Traditional power backs who do best with a high volume of touches.
The Patriots, Cardinals, Bengals, Colts, Chargers, Panthers, Lions, and Falcons have at least two runners with roles that may blend in some places, but have distinct separation of labor in others. Based on recent drafts, one could argue that the Packers, 49ers, and Washington had similar aspirations.
Specialization offers more avenues for a variety of physical talents at the running back position to earn a roster spot. However, it doesn’t create more opportunities for running backs overall.
There’s a lot of talent on the street that can enter an NFL locker room, exit the tunnel to the field on Sunday afternoon, post 80-100 yards, and help a team win a game. The fact that Thomas and Robinson -– two UDFAs -– are viable options is a testament to this point.
Joique Bell, Alfred Morris and Arian Foster’s numbers all sound the refrain that a quality NFL running back often requires a lot less of what we emphasize as "good foot-speed." There’s another type of speed that these three possess that is as important as foot-speed, agility, balance, and vision –- "processor speed."
It’s an attribute often linked with vision –- a quality that is difficult to quantify unless one deconstructs “vision” into definable components. I still link processor speed with vision –- it’s the mental speed that a football player sees the position of the players on the field, links it to the game situation, and executes the appropriate physical reaction to the this environment-stimuli.
Processor speed enhances on-field speed. Watch a tentative or confused player and subtract tenths of a second of his execution time. While you’re at it, begin subtracting positive plays, playing time, and ultimately a contract with the team.
Clean, consistent technique is another factor that enhances on-field speed. There are receivers with 4.3-speed that cannot separate from cornerbacks because they cannot run clean routes. However, there are much slower pass catches whose routes are so good that they earn separation as if they had great foot-speed.
There’s no silver bullet or code to crack that will yield accurate projections of rookie prospects with quantifiable precision. Because the mad scientist’s football laboratory is only a pipe-dream, it’s important to view players that score high on Football Outsiders’ Speed Score within the context of the rest of their skills.
Nevertheless, the 2014 version of the Speed Score offers an intriguing quartet of players at its top: Oklahoma’s Damien Williams, Georgia Southern’s Jerick McKinnon, Stanford’s Tyler Gaffney, and Notre Dame’s George Atkinson. I’m not convinced all four have a place in the NFL, but even before Aaron Schatz asked me to write about them, I thought each offered an intriguing storyline.
Damien Williams (4.45-40, 222 pounds)
Williams’ listed weight prior to his senior year was 208 pounds, but he ran his fast forty at 222 pounds. The 5-11 running back has always demonstrated good straight-line speed. Give him a good crease and and Williams can make a defensive back or linebacker pay if they approach with a bad angle.
The former Sooner is a one-cut runner with patience and skill to find the cutback lane in a zone-blocking system. Technically sound, Williams demonstrates good pad level and second effort with his legs after contact. He even displays a nice-looking straight-arm.
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The technique is all there, but the strength is lacking. On film, the pad level, leg drive, and stiff arm all lack the explosion and strength to make a difference. Even his blocking lacks a sound punch despite approaching opponents with a good angle.
My take on Williams entering the 2013 season was that if he could improve his strength, he could become a dangerous runner between the tackles. On paper, Williams has all the tools to become a premiere prospect.
Williams added the weight and still has the speed. Knowing these two things, it would seem logical that he’s now a premiere prospect.
I’m not convinced. Andre Williams is big, strong, and ran a good enough forty that his Speed Score ranks him a notch below these top four, but his film is underwhelming. Boston College’s Williams does not break a lot of tackles unless he earns a huge hole and has a sizable, unfettered start downhill.
Damien Williams had bigger holes to run through on a regular basis at Oklahoma than Andre Williams had at Boston College. Even if he didn’t depress his draft stock by getting kicked off the team in late November, I need to see that Williams’ size is translating to power.
If it is, Williams is the best back of the quartet and capable of earning this sleeper moniker. If it doesn’t, Williams has the skills to earn a roster spot and contribute because of his speed, acceleration, agility, skill as a receiver, and potential as a blocker.
The reason for Williams’ dismissal and how the running back approaches football and life moving forward will be the biggest deciding factor of him even earning a chance to prove his worth on a field.
Jerick McKinnon (4.41-40, 209 pounds)
McKinnon is from my part of the country. A former star at Sprayberry High near Atlanta, Georgia arrived at Georgia Southern as an option quarterback and didn’t switch to running back until his junior year.
It hasn’t stopped scouts from knowing about him. Before the Senior Bowl, a scout told me that his team expected McKinnon to put on a show in workouts and they loved his athleticism.
I was skeptical. I had seen a few of McKinnon’s games and the best display of speed I had witnessed against top competition was this option-pitch to the left flat against Florida.
As I told my colleague, the first 20-25 yards looks like McKinnon runs a 4.4; the final half looks like he ran out of gas. The scout told me his team had McKinnon at 4.4, that he can lift the gym (his 32 reps on the bench and 40.5-inch vertical were among the top two on the board), and they love him as a special teams player.
The fact that this team’s scouts believe McKinnon has the potential to contribute as a third-down back -– if not grow into more -– was enough to keep a close eye on the runner at the Senior Bowl. Georgia Southern’s option game doesn’t provide a great setting for evaluating a runner’s vision between the tackles and the practices at Mobile would at least afford a glimpse into McKinnon’s initial decision-making.
I left the practices more optimistic about McKinnon as a runner between the tackles. He didn’t try to bounce plays outside at the drop of a hat. He often made good moves in the crease like this play I found of him against the Citadel.
What I found most encouraging is that he ran with his eyes -– he could set up blockers and make defenders miss creases when asked to do so. There are still concerns about his footwork because he often loses balance when he attempts a dramatic cut or bend.
McKinnon has everything a coach wants from a running back in terms of physical dimensions and talents. The question is if the back can develop a conceptual game commensurate with the NFL.
Jonathan Dwyer may not be the back fans expected when the Steelers drafted the Georgia Tech star that thrived as the fullback in an option-style offense. However, Dwyer has proven that his limitations are rooted in work ethic, not a lack of vision.
Scouts love the idea of players like McKinnon. He offers enough to an organization as a contributor on special teams that he’s the classic "safe" late-round pick even if he never pans out as a running back.
Tyler Gaffney (4.49-40, 220 pounds)
The former baseball player and Stanford Cardinal is a fascinating player to evaluate. He played on an offense that used some of the tightest run splits seen in a modern college football game.
Throw in the fact that Gaffney runs behind multiple tight end sets where the formation often has no receivers on the field, and the Stanford ground game has the collective look of a steamroller: slow, powerful, and methodical.
Knowing Gaffney’s timed speed and watching him perform at Stanford, it left me wondering if this running back was the equivalent of a Pagani Huayra stuck in bumper-to-bumper traffic. There’s not much room for him to run on these tight-crease plays where patience and power appear to take on much weightier role than speed.
Boston College is one of the few teams that also have these types of line splits for its offense. Considering that I was also underwhelmed with Andre Williams’ potential as anything more than a contributor rather than a long-term starter, it is possible that the common denominator is this offense that may disguise what I’m used to seeing from runners.
Of course, Stepfan Taylor and Toby Gerhart ran in this offense and I believe I had a good bead on them. If I am correct with my assessment of Gaffney, then my lack of enthusiasm stems from his stride and footwork.
The Stanford back runs with compact movement even when he’s in the open field. He’s a tight runner with his stride, his change of direction, and his decision-making.
He’s strong, but he’s not punishing and his pad level is often too high to attack defenses and win collisions except when he’s the driver of that big red steamroller with upwards of nine men at the line of scrimmage slow-rolling everything in its path.
George Atkinson (4.48-40, 218 pounds)
Get Atkinson in space or give him a well-blocked corner and this six-foot-two rocket booster can beat angles in the open field and flash the strength to run through tackles. He also exhibits some fancy footwork to setup defenders with a bend or dip away from the pursuit angle.
Where Atkinson struggles is the ordinary plays where pad level, sudden feet, and hard change of direction earn running backs the yards that move chains. Atkinson doesn’t run through a lot of tackles or push the pile with his size unless he has generated enough downhill momentum to reach top speed.
His style looks like a blend of DeMarco Murray and Darren McFadden -– a fast, run-bender with size. If he can develop more consistent pad level and find and exploit smaller creases with press-and-cut patience, then he could be a late bloomer.
Much of what Atkinson does well is also a reasonable description of Charles Sims of West Virginia –- a runner who appears a little lower on this list, but has a much better overall game. Where Sims succeeds that Atkinson fails is the footwork. The Notre Dame back sees the players he needs to avoid, but lacks the feet to avoid penetration.
He’s the least impressive of these four backs. However, there is potential for Atkinson as a return specialist.
Matt Waldman authors the Rookie Scouting Portfolio. Pre-order the RSP now for it's publication on April 1. If you’re a fantasy owner the 56-page Post-Draft Add-on comes with the 2012 – 2014 RSPs at no additional charge and available for download within a week after the NFL Draft. Best of all, 10 percent of every sale is donated to Darkness to Light to combat sexual abuse. You can purchase past editions of the Rookie Scouting Portfolio (2006-2013) for just $9.95 apiece.