Futures: Texas RB Malcolm Brown
By Matt Waldman
More than a few times in the past ten months I have either read or had someone connected to the NFL discuss the trajectory of a college player's career as something worth evaluating. If you are an avid reader of NFL draft news then you have probably seen commentary that scouts believe a player's college career "plateaued," or that he "peaked" as an athlete.
This could have been said about DeMarco Murray. A celebrated recruit who scintillated early in his Big 12 career. His freshman year set a trajectory with the arc of a superstar. When injuries and surrounding talent contributed to Murray's failure to maintain that trajectory, some evaluators say he physically plateaued.
More than a few draft analysts and independent scouts nitpicked Murray's gait, pad level, and vision, and his performance in Senior Bowl practices cost the runner in the draft. I have a sneaking suspicion that some of the scouts these media types spoke with never played running back or were feeding bad intel.
Murray proved the doubters wrong, debuting with a 253-yard performance in his first extended time in the lineup as a rookie. Now with a stronger offensive line, the former Sooner has become the most productive back in the NFL. The injury concerns were (and still are) understandable, but in hindsight a lot of the criticism about Murray's style of running seem inconsequential to what makes a running back good enough to produce as a professional.
After watching Texas runner Malcolm Brown this weekend, I asked a colleague about him. The early book on Brown seemed similar to Murray's college story on the surface:
- Five-star recruit to Big-12 program.
- Appears to have peaked physically a little early for desired career trajectory.
- Injury issues and time share for the past two seasons.
Brown's injuries haven't been as troublesome as Murray's, but the demise of Mack Brown's regime has been an issue that some scouts will consider. I haven't watched Brown's 2014 tape yet, but his 2012 performance against Ole Miss is an impressive display of running, and the NFL athleticism is on clear display.
In this week's Gut Check column at Footballguys, I devoted a section to seeing faults with my predraft analysis of Jeremy Hill. I based more of my overall evaluation on Hill's senior tape, where I saw a more sluggish runner, and I didn't factor enough of what I saw from Hill in previous seasons, where his quickness and change of direction was more impressive.
Estimating which version of a back the NFL is going to see if that prospect has noticeably different performances from one season to the next can be a difficult task. I'm sure this is one of the reasons Murray tripped up evaluators.
Murray's style early in his career was far more big-play oriented -- more Reggie Bush. As a senior, Murray was a more conservative decision-maker, and because he was performing with an injury that limited his athleticism, it forced Murray to display a more downhill-oriented, powerful side of this game that wasn't flashy in the box scores, but was far more impressive in context. Murray was winning with a higher level of decision-making that was required of good pro running backs and not just a great college athlete that carried the football.
If Brown's 2014 performance isn't impressive, and there's a reasonable explanation, the Longhorns runner could be one of those prospects whose earlier tape is more indicative of his potential than his recent work. Against Ole Miss, Brown earned 126 yards and three scores on 21 carries, and he looked like a prospect with feature back potential.
Feature Back Power
A good shorthand litmus test of a runner's strength and balance is how well he negotiates a hit from a defensive lineman. Bounce off a solid collision from a 300-pounder while moving east-west or in the backfield and it's an indication of NFL power. Adrian Peterson, Ryan Mathews, Eddie George, Curtis Martin, and Steven Jackson all come to mind as players I have seen shed a lineman.
This I-formation toss in the first quarter versus Ole Miss' 4-3 with nine defenders in the box is not only a display of power and balance, but also the maturity on this run to the short side of the field. Note how Brown works inside the defense's attempt to string out this play.
After the first six steps with the ball, Brown makes a decisive cut downhill inside the double-team on the outside. The fact that Brown is this decisive in the face of two unblocked defenders coming from the inside is a testament to this back's maturity.
[ad placeholder 3]
Brown knows that working outside his edge blocks pins him to the sideline and gives the double-teamed defender an angle to make a play that results in a loss. Working inside against two unblocked defenders might result in no gain, but the downhill angle and quick thinking limits the possibility of a loss and gives the runner a chance to mount a full attack with a better angle.
Brown leads with his right forearm and delivers the initial contact on Woodrow Hamilton, a 6-foot-3, 315-pound defensive tackle with a fine angle on the runner. The combination of Brown's size, downhill angle, speed, and attack with low pads gives the runner the leverage advantage, and the blow delivered to Hamilton jars the defender's neck back and the opponent slides off Brown a yard past the line of scrimmage.
Brown's attack on Hamilton also takes the second unblocked defender out of position. Once Brown sheds Hamilton, he forces the second defender into a pursuit angles and the Longhorns running back earns 7 yards after the initial contact,
Brown does it all so smoothly, he makes winning the collision appear deceptively easy. Here's another run to the perimeter where Brown makes running through a defender with a running start and a downhill angle appear simple.
The safety shoots through a gap on this outside zone run to right end and meets Brown 2 yards behind the line of scrimmage, but Brown's strength, pace, and delivery of his forearm makes this an inconsequential encounter.
These aren't the kind of plays that emit a loud noise from the collision of a back and arouse the passions of the play-by-play crew in the broadcast booth. This is more impressive, because the defender has a running start and a great angle on Brown, but the runner discards the tackler like a sleeve of a jacket sliding off Brown's arm and onto the floor.
When Brown has the momentum to get downhill and bully a defensive back, he can punish without taking a lot of contact to his own body -- a valuable skill for a big back. This Statue of Liberty from a pistol set in the third quarter is a fun illustration.
The pass fake from the quarterback to the trips right side sets up a behind the back exchange with the runner to left end. Brown sets up the left tackle's block with a press to the outside shoulder before dipping inside at the 20. He sheds a wrap attempt to his arm at the first-down marker and then delivers the forearm shiver that knocks the defender on his ass.
Sometimes a mature use of power isn't as a downhill bully, but as a persistent grinder who creates space where it doesn't initially exist. This first-and-goal from the 6 of Ole Miss isn't exciting to the casual fan, but it's a great decision that turns a potential no-gainer into a 4-yard run.
Low pads. Both arms around the ball. Leg drive. No dancing.
Power is a Versatile Quality
Some football players have one way of applying their strengths and it limits how a team can use them. We see this a lot with power backs. Steven Jackson and Michael Turner were multidimensional power backs in their prime. As they reached the final years of their careers, the range of versatility that they could apply their power narrowed in scope.
Both players at their best could break tackles while moving sideline-to-sideline or against backfield penetration without generating much downhill momentum. But as they aged, it became harder for them to express their strength in situations where they weren't running downhill. Eventually, they're games slowly decayed to the point where they had to lean on momentum and a downhill approach more than ever.
Jackson and Turner were excellent NFL running backs. There are some NFL runners who express their power in narrow dimensions even at their best. Mikel Leshoure and LenDale White had power, but with a limited range of expression.
Much of this range is dependent on power integrated with agility, burst, and and footwork. Add pad level and strength to these characteristics, and these are all qualities that contribute to a player's balance. While we all separate different qualities of athleticism and skill in order to analyze a prospect, we're the ones separating what is really a singular whole that is a player's game.
Brown isn't just a big runner who attacks defenders with a forearm shiver to break tackles. He can punish or slip direct hits with the aid of his vision and agility. This strongside sweep from an 11 personnel set with 2:33 in the half is a terrific display of decision-making, footwork, and pad level.
As Brown works behind the two pulling guards, he reads the Ole Miss defense spilling the play outside. If the Longhorns runner continues to the perimeter, he'll have to encounter defenders with east-west pad level where he'll have little leverage to win a collision. Brown does something I see few college backs do: he cuts hard downhill to the inside of two defenders within inches of him and use his leverage to earn yards after contact. Brown's move is enough to dip his pads under the defensive tackle, keep his feet moving to work through the linebacker, and turn a 4-yard loss into a 3-yard gain.
Brown runs through three wraps on this play, and the ballsy decision to cut downhill with defenders bearing down on him is the reason. Jets runner Chris Ivory displayed this skill late in the second quarter on a drive against the Patriots on Thursday night. As with any position at the pro level, football players have to demonstrate more skill in closer quarters than what's consistently required from the college game.
A Showcase of Power Away From the Ball
This play-action pass in the red zone from a 21 personnel strong side I-formation with stacked twin receivers on the weak side versus Ole Miss' nickel set is a great illustration of a running back who knows how to use his strength on the football field.
Brown slides to the right guard's outside shoulder, gets into position to deliver a blow, and throws both hands to uppercut the defensive tackle swimming past the guard. The collision with the tackle jolts the runner backwards, but note how Brown anchors with his legs and hips to minimize the push, giving the quarterback room to throw into the red zone.
[ad placeholder 4]
Considering that most runners opt to cut any defender larger than a safety, Brown's willingness to engage a defensive tackle with stand-up technique is a testament to his confidence and gameness. The fact Brown wins the engagement is unusual. Don't count on Brown winning these match-ups in the NFL, but projecting this kind of work against an outside linebacker is reasonable and encouraging.
As human beings we're predisposed to cause and effect. We also want to see clear examples, but football games don't always offer a vivid "effect" (a big play) for a terrific "cause" (a refined execution of process). This first-and-10 run with 3:32 in the half is a sound illustration of Brown integrating his eyes, mind, and feet, to turn a potential lost of 2 or 3 yards into a 3-yard gain.
When the offensive line slants right, the right guard seals the inside and opens a huge crease inside the tackle. However, the middle linebacker penetrates across the face of the left guard and gets 2 yards into the backfield with his helmet and pads facing down Brown, who is 4 yards behind the line of scrimmage.
Freeze the tape at 1:28 and you'll see the position of the linebacker is good enough that Brown has to get creative if he wants to avoid a loss. This is total improvisation, and these are the instances where a back shows how good he is at processing the surrounding rhythm of the game and creating something harmonious through his athletic instrument.
Brown stutters to freeze the defender, dips inside the penetration with two smaller steps, and then slides towards the tackle and lengthens his stride as soon as he clears the pads of the linebacker. This variation of stride to curl around the penetration is higher level ball-carrying. It may be a mundane play, but it's the runners who earn these small gains consistently, in addition to breaking bigger runs, who earn starting jobs.
Another great sign of mind-body control with vision and footwork is this 12 personnel run at the top of the fourth quarter. Look at Brown's feet and how he varies his stride length to navigate two defenders in succession on his way to a 10-yard gain on a short-yardage play.
The first move is a stutter step at the 25 to avoid the penetration of defensive tackle working across the face of the right guard and into the backfield. Brown closes his stride to dip to the right of the penetration and accelerates downhill. A few steps into his acceleration he has to veer from the defensive end to his right who is working inside the tight end's block. The change of direction also helps him pick up the right tackle's block at the right hash to extend this gain from a 4-yard play to a 10-yard run that ends with Brown splitting the safeties with low pad level.
The change of direction with the second move was subtle, but the movement at this speed is impressive for a 5-foot-11, 222-pound runner. The next carry for Brown is a 12-yard touchdown from the same formation as the previous carry, this time a fine cutback to the backside end (left) after a strong press to right guard. Watch how Brown drops his hips to bend the run to the left while maintaining his pace.
It's this bend of the hips to swivel to his left at a strong clip that earns Brown the edge past the backside defender coming down the line of scrimmage. Brown is also fast enough to bend the run 90 degrees to his left and outrun the defensive back with a downhill angle in the flat to take the corner for the score. It's all fluid, a flexible change of direction set up with a wise press to the play-side guard. The burst is also good enough that Brown isn't even touched on the play.
Brown hasn't had the same statistical success that he had in 2012, but if the same behaviors outlined above are present on a consistent basis in his 2014 tape, he will be an underrated prospect in this rich running back class that seems to grow richer in my eyes as I make my way through it.
Matt Waldman authors the Rookie Scouting Portfolio. available for download now. The guide covers 164 prospects at the offensive skill positions (QB, RB, WR, and TE). 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.