Scouting the Combine: Running backs

It’s no surprise that the running back group each year tends to garner a lot of attention. Among the skill players, these candidates may be returners, burners, slot receivers, outlet receivers, blockers and, oh yes, guys who carry the ball for you. It’s a pass-oriented league, which means that the ability to block and to catch out of the backfield or off the line in four- and five-wideout sets makes a player that much more interesting to teams.

Shonn Greene showed why this past season - he struggled some in running the ball, and his lack of skills at blocking and receiving left him on the bench more often than he or the Jets would prefer. I like Greene, and enough to write a bio praising the way he’s overcome his background. It’s not a matter of complaining about him, but a fact of life.

Greene had one great year in college and neither blocking nor receiving were a part of it. He’s a powerful, punishing runner, but those missing skills would have benefited both him and his team in 2011. Athletic skills, the ability to make tacklers miss, and the patience to see the lanes open up are the things that you usually get off of tape, but the athletic skill tests are essential to making sure that you have covered the bases of every player that might help you. The more skills a player brings to the table - short yardage, between the tackles, around the edge, blocking and receiving, etc - the more valuable they become. The better they are at each, the more that value ascends.

It is a very good crop for speed this year from the QBs to the RBs, DBs and WRs, although the unofficial and official times vary considerably, as they have since the advent of electronic timers. Teams usually go with their own timing, and it’s usually lower than the official times, but I use the official ones, as I did below, to minimize debate. Speed isn’t a qualification by itself - there are a lot of other abilities that come into having a top back. Vision, patience, toughness, blocking, receiving, the ability to run between the tackles and to kick it outside are all valuable skills that should come into the discussion. Few players have them all. Alabama's Trent Richardson may be one, but it’s likely that he’ll be long gone before Denver picks at #25.

The Players

The 5’8” 194 lb LaMichael James out of Oregon, who is at full speed in only 2-3 strides, hit the 4.45 mark in the 40. Somewhat smaller than what Denver would usually look for, James makes up for size with athletic skills, being one of the top performers in the 40, the broad jump (123 inches), the three-cone drill (6.88 sec) and the 20-yard shuttle (4.12). James was expected to come in at about 212 lb, which was his reported playing weight, and the lighter weight at 194 will concern some teams. He’s only had one year as a starter, which has the advantage of the ‘low miles’ factor and the disadvantage of minimal film on the player. He helped himself in the tests. He’s got a nice second gear, but he has a habit of running too upright and he spent last season with a shoulder injury. Durability, lack of short area explosion, and the level of work needed to bring him up to NFL spec will be questions that remain to be answered.

The multi-talented, 5’8” 180 lb Chris Rainey (Florida) hit the official 4.45 mark, while also showing off a 6.50 three-cone drill, to emphasize how good his agility is. Rainey is the kind of player that is limited by his size, but can help you out in a huge number of ways, including returns, pass catching from multiple slots, and the ability to run with the ball. If you can write it into the scheme, he can probably do it for you, as long as you don’t overuse him - he doesn’t have the size to hold up to that. For a team that wants to develop a scheme with a wider variety of options or who needs a returner with other skills, he’s a fine player.

There were others. San Diego State’s Ronnie Hillman also had a 4.45 40. He doesn’t have a ton of size and power at only 5’9” and 200 lb, but he’s silky smooth in his movements, has excellent vision, good patience, and an explosive first step when he finds a seam. It’s in the ability to break tackles that he tends to falter - he just doesn’t have the power to achieve what he otherwise would. He’s very quick in a short area, though, has a nice burst, and avoids tackles well - it’s just that he’s not going to break many. Since his per-carry average of 5.5 yards is strengthened by some long runs that he might not be able to break in the NFL, he might be a buyer beware. He can return, though, and that and his speed will be likely to get him drafted.

Chris Polk had a decent if not spectacular run time of 4.57. He moved up draft boards steadily over the 2010 and 2011 seasons and at 5’11” and 215 lb he’s a strong runner both outside and between the tackles. He’s got very good short-area quickness, but showed during Senior Bowl week that he may struggle against the next level. He missed much of his freshman year with a series of medical problems in 2008, but played well in the next three seasons and decided not to return after running for 1,488 yards last season. He’s ranked very highly, but he does struggle with blocking technique. He also was a returner in college, but may not have the tools for that as a pro. He’s very good at being patient and waiting for the blocking to develop before choosing his lane. Polk didn’t have a great week at the Senior Bowl, and during the game he seemed to be struggling to find his seams. I don’t put too much emphasis on that, since he’s working in a different scheme behind linemen that he has no rhythm with, but it’s something to consider. I thought that his feet looked sluggish, though, and that concerned me.

Cyrus Gray is the 5’10”, 206-lb back out of Texas A+M who was timed at 4.47 in his 40 with a 114-inch broad jump. Gray is an interesting back to me - his right leg and foot are stronger than his left, and you can see that in his running and cutting during drills. A good pro program might be able to make a major difference, and he can block and catch as well as run. He’s not light-footed, though, and he lacks explosion. At that point, he’s got enough on both sides that I’m more interested in his game film, although I never turn down a fast player if they have other skills to back it up. The leg issues would concern me, but the medical report, plus careful watching of the drills, should tell the teams what they need to know. He isn’t talented at blocking, but he can be surprisingly elusive in space. He’s not a strong-through-the-tackles runner, though, which may limit his role. He has soft hands as a receiver and is very good with screen plays.

Isaiah Pead out of Cincinnati put on a show during Senior Bowl week and the game, and was timed at 4.47. He also had a fast three-cone drill of 6.98. Pead’s best quality, despite his 5’10” and 197 lb frame, is his explosive first step, which is on a par with many of the best backs in the pro game. His footwork, burst, and explosion are NFL worthy, and he didn’t catch a lot of passes in Cincy’s scheme, but he’s able to and should do so at the NFL level. He is a breakaway edge runner and has the skill to run up the middle as well. His biggest weakness is that he doesn’t like to block and doesn’t have the frame for it, which will limit the number of teams that are interested in him.

Terrence Ganaway ran his 40 in 4.67 seconds. If that doesn’t sound that fast (it isn’t), there are other values to him. He’s a massive 6’0”, 239-lb runner, just four pounds shy of Willis McGahee’s height and weight. He was paired with Robert Griffin III and WR Kendall Wright at Baylor, and there’s no doubt that the offense was one that opened some holes for him, but he still made 6.2 yards per carry over the course of last season and averaged 9.5 ypc at the Alamo Bowl. With 1,347 total yards and 16 regular season TDs in 2011 (and a 37.5 inch vertical hinting at the explosive power he possesses), he’s an intriguing option. He also had 200 yards and 5 TDs in the most recent Alamo Bowl.

His weaknesses are that he doesn’t appear to hit the holes with the kind of power that he possesses, and sometimes seems hesitant at times to make the decision to hit the hole, stutter-stepping in the backfield. That can be the kiss of death in a zone-blocking scheme which requires the back to make an instant decision and hit the hole hard. As far as the other things that Denver requires of their backs, he’s also weak on blocking and had only 10 receptions over the past two seasons, so he’s an unknown quality there. Those things might hold him back from the Broncos' radar. He’s also suffered several injuries, rarely looked 100%, and had a concussion, and those issue will also hold teams back.

Temple's Bernard Pierce is an upright, one-cut downhill runner who stands 6’0”, weighs 218 lb, and was timed at 4.49. Like many upright runners, he’s struggled to stay healthy and is coming out as a junior in part due to that factor. He’s got light feet and runs well through the tackles, although he doesn’t have an explosive burst. As a one-cut runner, he’s going to be most interesting to a zone-blocking scheme, but he has some weaknesses. His speed is more than average, but his burst in a small area is suspect and he’s not a solid blocker. You can’t argue with his production, though - he ran for 1,481 yards and 27 TDs, a school record, in 2011. He only had 19 catches over his career and had multiple injury issues, so he comes with a lot of baggage in those areas. He may be a late pick or a UDFA as a result - he’s missing some of the pieces that Denver tends to crave.

Zone-Blocking Scheme Runners?

Four backs in particular, including Pierce, have been noted as being ‘zone blocking’ runners. I find that kind of loose terminology - some of the other backs would be good options in the ZB scheme and some that were pigeon-holed as ZB runners could equally fit multiple schemes. What you’re looking for is simply a guy with power, who can carry the load as a primary back in terms of the number of carries, and has skill in blocking and receiving - Denver requires all three, if at all possible. Doug Martin is one example of a back that can play nearly anywhere - at 5’9” and 220 lb, he’s a low, quick, powerful guy with good receiving hands and excellent blocking skills for a shorter back. There aren’t a lot of schemes that he wouldn’t fit into. Even so, I chose four for their talents and potential ability to specifically fit into Denver’s scheme, and I then mentioned how with each. Pierce I’ve already covered - these are the others.

5’10” 206 lb Dave Wilson out of Virginia Tech is a former track star with a 41-inch vertical leap whose intense love of football is well known; he was timed at a 4.49 average, didn’t participate on the bench press, but showed off his explosive leg power with a 41-inch vertical leap and a 132-inch broad jump, which is very good for a 5’10” guy. He had a 7.09 three-cone drill in his group with a 4.12 20-yard shuttle, one of the best in his group.

Wilson in particular is an interesting prospect for any team - you can’t make any guy love the game that much, and you want those guys on your side. He pretty much lives football, and it’s a great quality to have in the locker room. At 5’10” and 206 lb at the time, he was also the ACC Player of the Year and is coming out early so he’s not a high-miles prospect. He’s explosive as heck, but has two bad habits - one of running too upright when he changes direction, and one of not being satisfied with a three-yard gain and reversing his field to try for more. The second is probably coachable - the first would require more work, and you have to decide it he’s worth the pick.  As mentioned, it’s an invitation to injury in the NFL.

Doug Martin from Boise State ran a 4.55. With his skillset and versatility, I still doubt that he makes it out of the second round, although I admit to being a bit prejudiced - I happen to like his body type for the NFL. When you’re 5’9” and 222 lb, you are hard to see. If you’re that size and hit your lane with authority, you can be highly productive. He had 28 reps in the bench press, showing off the power in his smaller, wider body. He excelled in the three-cone drill with a time of 6.79 and unusually, was at the top of his group in the 60-yard shuttle, an event that many players didn’t even participate in, with a time of 11.29, demonstrating agility, speed and endurance. His 20-yard shuttle time was 4.16, which is also fairly fast.

He can receive, block, and run the ball, all about equally well - which has to draw attention. He started for two years, so his mileage isn’t that high, but you have some decent numbers to consider. He had fumble issues over his first season as a starter but solved them for 2011. He has great footwork, hits the hole very hard, and is a low-miles, high production back. Needless to say, I like him. A 5’9” guy with multiple skills who puts up 28 reps in the bench and has a 36-inch vertical is always interesting. One with his production is comparatively rare. I see him much as I do Ray Rice, the 5’8”, 212-lb back who was just franchised by the Ravens. Denver’s orange would look very good on him, although he’s not the only one.

Robert Turbin is a name that most fans haven’t been familiar with, but they will be now. He’s a 5’10” 222-lb runner out of Utah State who ran the 40 in 4.50 and had a 122-inch broad jump, which suggests a lot of leg explosion. Turbin is the kind of back that consistently averages over 100 yards per game, runs equally well inside and out, and can both carry the load as a primary back and wear down a defense over a game or a season. He’s strong, durable, and put up 1,579 yards with 19 TDs last season.

He’s been largely ignored this draft season up until now, but he’s perhaps the best value pick as a running back that Denver could take. I know - that’s a big statement, but remember that I’m talking about value and fit with scheme, not just wishing for a list of top guys. If I were wishing, I’d probably go with Martin and (perhaps a major stretch, but it’s wishing after all) Chris Rainey as a second back with his Swiss Army knife-penchant as returner, receiver and/or RB that has the potential to spread the defense and create uncertainty.

Turbin’s biggest weakness is in blocking, and you’d have to decide if he’s coachable there or not to take him if you run a scheme like Denver’s. His receiving is good, though - he’s much more than just a thumper. NFLDraftScout.com has him as a fourth-round pick - Denver could potentially jump on him late in the third and walk away with a great value runner if they don’t want to go early for Doug Martin, who I strongly doubt will make it to 58.

Still - given Brian Xanders' penchant for moving around in the draft, Denver could have any pick in the second round by the time he’s done with his machinations. Turbin also tied with Doug Martin to lead the RBs in the bench press and on the vertical - 28 reps and 36 inches, respectively. It’s way too early to tell where he might fall, but as a fourth-round graded player, Turbin is one interesting option.

Conclusions?

It remains too early for conclusions, but it’s good to look at the RB position and see players from the first round such as Trent Richardson, who Denver is almost certain to not have a shot at, to later round players like Turbin who would fit Denver’s needs well. Seeing multiple options for the team that are obvious is even more encouraging.

Several folks have asked me about Mario Fannin, and I thought I’d touch base on him. I like Mario. I’ve written about him before (as has TJ), and if - it’s a big if - if he can stay healthy for a couple of seasons, he’s starter material. The issue is that Fannin rarely can stay healthy for even a few months, and you just can’t count on a guy like that. I would love to see him spend a year just getting his body much better conditioned and seeing how it goes, since he’s survived the PS before, but I won’t put a lot of stock into him until he can show that he can stay on the field. He’s got all the talent in the world, but unless he’s healthy enough to show it off, it won’t do him or Denver much good.

Go Broncos!

Learn to laugh at yourself. You will be ceaselessly amused. - Sri Gary Olsen

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