How does one determine the NFL draft value of running backs? Is it the number of backs selected in the first round on an annual basis, which was none last year? Is it the value of backs in today's NFL, a position essentially diluted and thus merely supplementary given that offenses have become so pass-oriented?
For the second consecutive year, many evaluators do not project a running back going in the first round. This raises the question of how their respective skills impact the way they'll be utilized in the NFL.
One distinction that personnel people in many organizations will be discussing this year is the significant number of backs who weigh less than 210 pounds, normally considered a touch light to be a foundation back in the NFL. Those backs are widely considered to be complements, not starting points for an offense. Think Giovani Bernard of the Cincinnati Bengals, 5-foot-9 and 208 pounds. He was an early second-round pick in the 2013 draft, a dynamic runner/receiver who carried 170 times and caught 56 passes playing about 56 percent of Cincinnati's offensive snaps. Bernard's receiving ability was a critical component; it allowed him to be on the field far more than if he was just a complementary runner.
There are four backs in this year's draft whose NFL value will be debated intensely: Tre Mason (Auburn), Ka'Deem Carey (Arizona), Lache Seastrunk (Baylor) and Bishop Sankey (Washington). All are in the 5-9 to 5-10 range, and are short of 210 pounds. What will their roles be on Sunday afternoons? How that is determined by respective NFL organizations will determine their draft status.
Let's start with Sankey. He ran almost exclusively out of one-back shotgun spread formations at Washington. Always keep in mind that spread formations in college provide far more space than similar formations in the NFL. The reason: the wider hash marks in college football force the defense to stretch its personnel. "Power," with the guard pulling around the center as the lead blocker to the point of attack, was a featured run out of that set for the Huskies. That's an NFL run. Sankey is subtly elusive, with smooth change of direction and lateral agility. At times, he showed stop and start, and jump-cut ability in confined areas, a positive as you envision him running in the NFL.
One thing that stood out the more you studied Sankey was the majority of his big runs came with no challenge at the point of attack. That's often the case with college shotgun spread backs; they often run through large gaps in the defense. The concern as you try to define an NFL role for Sankey, and concurrently determine his draft status, is that he showed little functional run strength. He did not run behind his pads with any natural power. He's a smooth space runner without any finishing strength. That limits his utilization in a transition to the league. Sankey is best used, and maybe only capable of being utilized, out of "11" personnel packages (one back, one tight end, three wide receivers). He is not what we call a foundation runner; you cannot run your offense through Sankey.
Seastrunk also ran out of a one-back shotgun spread offense, often with no tight end on the field, which stretched the defense even more, and limited the number of defenders in the box. He ran with good overall balance, showing the lateral quickness to avoid and create in small areas. He was more naturally shifty and elusive than Sankey, a little smoother with the agility to slide and cut effortlessly. Seastrunk showed outstanding short-area burst, with speed through the hole; you saw explosive traits. Seastrunk's body type was also more compact; he was a tougher runner, not shy about hitting it up inside. But he weighs only 201 pounds, so that toughness and willing physicality did not advance to the needed strength and power. And again, he was running out of spread looks versus compromised defenses. Can he consistently run out of base personnel and tight formations against loaded boxes in the NFL? Can he be like Frank Gore in the 49ers' offense? That would be a major projection at this point.
One element that is essential in evaluating spread college backs is they are rarely tested physically over the course of a game, and by extension, a season. Fewer defenders in the box, more space, a less demanding challenge. That's why Arizona's Carey is an interesting evaluation. Carey, like Seastrunk and Sankey, worked out of a one-back shotgun spread offense, yet he's a different runner. He lacks the subtle elusiveness of Sankey, and the short-area explosion of Seastrunk; his skills necessitated more between-the-tackles running, and he embraced the physical nature of the job.
Few backs in this draft class run as competitively as Carey. He ran with consistent strength and leg drive to run through tacklers and sustain, working through traffic very effectively with excellent contact balance and deceptive lateral quickness and agility. Carey was a finisher; he did not go down easily, grinding out yards after initial contact. He was more of a downhill slasher than a true make-you-miss runner but he occasionally flashed some wiggle. His college film showed a tough and determined inside runner with a resolute and unwavering mentality. These are the attributes you look for when evaluating a feature back transition to the NFL.
Is Carey, overall, in that class of back? Remember, we're talking about a 207-pounder with the traits and mindset of a between-the-tackles power runner. My sense is most will see him more like Knowshon Moreno, a productive runner/receiver in a predominant "11" personnel offense, but not the starting point and foundation of an NFL offense. Moreno, of course, was drafted 12th overall in 2009, with the clear expectation he would be a feature back. A case could be made that Carey is a similar prospect at equivalent points (when Moreno came out of Georgia), and will best transition to the NFL the way Moreno ultimately has.
The final back in this group is Mason. Like Carey, Mason is 207 pounds. He ran in a run-heavy college offense that featured significant two-back sets; Auburn's shotgun often deployed a fullback. That changes the defensive dynamic; more defenders in the box, tougher to find space in the middle of the defense. You need to be both a stronger, more powerful runner, and a back capable of working through small cracks at the point of attack. Mason is that back.
He was a patient runner, with an innate understanding that burst and acceleration is a function of speed through the hole, not speed to the hole. Mason is a sturdier behind-his-pads runner than Carey, Seastrunk and Sankey; that gives him a lower center of gravity and more natural power. It also showed in his outstanding balance and body control, with deceptively quick feet and subtle change of direction to make defenders miss in space.
His fluidity and low-to-the-ground running style belied his explosive feet. For those old enough to remember, Mason reminded me of Billy Sims from Oklahoma, the No. 1 pick in the 1980 draft, in an era when almost all NFL offenses began with the running game, and a great back was seen as a more important piece than a quarterback.
Mason is a glider, with very smooth cutting ability, almost a darting feel to his running. What makes him different from the other three backs is he has the overall skills to be effective in any run game, whether it's zone-based or power-based, or in any system, whether it's conventional (like the Seahawks and 49ers) or spread (with multiple wide receivers). The more I watched and evaluated Mason the more I came to the conclusion he could be a foundation back in a run-based NFL offense. That makes Mason the best NFL projection of the four backs mentioned. Whether he's the first off the board next week remains to be seen.