With the NFL Scouting Combine this week for draft prospects, it only seemed appropriate that I continue my draft-focused columns with running backs. It’s a deep class of players but it doesn’t have a surefire star like Saquon Barkley or Christian McCaffrey. Of course, the draft isn’t the only topic of discussion in the NFL as I’ll dissect yet another controversy in New England, tell you where one of the league’s best running backs will likely end up, hand out weekly awards and more.
THINGS I KNOW
I know where Le’Veon Bell will likely sign. I touched on it a little last week again after I first talked about Bell as a New York Jet back in Week Three. There are two reasons why the Jets are the likeliest destination for Bell. First off, the team has cash. Lots of it. They’ll have the second-most cap space in the league with over $102 million. Second, the team needs a running back. Their running back committee has not suited them well enough as their last consistently good running back was a healthy Shonn Greene from 2011 to 2012, and even that’s a stretch. Bell should want to play in the Big Apple because of the huge possibilities for money, whether it comes from a massive contract, endorsements or both. As for the Jets, new head coach Adam Gase is ironically probably the last person who would want Bell. However, he’s not calling these shots. The Jets have been known to go after flashy names while also making head-scratching decisions in the process (like dropping over $16 million on a running back). While Bell is still one of the best running backs in football, I truly think the Jets are the only team with the money and stupidity to give Bell the hefty contract he demands.
I know Josh Jacobs is undoubtedly the best running back in the class. Keep in mind that this year’s class of running backs isn’t very top-heavy yet provides a lot of interesting depth. As of now, Jacobs is the only one I can see becoming a full-time starter right away. Jacobs sees the field so well, and even if there isn’t space to work with, his combination of quickness and power make him a threat to create yards every single down. I can go on and on about why I like Jacobs, but it’d be easier to pinpoint the things he needs to work on, mainly because it isn’t much. Jacobs is a good receiver but isn’t perfect at tracking balls deep, though running backs aren’t required to do that often. My main issue with Jacobs, which again shouldn’t overshadow how good he is at everything else, is his lack of elite explosiveness. When in open space, he’s not the type of player to always break away from defenders. Tackling him below the waist has been a little too effective for defenses, too. People are going to point out how little Jacobs was used in his three years at Alabama, but that’s normal at such a prestigious, deep program. Aside from a groin injury that will restrain him from fully participating in the Scouting Combine this week, Jacobs looks legit and could be the only running back taken in the first round, though it would likely be within the last ten picks.
I know Elijah Holyfield is in a similar situation to Jacobs. Coming from arguably the best school at producing NFL running backs (Georgia), Holyfield never saw much playing time. When he was on the field, it was hard to miss him. (Unless you were a defender, then it was pretty easy.) Holyfield is the complete package. Similar to his famous boxing father Evander, Holyfield packs a strong punch at the line of scrimmage and has quick enough feet to make some eye-popping moves. He’s not afraid to be physical but, at the same time, can slip through tacklers en route to the endzone. He’ll either wait for holes to open up or create his own holes. Holyfield’s vision is a great complement to his acceleration, too. He’s not the best blocker in the world but he’ll at least give maximum effort on every play. We didn’t really see much with Holyfield as a receiver which surprised me considering how well-rounded he is. He wasn’t anywhere near a bell-cow running back in college, but Holyfield has the traits to be a successful NFL running back.
I know Benny Snell is overrated. He’s not bad, but I didn’t fall in love with him like some others have. Most of those people salivated at his sky-high collegiate production against SEC schools. To be that effective, Snell obviously excels enough in some areas. He’s a very powerful runner with quick feet and quick thinking while having the necessary balance to be tough to tackle. He’s a bigger back at 223 pounds (he’s also 5-11), but Snell showed he can slip through tackles with relative ease. Like other running backs in the class, Snell sees the field well but doesn’t have the speed to always reach the open grass in time. He’ll likely be a short-yardage or early-down back at the next level due to his overwhelming power and underwhelming speed. He’s also unreliable as a receiver and showed an alright ability to improvise on broken plays. Snell’s great blocking ability will not go unnoticed by teams, though. I’d love to see Snell paired up with a smaller, shiftier running back like Christian McCaffrey.
I know Miles Sanders is underrated. That’s what happens when people expect you to fill the shoes of your predecessor, which in this case is Saquon Barkley. Despite the high expectations, Sanders checks off all the boxes for me. He’s a fluid, elusive runner who can go from 0 to 100 real quick. He’s shown a superb ability to slip through tackles and immediately cut upfield. If there aren’t any holes, Sanders showed a good deal of patience, though sometimes he’d bounce outside when he probably shouldn’t have. While surprisingly inexperienced as a receiver, Sanders flashed solid hands to the point where I think he can develop into a legitimate receiving threat. The biggest thing that concerned me was when Sanders would change directions when running, he’d seem to slow down a bit. Of course, this can easily be fixed at the next level. Sanders is an intriguing football player to me and for teams looking for a mid-round sleeper, Sanders could be that guy.
THINGS I DON’T KNOW
I don’t know what the Robert Kraft situation means going forward for the Patriots. Let me start off by saying I’m not going to be playing lawyer and dissecting the details of the New England owner’s alleged solicitation. I think the most important thing that people need to realize is that when the NFL does punish Kraft, assuming he is indeed found guilty, they will not punish the team. Kraft’s incident was not football-related, therefore there will be no punishments for the football team. It’s all on Kraft. Needless to say, it is interesting how this could potentially tarnish the Patriots’ legacy. It’s concerning that all three members of New England’s power nucleus (Kraft, Bill Belichick and Tom Brady) have all been involved in scandals over the course of their dynasty. In case you are unaware of what I’m referencing, recall Belichick’s ‘Spygate’ and Brady’s ‘Deflategate’. If recent history is any indication, though, the Patriots will still win another Super Bowl this season as they did following their previous two scandals.
I don’t know where Rodney Anderson will be drafted. I mean, technically, no one knows where anyone will be drafted but Anderson is a harder case to nail. He’s a shifty, quick running back with the patience and vision to find holes and bust defenses wide open. At 6-1, 220, he plays with solid enough power and is always relentless in his effort. He just looks like a natural runner. Coming from a complex Oklahoma offense, Anderson showed he can play in various concepts and excelled as a receiver, too. However, there are some drawbacks for being a former Sooner. Oklahoma had a very good offensive line so it’s safe to wonder how much of Anderson’s productivity was actually on him. Being in the Big 12 doesn’t help either as those defenses are known to be some of the worst in college football. The big concern with Anderson is his durability. In three seasons at OU, he played all of 2017 and two games each in the other two seasons. That’s enough to drop Anderson off of some team’s draft boards entirely, while others might fall in love with his fluid, patient running style.
I don’t know why Devin Singletary isn’t faster. For a guy standing 5-9 and weighing 200 pounds, I expected Singletary to have a little more speed to his game. NFL coaching staffs tend to stereotype players based on size and guys with similar size as Singletary are usually quick, shifty running backs. That isn’t to say that he’s slow; he’s just not as fast as coaching staffs would like. With that said, Singletary is still a talented prospect. Singletary is lethal in the open field thanks to his superb vision and ability to evade defenders. He often makes good decisions when running and can be relied on to save a broken play with his feet. He might not be the most powerful running back entering the draft but it’s certainly not a weakness, either. Aside from actually being caught by defenders, Singletary doesn’t go down all too easily. This could be due to the lack of solid competition he faced at FAU and could be another reason why he was so productive in his three years there. Despite his success on the ground, Singletary was never used as much as a receiver. His worst trait though has to be his blocking, which probably couldn’t even stop a child from getting by. He’s also not the type of player to outrun defenders, another nod to his underwhelming speed. I’m confident that Singletary has the traits to carve out a role in the NFL, but he’ll need to improve in other areas if he wants a full-time starting job.
I don’t know how Darrell Henderson stays upright. It could be his strong lower body, the lower level of competition he faced or he’s simply a robot. He’ll take multiple hits on a play and yet he keeps running. He looks like a modern day Forrest Gump, just not as fast. Henderson might have the best balance out of all the running backs in this year’s draft class. He’s also a patient hard-runner who sees the field well. At 5-9, 200, Henderson is always a threat to slip through defenders and break free for a touchdown, as evidenced by his high level of production this past season. While he might have some jaw-dropping runs, he doesn’t always run with enough power and speed. Henderson often broke into the open field and while he usually outran the other players in the American conference, there are real concerns about his breakaway speed. Henderson also isn’t a great blocker, though that can usually be fixed with good coaching. Henderson had some plays that defied physics and could be a nice rotational piece in an NFL backfield.
I don’t know how I feel about David Montgomery. There’s always going to be that one prospect in a position group who I am torn on. Today, that player is Montgomery. Playing behind a poor offensive line at Iowa State, Montgomery still managed to be an ultra-productive workhorse. Interestingly enough, all that usage never led to an injury for Montgomery, which bodes well for his toughness. I really liked his elusiveness and really loved his balance. The guy just doesn’t go down. He also showed a solid sense of where to run and occasionally would whip out a deadly stiff-arm. If you’re the first defender to get to Montgomery, good luck stopping him. While not primarily a receiving back, Montgomery showed he could still be effective as a pass catcher. After all that love, here comes the negative part. I don’t think Montgomery has the speed nor the athleticism to become an elite running back. Once he takes off, it’s a boom or bust on whether he’ll be caught from behind. Most times, it’s the latter. I do have a big pet peeve with Montgomery that brings me back to the young days of youth flag football when the coaches scream at the kids to “Run forward!” Sometimes, Montgomery will try and extend a play by running horizontally when just taking a one-yard gain would have been less costly. I’ll likely be split on Montgomery until after the draft.
TRIVIA OF THE WEEK
Question: In the past three drafts, how many first-round quarterbacks were drafted after a team traded up to get them?
Check out the ‘Awards’ section for the answer.
Note that I only included the players talked about in this week’s article and that feelings/projections on a prospect will fluctuate, especially after the draft. Here are my preliminary rankings on this year’s running backs class with a sentence for each.
- Josh Jacobs – Not used often, but when he was, he flashed first-round potential.
- Elijah Holyfield – Limited usage hid how well-rounded he was.
- Darrell Henderson – Doesn’t suck at anything but his speed and power might be naturally limited.
- David Montgomery – Human-highlight reel whose lack of athleticism could cap his ceiling.
- Miles Sanders – A budding man-crush for me who doesn’t have a glaring weakness.
- Devin Singletary – Might be too low on him due to inflated production.
- Rodney Anderson – If he can stay healthy, he could challenge Jacobs as the draft’s best running back.
- Benny Snell – Not a power-back but will likely be limited to that role in the NFL.
Other Guys Who I Didn’t Have Room For: Damien Harris, Devine Ozigbo, Trayveon Williams, Myles Gaskin
Following last year’s tradition, each week I’ll focus on one wide receiver in hopes of finding the next superstar. This week, that player is Terry McLaurin.
Stats: In four years at Ohio State, the 6-1, 205-pound senior wide receiver posted 75 receptions, 1,251 receiving yards and 19 touchdowns while averaging 20 yards per catch in 2018.
- Big-play threat
- Separates easily
- Tracks ball well
- Long strides
- Route-running good, not great
- Fast enough
- Has hops
- Reliable blocker
- High character
- Strong work ethic
- Wasn’t used a whole lot
- Needs to get stronger
- Sometimes outmuscled on contested catches
- Doesn’t always use hands to catch when necessary
- Release off line of scrimmage is biggest weakness
The Unknown: Can McLaurin improve his ability to separate off the line of scrimmage?
Bottom-Line: McLaurin has all the traits to be a formidable starting wide receiver despite not being featured much on a jam-packed Ohio State squad.
Early Team Fit: Houston Texans
Early Projection: Fourth Round
Each week, I’ll talk a little bit about the Alliance of American Football in hopes of catching you up on the rising young league. This week, I’ll give a one-sentence review of each team.
Orlando Apollos (3-0) – The best team in the AAF with a league-high 98 points scored.
Birmingham Iron (3-0) – A defensive powerhouse with a league-high 21 points allowed.
San Diego Fleet (2-1) – Also a defensive team with arguably the best rushing attack in the AAF.
Arizona Hotshots (2-1) – Injuries to quarterbacks could be the only reason they’ve lost a game.
San Antonio Commanders (1-2) – Underrated as both their losses were by single digits.
Salt Lake Stallions (1-2) – More of a defensive team that got their only win in Salt Lake.
Memphis Express (0-3) – Below average defense with the league’s second-worst offense.
Atlanta Legends (0-3) – AAF’s worst team so far with league lows in points scored and points allowed.
Air Bud Award: This Dog
Catching an 83-yard frisbee toss is no small feat. Being a dog certainly makes it harder. This good boy would easily be the Raiders’ starting wide receiver. The jokes are endless but I’ll save you all the fortune of too many bad dog puns.
Award of Unfortunate Parallelism: Rod Woodson and Crew
Like some of the performances in the actual game, this broadcasting gaffe by the AAF crew was mediocre. Any good TV personality knows to always act like the mic is ‘hot’, or live. Either way, the production crew also dropped the ball by failing to close Rod Woodson’s mic. This is bush league stuff.
Did you know that for the past five years, the Patriots and Crimson Tide have rotated championships? New England won the Super Bowl in 2014, 2016 and 2018 while Alabama secured titles in 2015 and 2017. For what it’s worth, the Crimson Tide also won in 2012 whereas the Patriots did not. Spooky stuff.
Trivia Answer: Ten
Question: In the past three drafts, how many first-round quarterbacks were drafted after a team traded up to get them?
Since 2016, all but one quarterback required a team to move up for him. That was of course Baker Mayfield, who was last year’s first overall pick. What does it say about the value of quarterbacks today? Teams have never valued quarterbacks more, and they’d rather play it safe by moving up then praying that another doesn’t snatch him up first. As of now, I can see two quarterbacks as first-round locks (Dwayne Haskins and Kyler Murray) with two other guys likely sneaking in. It’ll be a massive domino effect that almost assuredly sends teams reaching for prospects who would normally be Day Two selections.
ONE LAST THING
Like I said earlier, there’s no reason to assume that Le’Veon Bell isn’t a great player anymore (though rumors that he’s ballooned to 260 pounds are worth monitoring). I’ve already tabbed the Jets as the likely winner of BellWatch, but to count out other potential teams would be naive. Below are a few other teams who could snag the 27-year old running back:
Texans – With the fifth-most cap space, Houston could allocate most of that money in retaining key players like Jadaveon Clowney or Tyrann Mathieu. It’s not like the Texans have a bad running game; they were eighth in total rushing this past season. Still, Bell is clearly an upgrade and Houston hasn’t been shy about signing big-name free agents, like when they inked Mathieu last offseason. Adding Bell to the dynamic Houston offense while re-signing Clowney or Mathieu could shove the Texans to the forefront of the AFC playoff picture.
Raiders – Oakland also has loads of cash to spend, and though I can’t see new GM Mike Mayock being too enthused about paying Bell, Jon Gruden’s influence could be just enough to make it happen. As the 25th-best rushing team last season, the Raiders could really use Bell. Not to mention that Bell would probably become the team’s best receiving threat as well. Adding Bell would kickstart a dead offense and surely raise ticket sales when they relocate to Las Vegas (whenever that ends up happening).
Packers – Green Bay might be in the bottom half of the league in available cap space, but this is a new era for the franchise. Formerly a draft-focused team, last year’s front office changes saw a switch in strategy that involved actually signing viable free agents. While Green Bay does love their young duo of running backs in Aaron Jones and Jamaal Williams, once again Bell is simply the better option. The obvious upside to this is pairing Bell with Aaron Rodgers. This is a less likely scenario than the other ones but still a possibility.
No Chance: Colts – Marlon Mack is a team favorite and it’s not GM Chris Ballard’s style to pay huge money for a running back.
The Deep Route Football Notebook features recaps and thoughts about the recent action in the NFL, along with weekly awards, draft spotlights, fantasy updates and more. Unless stated otherwise, all stats are accumulated using Pro Football Reference, ESPN or 4for4.com. Spotrac.com provided the financial information.
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