Due to the lockout, 2011 could be more difficult than usual for undrafted free agents trying to make it in the NFL. Yet, there will be players with the talent, the skill, and the work ethic to enter a camp and make the most of their limited opportunities. This week, I’m profiling offensive skill players who I believe have the ability to develop into quality professionals if they have been training hard enough in this crazy offseason to hit the ground running. Profiles of these players are excerpts from my publication, the 2011 Rookie Scouting Portfolio, available at Footballguys.com
Chad Spann, N. Illinois (5-9, 198): Every year, I have at least 2-3 backs rated higher than most. Some of them are players who are drafted late or not drafted at all. Ahmad Bradshaw was one of them. Spann is another. He’s a fluid player with a high motor, a muscular bubble, and low center of gravity who can set up a defense to get an open lane and finish strong.
Spann ran through as many hits as any back I studied this year and he has a noticeably explosive burst from his cuts. He possesses a slippery but determined running style that has a lot of intelligent decision-making behind it. When I watched Spann, he reminded me of Priest Holmes due to this style and his dimensions. He understands angles and he possesses the agility to take away those angles from defenders and run through glancing shots.
Ironically, Spann told me via Twitter that Bears wide receiver Johnny Knox said the same thing the day before while they were training together. What I like about Spann is that he’s used to proving himself. In high school, Spann had to create his own YouTube clips just to earn a chance to walk-on at NIU. According to former Pitt recruiter and Browns scout Matt Williamson, this is rare nowadays. Spann when from ninth on the NIU depth chart as an incoming freshman to a player A.J. Smith was watching with interest at NIU’s Pro Day.
The situations where I saw Spann succeed were similar to what I saw from Ahmad Bradshaw, Matt Forte, and Joseph Addai. The question will be if Spann has the quickness to do the same things in the NFL as he did at NIU. I think he will and I believe he’s a vastly underrated player.
Mario Fannin, Auburn (5-10, 230): Fannin was regarded as potential breakout candidate heading into the 2010 season, but a shoulder injury derailed that opportunity. Fannin struggled to produce while playing hurt and his difficulty staying healthy coupled with the tendency to put the ball on the ground while playing with said injury cost Fannin the chance to be the lead back for the Tigers. This opened the role for freshman Michael Dyer to displace the senior Fannin.
Injury has been a recurring theme for Fannin. He was a big-time prospect who showed flashes of big-play ability throughout his career at Auburn, but two shoulder injuries and ankle issues limited him throughout his career. The sporadic moments of production couched between time in the training room can have several negatives for a player’s development. This includes slipping into bad habits that result from a lack of reps. Fanning demonstrated inconsistency with his pad level, ball protection, and decision- making. Whether this was injury-related rust or his actual style will be answered if he gets an invite to an NFL camp.
When Fannin is focused I have seen him press the hole, use his pad level to run through hits, and demonstrate the kind of finishing power to push a pile. When fully healthy he has game-breaking speed, which he displayed at the combine with a 4.38 40-yard dash. Auburn has a long history of quality NFL running backs that passed through its program. Some of them were role players for the Tigers. Fanning has the skills to be the next, he just has to stay healthy and focused.
Derrick Locke, Kentucky (5-8, 188): Locke has an explosive burst and he demonstrates patience to set up blocks and use that acceleration to get positive yardage as well as break arm tackles. He runs with surprisingly good balance for a player of his size. His best asset as a football player might be his hands. He catches the football away from his body and makes good adjustments to hard throws to snare the ball. He can be a factor in the intermediate and long passing game if used well. He’s also a good open field runner that likes to make one move and get down hill.
Locke is a versatile offensive player that can play in the slot, in the backfield or as a return specialist. His size, basic skills, and versatility put him in the range of comparison with Dexter McCluster, but Locke lacks the vision and great change of direction skills of the former Ole Miss star. Although he makes it a point to carry the ball between the tackles with his pads low and both arms around the ball, he sacrifices his ability to keep his head up and find cutbacks that his quickness and agility were meant to exploit. If he can learn to keep his head up as a runner he might someday be worth mentioning in the same conversation as McCluster.
Brandon Saine, Ohio State (5-11, 220): Saine has the strength, balance, and pad level to run over defenders when he gets north south and he is strong enough to drag bigger players hanging onto him. Combined with track star speed, Saine is an intriguing running back. He has enough quickness to turn away from defenders in moderately tight spaces.
He’s a fine prospect as a third down back because in addition to his short-yardage skills, he catches the ball well with his hands and he’s a punishing blocker. If Saine stayed healthy and had the agility to change direction at the same level of proficiency as his power, speed, balance and his third down skills, he would have been a dominant college back.
Because he’s a straight-line runner with great receiving skills, Saine could be tried at H-Back. He reminds me a bit of a Keith Byars-Herschel Walker type of back due to his lack of great side-to-side movement. However, he’s less agile than Walker and faster than Byars.
Graig Cooper, Miami (5-10, 205): Cooper hasn’t maximized his weight for his size, which I think means he has some upside as a pro runner. Cooper runs with good balance and he’ll only get stronger without losing much speed.
He has a nice first step and good burst out of his initial cut.
He has versatility as a receiver and occasionally shows good discipline following the play design on small lanes between the tackles. His power and balance are decent, but not great. His pad level is good between the tackles, but he sometimes runs too high in the open field and the outside.
Cooper is a little over a year removed from an ACL tear and it might take him another year to regain the same explosiveness he displayed prior to his injury. I think has a chance to grow into an NFL role player and potentially more as he develops.
Damien Berry, Miami (5-10, 211): Berry does a good job of falling forward on most of his runs. He’s physical runner who will bounce off hits and stiff-arm defenders to get extra yardage. He does a good job of getting his pads down against oncoming defenders to finish plays for yards after contact. If the play is well blocked, he has enough burst to get into the open field. He also has the ability to make a sharp initial cut to change direction and get downhill.
Berry physically looks the part of a running back and he exhibits some skill in the passing game. He likes to be physical in pass protection and when making his best effort, he moves his feet well to mirror defenders and then square his body to deliver a punch. As a pass receiver, Berry catches the ball with his hands and he can adjust routes to get open for his quarterback.
What I want to see from Berry on a more consistent basis is strong acceleration. I think what slows him down is that he lacks the fluidity that conceptually strong runners have. Two areas where I’d like to see improvement are his recognition of impending run blitzes and consistently pressing the hole to set up cutbacks. While I didn’t see every carry of Berry’s career, the more productive runs I saw were often straight shots through bigger holes. If he shows more recognition with holes and cut back lanes than I saw then Berry has the physical skills to contribute.
Noel Devine, West Virginia (5-8, 179): Devine is a dangerous college runner because of his excellent burst, stop-start agility, and speed to the corner. He’s a big-play runner who is always looking for an opportunity to bounce the run to the open field. He is very adept at making the first defender miss and his low center of gravity makes it difficult for the opposition to wrap him.
However, Devine will never be confused with a power runner. He’s the kind of back who is slippery and tough in open space. Devine has enough explosiveness to become an RBBC contributor in the pros with a prominent role as a change of pace back, but his style needs to mature.
Devine makes a lot of start-stop moves that can get him into trouble when he’s facing defenders that maintain good gap discipline. Additionally, the best college defenders had the athleticism to catch Devine when he had to accelerate from a stop in a tight space. He needs to demonstrate more discipline between the tackles to stick with creases that are open but require more physical running.
The problem is that Devine is not big enough to be a physical runner on a consistent basis against NFL defenders. I don’t think he we get the tough yards frequently enough to be effective. This is why I think he tried to make defenders miss and reverse his field against college defenses that played well against him.
Devine’s pass blocking is a complete liability due to severe technique lapses and his lack of size. He’s much more suited for use in the slot or from the shotgun in spread sets where he can play more one-on- one/open field football. If a team that wants to adopt the Patriots’ recent (2010) developments with the spread signs Devine, they might develop him into a decent cog for the system. However, he’s not a back with the size-skill set combo that translates to most NFL offenses.
DuJuan Harris, Troy (5-7, 202): Harris has a low center of gravity and short area quickness. Combined with the footwork and the combo of large muscular thighs and bubble, Harris is a physically-viable NFL RB prospect. He has the feet to pick through trash between the tackles and the stop-start speed to change directions in the open field while setting up defenders in the hole. He finishes plays with good pad level and he’s tough to bring down without wrapping. Harris catches short passes very well with his hands and he’s a willing blocker on the edge in the run game or in pass protection.
He frequently ran the ball from formations where pressing the hole wasn’t a part of the play’s execution. Therefore, I didn’t see traditional situations where he had to demonstrate any level of patience he might have as a runner. Although he can run through hits, he’s a short player and there will be a concern that he won’t hold up as an every down runner .
Harris will be criticized for his tendency to stop his feet because there are very few backs that thrive in the NFL with a stop-start style on a consistent basis. He grades out higher on the sum total of his individual skill sets than what he does putting them all together and this issue with his feet is one example. If he can change that stylistic tendency, he could become a viable committee back with possible upside.
He reminds me stylistically of a small-school Maurice Jones Drew, but without the top-end speed or unusual power. Still, Harris could have a chance to surprise if he is consistent in a training camp; has better speed than I gauged; and/or he can perform well against a higher level of athletes.
Darren Evans, Virginia Tech (6-0, 227): Evans does a good job running with his eyes: reading keys and bending the run to the correct side of the block ahead of him. He also spots the cutback clearly and he can exploit it if he has the room. His runs have a fast pace and he can burst past the first and second level of a defense.
He generally has good vision and decision-making at each phase of this run – especially for a back that doesn’t significantly vary his pace as he approaches the hole. I don’t like that he tended to run with one speed most of the time, but he did get to that speed quickly. What I do like is that Evans does a good job of sliding away from a direct hit and when he can deliver a blow from an angle, he has the strength and speed to deliver some punishment.
He’s a good runner behind a gap style attack who can catch the football. He will flash some skills for an NFL team, but he’ll need to improve his pad level and patience to contribute for a team. Evans has a tendency to run with a naturally high pad level and when he can’t prepare ahead of time to get low, he’s prone to shots that will knock him backwards. When he gets his pads low, he can bounce off hits and get yardage, but he tends to only do this when he’s cleared the line of scrimmage. When has some time to prepare for contact he runs low but he doesn’t consistently run low, which is why I believe he’s not as effective as a cut back runner.
Evans frequently can’t generate yards after contact on direct hits at the line of scrimmage because his pad level is too high for him to have leverage to move his legs. He’ll keep his legs moving when wrapped from behind but there’s a difference between dragging a defender and running through a defender in tight space. Runners that do the former are a dime a dozen. Runners that do the latter, play on Sundays.
He’s more than a year removed from an ALC tear. If he can improve his pad level and patience, I think he’ll be a solid committee back capable of nice production.