If you watched the Cowboys-Chargers preseason game last night then you saw a rookie running back putting on a display of what Cecil Lammey likes to call, “running hot.” There were probably 4-5 running backs in this game that ran hot. However, if I were to provide a photo next to Lammey’s definition in the yet-to-be-written football dictionary the image of Cowboys rookie Phillip Tanner running helmet-less through the Chargers secondary would be my first choice.
Who is Phillip Tanner? Was last night a fluke? Does he have a shot to stick to a roster? Let’s consult the 2011 Rookie Scouting Portfolio for some insight.
Players like Tanner, Denarius Moore, or other camp surprises who aren’t rated as high as their abilities in preseason have shown are one of my favorite topics of discussion, because they get to the core of what scouting is and what it isn’t. Most players graded have NFL talent. If you look at the history of the NFL draft, there were twice as many rounds at one time than there are now. Some of the greatest players in this game where drafted in rounds that don’t even exist today:
- Deacon Jones was a 14th round pick.
- Johnny Unitas was a 9th round pick.
- Bart Starr was a 17th round pick.
I could list several others, but you get the point that a player registering on the collective Richter Scale of NFL scouts has the talent to develop into a contributor. These are young men capable of learning a lot in the span of a few years and their games can improve significantly in a short period of time. In addition a college system or surrounding talent can hinder a player’s ability to show his true potential. This is why teams will still value height, weight, speed, strength, agility, and conditioning over great technique. Sometimes teams err too far on that side, but there are always players who validate the notion that drafting a great athlete who didn’t consistently show great positional skills with his college team might yield gold.
Phillip Tanner is a free agent from Middle Tennessee State. In some respects he was overshadowed by quarterback Dwight Dasher, a mobile passer with a strong arm, who scouts thought might make a better running back prospect. I had to chance to study Tanner against Miami, Ohio last January. In this contest, Tanner accumulated these stats:
- 11 attempts, 87 yards, and 2 touchdowns.
- 4 rushes then went for first downs.
- 5 targets, 5 catches, and 34 yards receiving.
- 4 broken tackles.
- 1 assigned block that wasn’t executed effectively.
- 0 fumbles.
Here are my notes from each category I use to grade running backs.
Power: Tanner runs with excellent urgency and he has no issue trying to attack defenders when he finishes runs. He runs with such abandon that he can break tackles and make big plays. However, he doesn’t always make the best choices with when and how to lower his pad level. This can get better with coaching, but he’ll need to correct some of these tendencies soon or he could become a turnover machine and this will cost Tanner opportunities to develop to his potential.
Game Notes about Power: Tanner broke tackles on his first run of the game. The play was a run designed to go to left end from the shotgun. However, defensive penetration met Tanner in the backfield. Tanner met the penetration at his own goal line, bounced off the hit and reversed his field. He then ran out of right defensive end’s wrap to his waist coming from the opposite side of the field before lowering his pads into the defensive tackle, bouncing off that hit for a one-yard gain with 13:07 in the first quarter. Later in the first quarter, Tanner found a large lane off right guard on a belly play from shotgun for an 18-yard score. He ran through a hit to his feet about 10 yards down field without breaking stride. In the third quarter, Tanner lowered his pads into the LB in the hole on a 4th and 1, but he bounced off the hit and fell backwards. He tried to turn the play outside before he fell, but he couldn’t maintain his balance and he was dropped for a loss of two yards on this third quarter play with 7:07 left.
Ball Handling: Tanner often carries the football under the appropriate sideline arm or the arm that is opposite the defensive pursuit. However he needs to become more consistent here. He has to stop initiating contact with his ball-carrying shoulder or he will continue to increase the risk of turning over the football.
Game Notes about Ball Handling: Tanner carried the ball under his right arm on an 11-yard swing pass up the left flat with 6:36 in the first quarter. However, he also was facing defenders coming from the outside to hit him and he made a wise choice to keep the ball to the inside. Tanner carried the ball under his right arm to left end through a crease that began at the right hash on a spread option play with 5:46 in the first quarter. On a run from shotgun with 1:54 in the first quarter, I like that Tanner tried to lower his pads into the oncoming safety going for his knees at the end of a hole off RG, but he initiated this contact with his ball carrying arm. This increased his risk of losing the ball. It was a poor decision although the consequence wasn’t negative on this four-yard gain. Tanner carried the ball around left end for three yards with his left arm with 13:02 in the third quarter. Tanner carried the ball up the left flat 54 yards for the score under his right arm. He carried the 11-yard reception up the left flat with his left arm with 5:10 in the game.
Elusiveness: Tanner plays at a fast speed and he’s capable of dipping, cutting and spinning away from defenders.
Games Notes about Elusiveness: Tanner’s first target was a 2nd and 3 swing pass to the left flat with 6:41 in the first quarter. Tanner caught the ball thrown over his inside shoulder, using his hands to catch the ball away from his body while on the run. He was patient to wait for his left tackle to engage the defender in the flat and got inside with a nicely set up spin move to the inside that helped him elude both the defender getting blocked and the CB coming up field in run support. He gained another seven yards after that spin before he was run down by the DT in pursuit for an 11-yard gain.
Balance: Tanner keeps his feet after contact and he does a strong job of changing direction in the face of contact. This makes him a highly dangerous open field runner and good after contact.
Game Notes about Balance: See Power and Vision Game Notes for more details.
Speed: Tanner’s burst is evident on just about every play.
Game Notes about Speed: Tanner found a nice lane on the backside to bend his run through the crease to the left corner and then to the sideline for an 11-yard gain on a 1st and 10 spread option with 5:46 in the first quarter. Another good initial burst through the hole on an 18-yard run off right guard from the shotgun with 4:37 in the first quarter. Good speed around left end on a run from shotgun to get outside two defenders in pursuit for a three-yard gain on 1st and 10 with 13:07 in the third quarter.
Blocking: I only noted one opportunity for Tanner to block and it wasn’t a great rep. More needed to be seen to determine the extend of his skill. What I did like is that Tanner didn’t try to cut the defender and took him on with a stand up block.
Game Notes about Blocking: Tanner got into position to block an edge defender coming off the LT’s block towards the QB on a designed roll left with 13:15 in the first quarter. However, he basically caught the momentum of the defender rather than delivered a hit. It would have been even more helpful if Tanner was the aggressor and moved up field to deliver a shot as his teammate was still in some control of the defender. He definitely was not aggressive enough on this play.
Vision: Tanner shows some patience, especially in the open field. However, he needs to press and cutback with greater consistency – especially between the tackles.
Game Notes about Vision: Tanner’s first target was a 2nd and 3 swing pass to the left flat with 6:41 in the first quarter. Tanner caught the ball thrown over his inside shoulder and used his hands to catch the ball away from his body while on the run. He was patient to wait for his left tackle to engage the defender in the flat and got inside with a nicely set up spin move to the inside that helped him elude both the defender getting blocked and the CB coming up field in run support. He gained another seven yards after that spin before he was run down by the DT in pursuit for an 11-yard gain.
He made a nice attempt to cut away from the LB shooting the gap off LG as he just dipped inside of a block behind the line of scrimmage on 1st and 10 with 6:28 in the first quarter, but the LB was unblocked. He only gained a yard on the play. Tanner took a designed run around right end from a 1×3 receiver 10 personnel shotgun set where headed towards the sole receiver on the formation’s weak side. Tanner got a nice wall setting up at the line of scrimmage at right end and he dipped inside that wall for a five-yard gain. However, he was not patient at all with this run because he did not read his downfield blocks. If he did, he’d see the inside was not the way to cut. He should have pressed the inside and cut outside to the right flat where he could have had a big gain untouched. Instead, Tanner had to step over a fallen defender and lose a lot of his balance on his way to the ground for this five-yard gain with 12:59 in the half.
Tanner found a nice block at the second level happening at the end of a crease off LG on a handoff from the shotgun on 2nd and 7 with 12:42 in the third quarter. As he entered the crease, the defenders getting blocked by the two lineman forming the crease collapsed the crease onto Tanner, but no one got a hand on the RB except a fallen defender near the runner’s leg. Tanner twisted out of the ankle wrap, spun outside his own lineman, as the other players were all piled on top of each other, and got free into the left flat for a 54-yard score, gaining nearly 50 of those yards after that spin.
Receiving: Tanner catches the football well with his hands and he adjusts to passes thrown away from his body. He even showed some skill at catching passes thrown without proper touch.
Receiving Game Notes: Tanner’s first target was a 2nd and 3 swing pass to the left flat with 6:41 in the first quarter. Tanner caught the ball thrown over his inside shoulder, using his hands to catch the ball away from his body while on the run. He was patient to wait for his left tackle to engage the defender in the flat and got inside with a nicely set up spin move to the inside that helped him elude both the defender getting blocked and the CB coming up field in run support. He gained another seven yards after that spin before he was run down by the DT in pursuit for an 11-yard gain. Tanner gained five yards on a 3rd and 22 screen to the right flat that was thrown hard and high with 8:19 in the half. Tanner made a very good adjustment to catch the ball above his head while turning back to the football. He made an excellent catch on a pass thrown much harder than necessary and still demonstrated the balance to turn back up field. He only gained five yards on the play because the Miami defenders outnumbered the blockers in the flat. Nicely run circle route, releasing from RG guard to get to the middle of the field and catch the ball with his hands near his back shoulder near the line of scrimmage and turn up the left flat for an 11-yard gain, showing a burst past the trailing LB to get to the first down marker before that defender dragged him down near the sideline. Tanner caught two straight passes on the final drive for this unit in the game. The first was a short hook for four yards, catching the ball with his hands while facing the QB and taking a hit. He then ran a flat route that he caught at the back shoulder and took a hit that knocked him down after three yards.
Durability: Missed three games in 2007 due to a knee injury. Missed all but two games in 2009 due to a bone contusion in his knee and he redshirted the year.
Overall Strengths: Tanner has a nice burst, some balance, and good change of direction. He runs with urgency and he sets up defenders with good moves in the open field. He’s a very dangerous player in space and catches the football with his hands extremely well, adjusting to errant throws and extending his hands for catches away from his body. If he can demonstrate better skills as a blocker and more patience as an inside runner, he could become an NFL contributor. However, I think he’s too wild of a runner at times and it might take him time to even catch on with one team for any length of time.
Overall Weaknesses: Tanner doesn’t always read his down linemen and this causes him to make poor decisions on plays where he could gain significantly more yardage with his athleticism. He has to become more patient on outside runs to allow his teammates to set up blocks. He’s better at this in open field runs, but he often runs as if he’s in the open field when he’s between the tackles and this causes him some problems with running into teammates or approaching defenders too fast rather than setting them up with a move or getting his pads down. He doesn’t consistently carry the ball under the correct arm. He needs to be more aggressive as a blocker and learn to deliver a good punch and attack the defender rather than catch him.
My Current Take: Tanner scored a 69 on my checklist, but there were a lot of areas that I didn’t see Tanner demonstrate consistently that he at least flashed:
- Pad level.
- Carrying the ball under the correct arm.
- Balance when hit from an indirect angle.
- Decision-making at the line of scrimmage with the blocking scheme.
- Hand placement and footwork as a stand up blocker.
If Tanner has or eventually does address these issues and performs the with greater consistency, his upside grade on my checklist would have been 20 points higher. A player with “89” potential on a 100-point scale is in starter territory. I still want to see more from Tanner before I can conclude that he has this kind of upside sooner than later. However, he’s a player to watch closely and seriously consider for a roster spot somewhere, if not in Dallas.
Players like Tanner, Moore, Mike Wallace, and others have taught to me is that creating a second score to track potential upside would be a good analysis in future Rookie Scouting Portfolio publications. I’m going to begin giving two grades. The first will be the actual grade of the player’s performance. The second will be that player’s upside grade. This grade will account for skills that a player flashed during his performance, but didn’t show consistently to warrant a positive score in those areas.
I’ve frequently done this as a part of my analysis in the past while compiling rankings, but I haven’t listed the second grade. I think it will be telling to do so.