Sunday Mailbag 10/23

Sunday's mailbag always has some good variety. Photo by KLMircea.

Rob McClean: Now that San Diego and Indianapolis have released running backs Jordan Todman and Darren Evans, do either get a shot with the Detroit Lions after the voided Ronnie Brown trade?

Waldman: On the surface it would make sense that the Lions would take a look at this pair of rookies, but after a little more thought I don’t think it’s going to happen. The Lions are a young team, but they are a young team on the rise. I don’t believe they want to work with backs that are unproven in pass protection. This is the reason they sought Ronnie Brown and valued him over Jerome Harrison. Brown has veteran skills as a pass protector that Harrison lacked. The former Washington State runner is actually a player I would have preferred as a ball carrier to Brown, but pass protection is one of the reasons he’s bounced around the league and never earned a full-time gig as a starter.

Harrison would have been a situational reserve for the Eagles who knew the offense, but they didn’t need to rely on him due to the play of LeSean McCoy and rookie Dion Lewis. I believe that Philadelphia’s use of the shotgun passing game was a big reason the Lions targeted Brown and subsequently former Eagle Eldra Buckley. Matt Stafford is the franchise and they can’t take too many chances with backfield protection.

Todman, a rookie from the University of Connecticut, has some promise. He is quick and he flashes good change of direction and functional power to break arm tackles. There are times he pressed a hole and bounced outside or inside to set up blocks. He has pretty good feet to slide away from traffic and find open lanes. He also has the burst to bounce runs outside or get through a seam at the line. He does a good job of setting up blocks in the open field and he can use a stiff-arm or shoulder to run through defenders in the secondary when he can set them up with a move. He does a good job of protecting the football, covering the ball with both arms as he’s hit and switching the ball during his runs to the sideline arm. He can accelerate out of his cuts to bounce into open space. Todman’s style is similar to Ray Rice in that he has good feet, demonstrates some patience and he flashes some burst and physicality as a finisher. I just don’t think he has these talents at the same level of Ray Rice or a full-time starter in the NFL.

One of the problems with Todman is that I frequently saw plays where he lacked patience between the tackles. Commentators would frequently complement Todman for this skill when in fact the runner didn’t do a great job of maintaining a distance from his linemen to allow creases to develop. His lack of patience often forced him to use his change of direction far less efficiently. As a runner, Todman needs to press the hole a little longer so he can create a wider cutback lane.  If Todman could read is blocks a little better and be more patient, he might not need to stop and start as much. This would help Todman use his acceleration to his advantage and get bigger gains. He’s known for his patience and his feet, but I saw a back that doesn’t know how to time his burst and then he has to use his patience and footwork too early in a run to get out of trouble. This is clearly something that Todman can address during his transition to the NFL, but it’s a conceptual flaw that can take consistent reps and work for even first-day picks.

One positive that could earn Todman a look from the Lions is that he will attack a defender as a pass blocker. However he has a tendency to get too low on cut blocks. There was a willingness to stand up a defender with a hard punch the chest and use his hands to attempt to control a pass rusher. However, I didn’t see enough from him to feel confident that his skills in pass protection were NFL ready.

Evans is a straight-line runner. He reminds me a lot of former Tennessee Titan and Houston Texans back Chris Brown. 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 if he has the room he can hit it. He likes to punish defenders at the end of runs. Evans’ runs have a good 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 or a back that doesn’t significantly vary his pace as he approaches the hole. He runs with one speed most of the time, but he gets to that speed quickly and he 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 is not the after contact runner that you would expect of a back with his size and hard-charging style. Evans does have a tendency to naturally run high and when he can’t prepare ahead of time to get low, he’s prone to these kinds of 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 and has some time to prepare rather than consistently run low. This is why he’s not as effective as a cut back runner. He’ll need to keep his pads low at all times so he can use his power. When he cuts back he has difficulty doing this. 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.

This is the type of thing he’ll need to get better at because he’ll rarely face six defenders in the box like he did in the first half of this game. He had trouble with eight defenders in the box during his college performances. Evans is definitely more of a run bender (Darren McFadden) than a guy that makes cuts or stop-start moves (Ahmad Bradshaw/Adrian Peterson). Evans has only showed one speed thus far. It’s fast enough with this type of blocking, but I want to see a second gear or more patience to the hole and a burst through it to set up defenders. He’s not a great open field runner.

His pass protection was also limited because he was regarded more as a two-down back at Virginia Tech. Backs weren’t used extensively in the passing game at Virginia Tech, but Ryan Williams was more frequently on the field on third down. Evans has the size to deliver a hard punch, but he’s not the most agile player. He struggled in his small sample size of attempts to cut block defenders.

WhatsURBeef: What are two things to watch for Week Seven?

Waldman: One, how will the absence of Jahvid Best impact that Lions passing game? Best was decidedly the third option in this high-powered passing attack, averaging a healthy 10.6 yards per catch with 27 catches in six weeks. Maurice Morris is little more than a workmanlike option and Eldra Buckley and Keiland Williams runners who would be on the bubbles of most rosters in terms of NFL skill sets. Lions tight end Tony Scheffler is probable for this week despite coming off a concussion. Don’t be surprised if the Lions use Scheffler and Brandon Pettigrew in more two-tight end sets with Scheffler in the slot so Pettigrew can stay in to block Falcons edge rushers John Abraham and Ray Edwards. Matt Stafford will need to do a better job of quickly and decisively opting for his second and third options when the Falcons secondary brackets Calvin Johnson.

Two, watch for Matt Hasselbeck to have a big game against the Texans. The absence of Mario Williams from the Texans lineup will make Antonio Smith and J.J. Watt less dangerous and allow Hasselbeck enough time to execute longer-developing plays in the intermediate and deep passing game. Neither Nate Washington nor Damien Williams have the physical skills to dominate a game, but they are good enough to get behind an NFL secondary with a well executed play. The key will be Chris Johnson’s ability to generate consistent gains of 4-6 yards when he touches the football. If he cannot do this the Titans will need to adopt a short passing game. The wildcard is Jared Cook. He’s capable of exploiting the deep seam or getting free on a deep cross. I expect Hasselbeck to target Cook at least twice in this game on each of these routes.

Nick Dakis: Allen Bradford’s move from running back to tight end was a surprise to me. I’ve read your assessment of him as a running back, but what’s your assessment of him as a linebacker?

Waldman: Bradford was a punishing runner with good feet as a college player. Ray Lewis was also a punishing runner with good feet as a high school running back. However, the difference between Lewis and Bradford as athletes is acceleration. Lewis has elite acceleration. Bradford lacks that kind of athleticism. At the same time there are some current Penn State middle linebackers that lack great acceleration, but they anticipate the field well. I think Pete Carroll is a good judge of Bradford’s potential as an NFL player because he recruited this former defense player to USC. I envision Bradford as a strong side linebacker, which won’t make him very productive in the box score. However, if he shows more acceleration and conceptual skills – in other words, he was better as a linebacker but the Trojans needed a running back – than I anticipated he could develop into a middle linebacker. Either way, he’s not a player I believe will make an instant impact. He’ll need at least a full season of practice and a preseason at the position for us to find out.


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