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Bryce Brown was the top-rated running back entering college football in 2009 – over Trent Richardson.The Eagles made him a seventh-round pick to ensure no other team could sign him. Ability-wise, Brown is nowhere near a seventh-round grade: he’s a big back with soft hands, good burst, long speed, and finishing power.
The reason he dropped so far in the draft is past history:he left the Tennessee Volunteers after one year, sat out a year to comply with NCAA rules, and then only carried the ball three times at Kansas State before leaving the team and then entering the NFL Draft. There’s very little to see with Brown in college action. However, what’s available is filled with impressive moments.
What I like most about Brown is his vision. He’s a patient runner that knows how to press the hole and set up the cutback. Just as impressive is his ability to find small creases in an area where an opening doesn’t seem to appear until the last moment.
Here’s a play during his freshman year versus South Carolina that illustrates these skills. Tennessee begins the play in a 21-personnel, I-formation set versus a 4-3 defense with seven defenders in the box and the free safety creeping towards the line.
The Volunteers offensive line deserves major credit for the beginning of this play. The left tackle and left guard are going to drive the defensive end and defensive tackle to the outside and the right guard is going to slant to his left to attack the defensive tackle between him and the center in the A-gap. This frees the center to release up the middle and seal the middle linebacker to the inside. All four of these lineman execute their jobs to perfection.
But for the play to work, the running back has to sell the press before making the cutback. According to Greg Cosell, when he asks NFL offensive coaches whether the line makes the running back look good or the running back makes the line – what seems to be a chicken or the egg argument – the answer he most common receives is that the running back makes the line.
Brown helps his line on this play by continuing to the gap between guard and tackle behind his lead fullback.
This influences the defensive tackle to flow to the outside, leaving his backside gap open. The weakside linebacker holds his ground to take on the fullback, thinking he has a shot to slide off the block and tackle the runner. The defensive end takes the outside gap to squeeze the play inside to the linebacker and defensive tackle.
Once Brown sticks his outside foot into the ground and makes the hard cut to the inside, there are two gaps immediately open for the Volunteers runner.
Although there appears to be a two-way go with the center on the middle linebacker, as soon as Brown clears the right guard the linebacker has thrown the center to the ground, forcing one path for the runner.
Brown has a tight crease no more than a foot from his fallen teammate and between the two safeties. However, he’s not looking there to lower his pads and split the defensive backs. Brown feels a second cutback to the backside of the strong safety.
Brown sees the strong safety getting blocked at the backside and demonstrates the balance and agility to make the cutback over his fallen lineman at full speed. This is impressive, but the bigger deal is Brown understanding that he has the defense flowing towards him in one direction and the yardage available if he bends the run against the flow. Most starting NFL runners learn to do this at the line of scrimmage, but the more talented pro prospects display that ability to change the access of pursuit with a cutback at the second level.
Pre-injury Cadillac Williams was adept at this skill. Ryan Mathews was a first-round pick because this was one of his better skills. Adrian Peterson does it better than anyone in the league.
Brown clears this lane and gets into the open field with this second cut in the tightest of spaces.
Brown now makes a third cut that takes him outside and away from the free safety in pursuit.
As Brown gets into the flat, I like the awareness to switch the ball from his inside arm to his sideline arm. Another demonstration of polish that one doesn’t always see from a freshman – even an SEC freshman.
With the switch of the ball arm, Brown finishes the run with a straight-arm that wards off the defender’s grasp long enough for another nine yards, maximizing his gain as he tries to turn the corner.
Another point about this run – and several of the runs I saw – is that Brown doesn’t appear as fast as he really is. I only began to appreciate his speed when I considered that he nearly got under this cornerback’s grasp and up the sideline after making three cuts from the left flat all the way back to the right sideline. This was a long run and Brown still had the speed after running at least 70 yards to almost beat what is normally one of the fastest defenders on the field.
If Brown is comes ready to play in the Eagles training camp, Chris Polk and Dion Lewis are going to have serious competition for a roster spot.