Futures: Pittsburgh RB Ray Graham

Frank Gore was a great prospect battling through injury and it dropped his draft stock. Ray Graham is in a similar situation.
Frank Gore was a great prospect battling through injury and it dropped his draft stock. Ray Graham is in a similar situation.

Futures: Pittsburgh RB Ray Graham

by Matt Waldman

“I had the pleasure of coaching Barry Sanders, and Frank Gore is the best back I’ve been around since Barry Sanders.”

-Former University of Miami Head Coach Larry Coker, July 26, 2004

College coaches are prone to hyperbole, but when the coach comparing Frank Gore to Sanders has not only coached the NFL Hall of Famer, but Thurman ThomasEdgerrin JamesClinton Portis, andWillis McGahee as well, these were words worth heeding. Gore lived up to that praise early in his Hurricanes career, but ACL injuries to both knees robbed him of opportunities to compile the portfolio he’d need to be a first-round pick. Those injuries also robbed Gore of his lightning-quick lateral agility and the third gear to pull away from defensive backs.

Although Gore still had enough in him to become one of the most respected runners among NFL defenders over the past decade, the third-round pick left his true potential behind in Miami. Gore’s college injury history validates the cliché that football is a game of inches. Those fractions of a second have made a difference on the field and in the payroll ledgers of the 49ers front office.

More than height, weight, strength, speed, or college program, injury is the single greatest factor that differentiates players entering the NFL Draft. Nothing can drop a player’s stock like a season-ending injury that forces a prospect to miss his senior year. Limiting injuries have a large effect on stock as well. Gore looked like a fraction of the player he was as a freshman, and ultimately would become in San Francisco, when he played on a knee that wasn’t fully rehabilitated from his second ACL surgery as a senior.

A running back that’s in a similar situation this year is Pittsburgh’s Ray Graham. The Panthers running back never drew comparisons to Sanders in terms of talent, but a healthy Graham is a closer match to Sanders’ style than Gore ever was. Graham had great footwork, unusual balance to change direction, and quickness with his cuts that rivaled the likes of Jamaal Charles and Marshall Faulk.

Graham was having an All-America-caliber season in 2011 before he tore his ACL against Connecticut. In a little more than seven games, Graham had 958 yards, nine touchdowns, and averaged 5.8 yards per carry. He was by far my favorite college runner to watch on Saturdays.

Although Graham’s skill at changing directions fits along a continuum of players where Sanders is at the top end and Faulk and Charles are on the same street, the 5-foot-9, 190-pound runner isn’t in the same neighborhood as those three runners when it comes to tackle-breaking strength. Graham relies more on his sweet feet than most NFL prospects, which makes his recovery a pivotal factor in earning a call from a team before the third day of the NFL’s selection process.

Read the rest at Football Outsiders

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