This time of year I’m marrying NFL Combine data with my tape analysis. I don’t take a close look until now. So today being one of the first days I’m examining the results, I came across something that – at least to the eyeball test – passed muster in a way that confirmed a conclusion I have formed while studying games. I don’t know if this conclusion fits the consensus or not, but I do have a feeling it goes against the grain.
To begin, here’s a question to answer: Based on these NFL Combine results, and nothing else, which running back is more appealing as an all-around player?
|Player||Ht||Wt||Hands||40||10||Bench||Vert||Jump||20 S||60 S||3 Cone|
Don’t get your slide rule bent out of shape. This is a flawed question. This is not how I rank players.
Yet, I think it’s an interesting jumping-off point for this post.
Player A is just an inch shorter, but 18 pounds lighter. He is also a solid step or two faster at longer distances. Despite the weight and long-speed differences, Player B has more short-area quickness and equal, if not more explosive, change of direction. If these two runners’ skills in athletic wear translated in a football game with pads, I’d say the taller, heavier, and quicker Player B would seem like the better bet.
So you know, Player A is Oregon big-play artist Kenjon Barner. Barner’s combine results relative to this running back class are pretty good. However, Player B appears more appealing in similar ways to quicksters like Kerwynn Williams and Ray Graham and early-down bell cows like Michael Ford and Stepfan Taylor.
With the exception of 40-time and bench press, Player B is physically not too far away from workout darling Christine Michael – a prospect many consider one of the most physically talented runners in this class and a capable of top-prospect production if not for unwelcome bouts of immaturity that have held him back.
Player B might lack the breakaway capability, but if these workout results translate to the field of play I’d think that this mystery player has the size, quickness, and change of direction to produce between the tackles and in space.
In terms of what I see on the field, I think the NFL Combine results encapsulates a lot of the physical talents that I see Player B – Nebraska running back Rex Burkhead – display on the football field. His short-area quickness and agility is a notable positive of Burkhead’s game. If all you can see is the 4.73-40 time then you’re not seeing the running back position in a worthwhile context.
I believe there are plenty of highlights on YouTube to get a gist for Burkhead’s quickness and agility. The best example could be some of the plays I watched in this year’s Capital One Bowl against Georgia’s defense filled with NFL-caliber athletes. While Georgia has its breakdowns in the run game, the athlete-on-athlete match ups are worth a look when examining Burkhead’s physical skills.
Bigger Back, Little Back Moves
Burkhead is not Barry Sanders, but he does know how to layer moves that can freeze defenders while working down hill. Here is a 2nd-and-seven pass with 6:14 in the first quarter that illustrates what I’m talking about.
Burkhead gains 16 yards from this 1×2 receiver, 11 personnel shotgun set on a screen pass from the UGA 37 where he releases from the quarterback’s left side, works to the left guard, and then turns back to the quarterback, catching the ball behind his linemen. After he works across the left guard to make the catch with his hands, he works behind the right tackle up the right hash. The is notable, but it’s the subtle head and shoulder fake combination on the defender back coming over the top from Burkhead’s outside shoulder that I value. This move fools the strong safety and forces another defender to chase the running back down.
Here’s a sharp, lateral cut on first-round athlete, Alec Ogletree at the edge on a 1st-and-10 run from the Nebraska 24 with 6:41 in the half.
Nebraska runs power to right end with the pulling left guard working on outside linebacker Jarvis Jones, who crashes the line early with penetration. Burkhead dips outside the block, scraping close to Jones’ back so he can get down hill fast and maximize his gain. The inside linebacker Ogletree works free to the edge while shedding the tight end and has a down hill angle four yards from the Nebraska runner approaching the line of scrimmage.
Burkhead takes two small steps and cuts inside the the linebacker at the line of scrimmage and leaves the defender on his silver britches. It’s not a hard plant and cut, but I’m impressed with the quickness and precision of the footwork to change direction and it is similar to the footwork one would see from a shuttle run or cone drill.
Knowledge of Angles Equals Power
Brute force is what most people imagine when the word power is used in the context of a running back. The more important factor is a knowledge of angles. This is why a smaller back with average or even below average strength at the position can thrive when he manifests this knowledge of angles into good pad level, stiff arms, and transforming direct angles into indirect angles.
Burkhead demonstrates this ability to transform angles on the play after he jukes Olgetree to the ground. This is a six-yard gain on 2nd and five at the Nebraska 30 is a 21 personnel, strong side twin, I-formation set. Nebraska sets up a crease off left guard behind the lead fullback.
Burkhead does a nice job of turning his shoulders away from Ogletree’s wrap and forcing the ILB to slide away from the runner. Burkhead keeps his legs moving and pulls free of the linebackers wrap and nearly another as he works to the first down marker. This slight turn of the pads is a demonstration why the Nebraska runner is more difficult for defenders to get a hat on than he seems.
Of course, Burkhead also displays the more tradition form of power on this 2nd-and-14 run at the Nebraska 26 for a 10-yard gain with 3:25 in the third quarter. This is a 1×2 receiver, 11 personnel pistol where he flanks the quarterback to the left (strong) side. They run delay with a guard pulling to the right.
Burkhead finds a big hole inside the pulling guard and there is also a nice push from the double team of the center and right guard up the middle. The Cornhusker accelerates through that hole and then splits the double team for eight yards. He finishes the run by dragging the Georgia safety and inside linebacker a few more before lowering the pads and chopping his feet through head-on contact. When a back has the size to deliver the hammer, but the quickness to employ the change-up, he can be an effective interior runner at the NFL level.
Stylistically, Burkhead’s rushing and receiving skills remind me of Fred Jackson without the long speed.
Will Burkhead have Fred Jackson’s success? With today’s NFL experiencing a glut of talent at the running back position, I’m not confident in Burkhead landing in a situation where it happens. Just remember that Jackson was a Division III star who failed to stick with the Bears, Broncos, and Packers and had to play indoor football with the Sioux City Bandits for $200 a week for two years before he even earned a gig in NFL Europe. It took Jackson five years to earn an NFL start.
Burkhead at least hails from a big-time college program and already has the size that Jackson (195 pounds out of college) – now 216 pounds – lacked. Regardless of Burkhead’s outlook, his game tape reveals a lot of NFL-caliber skill.
For analysis of skill players in this year’s draft class, download the 2013 Rookie Scouting Portfolio available April 1. Prepayment is available now. Better yet, if you’re a fantasy owner the 56-page Post-Draft Add-on comes with the 2013 RSP at no additional charge. Best, yet, 10 percent of every sale is donated to Darkness to Light to combat sexual abuse. You can purchase past editions of the Rookie Scouting Portfolio for just $9.95 apiece.