Boiler Room: Florida State RB James Wilder

Running backs are like motorcyclists, eventually they'll lay it down and have trouble walking away from it. Photo by Kyn_Chung.
Running backs are like motorcyclists, eventually they’ll lay it down and have trouble walking away from it. Photo by Kyn_Chung.

I remember James Wilder, Sr.  A 6’3″, 225-pound wrecking ball where he had two seasons in Tampa Bay with a combined 772 carries for 2844 yards and 23 touchdowns, Wilder is the best running back in Buccaneers history if you ask me.  One of those years, Wilder had 407 carries, 1544 yards rushing, 13 rushing touchdowns and 85 receptions for 685 yards for an 8.1 yards per catch average.

In case you didn’t do the math, that’s 492 touches for 2229 yards from scrimmage – that’s the 16th best yards from scrimmage total in the history of the NFL and the most touches by a player large margin:

NFL Single-Season Touches Leaders – Courtesy of

Rank Player (age), + – HOFer, Bold – Active Touch Year Teams
1. James Wilder (26) 492 1984 TAM
2. Larry Johnson (27) 457 2006 KAN
3. Eddie George (27) 453 2000 TEN
4. LaDainian Tomlinson (23) 451 2002 SDG
5. Edgerrin James (22) 450 2000 IND
6. Marcus Allen+ (25) 447 1985 RAI
7. Ricky Williams (26) 442 2003 MIA
8. Eric Dickerson+ (23) 441 1983 RAM
9. Emmitt Smith+ (26) 439 1995 DAL
10. Jamal Anderson (26) 437 1998 ATL
11. Steven Jackson (23) 436 2006 STL
12. Emmitt Smith+ (23) 432 1992 DAL
13. Edgerrin James (21) 431 1999 IND
14. Eric Dickerson+ (26) 430 1986 RAM
Ricky Williams (25) 430 2002 MIA
Gerald Riggs (25) 430 1985 ATL
17. Walter Payton+ (30) 426 1984 CHI
Barry Foster (24) 426 1992 PIT
19. Eric Dickerson+ (28) 424 1988 IND
20. Deuce McAllister (25) 420 2003 NOR

In addition to these season marks, Wilder once toted the ball a record 48 times in a single game (and 47 in another contest a year later – good for second on the all-time list). We’re talking about a tough football player in an era of running the football that we’re only given reminders of nowadays.

I think this is important to share, because if the Matthews family has a potential genetic predisposition for athletic longevity in a punishing sport; the Long family breeds linemen; the Manning family farms quarterbacks; and the Winslow family produces tight ends, then 6’1″, 229-pound James Wilder, Jr. has a chance to be a damn good pro running back. Wilder runs a lot like his dad, but there’s an added degree of recklessness that could be a double-edged sword for the young man with an old-school style and it leaves me conflicted about his future.

A series I started last spring at the RSP blog is The Boiler RoomOne of the challenges involved with player analysis is to be succinct with delivering the goods. As the author of an annual tome, I’m often a spectacular failure in this respect.

Even so, I will study a prospect and see a play unfold that does a great job of encapsulating that player’s skills. When I witness these moments, I try to imagine if I would include this play as part of a cut-up of highlights for a draft show at a major network or if I was working for an NFL organization creating cut-ups for a personnel director. Unlike the No-Huddle Series, The Boiler Room is focused on prospects I expect to be drafted, and often before the fourth round.

It’s incredibly difficult to boil down any player with just one play. Yet, if I need a play to add to the highlight reel that will help a team make a decision where to slot Wilder, Jr. on its board, this is my nomination – not because it’s the most impressive play as much as it’s a telling indication of the player in terms of that double-edged sword. This is a run from a 20 personnel shotgun formation inside the Wake Forest red zone with 6:48 in the first half. The next 24 seconds, which includes a replay is a display of strength, agility, recklessness, and flexibility that leaves me ambivalent about Wilder, Jr.

This hurdle of the defender is different from what you’ve seen from the likes of Brian Leonard, Knowshown Moreno, and LeGarrette Blount in recent years. Those three backs were known for these plays in the second and third levels of the defense. The hurdling these three backs demonstrated as collegians were prettier plays.

However, this hurdle from Wilder comes within two steps of turning down hill through the hole! While the Russian and Chinese judges would mark him down on form,  they’d begrudgingly own him top marks on technical difficulty. This is a nine-yard gain with six coming after the hurdle.

What impresses me most on this play is what we see on the replay. Notice how flexible Wilder is in his legs and hips to rotate his lower body this dramatically. Then there’s the strength to maintain balance at this awkward of a landing point. This is a balls-out, reckless, and fearless run where one can see the old-school influence of watching his father.

However like his father – and most old-school runners – Wilder has admitted to playing with numbness in his shoulder after laying the wood on defenders. He has that “slap some dirt on it” mentality that  teammates and coaches love as long as he can go out there and produce. Shoulder injuries and ball carrying go together like shrimp and grits, so I wouldn’t be alarmed about Wilder’s admission.

In the NFL and the NFL media’s hyper-analytic draft environment, medical reports might be a driver in Wilder’s draft stock. Just like Eddie Lacy’s stock fell at least two rounds further than anticipated at least due in part to a toe injury, Wilder’s shoulder may earn some extra scrutiny – especially aggravating the wound in September that hindered him throughout 2012.

Watch the play again and think about his disregard for his body. For a long, lanky, and punishing back, I can see some reasons for concern. At the same time, I love watching him at his best. Here’s a taste of Wilder in the second and third level of the Clemson defense – yes, this is highlight No.2, but I’m a sucker for punishing, determined runners.

Again, note the balance and strength of his legs to take a hit that moves his body so his legs plant at an awkward position and he stays upright. While impressive, I just can’t shake the feeling that there’s too great of a tendency for awkward footing and landings that won’t end well. My younger brother, who is a licensed pilot will tell you than any landing you can walk away from is a good landing. However, I’m reminded more of the adage among motorcyclists: It’s not if you’ll lay the bike down, but when.

Running backs are in this respect like stunt bikers. Eventually they’re going to lay it down in a way that they’ll have trouble walking away from the crash. I love Wilder’s battering ram determination, flexibility, and balance. Especially his flexibility. Here’s highlight No.3.

That’s a Reggie Bush-like extension without a long, downhill start and doing it while carrying an extra 20 pounds. I smile every time I watch Wilder as a lead blocker making diving plays to upend defenders for his quarterback or backfield teammates. He’s a tough football player. However, I don’t get the same feeling of reckless longevity when I watch Wilder the way I do when I watch Adrian Peterson or Walter Payton or even Wilder, Sr.

I hope I’m wrong.

For analysis of skill players in this year’s draft class, download the 2013 Rookie Scouting Portfolio.The 2014 RSP will available April 1 and if you pre-order before February 10, you get a 10 percent discount. Better yet, if you’re a fantasy owner the 56-page Post-Draft Add-on comes with the 2012 – 2014 RSPs at no additional charge and available for download within a week after the NFL Draft. 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.

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