The 2008 RB class was a defining moment for my development as a draft analyst. The love for Darren McFadden was off the charts. Meanwhile there was a back toiling away in New Orleans who I thought was much better.
It was another lesson in sticking to what you see and explaining it all in detail. This time history was kind. Here were my pre-draft takes on Darren McFadden, Felix Jones, Mike Hart, Kevin Smith, and Matt Forte.
Overrated RB Prospects
Darren McFadden, Arkansas: McFadden might be the most difficult player I have evaluated for the RSP. His speed and acceleration are better than all but one back in this class. He also played productively during his career while coming off toe surgery and dealing with bruised ribs. When McFadden can run a play as designed, he can break it open for huge gains because of his elite speed. Although he doesn’t make strong lateral moves, he has the ability to bend a run in a direction while running at great speed. This is a rare ability, but it is still not as effective against a defense as a runner with sharp changes of direction.
The problem is this former QB repeatedly demonstrated noticeable deficiencies that I believe will prevent him from making a consistent impact as an NFL runner: falling backward when making direct contact against first and second level defenders because he runs with poor leverage; the tendency for his legs to go dead upon the initial wrap-up; lacking the ability to change direction with a hard plant and cut; impatience with his blockers; and poor ball protection techniques. Many people have compared McFadden to Eric Dickerson or Adrian Peterson, but the only thing McFadden currently shares with these two backs is his speed.
McFadden’s power is actually something worth calling into question. I am not skeptical of his strength and athleticism. He has plenty of both to be an elite NFL running back. The problem is his knowledge of how to use it. Any type of power you generate when it comes to delivering or deflecting a blow comes from the legs and hips. Not only do these body parts have to be strong, but they also need to be positioned well to transfer energy from your body to your target.
They explain this in more detail on shows that study the physics of martial arts—for example, National Geographic did a special where they hooked up UFC fighters like Randy Couture to sensors that measure force and flow of energy throughout the body. I know it seems a bit like a jump to apply this to a running back, but it’s not. Think about a runner heading through the line of scrimmage and they are come face to face with a DT, LB, or DB greeting them head-on. If the runner’s hips and knees are bent then his shoulders will have to be leaning forward so he can explode into the contact. When he makes contact, the energy transfers from his legs in the ground, up his hips, and to the point of contact with the defender.
A great runner has learned through a combination of repetition and intuitive assimilation of practice and game situations (natural talent) how to subtly change the angle of contact in close quarters and deliver enough of a blow to at least “shed” the tackle, if not just knock guy on his butt. This is why a back such as Eddie George who “ran too high” coming out of college actually was a good NFL player. He was taller than the average back, but he knew how to lower his shoulders and bend his knees and hips so more times than not he exploded into contact.
The same can be said with Eric Dickerson. Most people remember his “upright” running style, but if you watch highlights that don’t involve him running through creases untouched for 40- 60 yards and looking like Carl Lewis in pads, you’ll see a guy who could get low very quick and deliver a blow with his shoulders into contact. Adrian Peterson is capable of the same thing. I never once worried about his upright running style. The guy has monstrously great balance. When I first thought about comparisons to Peterson vs. McFadden I would watch how McFadden would get yanked out-of-bounds by the arm a hit to the hips, or a horse collar and see right away from the standpoint of balance Peterson is uniquely different–he stayed in bounds on plays like this all the time (which is what is one of quite a few things special about his skills). But this also has to do with hip and leg alignment and good use of his strength.
When I see McFadden in the hole he gets yanked backwards more than many backs (even compared to 6-0, 200-lb Felix Smith) in the hole or knocked down on is butt from head-on hits because his knee bend and hip bend is just not there. How can you tell? Look at his shoulders. A back like George or Dickerson often ran as if their shoulders were a big hand on a clock pointed to the number 2 or at worst between the number 1 and number 2. A back like McFadden is somewhere between the 12 and 1 and never quite at 1. It’s why when he gets hit in the hole he’ll fall backwards more than the average NFL-quality prospect. A back like Edgerrin James, who is unbelievably good at getting low, often gets closer to the number 3 position with his shoulder lean as he is still running forward. You can’t do this unless your hips and knees are bent.
It is not to say that McFadden never lowered his shoulders, but it was generally done in the open field with a significant running start against a defensive back. To his credit, he will break some long runs as a situational back because he showed the ability to run the designed offensive plays at Arkansas to perfection. Arkansas did a terrific job tailoring an offense around McFadden and Felix Jones by forcing defenses to overplay one and get burned by the other. SEC defenses have some of the best athletes in the country, especially on defense. But these fast athletes are used in highly aggressive defenses and they are susceptible to a glorified counter play with play action that will force them out of position when that play fake goes to an elite athlete in Jones.
The problems with McFadden show up when he had a reasonably normal freelance opportunity and he didn’t possess the vision or patience to allow these normal alternatives to develop. I’ve heard McFadden can catch, but after watching six games over a two-year period, I saw a runner who dropped easy passes on a consistent basis. Robert Meachem caught a lot of passes in workouts last year with his hands, but struggled as a rookie in-game situations. Once again, this is why game film is invaluable in telling how a player does when the pads come on, the fans are screaming, and the veterans are playing with a speed an intensity they’ve never seen before.
Like Reggie Bush, McFadden will learn that his speed isn’t as much of an advantage in the NFL as it is in college football. Speaking of Bush, I was very high on the USC back and still believe he has the skills to live up to the hype if he can stay healthy and stop pressing so hard to make the big play. In contrast, I think McFadden is more of a project that can develop into a franchise back if he corrects some serious deficiencies and works his butt off to do so.
Unfortunately, he hasn’t shown the maturity off the field and football has come rather easy to him. Having kids out-of-wedlock or some college bar fights doesn’t make him a hardened criminal, but I believe the odds are against him to take his work ethic to the level of a Ladainian Tomlinson or Peyton Manning. And McFadden needs to work this hard to make the jump or he will most likely disappoint. The one way I could see how his evaluation is off base is if McFadden’s injuries severely altered his running style and he was generally cruising off his incredible speed, but I’m skeptical this is the case. My best overall grade of McFadden indicates he clearly has the talent to contribute in the NFL, but needs a lot of work to be the primary offensive weapon.
Felix Jones, Arkansas: I believe Jones will become a viable situational back in the NFL, but to rate him a top five back in this draft is a big leap of faith in a player who only carried the football 20 times once in his college career. Nearly two-thirds of Jones’ carries were as a receiver on end-arounds with McFadden as the quarterback. Linebackers and defensive ends won’t be as concerned about most NFL quarterbacks as college defenders were with McFadden’s blazing speed. The Wild Hog formation at Arkansas was mutually beneficial to both players. I think Jones has the skills to develop into a productive contributor based on a game where he ran primarily out of the I-formation as the RB, but there are several other backs that proved they could produce without a decoy that runs a 4.33 40-yard dash. Jones will contribute in the NFL as a kick return specialist and change of pace runner, but I’m not as convinced he’ll be the lock as a future starter as others. I have no qualms about drafting him because he has some Clinton Portis potential, but even Portis splitting time with Edgerrin James and Najeh Davenport showed much more on film than Jones.
Mike Hart, Michigan: The former Wolverine is a tough runner with good balance and movement, but he lacks the speed and acceleration to develop along the lines of a back of similar dimensions in this draft that I rated much higher—Ray Rice. Hart is also a fairly significant liability as a pass protector. He ran behind a very large offensive line that seemed to be outclassed versus top competition. Michigan has a recent history of turning out
disappointing skill position players. Although I believe Hart could develop into a solid depth chart player, but he’s too small to be this slow. I project Hart as a change of pace back who is capable of a contributing in relief of an injured starter, but he’ll be exposed for his deficiencies if considered for a starting role.
Underrated RB Prospects
Kevin Smith, University of Central Florida: How does a 2000-yard rusher qualify as underrated? When analysts and draftniks dismiss him as a baby-faced junior who is too thin, too easy to bring down, and indecisive at the point of attack. The only thing that they have right is the remark about his face—and that doesn’t win or lose football games. Smith is bigger than Darren McFadden and will likely add another 10 pounds of muscle as he matures because it’s his upper body that is on the thinner side. He already has a very muscular trunk and runs with good balance.
The skills that make Smith special are his vision, hard-cutting style, and hip flexibility, which are reminiscent of no back since Marcus Allen. Smith faced 9- and 10-men fronts and demonstrated a decisive style. I watched him have a very productive day against a stout Mississippi State defense that loaded up the box to stop him. Although he needs to do a better job of moving his legs when wrapped up, he has deceptive power and runs out of more hits and ankle tackles than advertised. The fact that he’s one of the best pure runners in this draft and he is still raw as a player makes Smith an underrated commodity.
In a few years Smith has a strong chance to be known as the best back in this class if he can capitalize on his vast talent. What will hold him back early is his need to improve his skills as a receiver. Nevertheless, Smith will excite teammates, fans, and fantasy owners with his running style. My only concern with Smith is his hard-cutting style. Some of the backs that share this aspect of his style suffered knee injuries that robbed them of their skill.
Matt Forte, Tulane: Forte is described as a big back (which is ironic when you consider some of the same people who say this about Forte describe Kevin Smith—a back with the same dimensions—as too thin), but what surprised observers at the combine was his speed and agility. What impressed me was his ability to combine excellent vision with change of direction skills ranging from the subtle to the dramatic. Forte played behind an offensive line routinely over-matched by its opposition and he demonstrated the ability to pick and slide away from penetrating defenders into the backfield. I saw a number of runs from Forte where many backs would have lost 5-7 yards when Forte had gains of 5-7 yards.
This is due to his quick first step, vision, and change of direction. It won’t take more than a year or two for Forte to get a shot as a starter. His greatest deficiency is his inconsistent approach to pass blocking. Even without refined pass protection skills, Forte should compete for time on the field as a rookie.
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.