Just a few weeks remain until the 2012 season kicks off, with practices beginning the first full week of August. In preparation, I will share preseason positional breakdowns of the top seniors I have evaluated at each position, along with short rankings of non-senior prospects and a small list of other players at the position I will be evaluating next. I guess this can be called a series, since a new position will (hopefully) go up every Monday, Wednesday, and Friday leading up to kickoff.
I have withheld my evaluations on non-seniors for multiple reasons. I understand these draft-eligible prospects usually generate the most attention, but I feel prospects in their final season deserve our attention right now. We have no clue which juniors will forego their final year of eligibility in January and enter the Draft. And although juniors may make up the top layer of the prospects at certain positions, the senior class generates the depth and even diamonds in the rough.
Senior QB Preview
Senior Interior OL Preview
Senior Tackle Preview
The short shelf life and wear and tear of running backs in the NFL has been an important topic in recent years. Yet, despite some even suggesting teams should rarely give productive backs a second contract, three ball carriers were drafted in 2012’s first-round. However, I expect the same concerns to arise again this year, especially with the injury history that many of this year’s top prospects’ possess. With running backs I look beyond the box score and instead focus on their skills, and the group below certainly offers desirable qualities. Just keep a M.A.S.H. unit on standby.
1. Texas A&M’s Christine Michael (5’11/215) - Let me start by saying that Michael is coming off two season ending injuries, including a broken right tibia and most recently a torn left ACL. That is certainly not good. But, until medical reports leak out I can only go by his onfield resume, which I love. Between his balance, frame, vision, and agility, Michael offers the ability to lead his team in carries at the next level. He certainly has the physical elements of a heftier back, consistently finishing runs to gain extra yards. But Michael also offers the lateral moves of a smaller back to evade tacklers. He is the best of both worlds. The combination of either making tacklers miss in the hole or bulling them over on short runs is certainly coveted in the NFL. It may be a slow start for Michael, but from what I have seen thus far he is the best senior back in the country.
2. Clemson’s Andre Ellington (5’10/190) - For a zone heavy team, Ellington is the best schematic fit of the senior group. He obviously possesses the necessary speed and acceleration abilities to fit a one cut system, but Ellington’s decisiveness on those cuts is what will make him successful in the NFL. When he is up to full speed, Ellington can break a fair amount of tackles, but the same cannot be said at the line of scrimmage. The Tiger’s base is not overly wide, leading to a lack of natural balance, and coupled with his thinner frame Ellington will not be relied on to pick up the difficult yards that require pushing the pile. But Ellington does possess explosive lateral and upfield moves while constantly changing tacklers’ angles. He is adequate in pass protection but is limited to being a cut blocker, and as a receiver Ellington flashes adjusting to difficult throws but is more of a body catcher than natural plucker. In situations where lanes are limited and Ellington is forced to create on his own, he struggles, however, if given the smallest seam by slanting linemen, Ellington will make defenses pay due to his decisive cuts and straight-line speed.
3. Pittsburgh’s Ray Graham (5’9/195) - Coming off of a torn right ACL suffered in late October, I doubt Graham will be at full speed at any point during this season, especially with his style of play. The Panther is a power cutter, eating up plenty of ground while engaging in physical contact at each level. Graham is a stout and sturdy ball carrier but shows an elusive side in short areas with lateral moves. I am concerned about Graham’s straight-line speed, but not every runner has to have home run, breakaway ability. Graham need to clean up his pass protecting consistency. He flashes the power on first contact, but too often he does not give full effort or a balanced base. I look forward to seeing Graham in a new offense, since many of his runs last year came from a read option set.
4. Arkansas’ Dennis Johnson (5’9/213) - After taking over for the injured Knile Davis, Johnson shined. I see so many similarities between a young Michael Turner and the third-down ability of Mike Tolbert (and I usually hate comparisons). Speaking of third-down, Johnson is the best back in the country in these situations. His blend of reliable pass protecting along with his slippery style as a receiver is something numerous NFL teams could use. Sure, if I was in dire need of a two-down running back I might draft Montee Ball ahead of Johnson, but in terms of matchups and putting players in situations they can win, Johnson’s passing down skills are in high demand. As a ball carrier, he is a slick one hop runner that is unafraid of bulling tacklers over at the point of attack. Blessed with a large base, Johnson gives defenders fits when they are attempting to bring him down. Due to his size, some may underestimate Johnson’s straight-line speed. You shouldn’t. He might not be my top back in this class, but due to his excellent vision, soft hands, and physical style Johnson is a player I would want on my team more than others.
5. Wisconsin’s Montee Ball (5’9/212) - As one of the most statistically impressive backs in NCAA history, Ball is a by the book runner and consistently hits the hole with his shoulders over his toes, covering the ball with both arms. The Badger is best between the tackles, cut or spinning into open space while breaking plenty of arm tackles. However, Ball’s movements aren’t overly explosive, and most of all he lacks vision. Some of you may question that comment, which is fine, but I repeatedly saw him run into blockers rather than find the hole. It just so happened that those blockers were three or four yards past the line of scrimmage. I see a reliable running back in Ball that flashes changing linebackers angles but I doubt he has the talent to be a major contributor at the next level. Obviously I do not have a major issue with Ball’s college workload or durability after ranking two backs ahead of him that are coming off major injuries, I just question if he possesses more than adequate NFL talent.
6. Nebraska’s Rex Burkhead (5’11/210) - I admire Burkhead, because I would hate to play in the Cornhusker offense. In fact, I dread evaluating their offensive talent because of how anemic it is. Although, Burkhead is a breath of fresh air because of his grittiness and willingness to pick up every yard that is afforded to him. Burkhead could be viewed as a bit methodical and he lacks real confident, fluid cuts, but Burkhead works behind his blocks and always leans forward. Along with being an adequate receiving back, Burkhead finds creases at the second level and changes tacklers angles with exaggerated head movements. Sadly, I saw a lot of negative runs that failed to get back to the line of scrimmage, but the Cornhuskers offensive line could take the blame for that.
7. Oregon’s Kenjon Barner (5’11/195) - Barner is a burner, but he needs a clear running lane to get anywhere. Behind a muddied line Barner shows plenty of apprehension, even showing hesitant moves at the second level rather than hitting top speed. Unlike other scat backs, I would stop short in saying Barner has excellent burst as he tends to build up speed, but once he hits that top gear, especially along the sideline, he is gone. Just like his Duck running mates, I worry when I see a large portion of his big runs coming after drifting to the sideline or turning the corner on collegiate defenses. It is not as effective in the NFL. I see flashes where Barner is willing to cut back inside, but once his upper body is wrapped up the senior is immediately on the ground.
8. UCLA’s Johnathan Franklin (5’10/195) - Coming from an offense that heavily utilizes the pistol formation, Franklin may line up in a more traditional set this season under Jim Mora Jr. The senior takes some time to build up speed and lacks that explosive burst others' possess, but I am intrigued when Franklin flashes flexible hips to weave around trash at the line of scrimmage. UCLA’s offensive line was atrocious, yet Franklin was consistently able to make positive plays out of little room. There is nothing overly sudden about Franklin, and it appears he prefers to run in open space rather than stick between the hashes, but he will be a reliable third or possibly second back in the NFL.
Junior Running Backs:
1. South Carolina’s Marcus Lattimore
2. Arkansas’ Knile Davis
3. Michigan State’s Le’Veon Bell
4. Alabama’s Eddie Lacy
5. Oklahoma’s Roy Finch
6. USC’s Silas Redd
7. Notre Dame’s Cierre Wood
8. Oklahoma State’s Joseph Randle
9. LSU’s Spencer Ware
10. N/A’s Michael Dyer
Seniors On Deck (To Watch):
Utah’s John White IV
USC’s Curtis McNeal
Stanford’s Stepfan Taylor
Oklahoma's Dominique Whaley
Boise State’s D.J. Harper
Miami’s Mike James
Jacksonville State’s Washaun Ealey
Auburn’s Onterio McCalebb
California’s Isi Sofele