As much as I value pre-draft evaluations, the prospect’s landing spot is a pivotal part of the process. Few talents can transcend any scheme and impact their team’s success. In fact, plenty of starters and contributors at the NFL level only fill certain roles and might not be considered a long term starter at that position. It is all about figuring out where a player wins and giving them a chance to succeed in that area. In this series I will take a look at prospects selected on the third day that could offer an immediate impact thanks to their strengths and situations. I will never call myself an expert on the coverages and schemes that are included, but I am working hard to learn, so feel free to (politely) point me in the right direction. With that said, I cannot recommend this defensive write up by Jene Bramel enough.
Rams offensive coordinator Brian Schottenheimer has some new toys to play with this season in the form of Tavon Austin, Stedman Bailey, Jared Cook and the (hopefully) improving Brian Quick. On top of that, the Rams attempted to upgrade the offensive line, an aspect of the team that has suffered due to injuries and a lack of talent. In total, I expect Schottenheimer to expand on his Air Coryell playbook and get creative.
These athletic targets will certainly help the passing game, but with Steven Jackson’s departure to Atlanta, a need for a runner who thrives between the tackles was created. Don’t get me wrong, Jackson could do much more and was one of the most consistent backs of the last decade, even on poor teams.
Last season, seventh-rounder Daryl Richardson appeared to do his best work on outside stretches, showing good speed once getting to the edge and beating defenders to the second level. Isaiah Pead admitted that his rookie season was “miserable,” but the talent is there as a runner and receiver. Enter fifth-round pick Zac Stacy out of Vanderbilt, a player I listed in my top-151 prospects pre-draft (at No. 96).
The Texans are often the team most associated with a zone blocking scheme, but the Rams feature this style much more than given credit for. In fairness, every team incorporates some zone tendencies, and I am not sure I would call it the backbone of the Rams’ running game, but it is certainly prevalent. Point blank, I love Zac Stacy’s fit in this system.
I won’t get too detailed with zone blocking (for that breakdown read this) but Stacy’s strengths match up quite well. The basic gist is this: rather than giving offensive linemen the responsibility of a certain defender, they are responsible to block a certain section of the defensive front. When defenses started lining linemen face up and slanting them hard in one direction, pre-snap blocking assignments became more difficult to reach and accomplish. To combat this, offensive lines started slanting, producing a good amount of double teams until that free lineman peeled off to attack the second level.
Bounce, Bang, Bend, Cut
Now to Stacy. The first trait I love about Stacy’s game is his decisiveness. This, along with vision and anticipation to set up second level blocks, is a vital skill to have behind a slanting offensive line. In a zone system, the terms bounce, bang, bend, and cut are used in occurrence with running lanes.
Bounce: If the defensive end takes a hard inside lane and exposes the edge, it could be wise for the ball carrier to take the play outside, although a runner who tends to consistently stretch runs east and west rather than getting upfield is extremely frustrating. Stacy understands his speed limitations on the edge, but I did see him take advantage of aggressive ends and bounce runs into open space with increased effectiveness. It wouldn’t be my first choice for him, but Stacy can take advantage of a defensive mistake.
Bang: This angle is usually the designed alley that, in a perfect world, would be open. On an outside zone against a four man front, this lane would show if the end is forced outside and the tackle is forced inside. The goal is then to free the guard or center to the second level to attack the linebacker. Stacy showed no problem attacking well blocked alleys, planting in one step with adequate explosion to get upfield immediately.
Bend: When the defensive tackle is able to scrap over top and cover the “bang” direction all is not lost. If the backside blockers can win their section and seal off defenders, the running back can show patience and bend his way inside, using his oppositions’ momentum against them. Patience and hesitation are two very different things, and the result and timing show it. Stacy’s acceleration isn’t great, but his strength and vision to see these second level lanes forming prove he can take advantage of the “bend.” He will almost certainly face a defender unaccounted for in this situation, but another trait of Stacy’s I love is his ability to work through first contact. That doesn’t mean he will make that defender miss in space, but he can certainly run through arm tackles thanks to his balance.
Cut: This takes the “bend” principle to the extreme. If the defensive front sniffs out the front side run and slants accordingly, a lane on the backside could appear. Once again, this is using the defense’s momentum against them. These large angles and cuts have to be made quickly, so it will be interesting to see if Stacy speed translates from the college level in these situations.
The Rams running game is more than these zone principles, but I wanted to highlight the sections that were out of the ordinary when evaluating runners and projecting them to the NFL.
I know I just listed a ton of positives and sound (overly?) optimistic about a fifth-round runner, but I am a fan of Stacy’s. He isn’t without his faults, however, namely in the form of long speed and dynamic traits. A team that has added speed and electric ability this offseason could be looking for something that matches that mindset in the backfield. Or, they could see a runner who displays great vision with blocks at the second level, strong cuts thanks to a well-built frame and low center, consistent tackle breaking ability when dealing with first contact, and a willingness to stick his nose in on pass protection. If so, Zac Stacy should be the answer.