Archer's Arrow Points More To Dunn, Not Sproles
The Pittsburgh Steelers rarely surprise their fans when it comes to the draft. Line up the board, address the needs of the team and conduct business as usual. Not this time. In the third round of this year’s draft, Steeler Nation’s eyebrows were raised a little when Pittsburgh selected RB Dri Archer.
Archer was selected with the 97th overall pick, before the Steelers addressed their wide receiver or cornerback needs. After LeGarrette Blount’s signing, it seemed as though the running back position was solidified. Enter Archer; a smaller, more agile runner with pass-catching abilities who posted the fastest 40-yard dash time at the NFL Combine.
When it comes to comparisons, most people quickly reference new Philadelphia Eagles RB Darren Sproles, who is a smallish back with big-play ability like Archer. When analyzing the skill sets of these running backs, however, it becomes apparent the similarities between the two may end with their smaller physique.
Sproles had an extensive resume as a running back out of Kansas State; accumulating 4,979 rushing yards in four years. As Sproles transitioned into the NFL, coaches were reluctant to feature him as a true feature back handling a high volume of carries. However, he became a viable receiver in the flat and more prominently in the red zone with the New Orleans Saints.
The fact still remains in New Orleans that the team ran the ball by committee under offensive coordinator Pete Carmichael. This isn’t a knock against Sproles not being able to put a stranglehold on the position, but a testament to his particular capabilities as a receiver rather than a running back. Sproles has only amassed more than 400 yards once as a rusher in his eight-year career to go along with 11 touchdowns as a ball carrier. As a receiver, he’s been above 500 yards in each of the last four years and has 27 TDs for his career.
Why are these stats important to Archer?
If he is being compared to Sproles, then Archer must measure up to those numbers or risk being labeled as something of a disappointment.
During an interview on The David Todd Show, Kent State’s offensive coordinator Brian Rock talked about Archer’s abilities as a running back. “He’s really fast and that’s what everybody talks about, but I’m not convinced that’s his greatest quality, “said Rock. “He has unbelievable vision. He can really see things and has a great change of direction, so he rarely takes a direct hit and I think that’s one of the things that really helped him over the long run.”
When asked about his pass protection, Rock added, “He’ll come in and cut them down with the best of them. He’ll take them on up top. He’s not a coward, that’s for dang sure.”
It’s no secret coaches will embellish the qualities of their former players as they transition to the NFL, but the tape doesn’t lie. The coaching staff will break down film from minicamps and practices to identify Archer’s strengths and weaknesses.
According to ESPN reporter Scott Brown, Kent State coach Paul Haynes questioned his decision to feature Archer more so as receiver than a running back. "I think one of the biggest mistakes we made here is flexing him out," Haynes said. "We needed to keep him at running back just because we could have gotten him more touches. He has great vision, he has great feet, he has great burst -- all the things a good running back needs to be."
Archer’s skills as a ball carrier may go under the radar as he’ll be placed behind starting RB Le’Veon Bell and Blount on the depth chart. As a special teams player, he’ll see much of the field as a kick/punt returner and can still make an impact and relieve breakout WR Antonio Brown of his special teams duties. However, if Blount or Bell are hindered by injury, the Steelers shouldn’t hesitate to hand the ball off to their third-round draft pick.
His speed and vision could pay dividends as a change-of-pace running back, giving the Steelers an advantage late in the game when fatigue becomes a factor. A pair of fresh and faster legs should be able to shed tackles and hit the gaps. Another undersized running back played a similar role on the Tampa Bay Buccaneers and Atlanta Falcons during his NFL career, Warrick Dunn.
Dunn was a track and field star at Florida State with the aptitude to become a prominent NFL running back. Dunn was a decent receiver but made his mark between the tackles and accumulated more than 1,000 yards in five of his 12 seasons in the NFL. Archer could be a 1,000 yard rusher if given the opportunity. The luxury of the dual running back system that most teams have adapted to is preservation, something players like Dunn didn’t have a decade ago.
Bell and Blount will take majority of the carries this upcoming season but if one or both players leave Pittsburgh at some point down the road, Archer could be an option out of the backfield for the future. His receiving abilities will be serviceable but Sproles has a knack for reaching the end zone after the catch. Sproles will not produce 1,000-yard rushing seasons but Archer does possess those capabilities similar to Dunn.
Thus far, the Steelers have only indicated that Archer will be used “creatively”, which leaves much room for imagination. Offensive coordinator Todd Haley will have to find a way to familiarize the rookie with the game plan and translate his speed into production. Regardless of how he’s used let’s hold off on his comparison to Sproles and see where he fits in this particular offense that isn’t as wide open as the Saints.