Stock Tips: Week 2
You may recall hearing about the statistical anomaly during the coverage of the 2013 NFL Draft. Not a single running back was selected in the first round. That hadn’t happened since the 1963 draft, they said. Which is true, but it was actually more than a once-in-a-half-century occurrence.
That’s because the 1963 NFL Draft actually was held on Dec. 4, 1962. That was about six weeks after the end of the Cuban Missile Crisis. About four months before The Beatles released their first album. Bo Jackson was five days old.
As I watched a series of Saturday games, I found myself wondering whether history would repeat itself, whether there was a back worth taking in the first round of the 2014 draft.
Our regular Monday review of prospect performances features not a collection of conclusions but a handful of questions that were raised during Week 2.
1. Is there a first-round running back out there?
I have to preface this by acknowledging that I did not see any of Arizona’s win over UNLV. In this weekly column, I will refrain from commenting on prospects unless I watched their game live over the weekend. So I can’t share my impression of Ka’Deem Carey in his first game action of the season, other than to say his production alone (16 carries, 171 yards, 2 TDs) places him square in the middle of this conversation.
I did, however, get to watch both Lache Seastrunk and De’Anthony Thomas. And while I came away impressed by their explosiveness (how could you not be?), I also found myself wondering whether either one is a full-time NFL running back.
There’s little question that Seastrunk will be among the top two or three backs drafted, and he sure looks like a guy who can carry the ball in the NFL. At 5-foot-10, 210 pounds, he is solid enough to carry the ball between the tackles and elusive enough to find daylight. I was struck by his smooth running style, how he comes out of breaks seemingly at full speed, how he slides sideways without breaking stride. He looks like an NFL running back.
But there are two issues that concern me, which I suspect might worry the NFL as well.
First, I have no idea whether he can make a block in pass protection. I never noticed him having to do that on Saturday, and that is often the biggest obstacle keeping a rookie running back off the field. If a back can’t contribute to pass protection in a league that threatens to pass on every down, he can’t stay on the field. David Wilson’s playing time was limited last year not just because of his fumble problems; Eli Manning wasn’t comfortable with Wilson being out there as part of his protection detail.
This is not to suggest Seastrunk can’t do it. It’s just something scouts are going to want to see him do in game situations before they can get a complete picture of his potential.
And the other question is whether Seastrunk can catch the ball out of the backfield. Again, this is not doubting his abilities; it’s just that we’ve not seen him do something that is asked of any running back who plans to stay on the field as an every down back.
Maybe if Seastrunk had touched the ball in the second half of Saturday’s beatdown of Buffalo, we would have seen him catch a ball or two. But that’s doubtful. He doesn’t have a reception in Baylor’s first two games this season, and he caught only nine balls last year.
If it’s a product of the Bears’ offense, that’s one thing. But if Seastrunk isn’t targeted because the Baylor coaches feel he’s not a reliable receiver, that is going to cost him – and maybe keep him out of the first round.
There is no question about Thomas’ abilities as a receiver out of the backfield, even if he had only one catch in Saturday’s blowout win at Virginia. He had 91 career receptions for more than 1,000 yards coming into the season. More than one-third of his college touches have come in the passing game.
What worries me about Thomas is that I’m not sure the NFL sees him as a running back. It’s not his height but his size in general. You can be 5-9 and play running back in the NFL; it’s just tough to imagine doing it at 169 pounds.
Darren Sproles is three inches shorter than Thomas. But he’s got 20 pounds on him. Even LaMichael James weighs 195 pounds.
Thomas, like Seastrunk, is a dynamic player in space. No one gets to the edge faster, turns the corner faster, accelerates faster or is faster at full speed than Thomas. But I watch him and see Tavon Austin, not Reggie Bush.
Ultimately, I don’t think the decision about Thomas is whether or not he’s a first-round talent. It’s whether or not an NFL running back.
2. Did Aaron Lynch actually make his South Florida debut on Saturday?
I know the answer. I actually spotted him on the field throughout the game – though it was rarely around the ball, and practically never near the quarterback. It wasn’t the grand unveiling that Lynch had hoped for.
There have been people who have compared Lynch’s pro potential favorably to Jadeveon Clowney’s. While Clowney has struggled to accumulate the kind of statistics that might have landed him in the Heisman race, he is still having an impact on the games he’s played in. Both North Carolina and Georgia made commitments to defending him; when you are a cornerstone of an opponent’s gameplan, you’ve influenced the game, regardless of what the stat sheet says afterward.
Lynch was a non-factor. He was in on a couple of tackles and recorded one hurry. But I never saw the kind of explosiveness that I had expected. And I saw him get flattened on one play. By Michigan State’s tight end. (He did look like he slipped before being blocked; nonetheless, he put himself in position to be taken out too easily too often).
I suspect Lynch will use Saturday’s home game against Florida Atlantic to make the statement he missed the chance to do against the Spartans. But I’ll be more interested to see him against Miami and Louisville, when we’ll really be able to tell how much that year on the sidelines set back his development.
3. Is Miami's play-calling hurting Stephen Morris?
This is not a an attempt to rationalize the unimpressive statistics (12-fr-25, 162 yards, 2 TDs, 1 INT) of a player I have rated as my fourth-best quarterback in the draft class. That he’s completing less than 52 percent of his pass attempts through two games, that he’s thrown for only 322 yards and three touchdowns is concerning.
But as I watched the Miami-Florida game, I found myself wondering whether he was being set up to fail by the Hurricanes’ gameplan.
He was in third-and-long all day long. It seemed every series in the second and third quarters played out the same – 1st down, run stuffed; 2nd down, run stuffed; 3rd down, Morris forced to throw downfield against a Florida defense studded with NFL talent (there can’t possibly be a more talented tandem of college cornerbacks anywhere than Loucheiz Purifoy and Marcus Roberson).
NFL scouts love Morris’ arm. But there’s a difference between throwing a pretty deep ball (as he did on his 52-yard touchdown to Phillip Dorsett) and having to throw deep or intermediate passes against a defense fully expecting it.
Miami’s offensive coaches didn’t discover the short passing game on first down until late in the third quarter. When Morris came out throwing the ball to receivers in the flats, he looked far more in command of the Hurricanes offense than when he was backed into the desperate conditions of third-and-long.
There are holes in Morris’ game. He still holds the ball too long (patience is a virtue; but exposing yourself to sacks is a sure ticket to the sidelines). And he looked uncomfortable throwing on the run to his left (which is not unusual for a right-handed quarterback).
There is little doubt about Morris’ ability to make the kind of downfield throws that will be demanded of him at the next level. But he really needs to show he can checkdown and take advantage of the short passing game, too.
Right now, he’s not benefitting from Miami’s pro-style offense – probably because it’s a style overcommitted to the run that the NFL hasn’t played in a decade.