Senior Bowl Running Backs

Thor Nystrom

If you want my breakdown of this year's Senior Bowl quarterbacks, you can check that out here. Also be sure to check out Derrik Klassen's offensive and defensive line previews for Saturday's contest. Now let's dive into the running backs down in Mobile!

Ke'Shawn Vaughn (Vanderbilt) | 5’10/218

Gosh I love prospects like Ke'Shawn Vaughn. They make the job so easy. Straightforward. Know exactly what you’re going to get. Know what he can and cannot do. Refreshing.

I’ll tell you who Ke'Shawn Vaughn is. Ke'Shawn Vaughn is a Mike Shanahan Denver Bronco of a certain era who would have gone 1.1 in at least two August fantasy drafts with your buddies and maybe won a Super Bowl MVP. He missed his time, for sure.

Vaughn doesn’t pass block. I mean literally – he didn’t do it much with the Commodores. (But he was bad when he did). And he isn’t much of a receiver. You can argue untapped potential with guys like this. 

But be careful about tossing around extra credit in evaluations. Mostly, don’t. Projecting is okay off empirical data, even if you have just an ounce of it. You’re a visionary when you’re right. Projecting without empirical data is a form of mental illness.

Vaughn is a pure runner. A Vitamin D, need-sunlight, one-cut, bye-bye back. Once he finds his crease and slashes in, he’s gunning it. He doesn’t want to weave through cones, he doesn’t want to hop over the intersection like Vin Diesel. He’s in front of the train tracks and he wants to floor it.

In the current era of pro ball, Vaughn still has value, but his type is becoming more back-to-the-basket seven-footer and slugging designated hitter that doesn’t get on base by the year. I think he would have gone at least two rounds higher 15 years ago.

 

Verdict: Do you run a zone scheme? Can you roster another back to handle passing downs? You’re (very) interested. Everyone else, look in a different direction.

Thor’s early grade: Round 4 

Lamical Perine (Florida) | 5’11/218

Perine is going out outlast a small handful of more-sexy runners in this class in terms of career length. We know this, and yet it’s hard to talk ourselves into him. He’s the broccoli of this RB class. You should hold off on the position and take a Day 3 flier on him. But cake tastes better.

The things Perine does lend themselves to hanging around. At least. And players like this have a way of finding opportunities and seizing them. But it’s also true that Perine will always be replaceable because he doesn’t possess elite traits. 

Samaje’s cousin is a headstrong runner. He fights for every yard and sometimes surprises you with a nifty bit of creativity after you’re expecting another 94-mile per hour heater, like slamming on the brakes to come to a complete stop before hitting reverse against the flow of traffic. 

But mostly he’s grinding. He’s developed a nice array of compensatory mechanisms to make up for his lack of athleticism. In addition to the toughness and strength, he’s a patient runner with decent vision. 

And where you can really squeeze value out of Perine is in the pass game. He blocks his butt off, which the NFL will appreciate more than #DraftTwitter. But #DraftTwitter will like this: Perine is a strong receiver who you can line up out wide. He caught 40 balls last year. 

Don’t pay too much attention to the 2019 rushing rate stats. Florida lost most of its offensive line and was checking Gainesville shuffleboard courts to see if any local retirees had remaining plug-and-play eligibility at one point. 

Perine isn’t a Clyde Edwards-Helaire type, the sort of dude who terrifies you in space, but he just sort of lunchpails the heck out of it wherever he is on the field. When he catches the ball, he isn’t going far. But he’s typically coming down with it if it’s in his vicinity, and he’ll run you a quality route.

 

Verdict: We’ve got an Alexander Mattison sale on aisle 6!

Thor’s early grade: Round 5

Joshua Kelley (UCLA) | 5’11/219

When Kelley was entering his junior year, I thought he would go ballistic in Chip Kelley’s offense. He certainly didn’t bomb. I guess I just wanted more. (Which is my problem, I grant you). 

At this point, Kelley just is what he is. An inside grinder. Good vision. Beats you to the spot. Muscles around in there. He’s going to reliably churn out inside yards at the next level. Not epically so, like Derrick Henry. Efficiently, boringly so.

That’s great. But that’s also basically the cheapest asset you can find in pro football. That’s why the concept of running backs as replaceable is a concept. Because offensive lines block a theoretical amount of air yards. Some guys steal, say, one more per play. Some guys rip off a crooked number every five carries or so. Kelley is more in the former camp.

The issue is that he won’t give you a ton else. He could do a little damage on the outside in college, but his athletic limitations are probably going to severely limit that kind of usage going forward. His NFL team will always employ at least one runner who should be doing that work instead. Likely two.

And Kelley isn’t a big contributor in the pass game. He’s a so-so receiver and surprisingly substandard in pass pro for a player of his type. To hang around, he’s going to need to level up in one of those two categories. Seeing as though he spent five years in college, I guess I just see him as more of a finished product than a ball of clay in that regard. 

 

Verdict: A banger with a little juice, Kelley’s NFL contributions may begin and end between the tackles, making him a baby dinosaur entering a techno age – watch out for meteors!

Thor’s early grade: UDFA

JaMycal Hasty (Baylor) | 5’9/205

JaMycal Hasty is small, he’s slippery, and he accelerates very, very quickly. He’s reportedly been clocked in the 4.3s in the 40-yard dash. Eye test says the low 4.4s in Indy feels more likely.

He gets to top speed so quickly, and he processes bodies in motion so quickly at that speed, and he’s so fearless when he’s hurtling downfield, that he appeared to be moving at different speeds than the flat-footed collegiate defenders around him in the open field at times while at Baylor.

Yeah, he’s small. But he’s one of those “force = mass x acceleration” small guys. As a safety, when all of a sudden a head-of-steam Hasty is bearing down on you at 100 mph while you’re trying to peel off a block, you’re not getting the best of the collision. Even if you have 20 pounds on the guy.

Hasty adds value as a receiver. You’ll want to deploy him as such when throwing. Because even though he’s a willing blocker, his force is derived from the “acceleration” part of the equation, not the mass part, and he seems a bit tentative in approach without his cape, from standstill.

There are several fears with Hasty. The first is that he never ran for even 650 yards in college. He never had 140 touches in a collegiate season. And his skillset – small and not a freaky athlete – doesn’t translate well to the pros besides.  If you’re playing the odds, you wouldn’t bet on him.

 

Verdict: Space player who’s loads of fun to watch, but he never equaled the sum of his parts in Waco and that isn’t likely to suddenly begin in the NFL.

Thor’s early grade: UDFA

Darius Anderson (TCU) | 5’11/212

I see Anderson as a Quadruple-A prospect. He’s decent at several things. And it sort of ends there. For me, anyway.

Anderson was a decent runner in college. No more. And a decent receiver in college. No more. And where I have concerns for him is that he doesn’t possess any standout athletic traits or playing traits which make me think he’s going to get better in the pros.

But he does have one thing going for him. Anderson is a strong pass blocker. And because he takes what’s blocked for him as a runner and sometimes gets a little more, and because you can also send him out on a route and not get cheated, he may have his place late on Day 3. 

For me, I’d way rather have a guy like Perine if I’m going to go conventionally boring. Because Perine’s skillset sneaks up on you. Anderson’s lulls you to sleep. 

 

Verdict: Jack-of-all-trades-master-of-none runner caught in a stacked running back class.

Thor’s early grade: UDFA

Eno Benjamin (Arizona State) | 5’10/210

Man was I an Eno Benjamin fan in college. I’ve followed him closely ever since he committed to my beloved Iowa Hawkeyes. Unfortunately for me, he changed his mind. 

He’s such a fun, unconventional back. A small, tasmanian devil workhorse who handles heavy volume, breaks a crap-ton of tackles with his whirling dervish style and hurts you in a variety of ways.

Eno catches the ball – at volume, of course, if needed – and he’s a dangerous one-cut runner in the zone game. He gets claustrophobic and his brain shuts down when he can’t cut into creases, so it’d probably be best to keep him running zone concepts in the pros as much as possible.  

Benjamin adds the receiving element Vaughn lacks, while similarly being averse to pass-blocking. To this point, Benjamin has seemed more attractive than Vaughn. But he’s risker by degrees. Because whereas Vaughn’s game is so crystal-clear straightforward in terms of projection, Benjamin’s is complicated by size, athleticism and style questions. 

Being undersized didn’t hurt him in the Pac-12. Same as it didn’t hurt, for instance, Paul Perkins, the player to whom Pro Football Focus comps Benjamin. His game played as an undersized, non-explosive, street brawler – and his body held up. We’ll have to see on both accounts in the NFL. Either way, Benjamin needs to cut down on the fumbling.

I’m going to confide a few things. One, I love me some Eno. I may be wearing maroon and gold glasses here. Two, I’m a sucker for this kind of back, good and bad. I liked Dalvin Cook and Devonta Freeman coming out. I was a big fan of Motor Singletary last year. But I, ahem, also thought that Paul Perkins was going to be an NFL starter. So, you know. Can’t win ‘em all.

 

Verdict: For zone teams who like multidimensional backs and are willing to embrace risk, Eno’s juice is worth the squeeze in the middle rounds.

Thor’s early grade: Round 4