When evaluating different positions, there are different “rules” used when valuing experience. For example, among Bill Parcells’ qualifications for quarterback prospects, starting over 30 collegiate games was a must. While those rules are outdated in 2019, quarterback experience can still be a valued commodity for NFL teams.
When scouting running backs, there’s been a turn in how experience is valued. Running backs have historically short shelf lives in the NFL, so players entering the league with hundreds upon hundreds of collegiate carries are closer to being worn down. Therefore, the more sought after running backs have been those who have found success in a bit of a limited role in college.
The shining example of this class is Alabama’s Joshua Jacobs, who is garnering much deserved RB1 hype despite just 251 carries over three collegiate seasons. His “fresh legs” are seen as a positive, and they should be, because he’s done enough on those carries to become an easy projection as an NFL running back.
Another example of fresh legs upon entering the NFL is Penn State’s Miles Sanders. He entered his junior season with just 56 career carries, as he was stuck behind Saquon Barkley. I’m not sure if you’ve heard, but that Barkley guy is pretty good, so there’s really no shame in being the running back backing him up.
In his lone starting season as a Junior in 2018, Sanders carried the ball 220 times, finding enough success to declare for the NFL Draft. Sanders’ most impressive game this season came against Illinois, as he showed traits that make him a lock for my personal top 5 running backs in the 2019 Draft.
Right from the start, Sanders showed a unique combination of setting up his blockers and then picking up yards through contact. His shuffle to the outside allowed his left tackle to work up to the linebacker with proper hat placement, and Sanders got vertical through tacklers in a hurry:
As Penn State got down into the redzone, Sanders continued to show how he defeats contact with strength and shiftiness in his lower half. Notice how Sanders’ feet are constantly moving in a controlled manner, taking advantage of defenders who approach out of control or without necessary power:
Sanders is stout in close quarters, and that translates to his strength in space. When given the opportunity to build up speed, Sanders will pick up chunks of yards working through contact:
The term “pad level” is often used with running backs, and refers to the leverage in which they run with. Sanders is one of the few running backs in the class with a classic build on 5’11 and pushing 220 pounds, and he runs with low pads and high-churning knees. This pad-level allows Sanders to stay underneath defenders and consistently displace them:
Part of playing running back in the NFL is practicing patience behind the line of scrimmage. The often-used term is “patient to, explode through” as the offensive line works to develop a clear gap to run through. Sanders has flashes of elite ability in this area, as his vision is already at an NFL-level:
Along with the vision to wait for holes to open, knowing when to bounce runs outside towards open grass can be equally as effective. When his anticipated gap is cloudy, Sanders will hit the outside and accelerate into space:
Sanders utilizes his lateral agility whenever defenders seemingly have a beat on him near the line of scrimmage, and he will accelerate in a flash after those lateral cuts. This trait is one that the most elusive NFL running backs possess:
Midway through the third quarter, Sanders showed once again that tackling technique needs to be perfect to slow his charge. As he exploded through the hole and got vertical, he broke the tackle of the safety and eventually ran for the long touchdown:
During the entirety of Sanders’ game against Illinois, he had no negative runs. On top of that, a whopping 13 of his 22 runs went for 6 yards or more. Despite a long run of “just” 48 yards on his touchdown run, he accumulated 200 rushing yards on 22 carries. Sanders did all of this while only carrying the ball once in the fourth quarter.
The Illinois game was the one that convinced me that Sanders will end up as a top 5 running back in the class, as he showed a complete game carrying the ball. Contact balance and vision are immediately translatable traits to the next level, and they are prevalent throughout all of Sanders’ film.
While Sanders doesn’t strike me as a player who will dominate the NFL Scouting Combine, he should validate his strength and continue to rise up draft boards after the trip to Indianapolis.