Preseason Top 5: Pac-12 Running Backs

Photo: Nov 4, 2017; Seattle, WA, USA; Washington Huskies running back Myles Gaskin (9) celebrates after rushing for a 34-yard touchdown against the Oregon Ducks during the second quarter at Husky Stadium. Mandatory Credit: Jennifer Buchanan-USA TODAY Sports

On the Wednesday episode of Locked On NFL Draft, my esteemed colleagues Trevor Sikkema and Jon Ledyard discussed Justice Hill of Oklahoma State, Myles Gaskin of Washington, and Bryce Love of Stanford: three sub-200 pound backs among the top targets in the 2019 crop.

They were right to express their concerns regarding these lighter backs. Only five running backs under 200 pounds posted any interesting numbers last season in terms of yards from scrimmage:

  • Tarik Cohen, CHI
  • Kerwynn Williams, ARI
  • Matt Breida, SF
  • Chris Thompson, WSH
  • Dion Lewis, NE

Of these players, we notice a few things.

Firstly, four of the five added had at least 100 yards of combined kick and punt return work, putting those four within the top 10 returning yards for all running backs in the league. Three had at least 450 -- Kerywnn, Dion, and Tarik -- they were the top three on the list.

Four of the five also had at least 4.5 YPA in the rushing game -- Top 20 numbers among running backs last season. Conversely, only three of the five hit Top 20 numbers for YPC among running backs, and of those three, only Chris Thompson had above average targets across the season.

What do good sub-200 backs do? They have a strong YPA profile as a runner (though they do it on relatively low volume, given their size worries); they add value as a returner; and they don't necessarily have to be world-beaters as receivers. We're talking about chance-of-pace, 1b players who can add juice. As such, when you see the Heisman nominee Bryce Love second to Myles Gaskin, don't assume it's because I don't have love for Bryce -- but rather, understand that I think Gaskin is a better between-the-tackles runner. When Tony Brooks-James surprises you with his ranking, think about what he offers as a returner.

And hey, schools list the wrong weights regardless, and all these guys are just gonna mass up over 200 for the Combine anyway. (My top four backs are all under 200 pounds -- whoops!)

1) Myles Gaskin, Senior, Washington (5'9, 191)

Top dawg! (That’s two puns already, folks.) Bryce Love gets the headlines and the buzz -- and rightfully so -- for his game-breaking ability, but Gaskin is the player I think has a more favorable pro outlook.

On receiving downs, it’s a clear edge: Gaskin has been more involved, runs a greater variety of routes with cleaner technique, and has proven his hands more reliable. In pass protection as well, Gaskin uses his thick lower half to explode into cut blocks with a high success rate. I just expressed how receiving ability isn't hugely important, but Gaskin does have experience running routes downfield and hitting option routes in zones -- he could profile as a Chris Thompson type.

But even when toting the rock, Gaskin impresses with his body control, leverage and balance through contact, and vision. With a short stride and great flexibility through his hips and knees, Gaskin shreds zone flow angles with agility and ease. Because he’s such an easy mover, he can manipulate second-level defenders in and out of holes to help widen his intended path. Hard-nosed, he’s rarely brought down on first contact, and can keep churning north at odd body angles/when dragged by would-be tacklers.

What to watch for in 2018: Instincts v. processing. Gaskin loves to feel out defenses, especially over the course of a game, and can stick himself in between rocks and hard places when, had he stayed true and disciplined to his reads, he could have picked up easy yards. Propensity to cut to the backside early is the biggest culprit here. Improved breakaway burst/speed would also be welcomed, though apparently he ran in the mid 4.4s last season, so that’s solid.

2) Bryce Love, Senior, Stanford (5'9, 196)

Most national publications quiver at this take -- but that’s what you’re getting from The Draft Network: tunnel vision on the tape. Really, it’s not that I dislike anything about Bryce Love’s game. He’s just got one elite skill -- which is, er, running -- and everything else is pretty well-rounded, not exceptional.

And it deserves note: Love can freakin’ fly. He’s got special 0-to-60 ability that jives perfectly with a Stanford’s power-heavy blocking scheme. He’s a weaving style of rusher with a great knack for space, intuiting angles and understanding defenders’ momentum naturally and subconsciously. It makes for some daggum silly highlights, in which it seems Love knows what all eleven defenders are going to do three seconds before they do. It’s that feel for leverage and angles that allows Love to break the many tackles that he does, as he rarely comes head first into contact.

Love also impresses on wide zone/stretch concepts, in which he has clearly practiced footwork and visual keys that maximize his Roadrunner-esque explosiveness. He’s an industrious runner that’s fun to watch.

But, as I said above, he just leaves you wanting more in a few areas. He’s not overly agile or elusive, more so industrious with his motion and, again, aware of all 360 degrees of space around him. His vision is good, but he fails to see in the second level occasionally, often taking first daylight and neglecting cutback lanes/bounces that could have proved more fruitful. It may sound crazy to say of such a stick of dynamite, but he’s not much of a creator: on most of his long runs, he was untouched.

What to watch for in 2018: Pass protection. Stanford probably isn’t going to throw him the ball more (would you?) so Love must show a greater willingness to meet blitzers with power and velocity--far too often he waits for them to arrive and settles with cutting their momentum as a speed bump, not a blocker. Occasionally, he gets low and engages his hands. It’s promising. Let’s build on that.

3) Tony Brooks-James, Redshirt Senior, Oregon (5'9, 175)

Let’s begin by saying that there is a canyon between Gaskin/Love and the remainder of the PAC-12 ball-carriers. Big ol’ chasm.

But Brooks-James is an exciting player in his own right, and a curious one to figure out as well. He got the lion’s share of the carries on a bad 2016 Ducks team following a Royce Freeman injury, and performed well enough to warrant 100+ touches in 2017. He also was a second-team Pac-12 player, which makes his “stepping into Freeman’s shoes” all the more interesting--he’s not only been the guy, he’s been excellent when asked to do so.

Brooks-James runs a sub 10.6 100m for Oregon, and it shows on the field. His long strides best serve him when he breaks into the third level, as he eats up angles from closing safeties with ease--a trait that translates nicely to his kick-return duties as well. If the breakaway speed reminds the scout of Love, then the balance reminds him of Gaskin -- Brooks-James does very well to cut against flow and shed over-pursuing tacklers, relying heavily on a good stop-start ability and a nifty little spin move to work back into open space on wide zone.

It will be exciting to see Brooks-James accumulate 200+ touches, which he should comfortably reach -- and more than a few should come through the air, as Brooks-James has been oft and successfully used by Oregon. Open-field touches make a lot of sense for such an explosive runner.

What to watch for in 2018: More of Brooks-James--not more touches, just more of him. Brooks-James plays skinny at 175, and he doesn’t pack much power when he arrives to the contact point. His little bubble screens and flare routes are fun, but NFL teams would love to see a player closer to 190 for Brooks-James’ final campaign in Eugene.

4) J.J. Taylor, Redshirt Sophomore, Arizona (5'6, 180)

Lord help me, if you’re wicked quick, super feisty, and sub 5-foot-7, I will inevitably fall for you (looking at you, Donnel Pumphrey and Tarik Cohen). J.J. Taylor fits the mold, folks.

Like all successful pint-sized runners, Taylor recognizes his height as an advantage. Taylor regularly meets contact in the hole with low pads, and while he isn’t going to steamroll people, he does bounce off his fair share of powerful hits. For a 180 lb player, he finishes his runs almost exclusively forward, and that extra yardage adds up with every touch.

That awareness -- and aggression -- really shines in pass protection. Taylor is the best back in the PAC12 I’ve watched when it comes to protecting the passer. His go-to move is the cut block, with which he regularly puts rushers on the ground--but he isn’t afraid to meet blitzers with square hips, put his hands into their pads, and drive. He’s heady and active, rarely missing out on his assignment. Tack on some fine hands catches (though not a lot, yet) and you’ve got yourself a ready-made passing-down back.

But the best trait is the elusiveness. Low to the ground, super quick to step, and explosive out of the ground, Taylor can pinball his way through would-be tacklers, stringing together moves with unteachable instinct. His highest-quality plays are typically zone looks, where he can flit in and out of gaps and creases, but he does have the burst to take power concepts (see: Counter Read v. Washington State) to the house.

He’ll never be a great straight-line player -- his strides are too short -- but boy is he a jitterbug. If Cohen continues to be successful in NFL play, I’d imagine NFL teams take a long look at Taylor.

What to watch for in 2018: Decision-making. Like many a human joystick before him, Taylor can struggle to take the easy yards, looking for space to dance and losing yardage in the ensuing chaos. His reads on inside zone and wide zone are typically sound, but he can fall victim to instinct over process, and needs to shore up his eyes-brain-feet decision-making pathway before he can be relied upon as an every-down back.

5) Zack Moss, Junior, Utah (5'10, 217)

Man, I wanted to like Zack Moss more than I did. He’s a fun watch for sure: an absolute bruiser of a back, who does well not only to take on contact with velocity and angles, but look forward into the run and see the next contact as well. Honestly, Moss is a good second- and third-level runner--not every 220-pound back is, as they don’t get there frequently. He’s savvy enough to make the first tackler miss, and he understands leverage and anticipates angles well. And there isn’t a defensive back on the planet that wants to tackle him. Trust me.

Moss is also a decisive runner, which can be a strength and can be a weakness. He sticks very true to the read presented by the blocking scheme and rarely loses yardage with foolish dilly-dallying. He’s a hitter. When faced with penetration in the backfield, he does well to evade -- again, good anticipation, good rhythm -- and he even improvises well.

The big asterisk is the athletic ability. Moss is very limited in terms of lateral agility and change-of-direction. He can’t be trusted on wide concepts, as his gear-down is laborious and explosiveness uninspiring. True to his mold as a north/south runner, Moss should only be asked to run straight forward, and be relied upon in power concepts far more frequently than in zone looks.

The dichotomy between decisive/true reads and creativity becomes interesting here. As we’ve said, Moss is a decent space player -- which would lead you to believe he’s a good creator as a runner. But he’s so quick to take an alley and bash his way to positive yardage that he really never takes the opportunity to create in the backfield. It simply isn’t his style. That’s fine, but it limits his impact as a runner.

Moss was used frequently, and successfully, as a receiver. He had one catch for every ten carries last season. That’s huge for his stock.

What to watch for in 2018: Production. Behind a decent OL with a dangerous runner (Tyler Huntley) at QB, Moss should be the motor of a Utah offense that could make some noise in the PAC 12 South. He already eclipsed the 1,000 yard mark in 2017 (1,173 rushing, 1,416 from scrimmage) and will look to do so again, but I’d love to see more explosive plays from Moss, capitalizing on the space created by the threat of Huntley. 10 rushing touchdowns is also low for a player of his short-yardage ability. Posting big numbers will get him more firmly on NFL radars.

Keep an eye on

Artavis Pierce, Junior, Oregon State (5'11 201)

With Ryan Nall out of the building, Pierce has every opportunity to earn Nall’s 192 vacated touches. A speedster with enough size to exchange power with linebackers, Pierce provided change-of-pace reps with decent success in 2017. It will be interesting to see how well he can read different concepts in an expanded role, but he’s the most electric playmaker on a barren Oregon State roster -- he should get plenty of space touches as a receiver and a running back, and has the opportunity to put up good numbers.

Notable omission

Patrick Laird, Redshirt Senior, Cal (5'11 200)

Speaking of numbers, Laird sure does put up some good ones. He receives a ton of targets, and his hands aren’t bad, so he looks great on paper for the modern NFL position. But the tape is just traitless. He isn’t powerful at 200 pounds; he isn’t shifty or bursty; his vision is only average. Laird gets what’s there and nothing more, and he’ll need a far clearer identity to pique my interest this season.

Written By:

Benjamin Solak

NFL Draft Analyst

NFL Draft Analyst for The Draft Network. Deputy Editor of Bleeding Green Nation. Undergrad at UChicago.