Programming note: Back in the saddle, or at least I should be. Expect the normal semi-steady diet of posts.
When I wrote up the Titans’ picks immediately after they were drafted, I was generally relying on what other people said about them before the draft that I recalled and what I’d seen before the draft. Those were initial glosses, not definitive (or at least as much as they can be) takes of what I think of a player before they take their first real snap as a member of the Tennessee Titans. Fortunately, there’s this whole “couple months where not much new stuff happens” for me to build on my initial gloss and develop that “as definitive as it can be” take of a player before they take their first snap. First up in that process, second-round pick Bishop Sankey.
With Sankey, there are a couple key questions that I think will decide just how successful of a pick he ends up being. He was the first running back chosen in the draft, so the Titans liked him more than any back in the draft. Other people were significantly less impressed, ranking Sankey closer to the tenth-best back in the draft. What were the points that so divided Sankey?
1. Vision. Will he be able to effectively run zone plays? I went ahead and watched all 11 of the Sankey games available on Draft Breakdown. The Huskie ground game was a pretty direct downhill game, as you see a lot in college. I’ve previously linked this column by my Football Outsiders colleague Matt Waldman, but it’s important enough to link again because I think Waldman gives good critiques and examples of how Sankey’s vision is lacking when he’s asked to do more than go directly downhill. This sort of skill can really dictate how a running back and a team must be used-compare Darren McFadden I watched in 2011 gliding off tackle and using his speed to get big runs on the perimeter to the McFadden from 2012 when the Raiders tried to adopt a zone-blocking scheme, running outside zone and failed to identify and create those perimeter spaces he found so effectively the previous season; the magnitude of the difference in effectiveness is Chris Johnson in 2010 compared to Chris Johnson at his most terrible and hesitant in 2011.
2. Burst. I’ve seen a number of comparisons of Sankey to Gio Bernard, the Bengals’ second-round pick last year. In some ways, it’s very natural. Both players are about the same size (Sankey was 5’9 1/2″, 209 before the draft, Bernard is listed at 5’9, 208) and ran similar 40 times (Bernard 4.53, Sankey 4.55). Both were also largely perimeter runners in college, doing their best work on the edges rather than between the tackles. Watching the two of them, though, I thought Bernard was significantly quicker in his initial movements, while Sankey didn’t have nearly the same burst. Sankey isn’t a plodder-he’s definitely more of a home run threat than Carlos Hyde, whom I would have preferred with this pick, but nor is he the sort of special mover I want with a perimeter back in the second round. Greg Cosell expressed similar doubts, particularly in comparison to Bernard, but that the Titans seemed to disagree with him, given they took Sankey where they did.
3. Power. Is Sankey more than just a perimeter runner? While I like Bernard’s burst a lot and think he could stand more touches than what he got in Cincinnati as a rookie, he’s still nothing close to a volume back because he doesn’t have the power to be an effective between the tackles runner. Does Sankey, especially because if he does he could be looking at a much larger role given Shonn Greene’s continuing health issues (and the minor technical detail that Greene isn’t very good)? I really doubted it, and the people who expressed their doubts about Sankey agreed with me. Cosell noted that Sankey has “almost no functional run strength,” which is about as direct as you can get. I wouldn’t go quite that far, but the demonstrations of power I saw from him came almost exclusively against defensive backs or arm tackles from players coming in from the side. He’s not a bad UDFA or an undersized gadget player like Dexter McCluster when it comes to run strength, but it’s definitely not a strength and does suggest his usage should be limited to perimeter plays as much as possible.
4. Lateral movement. The most interesting comparison I heard for Sankey was Ray Rice. Another 5’9 late second-round pick who came out of college as a volume runner for a generally mediocre collegiate team, Rice became a much better NFL back than I thought he would based on what I saw of him in college. One of the reasons I think I underrated Rice was that he has pretty good lateral movement. Sankey flashed his at times–and this was definitely something I noted in my post-draft watch of his games I didn’t pay enough attention to in my pre-draft watching–but what I saw generally only when he had functional space to work with, which just reinforced my opinion of him as a much more suited to be a perimeter runner. Either the Titans don’t share my concern, or they think they can build their offensive line to be good enough that Sankey will have the functional space he needs to be successful as a runner anyway. It’s a neat idea, though if I were selecting the first running back in the draft I’d want a guy who’s a better “bad blocking” runner than I think Sankey is likely to be.
5. Pass game skills. Fine, Sankey may be a solid but not special runner, but he’ll still be an immensely valuable player if he is a plus player in the passing game. Is he? Well, he’s definitely a more natural catcher of the football than Chris Johnson, but that’s saying hardly anything. He was not an extensive part of the passing game at UW, catching 28 passes in 2013, mostly dumpoffs with the occasional screen. Downfield routes for him did not seem to be part of their offense. If Ken Whisenhunt is looking for him to fill a pass game role anywhere close to as sophisticated or extensive as that Danny Woodhead did for him in San Diego last year, I’d expect that to be an extensive work in progress in 2014. When it came to pass protection, his running backs coach Johnny Nansen noted in an interview that was an area he worked on last offseason, and I could definitely see the improvement from the 2012 games I watched to the 2013 ones. Unfortunately, he was coming from a low bar even by the abysmal standards of collegiate running back pass blocking. I wouldn’t classify his work in pass protection in 2013 as good, but it was much improved. He didn’t get consistently rocked back like Tre Mason did in pass protection, but he did seem to rely a lot on the cut block against bigger players (non-DBs). That’s definitely an area where he’ll have to improve to be a success in the NFL role he’s best suited for, or else Titans QB will see too many rushers jumping over Sankey into him.
The good news is, once we get to games, we’ll actually get some answers of varying quality to these questions. If the Titans are right, they could have a player like Rice whose worth exceeds his draft position. If they’re not, the Titans have a roughly Javon Ringer-level player. I hope the Titans are right, but please forgive me if I’m just a bit skeptical of their track record of running back evaluation.