Last year, 6th round running back Alfred Morris was nearly a contender for the rookie of the year award if it wasn’t for one of the best rookie quarterback crops in recent memory. Questions were abound about why the surprise starter and even more surprising playoff runner fell to round number 6.
The easy answer?. Morris didn’t test well, he lacked great speed and open field ability in college, and didn’t flash elite NFL upside. That’s the easy answer. But the harder question is this: How did a player with all of those concerns manage to start in the NFL in his first season? That answer stems from two main ideas about the “running back revolution” in the NFL. Running backs can be found late now, partially because of zone-blocking scheme prevalence in the NFL now and the fact that NFL running backs aren’t being run into the ground, leading more to have longevity in the NFL.
Eddie Lacy, among others, will still be running backs taken in first through third rounds that have NFL success. But here’s five zone blocking runners that could be draft day steals and trendy sleepers to start opening day for their future NFL team.
Zac Stacy, Vanderbilt
A very short, not small, compact runner, Stacy doesn’t have the ideal hand size, arm length, or natural height. However, his smooth running ability in traffic combined with his anchor and balance at first contact allows Stacy to consistently produce as a zone-blocking runner inside the tackles. What he lacks in deep speed, he makes up for in great anticipation of the 2nd and 3rd level and natural vision as he works up and through the hole. His balance, low center of gravity, build, and top notch vision should allow him to have instant NFL success in a zone-blocking system.It wouldn’t be surprising in the slightest if Stacy ends up being one of the top two or three running backs from this class
George Winn, Cincinnati
George Winn had to follow in Isaiah Pead's footsteps at Cincinnati this year. Just 40 carries in 2011, Winn carried the load with 243 carries, proving he can carry handle a full carry total at the next level while only having 321 career carries under his belt.. Explosive in his upfield cuts, Winn possesses great vision in read and reacting to his blockers upfield. Possessing above average decisiveness in his cuts, he adjusts laterally very well, and though he doesn't possess elite lateral burst or quickness, he maintains and regains his balance very well and adjusts his body in traffic to stay upright and work for extra yards. It wouldn't be out of the question for teams to view Winn as a superior prospect to former Cincy RB Isaiah Pead.
Miguel Maysonet, Stony Brook
The Walter Payton Award finalist this year, Maysonet started his career at Hofstra before transferring in 2010 where had instant success. While he has some durability concerns thanks to nearly 700 carries in his career, he’s built well across his body and has the frame to last in the NFL long-term if he can run with efficient pad level. He does lower his shoulder when approaching contact, and rarely loses balance backward on initial contact. He also possesses great ability to get skinny the hole, cutting well on his initial break and keeping his body controlled in his initial read. His explosive lower half and athletic upside should allow him to thrive in a zone blocking scheme, but he fails to consistently win on the edge, and is much better and working outside in. Maysonet has the build, vision, and body control to thrive in the NFL as a late round pick, especially if he can show NFL teams' his subtle athleticism in workouts.
Mike Gillislee, Florida
Despite battling through injuries over his Florida career, Gillislee displayed great balance, leg drive, and natural toughness throughout this season. He read and reacts to blockers fluidly after the handoff, his jump cuts and burst into the open hole allow him to consistently shift past aggressive rushers and adjust his body to limit big hits as well as allow for more broken tackles. His quick, hard-driving feet in traffic combined with his body control to work through arm tackles is what intrigues most, along with his initial hole vision that allows for quick chunks of yards. As a balanced albeit not overly flashy runner, Gillislee should have value as a zone-blocking running back who can be consistent over his career.
Spencer Ware, LSU
Always finishing runs with great force and shoulder drive, Ware is a brusier in traffic and open space, always falling forward and inflicting a hit on his opposing tackler. He adjusts his body well in traffic, allowing himself to be in ideal position to work through tacklers. His lack of speed is concerning for his NFL upside, but his natural size and aggressiveness is what intrigues the most, especially as a mid-late rounder in the mold of an Alfred Morris. Likely an NFL #2 running back, he could be scooped up later in the draft and have instant NFL success in a zone-blocking scheme.
Jawan Jamison, Rutgers
A redshirt sophomore early declaration, Jawan Jamison left at his peak at Rutgers, with just under 500 carries and showing enough of an NFL skill set to feel he's ready for the next level. Lacking great top end speed, Jamison depends on his jump cuts and finding holes at the second level in his zone blocking system to break free. His lack of elite big play ability is what limits him at the next level. He seems unable to break free at the 2nd level, and lacks the acceleration to run away from defensive backs after getting 3-4 yards. He is patient up and through the hole, has an explosive up-step to the hole, and possesses sudden cut ability and balance initially in his first move. He does slow to contact at times, however, and doesn't always have killer instinct to drive through tacklers. Jamison’s lack of big play ability likely limits his draft stock, and may reduce him to a rotational runner at best in the NFL, and likely only in a zone blocking system.
Other Late Rounders to Watch:
Montell Harris, Temple
Zach Line, SMU
Cierre Wood, Notre Dame
Kaderius Lacey, Alabama A&M
Stefphon Jefferson, Nevada
Mike James, Miami (FL)
Latavius Murray, UCF