Packers Prospect Fight: Stanford's Stepfan Taylor vs. UCLA's Johnathan Franklin
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With the Packers missing out on Steven Jackson, Green Bay is definitely in the market (again) for a running back to take some of the carries in the backfield.
DuJuan Harris is part of the answer, but nobody trusts James Starks to be healthy for an entire season and Alex Green appears to be topping out as only a solid backup.
While many fans want the Packers to end the backfield shenanigans by selecting Eddie Lacy in the upcoming draft, it's more likely given the history of Ted Thompson that the Packers look at a running back no earlier than Day 2, and quite likely the third round.
There are plenty of running backs worth a look, but two stand out in discussion.
In this piece we're looking at a pair of Pac-12 running backs—UCLA's Johnathan Franklin and Stanford's Stepfan Taylor. I'm a big fan of both and either one could be a Packers third-round pick.
Two men enter, one man leaves!
The two players are both a tad short but over 200 lbs, which is an ideal size for teams who like a shorter back. They have the body structure to withstand getting hammered at the line and by NFL defenders in general.
Taylor has about 10 pounds on Franklin, which is actually quite a bit of difference. While over the course of a career either back can gain or lose weight (and the extra weight doesn't automatically make you durable), Taylor has an edge when it comes to sheer body mass.
So in short yardage, with a head of steam, Taylor will probably have a better chance of getting you those two yards you need.
Mind you, he takes a bit to get up to full speed, which won't get anyone to mistake him for the Flash.
Franklin looked exceedingly fast running his 4.59 at the combine—fourth fastest in the group. Taylor's 4.76 didn't even crack the top 15.
I'm not actually worried about Taylor's speed. First of all, his game isn't predicated on pure speed. We'll talk about this in a minute, but Taylor plays much faster than that 40 time.
Both are pretty strong guys overall who showed good speed and strength in all the combine drills and match up pretty well everywhere but the speed category.
We'll break this down into two parts: ground production and receiving. I did it this way for two reasons.
First, both guys caught the ball enough to show they have the ability to bring their receiving game to the NFL.
Secondly, if you can catch the ball as well as run it, you can be on the field more without tipping the hand of the offense as to what kind of play you're running.
As you can see, Taylor saw more passes thrown his way. This was due in part to a shakier offensive line and the style of offense Stanford was running, which liked to utilize short passes.
Both were able to gain some solid yards on average, with Franklin holding the edge at almost 10 yards per catch.
Franklin took a huge leap forward in his development as a receiver. Before his senior year, he had just 25 catches for just 194 yards and a touchdown. However, as you can see by his 2012 stats, he really flipped the switch in his receiving game.
Taylor, on the other hand, has been pretty consistent as a receiver, though he too saw a big bump in receptions for 2012.
Freshmen quarterbacks will do that.
This season, Franklin looked a little more dynamic catching passes out of the backfield; not a ton, just a bit. I like how he moves in space and he just looks a little more fluid and natural overall.
Taylor has more natural hands and plucks the ball out of the air smoothly but is less elusive once he gets it.
Where Taylor blows Franklin away in this aspect of the game is pass-blocking. Taylor was held in a ton to pass block this past year and excelled at it. Franklin struggled with pass protection over his time at UCLA, though he also saw improvement in this area his final year.
Still, Taylor is the better pass-blocker without a doubt and is someone the Packers could rely on to keep Aaron Rodgers off the turf.
Now we come to the bread-and-butter portion of the running back evaluation.
Both of these players really leaped out at me in Mobile, AL at the Senior Bowl and had great weeks.
Looking at their games now, I really fell in love with Taylor, but was impressed with Franklin as well.
Taylor is a very tough runner who can be very dangerous at the second level. A common knock on him is he doesn't have breakaway speed or that "extra gear" the elite players do, and that's not untrue.
However, go and watch a game of his and you realize he's much faster than people give him credit for. As for that extra gear, perhaps he doesn't have the elite speed to get away from defenders in the way Adrian Peterson and Chris Johnson do, but he has more than enough to break off some longer runs.
There's one run for a touchdown against the USC Trojans which really highlighted everything he can do.
Taylor took the ball off tackle and blew through the hole (a criticism of his game is his tendency to hesitate when there is more than one hole), knocking back a defender as he does.
Once past the line, he jukes past another USC defender and it's off to the races. Now, USC's defense wasn't good last year, but it was far from slow. He outran them by a large margin.
Taylor's got enough speed and when he can slip tackles and get into the second level, I see an extra gear in running away from defenders.
Again, he's not an elite speed back, but he gets it done if he doesn't dance too much behind the line (throwing off his balance or hurting his forward momentum) and can keep his legs moving to drive the pile.
Franklin has a lot more speed and is your classic "one-cut-and-go" runner. He shows tremendous patience and vision at the line.
Another area where he excels is his first move. When a defender gets into the backfield too quickly, Franklin is often able to make a step out of his way right after the handoff. In the NFL, that can be a huge asset, especially when teams are anticipating the run and time the snap well enough to get into the backfield.
That was key this year, as more than once Franklin made something out of nothing.
Once Franklin gets past the line, he shows excellent anticipation and ability to find his way through traffic for extra yards.
He excelled in UCLA's zone-read offense and his vision, anticipation and elusiveness allowed him to help the Bruins through some rough patches.
Franklin isn't against hitting a guy either, but the problem is, Franklin's build may not allow him to pound a defender at the NFL level. He might be able to add a little mass to his frame, though it's questionable whether he will sacrifice speed for it.
Franklin also had some fumble issues during his college career and will have to make sure he secures the ball more consistently.
Aside from that though, Franklin showed his senior year that he has the talent to make it in the NFL.
YOUR VOTE: Taylor vs Franklin
The Packers would win with either back, to be honest. Franklin's improvement in the 2012 season tells me he's only just hitting his peak and that he can continue to develop into a huge asset for any team.
Taylor does everything well, though nothing exceptionally well. That's not a knock. The more I saw from him, the more I loved what he can do.
It's close, but the key to this battle is the pass protection. All things being equal, Taylor is just much better (and better built) at it. While he lacks Franklin's speed, he has plenty of it anyway and can do everything at a very high level.
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