Running backs aren't held in high regard like they used to be in NFL circles, so what does that mean for Auburn's Tre Mason?
Remember, no running backs were taken in the first round of the 2013 draft, the first time that's happened since 1963.
Trent Richardson went No. 3 overall the year before, but he was traded out of Cleveland and has taken a career 3.3 yards-per-carry average into 2014.
Teams realize they can get similar production out of running backs they select later in the draft—it's that simple.
A Stunning Emergence
Mason, the 5'10'', 210-pound junior from Palm Beach, Fla., exploded as an efficient workhorse for the Tigers in 2013 after a solid yet relatively low-volume sophomore campaign in 2012.
He ran well in the defensively stout SEC that year, toting the rock 171 times for 1,002 yards with eight touchdowns.
In Gus Malzahn's unique triple-option system that's extraordinarily run-heavy and loaded with fakes and misdirection, Mason morphed into the ideal feature this season.
He was handed the football 317 times—more than any NFL running back in 2013—and rattled off 1,816 yards with a robust touchdown total of 23.
Mason consistently won with a low center of gravity that allowed him to sneak through small crevasses in the opposite's defensive front, slippery cutting ability and a surprisingly authoritative running style for a back just north of 200 pounds.
His remarkably durable and productive campaign, as well as a 46-carry, 304-yard masterpiece in the conference title game victory over Missouri, made him an easy pick to be a Heisman Trophy finalist.
Though he finished sixth in the voting, no player had risen to national prominence as rapidly as Mason.
Suddenly, the former four-star high school recruit was skyrocketing up draft boards—or at least garnering serious attention from NFL personnel and media members.
In the BCS title game against Florida State's suffocating defense, Mason registered 34 carries for 195 yards and a shifty 37-yard touchdown scamper that gave the Tigers the 31-27 lead with 1:19 remaining. He also caught a touchdown pass from quarterback Nick Marshall.
Had the Auburn defense held, Mason was a lock to win game MVP honors.
An Undersized System Product, or Top RB?
After a sparkling season that started slowly but ultimately ended with nine 100-yard rushing games, Mason decided to turn pro. He received a third-round grade from the NFL Draft Advisory Board.
Since then, evaluation of the Tiger standout has differed.
Here's what Bryan Perez, founder of First Round Grade Scouting, wrote about Mason in an extensive scouting report:
Possesses a good jump cut that compliments his patient running style…Allows holes to develop in front of him and shows adequate burst to maximize running lanes…Good, quick feet that allow him to chew up ground and change direction effortlessly…On inside running plays, Mason gets skinny and manages to scamper through the line…On outside running plays, Mason displays good patience and an understanding of when to get north/south
Lacks the necessary power to move the pile or be a short-yardage back…Lacks the strength to hold up in the passing game as a pass protector; consistently gets pushed backward, threatening the pocket’s integrity…Can be too patient at times.
Perez summarized Mason's NFL prospects with this projection: "On the next level, Tre Mason will enjoy a nice career as a depth runner and special teams contributor."
The first paragraph of an article written by Marq Burnett of the Ledger-Enquirer out of Columbus, Ga., puts a succinct wrap on the concerns many will have about Mason as a pro:
For former Auburn running back Tre Mason, one question comes up whenever discussing his NFL potential: how will his lack of size translate to the next level?
In that article, Senior Bowl director and former NFL personnel executive Phil Savage was quoted saying the following:
He plays bigger than his listed size and finishes every run. The way the running back position is going, most people are carving it up into different roles and I absolutely believe he can find a role in the NFL. What he's going to have to prove in the spring is his ability to catch the ball out of the backfield and his ability to pass protect because you didn't get to see him do much of that in Auburn's system.
Ah, yes. The Auburn system.
That's another worry.
While the read-option is being incorporated to more offenses in today's NFL, no team has adopted the creative play and extension of plays that come from it as its true foundation.
For perspective on Auburn's retro triple-option, Marshall threw only 239 passes in 2013—78 fewer attempts than Mason's carry total.
There's an abundance of moving pieces pre-snap, and defenses were often baffled by the misdirection post-snap.
Some may feel that although the opposition could game plan for a heavy dosage of Mason, Malzahn's diverse concepts may have placed Mason in an environment conducive to massive success, an environment he won't necessarily find himself in as a professional.
Some of the Internet's most respected draft analysts that watch Mason have done their homework and view him as one of the top running backs in the 2014 class:
|Ranker / Site||RB Rank|
|Matt Miller / Bleacher Report||2|
|Walter Cherepinsky / Walter Football||3|
|Dane Brugler / CBS Sports||2|
|Gil Brandt / NFL.com||1|
|Eric Galko / Optimum Scouting||3|
Matt Miller called Mason a "faster version of Ray Rice" and said he is "the most game-ready running back" of his contemporaries.
NFL scouts, general managers and coaches must distill Mason's running abilities and how they translate to the next level.
What Scouts Will Look For at the Combine
Though he can't prove that he's more than a system back at the combine inside Lucas Oil Stadium, Mason could do himself a favor by running somewhere between 4.45 and 4.55 in the famed 40-yard dash. While that event certainly isn't a concrete indicator of future success, teams will want to see some burst and straight-line speed from the quick runner.
He appears to have "maxed out" his smaller frame at 205 pounds, so although some will label him as undersized, Mason should hope to weigh in at close to that weight.
Therefore, teams know they're getting the same level of acceleration and elusiveness that he showed on tape during an amazing 2013 season at Auburn.
Also, Mason will be able to put his quick feet and short-area burst on display in some of the agility drills, which could at least confirm to scouts what they saw on the field wasn't a fluke which would thereby "stabilize" his stock.