It wasn't a surprise that the Titans selected a running back, but it was a surprise that Sankey was the first player at his position to come off the board. There wasn't a consensus option among the media, but Ohio State's Carlos Hyde and Auburn's Tre Mason appeared likelier to go first.
Sankey certainly created a resume worthy of a top college back.
At Washington, the 21-year-old played three seasons and compiled 3,495 rushing yards on 644 attempts for a 5.4 average per carry. He scored 38 total touchdowns and caught 67 passes for 567 yards. His production was tough to scrutinize, but his physical prowess made him an easy target.
When you look at the best backs in the NFL right now, you see powerful runners who can consistently break tackles in Adrian Peterson and Marshawn Lynch or explosive runners who can score from anywhere in Jamaal Charles and LeSean McCoy.
Standing at 5'10" and 203 pounds with a 4.49 40-yard dash time, Sankey proved to be a well-rounded athlete in college but not a back with great strength or great speed.
Instead he relied on his quickness and vision to manipulate the defense and get the most out of his blocking. While there is generally a fascination with the physical abilities of the best backs in the NFL, vision and consistency are generally the two traits that allow successful backs to be successful.
The Titans understood this as well as anyone after deciding to move on from veteran Chris Johnson.
New head coach Ken Whisenhunt and his staff never coached Johnson, but they would likely have spent a long time watching his tape from last season before deciding to let him go. Johnson has all the physical talent required of a star running back but fails where Sankey succeeds.
Johnson is a speed back who lost his aggressiveness. When he was aggressive early in his career, he was one of the best backs in the NFL. However, as he grew older and sustained more hits he became too hesitant behind the line of scrimmage, consistently made bad decisions and missed open running lanes.
Even though Sankey doesn't have Johnson's blistering pace, he is fast enough to be effective in the NFL. More importantly, his vision and quickness should fit much better with the Titans' offensive line.
The Titans offensive line projects to be very effective in the run game this year. The unit will be led by left guard Andy Levitre and right guard Chance Warmack. Levitre wasn't fully healthy during his first season with the Titans last year after signing a big contract in free agency, while Warmack is an incredible talent who was adjusting as a rookie.
Levitre and Warmack can both maul defensive tackles at the line of scrimmage, slide laterally in zone-blocking situations and advance to the second level to work in space.
With that versatility and Sankey's vision, the Titans should have a much improved running game in 2014.
Against Stanford in 2013, Sankey had a phenomenal display. Stanford are known for their resilience in the trenches and play with a physicality that emulates the professional game as well as any other defense in college football.
They ranked second in yards allowed per rush in 2013 with 3.81.
Sankey carried the ball 27 times in that game for 125 yards and two touchdowns. His 4.6 average was dramatically higher than the season average that Stanford surrendered. Sankey not only broke off big plays but also earned the tough yards between the tackles.
On this 4th-and-1, in Stanford territory, Sankey easily converts. At least, he makes it look easy.
The play appears to be designed to go up the middle, just to the left of the center where the left guard is. However, as Sankey is receiving the ball from his quarterback, there is penetration from the right side of the Stanford defense to take away that running lane.
Sankey's subtlety is what stands out when he runs the ball. He rarely makes elaborate, hard cuts that see him plant his foot away from his body to sharply change direction. Instead he is able to change direction so fluidly that he almost glides away from incoming contact.
On this play, Sankey recognizes the penetration as he receives the ball from his quarterback and is already angling back towards the other side of the field before he takes his first step after the handoff. This allows him to arc away from the penetration and find the open running lane on the right side of the line.
Sankey's vision and quickness masked the ineffectiveness of his offensive line on this play.
When Sankey does make a sharper cut and plant his foot in the ground, he does so with haste. As we've seen with Trent Richardson, quickness is much more important in the NFL than it is in college. Sankey will have less space to operate even though he should expect to play behind one of the better offensive lines in the league.
This kind of versatility, quickness and awareness behind the line of scrimmage is what allowed LeVeon Bell and Zac Stacy to excel as rookies in 2013. Bell and Stacy were primarily asked to mask mistakes on the offensive lines in front of them, though, whereas Sankey's responsibilities will be slightly different.
Sankey will need to show that he is capable of breaking off big plays if the Titans are to commit to him running the ball for their offense. This is something Sankey was able to do in college but will be much more difficult at the next level.
In college, the young back showed the power to break tackle attempts from defensive backs and the acceleration to get away from linebackers in tight spaces.
During his final season in college football, Sankey had 97 first downs, 48 runs of at least 10 yards and 21 runs of at least 20 yards, per CFBStats.com. That means that Sankey broke off a 20-plus-yard run every 16 attempts, but also a 10-plus-yard run every seven attempts.
Sankey compares very favorably to Baltimore Ravens running back Ray Rice. Rice is a shorter back but also has a relatively heavy frame and compact build. Before this past season, when Rice was hampered by injury, he built his success on his vision and quickness with his ability to overpower defensive backs and gain forward momentum against linebackers.
Rice has never been a constant big-play threat like Charles or McCoy but is fast enough to take advantage of space on the second level. Before last season, he averaged a 20-plus-yard play once every 25 touches (rush attempts and catches).
The major concern for Sankey is that Rice proved to be a reliable pass-blocker and hasn't had significant ball-security issues, despite his size. Sankey wasn't an effective blocker in college, and ball security will remain a concern until he proves otherwise in the NFL.
A positive for the Titans is that he showed ability as a receiver.
Because Sankey can make defenders miss in space, his only concern as a receiver is his catching ability. He is comfortable catching the ball but will need to prove his consistency with a greater share of targets next year. During his final season in college, Sankey had 28 receptions for 304 yards.
Eight of those receptions went for 15-plus yards, while three went for 25-plus yards.
It's unlikely that Sankey will be as impactful as Andre Ellington proved to be during his rookie season for the Arizona Cardinals last year, but he shouldn't need to be because the Titans have Dexter McCluster, who can be the team's third-down back.
Furthermore, the Titans have a lot of options at wide receiver and tight end, so Sankey only needs to be good enough to keep the offense unpredictable when he is on the field.
The Titans didn't draft a running back who is going to excite fans. Sankey won't consistently break tackles or outrun the fastest players the defense can boast. However, he also won't infuriate fans like his predecessor did by consistently making the wrong decision and missing out on big plays because of his lack of vision.
Sankey is the kind of running back who will always get the most out of his blocking and stick to the design of his offense. Based on what the Titans' offense currently looks like—a strong offensive line and a mobile quarterback who can draw attention—he should be very productive as a rookie.
The greatest threat to Sankey's production is how often his coaching staff trusts him with the ball on the field.
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