Bishop Sankey will certify the Tennessee Titans faith in him as the top running back taken in the 2014 NFL draft. The second-rounder from the University of Washington is a lock to win the starting job and, I predict, a front-runner for Rookie of the Year consideration.
It’s not often a second-round pick enters the NFL with such high expectations, but Sankey’s No. 54 selection was the latest the first RB came off the board in draft history. Sankey and his contemporaries can thank Trent Richardson and the growing trend toward a running-back-by-committee approach for the decline in value at the position.
Sankey finished fourth in the nation with 1,870 rushing yards and third in yards from scrimmage with 2,174 in his junior season with the Huskies. Boston College Eagles RB Andre Williams beat out Sankey for the ’13 Doak Walker Award, given to the nation's best ball-carrier.
Shonn Greene is the incumbent in the Tennessee backfield after Chris Johnson’s free-agency departure to the New York Jets. But the 5'10", 235-pound plodder’s yards-per-carry average has declined steadily from 5.0 in his ’09 rookie season with the Jets to 3.8 last year, when he served as Johnson’s backup in Tennessee.
Greene will get the nod in short-yardage situations, but he shouldn’t cut too much into Sankey’s production.
Tennessee brought in Dexter McCluster as a third-down, change-of-pace back. It’s the same role he filled inconsistently over the last four seasons for the Kansas City Chiefs. Head coach Ken Whisenhunt has always utilized a speedy player out of the backfield as a receiver—Willie Parker in Pittsburgh, J.J. Arrington in Arizona, Danny Woodhead in San Diego—but McCluster is no more a threat to Sankey’s touches than he was to those of Jamaal Charles last season (61 touches to 329, respectively).
As Whisenhunt stated during OTAs back in June, Sankey has made a good all-impression (per titans.com):
It’s pretty apparent from watching him today in practice that [Sankey] is a good runner...He’s got a good feel. You can see that with the way he moves; he’s in good shape.
Whisenhunt is not a system slave; he molds his offensive strategy to the talent with which he has to work.
The Steelers finished top 10 in rushing offense each of his three years as offensive coordinator in Pittsburgh: second in ’04, fifth in ’05 and 10th in ’06. His scheme leaned on Parker and Jerome Bettis while a young Ben Roethlisberger began and furthered his development into a top-flight NFL quarterback.
Whisenhunt moved to a more balanced approach under Mike McCoy last season in San Diego. The Chargers finished 13th in rushing offense behind a healthy Ryan Mathews and sixth in passing thanks to a revived Philip Rivers.
All signs point to Tennessee’s running game as its strength leading into ’14. Jake Locker is a capable passer but also an effective runner. He averaged 22.1 yards rushing per game in seven starts before landing on injured reserve with a Lisfranc sprain in Week 11. At that pace he would have finished among the top 10 rushing quarterbacks over a full 16-game season, according to KFFL.
Tennessee flashed doubts about Locker by declining to activate the signal-caller's fifth-year option on his rookie contract, meaning he will currently be an unrestricted free agent after the 2014 season if nothing changes. But the Titans also let journeyman backup Ryan Fitzpatrick—nine starts a year ago—leave for the Houston Texans via free agency. All that’s left behind Locker is journeyman free-agent Charlie Whitehurst—four career starts to Fitzpatrick’s 77—and rookie Zach Mettenberger, a sixth-round selection out of LSU.
Obviously Titans want their highest draft pick since Vince Young to succeed—Young went No. 3 in 2006, Locker went No. 8 in ‘11. As Locker told The Tennessean in late July:
They've pushed me and asked me to do some things I really wasn't comfortable with doing at first...Now I love it. I'm excited about it. It allows me to have more ownership of this offense.
Tennessee’s strength on offense is the 14th-ranked run blockers up front, according to Pro Football Focus (subscription required). Returning starters Andy Levitre (12.9), Michael Roos (11.8), Brian Schwenke (1.3) and Chance Warmack (1.0) all earned positive run-blocking grades from PFF.
Free agent right tackle Michael Oher rounds out the starting five up front, according to the unofficial depth chart at Titans Online. That puts top draft pick Taylor Lewan behind Roos for now. Oher as a run blocker in Baltimore mirrored the Ravens' performance in 2013, grading out to a career-low of minus-13.1 last season (per PFF).
Sankey got off to a sluggish start behind his new offensive line on Saturday, averaging only 2.8 yards per carry against the Green Bay Packers. But he did catch three passes for 38 yards and a score in inclement conditions.
It’s foolish to draw any conclusions from a rookie’s first preseason performance. Instead, keep in mind that Whisenhunt and general manager Ruston Webster could have taken any number of elite rushing talents in the draft: Jeremy Hill, Carlos Hyde, Charles Sims, Tre Mason, among others.
Tennessee tapped Sankey to anchor their running game, and they are poised to bask in instant gratification.
Stats provided by Pro Football Reference unless otherwise noted.