Projecting talent from college to the NFL can be a difficult task as evaluators sift through all available information to analyze a prospect properly. Often, this process becomes more complicated than it should be, resulting in prospects being overanalyzed based on idealistic standards that pigeonhole them. This has happened to former Alabama running back Derrick Henry thus far in his 2016 NFL draft journey.
The draft world loves player comparisons that are based on size measurements, but some players don't fit specific molds. Each player is unique—even if he shares traits and characteristics with others who came before him. It's dangerous to make comparisons just on size and preconceived notions about a school, scheme or build.
One of the more popular narratives of the last decade revolves around Alabama running backs since Nick Saban took over the program. The Crimson Tide typically have a dominating rushing game that features a road-grading offensive line and a talented running back committee. The backs who have since entered the NFL have had varying degrees of success since Saban's arrival in 2007.
Saban prefers to use bigger-body backs who can wear down defenses throughout the course of the game. His strategy is undeniably effective in both physically and mentally pulverizing the competition.
As effective as Saban has been, he had produced just one Heisman Trophy winner at Alabama before Henry in 2015 (Mark Ingram in 2009). Saban abandoned the split-carry approach he had always used prior to this past season in part due to Henry's consistent dominance. No one else on the roster had Saban's trust when the team desperately needed offensive output.
Backup Kenyan Drake never proved as durable or consistent as the Crimson Tide would've liked from their second running back. This forced Saban to rely heavily on Henry down the stretch of 2015. While Henry totaled 395 rushing attempts, Drake had just 77 as a senior.
The former 5-star recruit was rated higher than any other running back coming out of high school in 2013, per 247Sports. At 6'3" and 242 pounds, he is a naturally high-cut athlete who is unique for his position. It's unusual for someone with that build and mass to be effective with the ball.
But Henry is talented and nimble for his size. While we cannot put too much stock in his being a Heisman winner when we project whether or not he'll have success, he proved with his production he's not just a plodding back. He capitalized throughout his collegiate career and should be considered one of the easiest projections of the draft class.
His most obvious strength is his ability to get downhill in a hurry. He sees the rushing lane and attacks it without hesitation. He's dangerous when he crosses the line of scrimmage because of his long speed and nuanced movement.
Skeptics may point to Trent Richardson and say he also was adept at this, but Richardson had a more effective offensive line and passing attack in college to mask his weaknesses. Richardson's Alabama team featured a better quarterback in AJ McCarron and wide receiver Amari Cooper. Not to mention tackles Cyrus and Arie Kouandjio opening massive running lanes. Henry was working with a first-time starter in Jacob Coker and a freshman receiver (Calvin Ridley) as his support.
As Richardson transitioned to the NFL, he appeared to add too much bulk, which sapped his quickness. He also never trusted his eyes and wanted to bounce every run outside. That combination didn't work, and Melvin Gordon had similar issues as a rookie for the San Diego Chargers last year.
Henry has proved to be the opposite of Richardson, as he'll stick to the inside rushing lane whenever possible. When he has to hit the cutback lane or bounce runs, he has the foot quickness to execute and avoid would-be tacklers. In the linked clip, he avoided the immediate penetration at the line of scrimmage and also a second-level defender to create a first down out of nothing.
Henry wins at or behind the line of scrimmage often. He's not powerful in terms of lowering his shoulder and barreling through defenders; however, he takes smarter routes by creating advantageous angles that allow him to force attempted arm tackles either near the shoulder or his lower body. There aren't many players who can stop Henry with an arm tackle.
Despite the ability to change his route of attack in the backfield or further down the field, former NFL scout Dan Hatman called Henry a fourth-round talent, according to Ryan O'Halloran of the Florida Times-Union. This would imply that he is a rotational player at the NFL level. But Henry has the physical talent and skill set to be a top-20 NFL running back right now.
When the tackle box is clogged with defenders, Henry doesn't panic or end up dead in the water. He varies his stride and is capable of taking a large lateral step to begin turning upfield. While he won't ever be confused with LeSean McCoy or a player of that ilk, he's also far more agile and flexible than Brandon Jacobs or LeGarrette Blount.
Henry's specialty is working between the tackles and picking up tough yardage. He always seems to fall a few yards forward—even when contact is initiated by other future NFL players. He has a certain explosiveness about him once he gains even the shortest runway to launch into—and often through—defenders. He gained an extra five yards after being embraced by Florida Gators defensive lineman Jonathan Bullard on this play. This was made possible by Henry's patience to let tight end O.J. Howard finish his down block before he attacked.
The level of competition was irrelevant to Henry's production. Every game bears similar examples of him taking advantage of the slightest opportunity. He is a bull in a china shop who requires several defenders to bring him down.
The other oft-cited concern about Henry is his workload. His 395 carries in 2015 are nothing to brush off, but context is needed to examine his role throughout his career. Here is a comparison of Henry's career workload to that of his peers in the draft:
|2016 NFL Draft: RB Prospects' Career Workload Comparison|
|Player||School||Years Played||Total Touches||Total Yards||Total Touchdowns|
|Kenneth Dixon||Louisiana Tech||4||889||5,452||87|
|Ezekiel Elliott||Ohio State||3||650||4,410||44|
Because of other stud running backs on the Alabama roster and some minor injuries, Henry didn't have to be the workhorse before this past year. Over the course of three seasons, he averaged just more than 200 carries. If there is concern about Henry's ability to last through his rookie contract, then each of the top running back prospects must come with the same concern as well.
While Henry has the ability to work laterally and make defenders miss more than comparable big backs, he will fit seamlessly into a power scheme. He was a constant threat to create big plays whenever Alabama ran inside dives or counters that maximized the time he had to gain momentum. Getting him downhill as quickly as possible must be the offense's goal every time he touches the ball.
He is an easy projection because his traits and skills are tailor-made for a gap scheme. He's not just a short-yardage back or plodder because of his size. He will continue to be one of the more unique running backs as he enters the NFL because of his special movement abilities with his frame.
The Carolina Panthers, Tennessee Titans, Oakland Raiders, Detroit Lions and New York Jets are all excellent fits for Henry. He should be considered in the late first round to mid-second round, given his skill set and potential impact. Don't be surprised if Henry quickly establishes himself as a punishing yet dynamic talent as a rookie in the NFL.
All stats from Sports-Reference.com.
Ian Wharton is an NFL featured columnist for Bleacher Report.
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