Bishop Sankey Will Start for Titans When He Learns to Be an NFL RB

Rivers McCown@riversmccownNFL AnalystSeptember 4, 2014

Tennessee Titans running back Bishop Sankey (20) works before the first half of an NFL preseason football game, Saturday, Aug. 23, 2014, in Atlanta. (AP Photo/David Goldman)
David Goldman/Associated Press

Odds are, if you play fantasy football, you have participated in a draft and had a thought like this as you neared the start of the fourth round:

"Well wait, the Titans have a good offensive line, and Shonn Greene is the only competition, so Bishop Sankey should be able to beat him out sooner rather than later!" 

But we are hours from the first Titans game day of the season, and Sankey has no defined role in the Tennessee offense. He did receive the ever-vague "depth chart" upgrade, per ESPN's Paul Kuharsky, which officially gave Sankey the "No. 2" role.

The Titans didn't pay Dexter McCluster good money to ride the bench, though. They envisioned McCluster in the Danny Woodhead role that Ken Whisenhunt created with the Chargers last season. My read of this move is not that Sankey is getting the second-most touches, it's that he is Greene's direct backup. 

John Glennon @glennonsports

ICYMI: #Titans rookie RB Bishop Sankey rounds into form as regular season nears: http://t.co/auTkLhuUte

If you are wondering why Sankey can't beat out a "gets what's blocked" replacement-level back like Greene, let me introduce you to Matt Waldman. Waldman, who writes for Football Guys and Football Outsiders, creates a yearly tome known as the RSP: Rookie Scouting Portfolio. He breaks down tape of all the top-ranked college football prospects at skill positions and tries to discern, through careful study of traits, who has what it takes to be successful in the NFL

Sankey may have been the first back off the board in last May's NFL draft, but he was only Waldman's 10th-rated running back. 

Before the draft, he looked at Sankey's game in his weekly Football Outsiders column. The short version is that Sankey has a chance to be a good back but didn't show much vision in the Washington offense last year. The more reading of the defense Sankey had to do, the worse the results were. Sankey also didn't consistently show the ability to break tackles with power.

Bishop Sankey Preseason Stats, 2014
PFF Rating-1.1
NFL.com, Pro Football Focus

In the preseason, Sankey averaged only 3.7 yards per carry, fumbling once, and his longest run was just 13 yards. But it's unfair to judge Sankey purely by his preseason results, especially since he didn't play a single snap with the first-team offense. Sure, the Titans have Taylor Lewan playing with the second team, but their backups are hardly the kind of group that lead to mistake-free blocking. Pro Football Focus rated him negatively, but they rated Greene's preseason even more negatively. 

But we can watch the tape, and we can see Sankey making some of the same mistakes he made in college at the professional level. 

NFL Preseason Live

This is in the third quarter of Tennessee's first preseason game against Green Bay. Look at the major gap that opens up along the middle of the line. This is a custom-built running lane, the kind that could let Sankey burst toward the opposite sideline and do some damage or at least pick up four or five yards straight up the gut.

Instead, not only does Sankey try to beat a one-on-one tackle outside, but he also goes horizontal to do it. Horizontal yardage is never something you want to accumulate as a running back. 

NFL Preseason Live

On this play, the Titans have a pulling guard and some extra kick-out blocks to the outside. All Sankey needs to do to make this a successful play is read the Atlanta linebacker. If the linebacker plugs inside, he has to kick back outside. If the linebacker heads outside, Sankey will instead burst inside. 

But Sankey either doesn't read it that way, or he reads it too slowly. In the end, he winds up running right into the only guy in the box that is unaccounted for. 

NFL Preseason Live

I don't want this to be a total downer piece, so here's a nice move Sankey made that I liked in the last preseason game against Minnesota. It shows his upside as a back.

The Titans, again, pull their guard. This time, though, the guard has to help the tight end, who has not locked on to his assignment as hoped. While it's feasible to believe Sankey might have had some running room cutting to the inside, it's far from definite, so instead he kicks outside and tries to make the most of the busted play. 

Sankey has two defenders in the same area, then sets up his outside move with a feint inside. Both Vikings players buy it, and then Sankey chugs to the outside after avoiding a leg tackle. 

Mark Zaleski/Associated Press

Sankey looked much better in the fourth game of the preseason than he did in the first few. Some of that can be chalked up to lesser competition, but I think it fits the narrative of actual improvement that Whisenhunt has continually mentioned in press conferences. I feel like until Sankey really gets a good pre-snap read on NFL defenses, he's going to fit in much better in McCluster's role. Sankey has looked his most decisive on shotgun draws and sweeps. 

Sankey doesn't necessarily have to reach the 90th percentile of his talent to beat out Greene for the starting role. This is still Shonn Greene we're talking about. But learning how to make the most of every play is going to be key for an offense that desperately wants to keep Jake Locker out of 3rd-and-8 situations. 

And until Sankey's reads of his keys improve, it makes sense for Whisenhunt to ride Greene. For now, Greene isn't the back that this Titans offense deserves, but he's the back they'll use to keep the chains moving. 

Rivers McCown is the AFC South lead writer for Bleacher Report. His work has also appeared on Football Outsiders and ESPN.com. Follow him on Twitter at @riversmccown.