Everyone loves a dark horse. It's just human nature.
People can hardly contain themselves when a heavyweight boxer everyone expected to get the snot beat out of knocks out the supposedly invincible Mike Tyson. They applaud when an 18-point-underdog New York Jets team knocks off the mighty Baltimore Colts in Super Bowl III. They revel when a 1000-1 long-shot U.S. men's hockey team stuns the juggernaut that was the USSR in the 1980 Winter Olympics.
Of course, some of those people were cheering because by placing a wager on those long shots, they came away with a fat bag of cash.
There is no shortage of long-shot bets to be made ahead of the upcoming NFL season. Many are just setting money on fire—the Houston Texans (+20000) aren't about to win Super Bowl LVI. Miami Dolphins running back Myles Gaskin (+20000) isn't going to be named the league's Most Valuable Player.
But there is a dark-horse candidate to be named Offensive Rookie of the Year who presents an interesting mix of talent and situation. A young running back with the potential to lead all first-year backs in rushing yards while playing a major part in a postseason run.
Sermon wasn't the first running back drafted in 2021. Or the second. Or the third. In his lone season at Ohio State after transferring from Oklahoma, he failed to hit the 1,000-yard mark on the ground.
Of course, Sermon's numbers don't tell the whole story of what he accomplished as a Buckeye—especially late in the 2020 season. In the Big Ten Championship Game against Northwestern, Sermon set a school record with 331 yards on 29 carries—quite the feat at a university that has produced Eddie George, Ezekiel Elliott, J.K. Dobbins, Robert Smith and several other high-end running back prospects. In the College Football Playoff semifinal against Clemson, Sermon piled up 193 yards on 31 totes. The 6'0", 215-pounder averaged 7.5 yards per carry for the year.
However, for all that Sermon accomplished in Columbus, Ohio, many scouts considered him more of a committee back than an NFL workhorse—while allowing that he could shine in the right scheme.
"Sermon's skill set and production will be the latest argument against drafting running backs high in the draft," Kyle Crabbs of The Draft Network wrote. "Sermon is expected to be a mid-round prospect thanks to some inefficiencies and a lack of production on third downs; but on a team that runs inside and split zone with success, Sermon can be super productive."
However, Matt Waldman of the Rookie Scouting Portfolio went so far as to rank Sermon as arguably the top running back in the class, potentially ahead of Alabama's Najee Harris. Sermon's versatility left a lasting impression on him:
"Trey Sermon moves like an NFL starting running back. Correction, Sermon moves like a top-shelf NFL running back. ... Whether it's in the backfield, at the entrance of a crease, at the edge with a one-on-one against a safety, or in the open field after building up downhill momentum, Sermon uses his feet, knees, hips, shoulders, and head to freeze, circumnavigate, or hurdle the opposition. And if these (aren't) options, he'll run over or drag defenders."
The Niners certainly saw something they liked in Sermon, moving up in the third round to grab him. Simply put, it's a match made in heaven.
Sermon is many things, but a dancer in the backfield isn't one of them; he runs with equal parts decisiveness and anger. It's a great fit for Kyle Shanahan's outside-zone scheme for a couple of reasons. The first is that Ohio State uses some of the same concepts in its run game. The second is that Sermon himself revealed that while preparing to transfer to Ohio State, he studied film of (wait for it) Shanahan's 49ers.
"When I was making the transition to Ohio State, I was looking at a lot of outside zone," Sermon said, per Jennifer Lee Chan of NBC Sports Bay Area. "The 49ers were definitely one of the teams that I looked at. Just going through the progressions and the reads because I knew when I got to Ohio State we were going to run a lot of that."
Sermon went on to say that those study sessions have eased his adjustment to his new home.
"It hasn't been too difficult just making the transition," Sermon said. "Some of the stuff is similar to what I did at Ohio State. I feel like my acclimation will be pretty smooth and it will be good."
Per Dalton Johnson of NBC Sports Bay Area, during OTAs Shanahan said he's been impressed by what he's seen from Sermon.
"Trey's been great," Shanahan said. "Each week he's gotten more and more reps and as we cooled it down with Raheem [Mostert] a little bit here, the last couple of weeks, it's given him even more opportunities."
Those opportunities could easily carry over into the regular season.
As things stand right now, Sermon sits behind veterans Raheem Mostert and Jeff Wilson Jr. on the depth chart. Mostert has been effective when healthy, averaging a robust 5.6 yards per carry for his career. But the 29-year-old has battled chronic knee problems, missed half the 2020 season and has already missed time in OTAs. Wilson is out indefinitely after tearing his meniscus in May.
Sermon is going to be San Francisco's lead back at some point. The only question is when. And once he has the job, he has the talent and skill set to keep it—to become a featured back for a team that ranked second in the NFL in rushing attempts in its march to the Super Bowl in 2019.
Now, Sermon is a long shot to win OROY for a reason. Trevor Lawrence (+300) is the first overall pick in this year's draft and a Day 1 starter for the Jacksonville Jaguars at quarterback. Kyle Pitts (+750) of the Atlanta Falcons is arguably the most highly touted tight end prospect, well, ever. Harris (+800) will be the unquestioned featured back for the Pittsburgh Steelers from the get-go. Sermon's teammate Trey Lance (+800) could become San Francisco's quarterback sooner rather than later.
There are some other rookies with longer odds with a chance to work their way into the conversation as well. Philadelphia Eagles wide receiver DeVonta Smith (+1800) just won the Heisman Trophy and will be Philly's No. 1 receiver. New York Jets running back Michael Carter (+2500) has a good chance to rapidly advance to the head of a muddied RB corps in the Big Apple.
But Lawrence will be leading a team that is riding a 15-game losing streak. Even elite tight end prospects have been known to struggle in Year 1. Harris will be playing behind an offensive line that ranks somewhere between atrocious and abysmal. Jimmy Garoppolo isn't just going to hand the starting job to Lance. Smith is a 170-pound wideout catching passes from a quarterback who completed 52 percent of his passes in 2020. And Carter, well, he plays for the Jets.
Sorry. That was rude.
Sermon has the perfect combination. He's a gifted young runner with a style that meshes seamlessly with his new team. That team has the makings of a playoff contender and sports the ninth-best offensive line in the league, according to Pro Football Focus. It's a team that loves to run the ball as much as any in the league. And if it all comes together, Sermon could provide a massive return on investment—both for San Francisco and the folks who have a little financial faith in him.
If you're the type who likes lottery tickets more than "sure things," then as far as the OROY race is concerned in 2021, the plausibility of a payout doesn't get any better than Trey Sermon.
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