Part 4, RB: How special are Breece Hall and Kenneth Walker?
It's the annual debate. How high should you draft a running back? Two stand out above all else in 2022. Also, inside: Why speed is in the eye of the beholder.
This is the 38th year Bob McGinn has written an NFL draft series. Previously, it appeared in the Green Bay Press-Gazette (1985-’91), the Milwaukee Journal Sentinel (1992-’17), BobMcGinnFootball.com (2018-’19) and The Athletic (2020-’21). Until 2014, personnel people often were quoted by name. The series reluctantly adopted an all-anonymous format in 2015 at the request of most scouts … The 12-minute, 50-question Wonderlic test was not administered at the NFL scouting combine this year, possibly the first time it wasn’t included in the schedule. Thus, players generally took the test at spring timing days in 2021 or at pro days in the past two months. The NFL average score is about 19.
Today: running backs.
The 4.6 running back is persona non grata in some NFL draft rooms. Maybe he’s not off the draft board, but it’s often understood from the GM on down that their team doesn’t want him.
Iowa State’s Breece Hall and Michigan State’s Kenneth Walker are consensus choices as the leading backs this year. They ran their 40’s in the low-to-mid 4.4s.
Hall and Walker combined for 15 of 17 first-place votes cast by scouts for the best back in the draft. They amassed 57% of the total points allocated in the 1-2-3-4-5 poll, leaving 43% of the scraps to the others.
“It’s Breece Hall and everybody else,” said an AFC executive in personnel who voted 1-2 for Hall-Walker, one of 13 of 17 scouts that placed those two players at the top of his ballot. “It’s Breece Hall and then just a bunch of guys.”
Six of the 10 backs this year ran in the 4.4s, and a seventh clocked 4.5 flat. Everyone wants a player that won’t be caught from behind if he can skip past the middle safety. A 65-yard touchdown run can be decisive whereas a 30-yard gain usually isn’t.
Yet, for all the emphasis on speed in today’s game, that back with the modest 40 need not embark upon another career just yet.
“These backs that run 4.6, you can’t dismiss them because they’re 4.6,” one personnel man said. “A back can get by with 4.6 if he’s got the instincts and the burst.”
Let’s define a 4.6 back. Some teams use a player’s fastest time as his official time. My method generally is to average the hand-held times from the combine and pro days. Using my system, I defined a 4.6 back as players that ran between 4.56 and 4.65.
Of my top 27 backs this year, 11 fit the description of a 4.6 back. Ten played in Power 5 conferences, and the 11th played for a major independent.
LSU’s Ty Davis-Price wasn’t part of the group because he ran 4.53. He’s No. 13 on my list. But, like the majority of the 11, he has the ability to flourish in the NFL.
An AFC personnel director said the 15th back in this draft could turn out to be the best of the class “especially if the guy goes to an offense that matches him physically. Davis-Price is another one who shows everything you want. Might not be a great fit for an outside zone, but it would not shock me at all if he got 1,000 yards.”
Our “Gang of 4.6” included Isaiah Spiller (4.63), Brian Robinson (4.60), Dameon Pierce (4.61), Snoop Conner (4.64), ZaQuandre White (4.62), Tyler Allgeier (4.65), Keaontay Ingram (4.59), Jashaun Corbin (4.60), Zonovan Knight (4.56) and Kennedy Brooks (4.60). Hassan Haskins didn’t run a 40, but based on the estimate of three scouts let’s include him with an assigned time of 4.65.
Ron Wolf, the Hall of Fame general manager and scout for four teams from 1963-’01, evaluated hundreds of 4.6 backs.
“Speed is always a factor but backs are a unique position so it really didn’t bother me,” said Wolf. “To me, if you have the capability, if you were good in college, you will get yardage up here in the big leagues. I’m not talking about 4.8, 4.7, or if you played against (lower competition).”
Wolf continued: “We had special criteria. They had to be able to pass protect, catch the ball and run, and, in some instances, run block. What did I look for? Results.”
Our “Gang of 4.6” includes five players with at least 3,000 yards from scrimmage in their careers and four with at least 2,000. Five have rushed for 1,000 yards in a season.
Before anyone would care to write off anyone in the group, consider for a moment this list of 20 backs with 4.6 speed that I culled from my files covering the last 10 drafts.
Le’Veon Bell (4.57) and Eddie Lacy (4.59) in 2013.
Carlos Hyde (4.61) and James White (4.58) in 2014.
Mike Davis (4.56) in 2015.
Jordan Howard (4.59) in 2016.
Alvin Kamara (4.59), Kareem Hunt (4.59), James Conner (4.64), Aaron Jones (4.58) and Jamaal Williams (4.56) in 2017.
Josh Jacobs (4.63), David Montgomery (4.59), Darrell Henderson (4.58) and Devin Singletary (4.65) in 2019.
Clyde Edwards-Helaire (4.59), Zack Moss (4.62) and James Robinson (4.64) in 2020.
Javonte Williams (4.56) and Rhamondre Stevenson (4.64) in 2021.
Of those 20 backs, eight have made at least one Pro Bowl, eight have at least 150 receptions and eight have rushed for 1,000 yards in a season.
The all-time 4.6 back is the all-time leading rusher, Emmitt Smith. That’s about what Wolf remembered him running out of Florida in 1990.
“He had just uncanny balance and he was tough,” said Wolf. “Thing about him, he trusted that the hole was going to be there.”
In the poll of scouts, with a first-place worth 5 points, a second-place vote worth 4 and so on, Hall led with 73 points and eight firsts compared to Walker’s 71 points and seven firsts.
Following, in order, were Isaiah Spiller (21), Brian Robinson (20), James Cook (16), Dameon Pierce (13, one first), Zamir White (nine), Jerome Ford (eight), Ty Chandler (seven, one first), Rachaad White (seven), Ty Davis-Price (three), Kyren Williams (three), Hassan Haskins (two) and Pierre Strong (two).
Pierce, one of those 4.6 backs, will find at least one team that won’t allow his inauspicious 40 to be held against him.
“I don’t care about that,” an NFC exec said. “He’s a starter.”
RANKING THE RUNNING BACKS
1. BREECE HALL, Iowa State (5-11, 218, 4.42, 1-2): Third-year junior with 30 starts in 36 games. “He’s got kind of a weird, slithering, slashing running style,” one scout said. “He’s not really an attacker. There’s some Le’Veon Bell to him … He’s gets through the line of scrimmage fast, he’s elusive and he has long speed. He’s good enough as a receiver. He’s not going to be dynamite right out of the gate but he’ll be a starter.” Led the position in the vertical jump (40 inches) and tied for the largest hands (9 ¾ inches). “He’s got that natural pick-and-slide style,” a second scout said. “He’s got a chance to be a starter as a first- and second-down guy. Don’t ever think he’ll be great. Don’t ever think he’ll be paid a lot of money.” Finished with 718 carries for 3,941 yards (5.5-yard average) and 50 TDs to go with 82 receptions. His cousin is 49ers great RB Roger Craig. “For a big running back he has good feet through the hole,” said a third scout. “He’s not a stumblebum. He can see it and make in-line cuts. He can drop his weight and accelerate again. I put him ahead of Walker because of his size and vision as a runner.” Scored 21 on the Wonderlic. “He’s just not a natural runner,” a fourth scout said. “He just can’t get out of the backfield. He kind of jumps around. Doesn’t have really good vision or burst. Not strong. Kind of an awkward athlete. If there’s a crease he can get up in there. Even with that he doesn’t have true home-run speed.” From Wichita, Kan.