An interesting nugget came out of last week’s “ESPN First Draft” podcast.
During the end-of-show Q&A portion, co-stars Mel Kiper Jr. and Todd McShay were asked to identify a prospect — offense or defense — who’s been rocketing up the NFL Draft boards.
McShay didn’t hesitate to offer a response: Alabama hybrid tailback Kenyan Drake has been steadily gathering momentum among NFL scouts and personnel execs in recent weeks. McShay then doubled down on the open-ended praise, saying “there’s a chance” Drake could be drafted ahead of Crimson Tide teammate Derrick Henry.
Let that sink in for a moment. Henry was the nation’s leading rusher last season. He also captured just the second Heisman Trophy in Alabama’s illustrious history.
Which begs the rhetorical questions:
**When does a Heisman-winning running back ever get drafted behind a college teammate from the same backfield?
**Why would that trend start this year, given Henry’s supreme size for that position (6-foot-3, 247 pounds, not an ounce of upper-body fat)?
That aside, SEC Country explores four plausible reasons why Drake might be called ahead of Henry next week:
1. Drake has few physical peers among this year’s crop of running backs
If Drake (6-foot-1, 210 pounds) had chosen Texas, Iowa, Arizona, Mississippi State, Michigan State or North Carolina for his college career, sidestepping the backup status at Alabama, we might be talking about an easy gamble for Round 1.
Perhaps something out of the Jamaal Charles or Jeremy Langford mode.
Instead, NFL offensive coordinators must take a leap of faith on Drake’s production curve at the next level as a rusher/receiver/kick returner/Wildcat option out of the backfield.
It’s the fun of creating plays/opportunities for an experienced SEC performer who crushed most of the competition at the NFL Scouting Combine in three categories — in the 40-yard dash (4.45 seconds), long jump (123 inches) and 20-yard shuttle (4.21 seconds).
All for a draft price that likely doesn’t come with sticker shock.
2. Drake may possess the higher ceiling at the next level, minus one caveat
Drake has the athletic gifts to become another Reggie Bush or Randall Cobb in the pros, depending on scheme fit.
Within that logic, Drake might have more to offer NFL teams that already have a workhorse back in terms of satisfying the all-encompassing needs for a spot rusher, solid route runner, kick-returning threat and staying power of maybe 7-10 years (less chance of burnout than Henry).
But make no mistake. Drake isn’t a viable candidate for 1,200 rushing yards — the minimum requirement for an elite-level rusher. If Henry can find that consistency level in the NFL, perhaps duplicating the work of Bengals tailback Jeremy Hill (1,918 rushing yards, 20 touchdowns in his first two seasons), then he’ll be the easy winner in this comparison.
3. A GM’s personal preference of lightning over thunder
Go ahead and peruse the NFL’s overall depth chart with running backs.
The majority of clubs employ rotational tailbacks with complementary skill sets, in hopes of covering the respective ‘versatility’ bases.
In some circles, it’s viewed as a Mr. Inside/Mr. Outside arrangement.
As such, it’s hard to imagine teams like the Bills, Bengals, Steelers, Jaguars, Chiefs , Chargers, Giants, Redskins, Vikings, Falcons, Buccaneers, Browns, Cardinals, Rams or 49ers investing a first- or second-round pick on a run-heavy asset like Henry (only 17 receptions in college) — despite his prolific size and a Toucan Sam-like nose for the end zone.
It’s similarly difficult to envision the Patriots, Eagles, Vikings, Lions, Saints, Broncos, Ravens or Jets splurging on a power back in the first two rounds — short of Ohio State’s Ezekiel Elliott falling into their lap.
On the flip side, the explosive Drake (23 college touchdowns on just 252 total touches) could go anytime in Round 2, 3 or 4 — solely based on a GM’s subjective affection … and that team’s penchant for attempting seven or eight backfield passes every Sunday.
4. Power backs only have so much gas in the proverbial tank
Henry logged 406 touches over 15 games last season (2,219 rushing yards, 28 touchdowns), including an absurd 395 rushes.
By comparison, for the NFL’s 16-game schedule last year, only five tailbacks (Adrian Peterson, Doug Martin, Latavius Murray, Devonta Freeman, Frank Gore) collected more than 250 rushing attempts.
That’s a far cry from the NFL’s bygone era of 1991-2006, when the league’s leading ball carrier cumulatively averaged 378.3 rushes during that span.
Back to Henry: He might have had a manageable workload as a freshman and sophomore (213 touches, 17 total touchdowns), but that 395 number as a junior might frighten a number of NFL GMs in search of a workhorse back through 2021.
Yes, the college and pro games are different, competition-wise; but 400 touches against NFL-ready defenders from the SEC still counts on the meter.
(For the record, neither Eddie George, Adrian Peterson, Emmitt Smith, Mark Ingram nor Marshall Faulk ever notched 330 carries in a single college campaign.)
The only saving grace here: Henry left college early and avoided the task of repeating the attainable burden of 350 carries as a senior.
That kind of usage might have been a death knell to his 2017 chances of landing in Round 1.
Jay Clemons, the 2015 national winner for “Sports Blog Of The Year” (Cynopsis Media), has previously written for SI.com, The National Football Post, Bleacher Report and FOX Sports.