Everyone who’s followed football the past few seasons is aware of the name De’Anthony Thomas, the star tailback/kick returner for the Oregon Ducks. Most of the pundits rank Thomas, still a junior, at or near the top of the list for running back prospects who will (or likely will) enter the 2014 NFL Draft, along with Baylor‘s Lache Seastrunk. The true question, however, is just how high will Thomas go? Could he go top 10?
15 years ago, this wouldn’t have been much of a question. He’d probably go top five (just edging out Penn State‘s Curtis Enis), a normal slot for arguably the top back in the draft.
But times have changed, and the evolution of how teams use running backs have changed. Gone are the days of a single tailback slamming into a defense 25 times per game every game. Those days ended with the decline of former stalwarts Shaun Alexander, Larry Johnson and Clinton Portis.
Nowadays, unless you have someone like Adrian Peterson (averaging 23 carries a game at 4.6 a pop), teams like to use multiple tailbacks to effectively attack a defense. And schematically (and practically) it makes sense. You throw different looks with different players in different situations all to confuse the defense and keep them uncomfortable. It also keeps your players fresher throughout the course of a game and the season.
Combine that fact along with the increase in star running backs coming out of nowhere (Arian Foster, undrafted, perfect example), and you begin to understand why the draft stock of tailbacks has taken a hit all across the board. Why waste a top-10 pick on a tailback, when we might be able to find a hidden gem for a fraction of the price in the sixth round (a la Alfred Morris)?
Unless you’re truly a game-breaking talent, there’s no need to waste a high first-round pick on a tailback. Save that for a quarterback, an offensive or defensive lineman, a wide receiver or a cornerback, the positions who’s current value in the game today would be properly reflected.
The thing is, though, Thomas is a game breaker. He is a freakish talent. He could go in the top 10, strictly based off of talent.
Thomas has speed that simply can’t be taught (reported 4.24 40-yard dash ‘Neon’ Deion Sanders speed). He’s got the quick-twitch fibers that make him the quickest and most fluid player in the college game, and perhaps the most explosive offensive player since Reggie Bush. As far as prospect comparisons go, people are saying he’s a faster version of Buffalo Bills RB C.J. Spiller, who rushed for more than 1,200 yards last season at more than 6.0 per carry.
But a top-10 pick? That’s tough to say. His versatility in both the passing and special teams play will certainly increase his stock, as will his burst to the outside. But he’s not going to pound away at the middle of a defense. He’s just not big or strong enough-yet. It almost goes without saying that he might not be a 3-down back, at least not early in his career. Hard to justify spending such a lofty pick on a situational player.
Another thing hurting his stock is that this years draft is incredibly deep at quarterback and offensive tackle, two positions that always carry more significance to a football team winning than that of a fast running back.
In conclusion, Thomas is a top-10 talent, but won’t go in the top-10. He’ll more than likely go in the teens of the first round to a team that probably doesn’t even need a running back, but is looking for a game breaker to assist their current number one. That way, the team can still utilize his special talents, but not depend on them. Let him gain some weight, get some seasoning, then give him a chance to be a feature back, similar to the way the Bills brought along Spiller behind Fred Jackson.