The Oregon Ducks have been one of college football's most exciting teams to watch. Their high-octane offense leads to big numbers and seemingly interchangeable star running backs.
The latest one in the bunch, De'Anthony Thomas, will be the starter in 2014. Naturally, he'll be poised to have a breakout year after already putting up nice numbers the previous two seasons as a running back, kick returner and wide receiver.
There's no question that Thomas is one of the fastest players in college football, if not the fastest. He could very well be on the Heisman short list for this coming season, and with all his ability, it's not that surprising to hear Mel Kiper call him the top running back prospect in the 2014 NFL draft.
While his skill set makes that claim sound entirely reasonable, Thomas has a lot working against him heading into his junior year.
It is at best premature to call him the best running back prospect, and at worst flat-out wrong.
Let's start with the elephant in the room: Chip Kelly. He's with the Philadelphia Eagles now. That high-octane offense is now gone. Mark Helfrich took over as head coach, so luckily there will not be much that changes.
Still, even small modifications that Helfrich makes could have a major impact on Thomas's role moving forward, which could also affect his draft status. He's in a much better situation than most who have new head coaches, but it's a transition nonetheless.
The change in management does not concern me too much when it comes to Thomas, but what does is his frame. Yes, he's a speed demon, but at 5'9" and 173 pounds, he has a small frame.
There's no question that at worst he could be an effective return man or third-down back, but is he a feature back with that frame?
Kenjon Barner was slightly bigger at 5'10" and nearly 200 pounds, and he was a sixth-rounder. LaMichael James was only 5'8", but he was also nearly 200 pounds and took his dominance in college to a late Round 2 selection.
For Thomas to be a first-round pick, or the first running back taken, period for that matter, he would have to not only be more effective than his two predecessors in college, a tall order, but show that his lack of bulk will not be an issue at the NFL level.
That is a much greater concern moving forward. The height can be worked around, but even with his speed, he is a high risk for injury unless he's able to bulk up to at least 190 over the course of his junior year.
Featured running backs under 190 pounds are a rarity in today's NFL. There hasn't been an every-down guy that small since Warrick Dunn. That means Thomas needs to show more than just speed if he is going to be a high draft pick.
It's not just up to him, however, as his competition does not have that frame issue moving forward. Lache Seastrunk and Ka'Deem Carey are slower than Thomas, but they have put up big numbers so far and have a more well-rounded game, making them more likely to be every-down backs in the NFL.
Yes, Tavon Austin was a top-10 pick last year despite having a similar frame. That was a perfect storm of a lack of other elite skill players in the draft that year. This year's class has multiple quarterbacks and wide receiver Marqise Lee, among others.
The three running backs are all underclassmen as well; there's the possibility that all go back to college for their senior year, making none of them the top prospect for the draft.
Even if all declare for the draft, is Thomas really better than Seastrunk or Carey? Yes, Thomas has not had a huge workload yet to judge him by, but neither has Seastrunk. Carey, meanwhile, has more experience as a feature back than the other two put together.
That, combined with his huge numbers against similar competition at Arizona, makes me put Carey as the top running back prospect moving forward. All three can make a claim for it, but Thomas' weaknesses cannot be fixed by putting up big numbers.
No one doubts Thomas's ability as a great college running back moving forward, especially in Oregon's system, but is he a first-round pick or the best running back in the class? That's simply not the case.
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