There may not have been a running back taken in the first round of this year's NFL draft, but Tennessee Titans rookie running back Bishop Sankey will be playing like one before it's all said and done in 2014.
As the first running back selected at No. 54 overall in the second round, Sankey won't have the burden of expectations that greet most first-round picks heading into their rookie season.
But based on some of the comparisons being thrown around, Sankey will have plenty of eyes on him early in his rookie season, via Paul Kuharsky of ESPN.com.
The Titans view him as a versatile three-down back who can run inside and out, catch passes and be reliable in pass protection. He said he has been compared to Giovani Bernard, LeSean McCoy and even Emmitt Smith. Titans area scout Marv Sunderland said Sankey runs like Tiki Barber did, without the fumbling issue.
Standing at just 5'9" and 209 pounds, Sankey may not have the physical prowess to run through tackles within the box very often, but don't let the former Washington Husky's smallish stature fool you.
Sankey runs well behind his pads and always seems to fall forward after initial contact. This ability to stay low and use his size to his advantage will serve him well. He'll break tackles at the second level on defensive backs, and while he doesn't overpower defenders upon initial contact, that doesn't mean he's easy to take down.
Sankey has the lower-body strength to run through arm tackles, and he uses his size and frame well when "sorting through the trash." He displays good vision, knowing when to break runs to the outside, and he moves well laterally out in space.
Last season at Washington, Sankey became the school's all-time leader in career rushing touchdowns with 38, and he also broke the school record for rushing yards in a season with 1,870.
Currently, the Titans are looking at a depth chart in the backfield with Shonn Greene, Dexter McCluster and now Sankey, as the top three running backs heading into training camp.
|By the numbers - Shonn Green and Dexter McCluster|
|Player||RUSH ATT||RUSH YDS||AVG||TDS||REC||REC YDS||REC TDS|
There's a reason many fantasy football experts believe Sankey is a rookie worth keeping an eye on as we approach the start of the season.
Sankey has the feet, vision and overall skill set to play early and often for the Titans as a rookie.
He catches the ball well out of the backfield but will need to improve in pass protection before being considered a three-down back.
McCluster, the former Kansas City Chief who signed a three-year deal with the Titans, would seem to fit the role of a change-of-pace back well. He would seem to slide into the third-down role at first glance.
Here's a look at one of Sankey's plays from last season against California.
Sankey initially uses his lateral quickness to get away from the defensive lineman in pursuit in the backfield.
After establishing a lane to the outside, Sankey accelerates "through the trash" and is able to use that speed to break into the open field. Sankey's quickness causes the safety to take a poor angle, and the result is a huge gain for the Washington offense.
This play is equal parts vision and lateral agility, explosion and patience.
One very underrated but critical part of Sankey's skill set is the body control he demonstrates when making cuts and changing speed. Nobody will mistake him for a Darren Sproles or De'Anthony Thomas, but Sankey has quick and nimble feet, which allow him to change direction in traffic and fall forward to get additional yardage.
Here's a video from DraftBreakdown.com which shows all of Sankey's plays against BYU from last season. (Here's a link to all of Sankey's videos at DraftBreakdown.com)
He does most of his damage running off-tackle and in space, where he does show a willingness to lower his shoulder and take on tacklers. His between-the-tackles power is average, though, and he needs a lane opened for him to attack the defense in the trenches. Sankey has the physical tools to become a more powerful runner.
His secondary vision is also good, as he makes easy, smooth cuts in the open field. Sankey knows how to read his blocks, and he shows good patience when letting plays develop.
It doesn't happen often that you can find a player who excels both at the power running game between the tackles and at using his athleticism and fluidity as a runner to bounce plays outside and to get into space. Sankey isn't elite at either of these skills, but he possesses just enough strength and just enough speed that the Titans' coaches shouldn't limit Sankey in the Tennessee offense.
That balance in and of itself makes him a more valuable, complete player than someone who might excel at one of those particular traits but not the other.
There won't be any easy reads with Sankey on the field for the Titans, and the fact that he's a good receiver out of the backfield just makes him that much more versatile.
The other positive for Sankey fans out there is that neither Greene nor McCluster can be legitimately seen as the No. 1 back right now, at least not in terms of holding a firm grasp on the position.
Chris Johnson was the workhorse at running back for the Titans last year. He left for the New York Jets as a free agent this offseason. Johnson carried the ball 279 times last season compared to just 77 for Greene.
Just for comparisons sake, Sankey carried the ball 327 times last season at Washington. Granted it wasn't the NFL, but in terms of being "the man," Sankey has occupied the role of the featured running back more recently than has Greene.
Greene didn't look to be the same player last year we all saw a couple of seasons ago when he had back-to-back 1,000-yard rushing seasons for the Jets.
When asked whether or not Johnson would be a tough act to follow at running back in Tennessee, Sankey gave the kind of answer you'd see from an established NFL veteran, via TitansOnline.com.
I definitely think he is a tough act to follow. We’ll see, only time will tell. No one really knows what tomorrow is going to bring.
It’s up to us to prepare the day for whatever situation we’re put in. That’s something that I’m going to do—just worry about myself and control what I can control and be the best football player that I can be.
If Sankey picks things up as quickly on the football field as he does with talking to the media, Titans fans are going to understand why he is the next big thing at running back.