Mobile, Ala. — In a stacked running back class, a lot of the top prospects aren’t at the Senior Bowl. As early entrants to the draft, Penn State’s Saquon Barkley and LSU’s Derrius Guice weren’t eligible. Georgia’s Sony Michel and Nick Chubb withdrew from the event after playing in the National Championship game, while Oregon’s Royce Freeman had to pull out with an injury.
But for a team shopping for ball carriers, like the Detroit Lions, there’s still an intriguing mix of talent at the Senior Bowl, headlined by the nation’s leading rusher in 2017, San Diego State’s Rashaad Penny.
In his first year as a featured back, Penny posted eye-popping numbers for the Aztecs, carrying the ball 289 times for 2,295 yards and 23 scores. He offers good bulk, at 224 pounds, and prefers to use that to his advantage, focusing his attack between the tackles.
“Definitely a one-cut guy, I like getting north and south,” Penny said. “There’s really no point in going east and west. East and west is going backwards. When you’re going north and south, you’re going straight forward.”
The Lions spent too much time attempting to run around the edge of the defense last season. Ameer Abdullah, the starter for much of the season, was one of the league’s least efficient backs due to this strategy, running horizontally 5.1 yards for every yard gained.
Not being able to run up the gut effectively is a primary reason the Lions finished last in the NFL in rushing yards, and also why they had the league’s worst success rate on power runs — third or fourth down plays needing two or fewer yards to convert a first down or score a touchdown.
That kind of success on third-and-short is inconceivable to Penny.
“It doesn’t matter who is in the hole, there can be four guys in the hole, you definitely got to get the first down,” he said. “That’s how I was taught by my running backs coach at San Diego State.”
And despite the big production, Penny isn’t considered a top back in his class. He’s OK with that and eager to prove himself at the next level. He draws inspiration from Kareem Hunt, the Toldeo product who was overlooked before being selected in the third round last year (No. 86 overall). He went on to lead the NFL in rushing as a rookie with 1,327 yards.
“I know I can probably contribute the same way he’s done,” Penny said.
Another back looking to make a favorable impression in Mobile is Arizona State’s Kalen Ballage.
Standing 6-foot-3, he’s taller than most of the players at his position. That creates a natural struggle with his pad level, but he brings a bit more ready-made versatility to the table than Penny.
Like David Johnson, the Arizona Cardinals star who came out three years ago, Ballage is a polished receiver out of the backfield. He called the skill his greatest strength.
“Catching the ball out of the backfield, making people miss in the open field,” Ballage said. “You can put me in a lot of different spots and I’ll do well at them.”
Both Penny and Ballage also offer return ability. Penny has been one of the best on kickoffs the past three seasons, averaging better than 30 yards each year and scoring seven touchdowns.
And if the Lions prefer a versatile option to round out their backfield, North Carolina State’s Jaylen Samuels could fit the bill. A matchup piece in college, he worked as a tight end, blocking back and running back for the Wolfpack. He’s looking to settle in at running back full-time at the next level.
At 223 pounds, Samuels also has good size to run between the tackles, combined with the receiving ability that helped him catch nearly 200 passes the past three seasons. He hauled in 75 balls during his senior campaign.
“It’s showing a lot of versatility, being able to catch out of the backfield, run good routes as well,” Samuels said. “I just feel like that’s what a lot of teams are looking for, that guy that can do a little bit of everything, and that’s what I feel I bring to the table.”
Whether it’s one of these three or not, it’s a near-certainty the Lions will add a back in the draft this year. The offense’s potential remains limited until the team can efficiently run the ball.