Is it time to pump the brakes on the Bishop Sankey hype train? Bear with me for a minute. Depending on who you asked, Sankey was either the darling or the punching bag of the “draft community” prior to the 2014 NFL Draft. A highly touted and highly productive running back out of Washington Sankey was projected to go anywhere between the 2nd and 4th rounds of the draft.
The Titans made Sankey the first running back taken off the board when they selected him in the second round at pick number 54. After releasing Chris Johnson it was no surprise the Titans were in the market for a running back and Sankey was one of the few quality potential every down backs available in this year’s draft. Sankey joins a crowded backfield.
Now that the dust cloud has settled post draft, it’s reasonable to ask exactly what role Sankey is expected to have his first season with the Titans. Sankey is talented and was very productive finishing his 3 year college career with 711 plays from scrimmage for 4063 yards (5.7 YPP) and 38 touchdowns.
Pre-draft opinions on Sankey were split not only over whether Sankey could be a feature back but also whether he was best suited for “gap-style play” as Matt Waldman wrote for Football Outsiders or a zone blocking system as Peter Smith wrote for Fansided.
Regardless of the offensive line blocking system, where Sankey really struggles is in pass protection. You see this in scouting reports but it really doesn’t hit you until you see the actual film which at times can be pretty bad. Waldman wrote particularly about the Stanford game and no doubt Sankey struggled against that very good trench team. I watched all of the film available at Draft Breakdown and the UCLA game also stood out. Sankey was also completely shut down by Arizona State and watching that film is likewise very telling.
During the off-season the Titans added former Ole Miss and Kansas City Chiefs offensive weapon Dexter McCluster who signed a 3 year $12 million dollar contract with $4.5 million guaranteed. The Titans have stated they intend to use him as a running back but his skill set virtually begs them to use him in the Danny Woodhead role that benefited Whisenhunt’s offense in San Diego last season. The Pro Bowl returner McCluster seems almost a lock to earn the starting returner spot.
McCluster joined a depth chart also occupied by 2013 off-season acquisitions Shonn Greene and Jackie Battle, and in-season acquisition Leon Washington. Greene signed a 3 year $10 million contract on March 13, 2013 and is scheduled to earn $2.3 million this season. Battle signed a one year $855,000.00 deal on February 24, 2014 while Washington signed a one year $855,000 contract with $570,000 guaranteed, including a $65,000 signing bonus.
McCluster might be the only vet guaranteed a roster spot in August but it’s difficult to believe the Titans would move away from Greene, Battle and Washington. It seems certain the Titans will only carry four running backs on the roster. Sankey, McCluster and Greene would seem the odds on favorites as things stand now with that fourth spot up for grabs.
Greene obviously must prove he is healthy after being plagued by injury last season and undergoing 2 knee surgeries. Green played 154 snaps last season carrying the ball 77 times for 295 yards and 4 touchdowns. He added 6 catches for 39 yards.
Despite the guarantees in his contract, I believe Washington has the longest shot at making the Titans roster. Washington did very well in the return game after being signed toward the end of the season but he did not log a carry in the the run game. Jackie Battle played 113 snaps carrying the ball 36 times for 142 yards (3.9 YPC) and a touchdown. He added 4 receptions for 36 yards.
While none of those numbers for the veterans on the Titans roster are awe inspiring, Greene and Battle at least received positive grades for blocking abilities last season. Former Titans running back Chris Johnson’s issues in pass protection have been well documented by me. Washington has seen limited snaps over the past 2 seasons playing primarily on special teams and his blocking skills have never really been put to the test.
Now let’s turn our attention to Ken Whisenhunt’s history of handling the running back situation as head coach with the Arizona Cardinals beginning with the year 2007. Whisenhunt inherited a team that had added former Indianapolis Colts running back Edgerrin James in 2006. Also on the roster was J.J. Arrington who the Cardinals drafted in the second round pick 44 of the 2005 NFL Draft.
In 2007, James carried the ball 324 times for 1222 yards (3.8 YPC) and 7 touchdowns while being targeted 38 times in the passing game and catching 24 passes for 204 yards. Arrington carried the ball 26 times for 78 yards (3.0 YPC) while being targeted 39 times in the passing game. Quarterback Kurt Warner was sacked 20 times with James giving up 2 quarterback sacks and a quarterback hit on 724 snaps and Arrington giving up 1 quarterback hit and 6 quarterback hurries on 300 snaps.
The Cardinals backfield in 2008 featured a platoon of backs including James, Tim Hightower (drafted in the 5th round pick 149) and Arrington. James would lead the pack with Hightower and Arrington finishing 2nd and 3rd respectively.
Warner would be sacked 26 times with James giving up 2 quarterback hits and 4 quarterback hurries on 465 snaps, Hightower 1 quarterback sack and 5 quarterback hits on 585 snaps, and Arrington on 286 snaps. The Cardinals would be the NFC Champions and lose in the Super Bowl to Whisenhunt’s former team the Pittsburgh Steelers.
It was clear during the 2008 season James was mostly done and not surprisingly the Cardinals moved on in the 2009 drafting former Ohio State running back Beanie Wells in the 1st round with the 31st overall pick. Wells was considered a top 10 to 15 pick at the time (oh how times have changed) but fell due to concerns about his durability. Those concerns proved to be prophetic as injuries plagued him in Arizona and eventually forced him from the league.
2009 was a good year for rookie Wells who stayed mostly healthy year. He only rushed for 793 yards but did have 7 touchdowns. Hightower had a nice complimentary role of his own. Warner was sacked 24 times with Wells giving up 2 quarterback hits and 2 quarterback hurries on 365 snaps while Hightower gave up 1 quarterback sack, 2 quarterback hits and 3 quarterback hurries on 739 snaps. Hightower would play the most on passing downs per Pro Football Focus.
Warner retired following the 2009 season and the Cardinals offense self destructed. 2010 saw Darek Anderson, John Skelton and Max Hall behind center while Wells and a variety of running backs manned the backfield.
The Cardinals quarterbacks would get sacked 50 times that year with Hightower giving up 3 along with 6 quarterback hurries on 597 snaps, Wells 1 sack and 1 hurry on 231 snaps and LaRod Stephens-Howling playing 116 snaps and giving up a hurry. The Cardinals went 5-11 that year.
The Cardinals traded for Kevin Kolb during the 2011 offseason and he was the starter until he got injured and then John Skelton took back over. Wells would have his most productive year rushing with his first, and only 1000+ rushing season.
Cardinals quarterbacks would be sacked 54 times with Wells giving up 2 sacks, 1 quarterback hit and 5 quarterback hurries on 583 snaps. LaRod Stephens-Howling would play 144 snaps and give up none though he wasn’t called upon that much. The Cardinals would go 8-8.
Whisenhunt’s last season in Arizona saw his quarterback situation look much like it did in 2011 while his running back situation was his worst. Stephens-Howling led the pack and I use that term loosely.
Cardinal quarterbacks would be sacked 58 times in 2012. Stephens-Howling gave up 1 sack and 4 quarterback hurries, Wells 1 sack, 1 quarterback hit and 1 hurry, and newcomer William Powell 1 sack, 2 quarterback hits and 5 quarterback hurries. The Cardinals would go 5-11 once again and Whisenhunt would be fired.
Whisenhunt would spend one year in San Diego as the offensive coordinator before being hired by the Titans. Phillips Rivers enjoyed a rebound year, Ryan Matthews stayed healthy and Danny Woodhead was a multipurpose offensive coordinator’s dream.
The Chargers finished with a league high 4th in passing yards and 13th in rushing yards and improbably made the playoffs. It was Rivers best year as a quarterback since the 2010 season and Matthew’s best year since 2011.
Woodhead himself would have a career year.
Sometimes the stars align in a way that allows an offense to just click. Keenan Allen stepping up and being a playmaker certainly didn’t hurt matters either. It will be interesting to see if the Chargers offense can continue to produce like it did last year.
As for Sankey, it’s hard to anoint him the starter who is going to get a high amount of carries until he establishes he can be a good blocker and someone who understands the offense. While it is reasonable to think he will get opportunities, it isn’t unreasonable to think they might be limited his first year.
Dexter McCluster looks primed to get a fair share of opportunities and I wouldn’t count out Greene getting his share of goal line looks. Obviously we will have a better gauge of where Sankey stands once the pads come on in training camp. We will also get an opportunity to measure what the Titans might do with their revamped offensive line. There has been very little information on whether they are going to go straight zone blocking or run a variety of traps, counter plays and sweeps.
Until then, it might be wise to pump the brakes on the Sankey hype train. While he is a talented player and possibly the Titans feature back, it remains to be seen how he gets used his rookie season.