Is it the system or the player?
That's the question scouts must address when assessing the pro potential of Oregon's Kenjon Barner. The senior has emerged as one of the top running backs in college football, yet NFL evaluators are having a tough time determining his draft value, due to the prolific nature of the Ducks' spread offense.
Since head coach Chip Kelly's arrival in 2007 (originally as an offensive coordinator), Oregon has not ranked lower than sixth in the country in rushing. Most impressively, the Ducks' leading rusher has finished seventh or better in rushing yards in each of the past four seasons, with LaMichael James leading the country in 2010 and finishing second in 2011 (behind Wisconsin's Montee Ball). Barner currently ranks third in the country with 1,295 yards, and is poised to continue the trend with a strong finish.
Given the remarkable success of Oregon runners in Kelly's scheme, scouts are reluctant to credit Barner for his ridiculous production. Cynics suggest his success is a byproduct of playing in a scheme that features wide offensive-line splits, three- and four-receiver spread formations and a frenetic pace. This combination of factors means Barner routinely finds open lanes against fatigued defenses stocked with poor-tackling defensive backs.
While all of that certainly contributes to Barner's success, I believe he has all of the tools to be an effective pro back after watching his sensational performance against USC. Barner ran 38 times for 321 yards with five touchdowns. Most importantly, he provided scouts with a handful of highlights that showcased his immense talent and potential.
Here are three aspects of Barner's game that stood out to me on Saturday:
1) Explosiveness: Though he's routinely overshadowed by teammate De'Anthony Thomas, Barner is one of the most explosive runners in college football. Barner shows impressive stop-start quickness, and his instant acceleration ranks as one of his strongest traits. Although he lacks elite straight-line speed, Barner's short-area quickness and burst allow him to blow past defenders on the second level. Against USC, Barner finished with 11 runs of 10-plus yards while showing the capacity to turn the corner against a fast defense. Most impressively, he slithered past multiple defenders at the point of attack and exploded through cracks, displaying remarkable acceleration. Given the speed and quickness of pro defenders, Barner's ability to consistently reach the second level makes him a dangerous weapon in the backfield.
2) Body Control: Speed is routinely cited as one of the most important traits for a running back, but in my mind, balance and body control are more important. Elite runners can both avoid tacklers in the hole and run through contact. Barner displayed all of those traits against USC. He repeatedly used nifty footwork and fakes to elude multiple defenders in the hole, and also powered through contact when cornered in traffic. Barner's magnificent display of balance and body control will impress scouts when they study the tape, and should squelch some of the concerns about how his game will translate to a conventional pro system.
3) Vision: Elite runners are able to spot cracks in the defense and immediately make a hard cut to explode through an opening. Barner is one of the best runners I've seen in the 2013 class at finding creases on the backside. Against USC, he repeatedly took the handoff and headed in the assigned direction before making a quick cut and exploding through an alley on the backside. Although the Ducks' zone-blocking scheme creates huge alleys with deceptive action in the backfield, the fact that Barner was able to consistently find an open crease is a tribute to his outstanding vision and anticipation. Those traits will help Barner develop into a productive runner in any system, and should enhance his value on draft boards across the league.
The proliferation of the spread offense has certainly changed the way scouts evaluate offensive players, particularly running backs. They must determine if a prospect's production is sustainable in a system that is drastically different from his college scheme. With Barner emerging as one of the most productive runners in college football, scouts will spend a lot of time studying the Ducks' offense, to see whether his talent and production are real or they stem solely from the system. I'm convinced his game is ideally suited for the pros, but Barner's final draft value ultimately will be determined by his perceived fit within a conventional offensive scheme.
WORD ON THE STREET
Offensive guards typically aren't valued at a premium in the draft, but the 2013 class features a pair of notable senior prospects at the position -- Alabama's Chance Warmack and North Carolina's Jonathan Cooper -- who are expected to become difference makers early in their careers.
According to an AFC South executive, Warmack is a big, physical interior blocker with the strength and power to "move the furniture." The exec went on to rave about Warmack's physicality and toughness, and how his presence will dramatically improve the prospects of a team seeking to build a power running game.
The exec lauded Cooper's athleticism and movement skills, telling me that Cooper is the perfect fit for a scheme that features zone blocking. He added that teams seeking an athletic interior blocker will love the North Carolina star.
Matt Barkley, QB, USC
After entering the season generally regarded as the No. 1 quarterback prospect, Barkley has seen his value fluctuate due to concerns about his arm strength and athleticism. However, he might have addressed those issues with a strong performance against Oregon. Barkley completed 35 of 54 passes for 484 yards with five touchdowns and two interceptions. He displayed impressive arm strength by pushing the ball down the field to Marqise Lee and Nelson Agholor on a pair of long touchdowns (both throws traveled 50-plus yards in the air). Barkley also showed impressive anticipation and awareness by routinely throwing Trojan receivers open. Although he made a few questionable throws that should've been picked off by Ducks defenders, Barkley's aggressive approach was needed to keep up in an offensive shootout (USC ended up losing, 62-51).
Le'Veon Bell, RB, Michigan State
Bell was widely considered the premier big back in college football following the season-ending injury to South Carolina's Marcus Lattimore, and the junior further cemented this notion with a 36-carry, 188-yard effort against Nebraska. Bell relentlessly pounded the ball between the tackles, displaying the kind of grit coaches love to see in power runners. He also used nifty footwork and vision to avoid defenders in the hole and consistently picked up positive yardage despite facing a host of eight- and nine-man fronts for most of the day. While some scouts still question his toughness, Bell's size (6-foot-2, 244 pounds) and consistent production throughout the season will earn him high marks from most evaluators.
Allen Chapman, CB, Kansas State
Ball-hawks are valued at a premium at every level, so any cornerback who grabs three interceptions in a game will certainly create a buzz in the scouting community. Chapman will emerge as the talk of the town this week following a big performance against Oklahoma State. The 5-foot-11, 176-pound senior recorded three picks on a prime-time stage, including a 29-yard pick-six that changed the game for the Wildcats. While Chapman's hands and ball skills were certainly impressive, his route recognition and awareness were what stood out to me. He floated underneath a corner route against a smash combination in the end zone for a pick, and grabbed another interception on a deep crossing route after anticipating the throw. These traits are hard to find, making Chapman an intriguing prospect to keep an eye on.
Joseph Randle, RB, Oklahoma State
Randle entered last weekend as one of the most productive runners in college football, but he was shut down by Kansas State. He gained just 43 yards on 15 attempts, and didn't provide any balance to the Cowboys' offense. Although Randle's lackluster output can't be pinned on his play alone, the fact that he finished with fewer than 50 rushing yards in a big game warrants his inclusion in this section.