(Note: Profiles of players who participated in the 2012 NFL Scouting Combine are not meant to reflect the opinions or interest of the Tampa Bay Buccaneers' actual player personnel evaluators.)
Nnamdi Asomugha switched teams last offseason, reeling in the biggest pile of dollars ever for a cornerback. Cullen Jenkins joined Asomugha in Philadelphia, bringing his big 300-pound frame to the Eagles' interior line. Matt Hasselbeck moved to the Tennessee Titans, and any time a team acquires a new starting quarterback it's a big deal.
Johnathan Joseph, Sidney Rice, Robert Gallery, Donte Whitner, Jason Babin…a lot of prominent players found new addresses during the abbreviated free agency free-for-all of 2011, many of them expected to make significant impacts in their new homes. When it was all said and done, however, the biggest free agent acquisition of them all was the smallest player on the market.
Darren Sproles, the 5-6, 180-pound running back who had spent his first five seasons in San Diego, was signed by the New Orleans Saints to be, effectively, a replacement for the departing Reggie Bush. Sproles made Saints fans forget Bush in a hurry, fitting perfectly into Drew Brees' circus offense and accounting for close to 20% of the Saints' total yards in 2011. He ran 87 times for 603 yards, caught 86 passes for 710 yards, scored 11 total touchdowns in four different ways and, with his punt and kickoff return work thrown in, led the NFL with 2,696 all-purpose yards.
Any team in the NFL would love to add a similar asset to its offense, and if Sproles were on the open market again this year he'd probably find far more suitors than he had a year ago. However, there doesn't appear to be a player of Sproles' specific type in the free agency field this year; rather it's big backs like Michael Bush and BenJarvus Green-Ellis who have found new NFL addresses.
Ah, but what about the 2012 NFL Draft – phase two of this year's player-acquisition period? Could the next Darren Sproles be an incoming rookie? One thing's for certain: Such a comparison would only help that young man's draft stock.
So it was no surprise, and perhaps no stretch, when Sproles was the first name that came tripping off the tongue of intriguing Oregon scatback LaMichael James when he met the press during last month's Scouting Combine and was asked which current NFL backs inspire him. However, while obviously inviting that favorable comparison, James was quick to expand the field, as well, in an effort not to get pigeonholed.
"Darren Sproles, I think he's a tremendous player," said James. "I also like Matt Forte. I think he's an all-around back. Arian Foster…I like a lot of different backs, not just backs my size."
At 5-9 and a few pounds over 190, James is a little bit bigger than Sproles, and he has been working this offseason to add more muscle mass to his frame. Perhaps that was in an effort not to be seen as a "little" back, but James also believed he could improve his speed and running power by building lower-body strength. He was extremely productive at Oregon, particularly as the national Doak Walker Award winner in 2010, but he knows he'll have to take his game to another level to stay that way in the NFL.
James says the players in the NFL are faster and stronger than in the NCAA, as a whole, but adapting to that improved competition is the same as moving from high school into the college ranks.
"I look at it like those players are playing on Saturdays, and they played on Fridays," he explained. "They progressed, and they started playing on Saturdays and they're going to play on Sundays. It's the same thing, so you've just got to go out there and compete. Those are the same guys. They got a little bigger, I'm going to get a little bigger. They got a little faster, and I'm going to get a little faster."
Speed is obviously critical to James' game, especially if he wants to fit into a Sproles-type mold. He thrilled the scouts at the Combine in the various agility drills, showing quickness, balance and the ability to cut without slowing down. He also caught passes very well, a part of his game that was just considered adequate by some, and came through his medical examinations fine. James had dealt with shoulder, knee and elbow injuries at Oregon, the last one an elbow dislocation that was tough to watch, but he claimed to be at 100% health in Indianapolis.
But perhaps most importantly, perhaps, he nailed the 40-yard dash on the Lucas Oil Stadium turf. He unofficially clocked a blazing 4.37 on his first try, then later was officially marked down for a 4.45, which tied for the second-fastest time among all running backs. A few weeks later, at Oregon's Pro Day, he ran the 40 again and once again clocked in the low to mid-4.4s. All of this has caused some draft analysts, who had initially pegged James as a likely third-round pick due to his size, to wonder if he might be forcing his way into second-round consideration.
This year's rookie running back class is not considered terribly top-heavy, with only Alabama's Trent Richardson receiving much attention among the top 10 picks. Virginia Tech's David Wilson has begun to see his name in some first-round mock drafts, as has Miami's Lamar Miller and Boise State's Doug Martin. It would surprise no one, however, if back-needy teams waited until the second round to start a run, and James could be in the middle of it. The key for him might be convincing at least one team that he's actually more than a Sproles clone, but a full every-down back.
That's exactly what he called himself while in Indy.
"I feel like I'm an every down back," said James. "I feel like I can do anything. I'll be an all-around back. You don't have to take me out on third down. I can run the ball, I can probably throw the ball, too. All special teams, and if they ask me to kick a field goal I can probably do that too."
The Tampa Bay Buccaneers, on the other hand, would likely appreciate James if he was either type of back – a third-down dynamo who operates well in open space or a between-the-tackles workhorse. Or both. Their running back corps is currently quite thin behind starter LeGarrette Blount, with both Earnest Graham and Kregg Lumpkin on the free agent market. As much as the Buccaneers appreciate Blount, who has averaged a robust 4.6 yards per carry in his two pro seasons, most teams have found that it takes more than one quality runner to keep a ground attack strong.
Blount, a former teammate of James at Oregon, would welcome the help of a fellow Duck. He has tweeted his support of the idea on more than one occasion this offseason, and it's no wonder. James is the most accomplished back in school history, a history that includes not only Blount but Jonathan Stewart, Reuben Droughns and Maurice Morris. His Doak Walker trophy made him the first Oregon player to win a national award and he was the school's first unanimous All-America selection. Both of those honors came after his scintillating 2010 season, but he was strong enough in 2011, too, to leave with the Ducks' career records for rushing yards (5,082), touchdowns (58) and all-purpose yards (5,689), among other marks.
Rewind a little more than a year and you'll find some analysts predicting James would be a first-round pick in the 2011 draft, if he chose to declare. He did not, returning to try to help Oregon win a national championship (the Ducks lost to Auburn in the title game after the 2010 season) and now he's viewed as more likely a second-day pick. James isn't disappointed by the difference between the two projections, however, and says he's not bothered by the relative lack of hype he's generating this year.
"That doesn't matter to me," he said. "Hype doesn't win football games. If it did, a lot of teams would win a lot of football games. A lot of players would be great players. I think you have to go out there and compete. I'm going to lead the team in effort. That's what is important to me, not getting hyped up."
James had four 200-yard rushing games last fall and posted an average of 7.3 yards per carry that looks like a typo. He actually had more rushing yards (1,805 to 1,731) and a better average in 2011 than he did during his award-winning 2010 campaign. Critics would likely point out that James operated in a unique Oregon offense that he's not likely to find in the NFL. And, of course, there is his size. Teams may be concerned not only about his durability as an every-down rusher but his ability to protect the quarterback on third-down dropbacks.
James claims that won't be a worry for whatever team drafts him.
"I think pass blocking is just effort," he said. "If you're scrappy, I think the job is not to let the defender get to the quarterback, and that's the most important thing. It doesn't really matter how you do it, as long as you don't get caught for holding. So I think it's just scrappiness. You've got to get in there, and you've got to fight and you've got to hustle."
Simply put, James sees himself as a football player, not a track star as his admittedly-helpful 40-yard-dash times suggest. And not as a video-game creation of the Ducks' incredible offense. And not even specifically as the next Darren Sproles, though it's obviously a comparison he invites on several levels. James want to impact his next team's offense in as many ways as possible, and he wants to do it for a full 60 minutes.
"The 40 is important in some standards, but just playing football is more important," he said. "You've got to go out there and run fast the whole game. I think what really matters is can I do it the whole game. That's the key. A lot of people can go out and run a 4.3 on the first play of the game, but can you do it in the fourth quarter? So I think that's important for me."