(The opinions and analysis contained in this feature are those of the author and others credited and do not necessarily represent the thoughts and opinions of the Seahawks’ coaching staff and personnel department)
Kenjon Barner had attracted a crowd.
But then that was nothing new for the ridiculously productive running back from the University of Oregon. During a senior season when he rushed for 1,767 yards, a 6.4-yard average and 23 touchdowns, opposing defenses were always stacked in an attempt to slow down the catch-me-if-you-can back.
|BEST OF THE BUNCH|
A look at the position heading into the April 25-27 NFL Draft
Rankings (position/overall) and projections by Rob Rang, NFLDraftScout.com
|ANALYZING THE DRAFT CLASS|
The word: NFL Network analyst Mike Mayock has only one back with a first-round grade, and that’s Lacy. But he also doesn’t see that as a huge problem for team that are in the market for one. “I think you can get running backs in the second, third and fourth round. I really do,” he said. “If you look at the last five years of the draft, and I’m going off the top of my head, but I think there were 15 running backs taken in the first round the last five years. About half of them, seven or eight of them, have had major injury issues.” The top of Mayock’s head is pretty accurate, as 15 backs have been selected in the first round of the past five drafts. But only three were taken among the Top 10 picks – Trent Richardson at No. 3 last year; C.J. Spiller at No. 9 in 2010; and Darren McFadden at No. 4 in 2008. And he’s also right about injuries plaguing those first-round backs – from Jahvid Best, to Beanie Wells, to Jonathan Stewart, to Felix Jones. Meanwhile, teams have hit with later-round backs like Ray Rice (second round), Stevan Ridley (third) and Alfred Morris (sixth). Each finished among the Top 11 in rushing last season.
What about: Ball. All the Wisconsin back did the past two seasons was rush for 1,923 yards and 33 touchdowns in 2011 and 1,830 yards and 22 touchdowns in 2012 after shedding 20 pounds and reshaping his body. With production like that, you’d expect Ball to be the top-ranked player at his position and a slam-dunk first-round pick. Instead, Rang rates him the fourth-best back – and that’s up two spots from his earlier rankings – and projects him to be a second- or third-round pick. But, like everything opposing defenses threw at him the past two seasons, Ball is taking it all in stride. “In college, you always want to say you go first round, but once you get here you just want to get drafted,” he told reporters after his Pro Day workout. “I just hope I get drafted.” That will happen, it’s just a matter of when.
Don’t forget about: Stepfan Taylor. He’s only 5-9, but Taylor came up big the past three seasons for Stanford. He got more carries each season (223 in 2010, 242 in 2011 and 322 last year) and did more with them (1,137 yards, 1,330 yards and 1,530 yards). And this is nothing new, as he ran for 4,792 yards and 67 touchdowns at Mansfield (Texas) High School. But the NFL likes its workhorse backs to be a little bigger, or at least faster if you’re Taylor’s size. That lack of an elite top gear has Taylor ranked as the seventh-best back and 102nd-best player in this class by Rang, who also projects him as a third-round pick.
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This group, however, was different. It was comprised of media members at the NFL Scouting Combine, especially those from the Philadelphia area. The inquiring minds wanted to know what the Eagles players – and rest of the league, for that matter – could expect from Chip Kelly, who had just been hired by Philly after an unprecedented four-season run of success as the Ducks’ head coach.
And who better to ask than Barner, who had to wait his turn behind LaMichael James before stepping into the feature-back role last season?
“A lot of speed. A lot of speed. A lot of speed,” Barner said, punctuating each repetition with a smile and shake of his head. “Everything is fast paced. I don’t know if he’ll take that same mentality to the NFL right off the bat, but they’ll be in great shape.
“No doubt about that.”
Barner smiled again, and it was one of those I-know-something-you-don’t smiles.
That’s when Barner was asked about his first practice under Kelly, which prompted yet another smile and also a laugh. It was in 2009, when Kelly stepped into the head-coaching spot to replace Mike Bellotti after two seasons as the Ducks’ offensive coordinator.
“He pushes you to a limit that you didn’t know you had,” Barner said. “So memories of that first practice when he became the head coach, it was completely different. I was really used to the coach Bellotti way – which was run a play, take a break; run another play, take a break.
“With coach Kelly it was, ‘I want it right now.’ You have your tongue hanging out of your mouth. You’re tired. You’re dry heaving. It was a rough day.”
The method behind this perceived madness? Once the season began, the Ducks were able to wear down and outlast opponents.
“It was beautiful,” said Barner, smiling again. “It inspired us. It ended up being a masterpiece.”
And Barner became a masterful piece in the Ducks’ puzzling attack. First, as a complement to James, who now plays for the San Francisco 49ers after being a second-round draft choice last year; last season, as a back who continued to chase James’ accomplishments. After compiling modest numbers in his first three seasons – 366 yards on 61 carries in 2009; 551 yards on 91 carries in 2010; 939 yards on 152 carries in 2011 – Barner’s breakout 2012 season included a school-record 321-yard performance against USC and a 198-yard outing against Oregon State.
Learning to handle this wait-your-turn situation will serve Barner well in the NFL.
“Like coach Kelly said, ‘Don’t count your reps, just make your reps count,’ ” Barner said. “You never count how many times you’re carrying the ball. But every time you touch that ball you make it count. That’s the mentality you need.”
Despite possessing the speed (4.39 seconds in the 40-yard dash) and elusiveness as a runner, receiver and returner that should make him attractive to NFL teams, Barner lacks prototypical NFL size (5 feet 9, 196 pounds) and is coming from a system – Kelly’s system – that played to his strengths. Rob Rang at NFLDraftScout.com rates Barner as the No. 12 prospect in what is considered an average group of backs and projects him as a fourth- or fifth-round pick.
Mike Mayock, draft analyst for the NFL Network, has Barner rated slightly higher.
“He’s not a good blocker, but he can catch the football, make you miss in space,” Mayock said. “You could get him in the third round and I think he’d be a pretty exciting player.”
And it’s that blocking ability that Barner was asked about most during his interviews with teams at the combine.
“That’s what everyone wants to know, wants to see,” he said.
In an attempt to diminish one of those perceived negatives, the once 188-pound Barner has added almost 10 pounds. How?
“It was a lot of eating,” he said. “That’s kind of been the main thing. I’ve been eating six, seven times a day. But at the same time staying fit, staying in the weight room, staying on the track. It hasn’t been too much of a hassle. It’s kind of come natural.”
Like the way Barner is handling what can be a stressful, even counterproductive, ordeal as he has prepared for the April 25-27 draft.
“So far, it’s been an absolute blessing,” he said. “I wouldn’t change a thing about the process. This is a once-in-a-lifetime opportunity. It’s been a special process and I hope to do well in it.”