Dynasty Watch: Senior Bowl RBs
Dynasty Watch: Senior Bowl RBs

This article is part of our Dynasty Watch series.

The combine and arguably even the pro day circuit might hold the most sway of the pre-draft events, but this weekend's Senior Bowl game is at worst the third-most important event in that process. The week's practices usually help clear up the mid rounds to some significant extent, and every once in a while the Senior Bowl will serve as the launchpad for one or more of the draft's highest selections. Carson Wentz might be the most accessible recent example of this.

This year's quarterback class is weak aside from the underclassman prospects Dwayne Haskins and Kyler Murray, so there's unlikely to be any Wentz in this year's game. All of the following played in the 2018 Senior Bowl, however: Rashaad Penny, Tre'Quan Smith, James Washington, Ian Thomas, Dallas Goedert, Kalen Ballage, Jaylen Samuels, DaeSean Hamilton, Michael Gallup, Marcell Ateman, Ito Smith. The odds are at least a few of the names this year will end up a FAAB or waiver wire consideration in-season if nothing else.

I can't claim to know who the 2019 equivalents of those players might be, but I'll try to break down the QB/RB/WR/TE prospects of this year's game. I'll start with running backs.

NORTH TEAM

Karan Higdon, Michigan (5-10, 202)
Tony Pollard, Memphis (6-0, 208)
Dexter Williams, Notre Dame (5-11, 215)

SOUTH TEAM

Bruce Anderson, North Dakota State (5-11, 210)
Ryquell Armstead, Temple (5-11, 215)
Wes Hills, Slippery Rock (6-2, 218)

This is a very weak Senior Bowl running back class compared to most years, I would imagine, and particularly last year. There is no Ballage in this game, let alone a Samuels or a Penny. But the running back position is as disposable as ever, and at least a couple of these guys are probably skilled enough to earn snaps if they make a roster and then benefit from injury-dictated opportunity.

Grouped by team and then sorted in alphabetical order...


NORTH

Karan Higdon, Michigan (5-10, 202)

I'd call Higdon the best running back in this game. Here's what I wrote about Higdon in a preseason article about underrated dynasty assets:

Higdon doesn't lack for reputation – he's the most feared runner on the Michigan roster after breaking out last year to the tune of 994 yards (6.1 YPC) and 11 touchdowns in 13 games, adding eight receptions for 131 yards on 14 targets. He wasn't a notable recruit by Michigan standards, though, as he was only a high three-star, and he might remain overlooked since he doesn't project for a big NFL workload at just 202 pounds.

Given the prevalence of running back rotations in the modern NFL, however, players with Higdon's traits shouldn't go overlooked. He added more than 10 pounds of mass this offseason and yet, according to WolverinesWire he's still running in the mid-to-high 4.4s. Higdon isn't a burner, but his speed is good enough to break the edge reliably, and his combination of balance, burst, and anticipation otherwise seem well above the average. His lateral movement is exceptional, and he appears a natural receiver despite his modest volume of production in that category at Michigan. Higdon could be a more athletically gifted version of the Dion Lewis mold.

Higdon's senior season didn't really change my view for better or worse, but he also didn't demonstrate any growth from a production angle, especially as a pass catcher. He ran for 1,178 yards and 10 touchdowns on 224 carries, pretty much trading a decline in efficiency (6.1 YPC in 2017 to 5.3 YPC in 2018) for an increase in volume (994 to 1,178). I consider that a break-even. But after catching eight of 14 targets for 131 yards in 2017, Higdon turned 12 targets into just seven receptions for 43 yards in 2018. That's a concerning decline, even if it ends up a non-indicative one.

I'm willing to be an optimist and view Higdon's mediocre pass-catching production as a noisy small sample. I can't claim to be an expert of blitz pickup, but Higdon strikes me as alert and capable in this regard, and when watching him play otherwise he seems to catch the ball easily enough. A sample of 12 targets is basically nothing – even if you add in his 2017 numbers to get to 26, that's still a sample liable to be stuffed with noise.

If his hands and blocking are good enough to assure his passing down viability, and he's able to run in the mid-4.4s as previously believed, then I think I'm optimistic for Higdon's chances of breaking into a running back rotation within the next couple years. It would shock me if he went before the fourth round, and it would surprise me if he went before the fifth, but it'd also surprise me if he went undrafted. I have no real concerns about his ability to contribute – the main threat to his dynasty projection is the fact that many other players are similarly useful, and the question of who comes out on top of that group is determined by whether a team likes them enough to designate training camp reps to earn a roster spot, and then regular season practice reps to get into the game plan.

Opportunity reliably correlates to draft position, so if someone does surprisingly take Higdon in the third or fourth, I'll probably be interested in buying him. He should emerge from this week and the combine as a relatively fast runner with a good motor and a surprisingly strong anchor for a back under 205 pounds. If he gets the opportunity I think he has what it takes to hold on to it.

Projected round: 5-6
Comparison: Kerwynn Williams

Tony Pollard, Memphis (6-0, 208)

Pollard was overshadowed by the highly impressive Darrell Henderson, but as a Henderson fan I can still rationalize a fondness for Pollard. Indeed, Pollard's usage was varied enough as a RB/WR crossover that it'd probably be a bad idea generally to compare his rushing production to Henderson. He quite simply played another position, and had to spend many of his practice reps doing WR-like tasks instead of backfield ones. Pollard to Henderson might be somewhat comparable to Jaylen Samuels and Nyheim Hines at North Carolina State, though I don't think Pollard is better than Henderson like I thought Samuels was better than Hines. Still, this need not be framed as Pollard OR Henderson, because the answer could very well be 'both.'

Pollard was good at everything he did at Memphis, running for 941 yards (6.8 YPC) and nine touchdowns in three years while adding 104 receptions for 1,292 yards and nine touchdowns, but he was truly great as a kick returner, averaging 30.1 yards per return while scoring seven times on 87 attempts. It remains to be seen how useful a kick returner even is with the league's new rules, but it at the very least provides some insight into Pollard's open-field skills. You can't return kicks as well as he did unless you straight up know how to run away from people.

It also remains to be seen whether the NFL punishes Pollard for his versatility rather than rewarding him. Such was the case with Samuels, who had no business falling to the fifth round, but teams focused on the 'master of none' part of his report rather than the 'jack of all trades' part. Samuels reportedly did well in his own Senior Bowl practices, yet he fell all the same. Still, if Pollard does well with the running backs this week then he might appeal to NFL teams who want a Nyheim Hines sort of player to line up at running back and then motion outside to decipher the coverage. Pollard has already shown the ability to do it, so there's not much projection involved with him even if his position is somewhat up in the air. He averaged 8.6 YPT in his Memphis career in addition to his rushing average of 6.8 YPC, so he was truly good in both capacities. The concern of whether he can do anything in particular just doesn't seem reasonable – it's more a question of whether your scheme can use a player like him.

How Pollard fares this week and the combine should help us get a better idea of just how many NFL teams could use him. If he struggles this week and tests poorly in workouts, then that number dwindles. If he posts good workout numbers and acquits himself well at the Senior Bowl practices, then it's easier to convince ourselves that he'll be in demand. With demand comes opportunity, and if he gets an opportunity then a player with versatile big-play skills like Pollard could become interesting indeed. I don't know what to anticipate on either of those fronts, though, so for now I'm considering Pollard's prospect profile a N/A aside from the production. His prospective owners also need to keep in mind that he might end up listed as a wide receiver by his eventual NFL team rather than running back.

Projected round: 5-UDFA
Comparison: Keenan Reynolds

Dexter Williams, Notre Dame (5-11, 215)

Williams easily has the best recruiting pedigree of the North backs, as he was a four-star recruit who reportedly saw offers from schools like Florida and Georgia. He never truly broke out with the Irish, but Williams' profile contains promising details all the same. He was highly explosive over the last two years, turning 197 carries into 1,355 yards and 16 touchdowns, adding 18 receptions for 146 yards and two touchdowns on 26 targets (69.2 percent completed, 5.6 YPT). He struggled a bit in his first two years, though, seeing just 60 carries for 281 yards and four touchdowns in that stretch.

Williams has a fairly dense build that affords him good anchor and fall-forward ability, and he has pretty good speed if he gets into the open field. I didn't see much on his tape in the way of balance, burst, or change of direction, however, so I worry that he might just be a replaceable one-cut guy. You would have liked to see Williams break out sooner, and he'll face some scrutiny for a four-game 2018 suspension for undisclosed reasons, and a 2016 incident where he and five other Notre Dame players were arrested for marijuana and gun possession. Rivals credited Williams with a 4.51-second 40-yard dash at 210 pounds in 2016.

Projected round: UDFA
Comparison: Ran Carthon

SOUTH

Bruce Anderson, North Dakota State (5-11, 210)

Anderson was a productive player at North Dakota State and warrants monitoring throughout the pre-draft process, but he generally profiles as an NFL long shot. He finished his North Dakota State career with 2,896 yards (6.0 YPC) and 24 touchdowns in 50 career games, adding 32 receptions for 448 yards and seven touchdowns. He also had some success as a kick returner, returning two kickoffs for touchdowns as a freshman.

Zach Zenner ran for 6,548 yards (6.0 YPC) and 61 touchdowns at North Dakota State and still went undrafted, even after logging a 42-inch vertical. Anderson was credited with an 11.05-second 100m dash, which might be closer to a 4.7-second 40 than a 4.6-second one. He runs with decent anchor and shows standout balance, though, so he might be able to stick in the NFL even if he proves rather slow. I personally am not that optimistic based on what I know now, but that only draws attention to the fact that Anderson can change his narrative if he capitalizes on this week.

Projected round: UDFA
Comparison: Detrez Newsome


Ryquell Armstead, Temple (5-11, 215)

Armstead was a fairly productive player for Temple, especially in 2016 and 2018. He struggled in 2017 as he played through an undisclosed injury, but a bad ankle in 2018 didn't stop him from running for 1,098 yards (5.2 YPC) and 13 touchdowns in 10 games. He produced similarly in the 2016 example, going for 919 yards (5.9 YPC) and 14 touchdowns.

Armstead is a high-motor runner who might show surprisingly good speed in athletic testing – maybe something pushing 4.50 in the 40-yard dash – and he shows pretty good start/stop and anchor otherwise. He might be an above average composite athlete. I hope he is, because I otherwise would find some concern in his career rushing average of 4.9 yards per carry. He didn't do much as a pass catcher (29 catches for 175 yards in two years), either, which is a real concern since teammates like Jahad Thomas and David Hood did better in that capacity.

Projected round: 7-UDFA
Comparison: Javarris Williams

Wes Hills, Slippery Rock (6-2, 218)

A former Delaware transfer who played only one season at Slippery Rock, Hills is an unusual prospect generally, and especially for the Senior Bowl. He was part of Delaware's recruiting class way back in 2013, so he'll be a 24-year-old NFL rookie. His advanced age cheapens the significance of his college production, but that production is rather interesting all the same.

Hills was wildly productive at a few points, with academic issues and injury troubles disrupting his momentum in between. His first standout season was in 2014 with Delaware, when he ran for 952 yards (5.5 YPC) and six touchdowns before season-ending foot injury in 2015 limited him to just one game. He then returned triumphantly for Delaware in 2016, running for 728 yards (8.3 YPC) and seven touchdowns, but injuries limited him to just seven games. Then he was declared academically ineligible for 2017, leading to his transfer to Slippery Rock. His one year at The Rock resulted in 1,734 yards (7.0 YPC) and 17 touchdowns in 12 games as he proved overwhelming for that level of competition.

Hills' tortuous college career, littered with injury and cheapened by age, negates a lot of the otherwise impressive rushing production he showed. He also demonstrated very little in the way of pass-catching work, and one must figure he's underdeveloped generally. If he can establish himself as a legitimate NFL prospect, he'll need to do it with raw athleticism. There may be some hope for him on this front – Hills was a standout track athlete in high school and has apparently gotten some buzz from NFL scouts, which you can read about more in this generally insightful NJ.com article about Mills.

Projected round: 7-UDFA
Comparison: Rashad Jennings

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ABOUT THE AUTHOR
Mario Puig
Mario is a Senior Writer at RotoWire who primarily writes and projects for the NFL and college football sections.
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