Every team would love a back with Bo Jackson's legendary size-speed combination, but backs such as Bo are rare. Teams willing to sacrifice size are having success finding help at the position. The role 5-foot-6, 190-pound RB Darren Sproles played in New Orleans' lopsided win over a Miami club that hadn't lost a game until Monday night is an excellent example.
Sproles torched the Dolphins, catching seven passes for 114 yards and a touchdown. His burst stood out both before and after the catch. He's an explosive route-runner who separated from Miami's linebackers and defensive backs one-on-one, and his ability to drop the hammer and accelerate away from pursuit showed up once he got the ball in space.
Miami's respect for how dangerous he is after the catch may have cost them when he picked up 48 yards on flat-and-up route on the Saints' first drive of the game. SS Reshad Jones jumped the flat route in an effort to limit Sproles' run after the catch -- and possibly to pick off the pass -- and had no chance to recover when Sproles turned upfield. Additionally, Sproles showed off his excellent ball skills on his touchdown catch, adjusting to a pass thrown behind him and catching the ball with his hands away from his frame.
In terms of the running game, it's more about quantity than quality when it comes to smaller backs. Asking them to carry a heavy workload is risky because their diminutive frames make them more vulnerable to getting hurt. Sproles is no different. He has never carried the ball more than 93 times in a season and San Diego placed him on injured reserve with a leg injury in 2006. However, he has shown he can make an impact with limited carries. While he lost a fumble late in the game, he carried the ball four times for 28 yards and a touchdown. His explosive power masks his lack of brute strength, his vision is above average and his height makes it tough for linebackers to track him when he follows his blocks.
With all due respect to Sproles, you can't talk about his success without talking about his strong supporting cast. The attention teams have to pay to Jimmy Graham, the best receiving tight end in the league, and a deep receiving corps led by Marques Colston makes it tougher to gameplan for Sproles. More importantly, QB Drew Brees is more than willing to dump the ball off, and he does a great job with ball placement so Sproles is in excellent position to produce after the catch. San Diego drafted Sproles out of Kansas State late in the fourth round in 2005 and the Chargers got good value for the pick, but his production as a receiver has exploded since signing with New Orleans in 2011. He caught 161 passes in his first two seasons with the Saints.
Rams rookie and first-round pick WR Tavon Austin (5-8, 176) doesn't have the same kind of supporting cast, and he's averaging just 6.2 yards per catch despite his awesome burst and elusiveness. Yes, Austin primarily lined up as receiver at West Virginia, but he has ample experience lining up at running back, including a 21-carry performance against Oklahoma his senior year. He also causes similar matchup problems in the passing game.
The top back on our board for 2014 is one of these smaller backs and, like Austin, has a chance to go in the first round. At 5-foot-9 and 176 pounds, Oregon's De'Anthony Thomas's passing-game skill set, agility and acceleration are outstanding. He's an above average route-runner whether he's working out of the slot or releasing out of the backfield. He catches the ball well and he's fast enough to run away from NFL pursuit when he gets a seam. He may not be quite as shifty as Austin, but he's more than capable of making defenders miss when he gets the ball in space.
Thomas is a threat to go the distance as a runner. He has above-average vision, he can cut back against the grain and he makes defenses pay for taking poor pursuit angles. He just doesn't have the power to drag defenders for extra yards or push the pile when he doesn't get a seam between the tackles. Don't expect him to get a heavy workload carrying the ball in the NFL, either. He has stayed relatively healthy, but he's been asked to carry a heavier workload this year and he injured his right ankle against Cal.
Thomas and Austin are rare talents. Teams that aren't willing to spend a first-round pick or miss out on the chance to take a back with their skills are still capable of finding talent in later rounds.
San Diego's Danny Woodhead (5-8, 200) signed with the Jets as an undrafted rookie free agent out of Chadron State in 2008 and he's made the most of the chances he's been given. After signing with New England in 2010, he carved out a role by catching 92 passes over three years when injuries slowed down first-rate, third-down back Kevin Faulk in the twilight of his career. The Chargers still had a hole to fill on offense after Sproles signed with New Orleans in 2011, so San Diego signed Woodhead this offseason to fill that role. He made an impact by catching five passes for 54 yards and two touchdowns against Dallas on Sunday.
Atlanta took Jacquizz Rodgers (5-6, 196) out of Oregon State in the fifth round of the 2011 draft. We compared him to Sproles and another well-known third-down back, New England's Leon Washington, leading up to the draft that year. He hasn't disappointed. Rodgers has caught 87 passes to date, including the six passes he caught for 56 yards against the Patriots on Sunday night.
There are two other smaller 2014 draft-eligible running back prospects who don't project as first round picks. Dri Archer (5-8, 175) is listed at running back and wide receiver on Kent State's depth chart. He compares favorably to another smaller NFL back in Kansas City's Dexter McCluster (5-8, 170) and, to a lesser degree, Austin. All three saw time at running back and receiver, so it comes as no big surprise that Archer appears capable of making an immediate impact as a sub-package receiver at the NFL level. He is also an explosive kickoff return man. While kickoff returns aren't as important as they were before the league changed the kickoff spot, the fact that he has returned three for touchdowns is a testament to his big-play capabilities.
On the downside, Archer doesn't show great vision as a runner, and splitting time at both positions may have played a role. In addition, an ankle injury has limited him this year. Another ankle injury slowed him at the end of the 2012 season and a knee injury forced him out of the GoDaddy.com Bowl.
The final undersized back is Ole Miss' Jeff Scott (5-7, 167) who has flashed a flair for the dramatic over the past two seasons. He broke an electrifying, game-winning 75-yard touchdown run with a little more than a minute left against Vanderbilt in the season opener. Vanderbilt's safety took a safe pursuit angle in an effort to prevent Scott from breaking down the left sideline. Scott, who is virtually impossible to catch from behind, recognized it and cut back inside where he had nothing but turf in front of him. He also caught a 55-yard touchdown pass late in the Auburn game last year. The Tigers appeared to have him wrapped up for a short gain, but Scott kept his balance and sprinted into the end zone.
Scott has yet to play in every game of a season, amplifying concerns about his ability to stay healthy in the NFL, and there were questions about his maturity heading into the 2013 season. He has reportedly improved the way he prepares, so his stock should continue to rise if he can stay healthy.