A Tale of Two Runners: Bishop Sankey and Jeremy Hill

In the 2005 NFL draft, three running backs were selected within the first five picks: Ronnie Brown (#2), Cedric Benson (#4), and Cadillac Williams (#5). Since then, we’ve seen Reggie Bush, Adrian Peterson, Darren McFadden, C.J. Spiller, and Trent Richardson all come off the board in the top 10. But we’ve seen a change in recent history: When the 2013 first round was completed, not a single running back had been picked, for the first time in the Super Bowl era. The Cincinnati Bengals made Giovani Bernard the first runner off the board with the 37th pick, the most selections in draft history before a running back was selected. That record lasted all of one year: The first running back off the board in 2014 didn’t come until the 54th pick, when the Titans chose Bishop Sankey out of the University of Washington. With the very next pick, the Bengals took another runner, Jeremy Hill out of LSU.  Aside from playing the same position, these two players have little in common. Sankey is a quick, diminutive back who can run off-tackle, and Hill is a bruising power back who excels between the tackles.

 

ROUND 2, PICK 54

Bishop Sankey, RB, Washington

Standing 5’9″ and weighing 209 lbs., Bishop Sankey is not very physically imposing. He’s the same size as Bengals 2013 second-round pick Giovani Bernard, but without Bernard’s dynamic speed or vision. On the other hand, unlike Bernard, Sankey carried a huge workload for the University of Washington. He ran the ball 327 times last season, and two seasons ago had 289 carries – with major production despite the heavy usage. His competition in Tennessee consists of Shonn Greene and Jackie Battle. While Greene is sitting atop the depth chart as of right now and has been getting the bulk of the first-team reps in camp, this is very likely to change as the regular season approaches. Sankey will almost certainly be the starting running back on week 1. Let’s see what he brings to the table.

One strike against Sankey is that he rarely picks up yards after contact. He can, mind you: See here as he powers over Oregon State’s safety for a monster gain on 3rd-and-1. More representative of his game are plays like this, where he tries to avoid contact at the second level in lieu of trying to slip around tacklers. I don’t think it is unfair to expect a play like this to be a broken tackle most of the time. If not that, then certainly this needs to be a big run. These specific plays are unimportant, but in my view they are representative of Sankey’s overall game. We’ll see later that second-level tacklers are almost hopeless against the much larger Jeremy Hill.

Where the lack of size hurts Sankey in the power department, it does allow him to slip through tight spots. A bigger back is stuffed for no gain on this play. There’s barely a hole, but Sankey makes himself skinny and slips through one. Again, here, there doesn’t appear to be a lane (at least from the sideline angle), yet he finds a way to pick up yards. He works well in these tight spaces. On this play, watch how quickly his feet can move. It’s well blocked by the offensive line, sure, but that flash of agility is what I like most about his game.

Nobody will mistake him for LeSean McCoy or the aforementioned Gio Bernard, but Sankey can make some silky smooth cuts. Check out this play against BYU where he slides away from tacklers with ease with some nimble cuts to the right. He can make this kind of move going left as well, as seen here and here on identical-looking jump cuts. On this play, he does it in both directions, and turns no gain into a big play to the back side. Just like the chess piece, Bishop is best when zigzagging past would-be tacklers.

The worst of any of his rushing attempts (that I saw) was this play, where the tight end plows the defensive end out of the play, the receiver has full control of the cornerback, and the guard is well positioned to blow up the linebacker. All Sankey needs to do is follow the pulling guard and it will be off to the races. Instead, he impatiently cuts inside of the guard and only gains a few yards.

Overall he shows good vision. Here he patiently follows the guard, slips through a tight window, and maintains his balance through contact on a nice touchdown run. And on this play, he presses the run to the right until the linebackers commit in that direction, then cuts back to the left and is off for a 59-yard touchdown.

His most creative run is against UCLA: Anthony Barr is coming unblocked off of the edge here, and Sankey makes a play right out of a video game. First, he evades Barr, then he sees a crowd of defenders out to his left and cuts inside where he’s immediately met by a linebacker. Spin move, no problem! From there he puts his head down and picks up a tough nine yards.

Sankey’s game tapes at Draft Breakdown are full of off-tackle runs if you want to watch any more.  I’ve shown you that Sankey can run inside a bit using his agility and that he’s much better running to the outside. I watched six games and only counted two major lapses in pass protection. He also has soft hands coming out of the backfield. While he’s not as spectacular as perhaps these plays I picked out demonstrate, I do expect him to immediately step in as the starter and be an upgrade for the Titans. His biggest problem is lack of power, and that’s one of the few positive attributes to Shonn Greene’s game. So, until Sankey proves otherwise, I don’t anticipate him getting too many carries in short yardage situations. I’m glad that I revisited Sankey before the season; he is a better player than I remembered when I first checked him out many months ago.

 

ROUND 2, PICK 55

Jeremy Hill, RB, LSU

The Bengals used second-round picks on running backs in back-to-back drafts, selecting Giovani Bernard in 2013 and Jeremy Hill in 2014. In stark contrast to Bernard (and Sankey), Hill is an imposing 6’2″, 236-lb. runner who thrives on smashing over and through second-level defenders. The days of BenJarvus Green-Ellis and his 3.4 yards per carry will come to a end shortly, as it makes both football and financial sense (saves $2.3M against the cap) to cut him. In any event, let’s see what Hill can do for the Bengals.

While Hill rushed for an average of 6.9 yards per carry in his final season at LSU, the number is misleading in a couple of ways. Whereas Sankey, for instance, carried the entire workload, Hill only ran the ball 203 times. Also, if you check out his gamelog for 2013, he contributed little in games against Alabama, Texas A&M, and Georgia. To be fair, he saved his best for last, as he carried LSU to victory against Iowa in the Outback Bowl, carrying the ball 28 times at an elite 7.7 YPC against a good defensive squad.

Hill is a pure north-south and between the tackles runner. His footwork on cuts are nothing like we saw with Sankey. For example, on this play, the Red Sea is temporarily parted to the left side. He sees it and runs in that direction, but by the time he gets there the defenders are better positioned. There’s a lack of suddenness in his footwork; he doesn’t possess the kind of agility you see in the “quick-twitch” runners. Here is a pitch play where you can really see the stiffness of his lower body. There aren’t many yards to be gained, granted, but I’m talking about his biomechanics. And how about this play? A runner who can explode outside scores here. The difference between Corey Dillon and Rudi Johnson, if you will.

There are three skills in which Hill excels: power, balance, and straight-line speed. These three traits can often all be seen in a single play. Arm tackles are hopeless. Here against Auburn he explodes straight ahead as if shot by a cannon. Those poor safeties have no chance to bring him down. Plays like this touchdown run against Iowa is where Bishop Sankey failed to make progress, but Hill is able to break on through (to the other side). All of this power at the second-level should translate immediately to the NFL.

Hue Jackson is taking over as offensive coordinator for the Bengals. In his very first press conference Jackson talked about being a more physical team with an emphasis on running, and that was before the team drafted Hill. According to wide receiver Marvin Jones, the new offense is “very up-tempo” with “a lot of aggression.” The Eagles offense last season combined a fast tempo with a lot of running; perhaps this is what we’ll see from the Bengals this year. The lightning-and-thunder (can we get a better nickname?) duo of Bernard and Hill along with the play action threat of A.J. Green is certain to keep opposing defensive coordinators up late at night for years to come. The Bengals have a greatest-show-on-grass amount of talent at offensive skill positions… with Andy Dalton at the helm. Can you imagine Cam Newton with this group? Heh.

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