A version of this article was published by the Detroit Free Press.
Note: When the Lions released Reggie Bush, they made it clear they wanted to revamp their running back corps. With Bush departed, there is ample room for an upgrade. Joique Bell, Theo Riddick and George Winn remain in the fold, but the Lions desperately lack a true home run threat out of the backfield. They will add another back before training camp, likely through the 2015 NFL draft.
Each week, we’ll examine a running back from this year’s talented crop. We’ve studied Todd Gurley, Melvin Gordon, Tevin Coleman and Duke Johnson. Part V of our film series spotlights Nebraska’s Ameer Abdullah.
One of the few senior RBs from this class, Ameer Abdullah is a decisive, fearless runner who is far more physical than his diminutive size would suggest.
The 5-9, 205-pounder was the Cornhuskers most dangerous weapon, forcing defensive game plans to focus on slowing him down. He had little help from a below average passing game that ranked ninth in the Big Ten in yards per game last season and was 13th in the conference with an ugly 51.3 % completion percentage.
Abdullah tore up February’s NFL Scouting Combine, notching the highest athletic test scores in four of the seven RB drills. Here’s his spider graph. At his pro day on March 5, Abdullah improved on his disappointing 40-yard dash time from the combine, running a respectable 4.53 40-time. Abdullah posted a SPARQ score of 142.5, which places him in the 95th percentile among NFL players. SPARQ is a formula—similar to what some NFL teams use—that factors in each combine/pro day test along with the players’ weight in an attempt to quantify athleticism in a single number.
Abdullah has all the intangibles teams look for in a player on and off the field. A history major at Nebraska, he is the type of person an organization wants in their locker room and community. Said one AFC North scout on Abdullah, “He has the highest overall character grade I’ve ever given to a prospect, and includes both football character and off-the-field.”
His intelligence and understanding allows him to process information quickly and permits him to play fast.
Let’s watch Abdullah’s tape to better understand his game and examine if he can be a successful lead RB in the NFL.
Abdullah had a fantastic four-year career at Nebraska, rushing for over 1,600 yards in each of his last two seasons. He scored 19 TDs on the ground and added three TD receptions in 2014. Abdullah played in all 53 games during his collegiate career, racking up 886 offensive touches in addition to returning 61 kickoffs and 31 punts.
Abdullah’s smarts and instincts allowed him to read the defense and find creases in Nebraska’s zone run scheme. He does a nice job of being patient and then hits the hole as soon as it opens up. He exploits cutback lanes when defenses do not maintain backside gap assignments.
He has a unique ability that many greats do to sense oncoming defenders and avoid mammoth collisions.
Abdullah’s agility is off the charts. His superb hip and ankle flexibility allows him to start and stop while maintaining the balance necessary to explode into his next move. He can instantly slam on the breaks and change directions without losing much steam.
Abdullah is physically rocked up and when he needs to, seeks out contact rather than steering away from it. He plays tougher and runs harder than some of the big RBs in this draft class.
Abdullah made arguably the play of the year last season, as he took on nearly the entire McNeese State defense en route to his miraculous game-winning touchdown.
Abdullah consistently finishes runs and can deliver a powerful blow to an unsuspecting defender. You can feel Abdullah’s power on this collision. He can run you over if you try to tackle him high.
If you don’t bring the same physicality Abdullah brings, he’ll put you on your back.
And he makes a mockery of the Iowa defense on this 53-yard scamper, blowing up another DB in the process.
For a small runner, Abdullah bucks the trend in short yardage in that he is very good in these situations.
Though he is incredibly quick, he knows when to juke a defender and when to lower his pads and plow forward for positive yardage. He is not a dancer in the hole, but rather takes what the defense gives him, even if that is just two or three yards on a given play.
Abdullah will be a factor in the passing game because of his lethal ability in the open field. He recorded 72 receptions for seven TDs over his final three seasons. Abdullah has soft hands and consistently plucks the ball out of the air without having to corral it with his body. He shows the capability to adjust to a poorly thrown pass on this short TD reception.
He is a small target but a ridiculous 42.5-inch vertical leap helps him out. He is also dangerous in the screen game because of his vision and elusiveness.
Abdullah may never be elite in pass protection but he shows good awareness and effort. His small frame doesn’t allow him to overpower defenders and he has trouble stifling oncoming rushers.
To be successful in this area at the next level, he must improve his cut blocking technique, which was inconsistent but certainly not terrible. In college, he was tasked with being the lead blocker on designed rollouts and jet sweeps. He was successful at times, spilling the linebacker on this play with a well-executed cut block.
Abdullah has experience returning both punts and kickoffs. He served as the team’s punt returner in 2011 and 2012, bringing back one return for a score.
On kickoffs, he averaged 26.1 yards with one TD on 61 career returns. Abdullah’s entire package is on display on this kick return from his final collegiate game. He wields an active free arm, as he stiff arms one defender to the ground and fends off another. His agility and fluidity is easy to spot as is his vision and toughness.
Abdullah doesn’t possess track star speed and his top-end speed is average, but he has the ability to get to the edge and turn the corner.
Abdullah’s rugged style recalls former Giants and Colts RB Ahmad Bradshaw, another fearless back with astonishing power and leg drive for a smaller runner. Warrick Dunn is another comparison as a complete back that had a productive long career. Abdullah wrote in his NFL draft diary that he learned to avoid big hits by watching Dunn, Barry Sanders and Marshall Faulk.
Abdullah’s 23 fumbles in four seasons is a concern, though his fumble numbers decreased in each of the last two seasons. For his career, he fumbled once every 35.4 touches, the worst rate among draft-worthy RBs (he improved his rate to one fumble per 75 touches as a senior). Abdullah’s small hands make it more difficult to grasp the football, and his small stature limits his upside in pass protection.
Given his frame, Abdullah has been overlooked throughout his career. In a league where many of the all-time great RBs were ‘small,’ Abdullah’s consensus stock isn’t as high as it probably should be, with many draft analysts holding his lack of prototypical size against him. He has the talent to be a first rounder, but in today’s game, size at running back has become increasingly important. Everyone wants bigger and stronger players. Critics question whether Abdullah’s body can take the pounding of the NFL and wonder if he is just a ‘change of pace’ back.
Abdullah is talented, durable, battle-tested and a leader. A projected second-round selection, he would inject the Lions backfield with a playmaker as a multifaceted weapon that can contribute in any and every way, while being a model citizen off the field.
Credit to Draft Breakdown for the game film. All Illustrations and GIFs were created by Marlowe Alter for the purpose of reporting, commenting and critiquing.