Player Spotlight: The Titans Backfield

A detailed look at the Titans' backfield situation for 2015.

When the Titans took Bishop Sankey in the second round of the 2014 NFL Draft at pick 54, expectations of fantasy owners were sky high. In late August of 2014, he was generally going in the late fourth or early fifth rounds in redraft leagues. There were even some taking him at the 1.01 in dynasty formats. The Titans had a disastrous two-win season in 2014 in which Sankey logged less than 600 yards, had a YPC average of 3.7, and only scored two touchdowns. Most want nothing to do with Bishop Sankey due to the disappointment that came with owning him last year. Adding further to the apprehension about his status, the team took David Cobb in the fifth round of this year's draft. Head coach Ken Whisenhunt demonstrated last year that he prefers to take a committee approach with his backs. The real questions that need to be answered are:

  • Which running back will end the season with the better stat lines?
  • Will the Titans generate enough offense to make any of the backs worth owning?

StIck With Sankey?

Our Matt Waldman is the go-to guy on our staff when it comes to evaluating prospects on tape. Before Sankey was drafted in 2014, Waldman noted the following:

"I believe Sankey’s best chance to develop into a starter depends on him going to a team that runs a lot of gap-style plays. This includes traps, power, counter plays, and sweeps — run designs where linemen pull and the runner has one option and doesn’t have to do much reading of the defense pre-snap. It’s the running back’s equivalent of an exam with true/false questions. In contrast, zone blocking is like multiple choice: it requires a runner has the skill to anticipate what the defense will do on a play. Sankey has the athleticism to create, but when given two-to-three options he doesn’t read the line fast enough to succeed on a consistent basis."

Notice that Sankey's physical ability to play the position was not in question, but rather his decision making. In 2014, Whisenhunt did not run exclusively gap or zone plays, but instead varied between gap and zone play-calls. When Sankey was asked to run gap plays, the offensive line play was so bad that the hole was often not there. When asked to run zone plays, the offensive line still did him no favors, but Sankey did not seem to be able to read the defense and create on his own. Whisenhunt became so frustrated with Sankey that he made him ride the pine and made excuses about his footwork:

Sankey was only in for 36.6% of the team's offensive snaps in 2014. Will this low-usage trend continue into the start of 2015? Most likely not. It is helpful to consider the mindset of the coaching staff when sorting this situation out. Remember, this is the regime that took Sankey. They also took him in the second round, which is high by the established positional standards of modern day NFL teams. They clearly intended for him to lead the committee and gave him early opportunity to do so in 2014. Remember also that this is a regime under a lot of pressure after logging the worst season in franchise history. They've likely bought themselves another year by drafting Mariota, but another horrible season could cause the ownership to reconsider and hit the reset button. The only other backs with NFL experience on the roster are Antonio Andrews and Dexter McCluster, both of whom seem to be role players rather than backs meant to carry a significant load of the rushing attack. It hasn't helped that the only possible challenger to Sankey, David Cobb, has been limited in OTAs with hamstring issues. The team has done the mental gymnastics and realized that Sankey offers them the best chance to win now, at least in the short-term. Supporting this is the news coming from The Tennessean, which reports Sankey is the "odds-on favorite" to start. The beat writers there are usually very plugged in to what's going on in St. Thomas Sports Park.

Cobb ROBS The JoB?

The former Minnesota Golden Gopher may have been drafted three rounds later than Sankey, but keep in mind that the 2015 group of backs was a much more talented class than the one in 2014. Cobb also may have been overlooked by teams and draftniks alike because he is not a "special" runner. While Cobb may not be dynamic, he is one of those backs that has a well-rounded game. The biggest area of his game that needs work is his blocking. He's a willing blocker, but sometimes takes bad angles to his target. This is probably a correctable issue, however. His propensity to finish runs, his downhill style and his nose for the end zone are all qualities that this team has been desperately searching for since Chris Johnson lost his mojo. While Sankey may end up starting over him, Cobb has the potential to endear himself to the coaching staff with his reliability and competency. He is also more likely to get the call when the team is on the goal line, as this is an area in which he seems to excel. It's easy to imagine a scenario where Cobb has the lead role in the committee by the end of 2015.

Titans' Offensive Outlook

As absolutely putrid as the Titans' offense was last season, many wonder if the back who wins the lead role can have fantasy relevance in 2015. That is a much harder question to answer. Days after Marcus Mariota was drafted, Whisenhunt made the pronouncement that he will tailor the offense to play to his strengths. If Whisenhunt is true to his word, Mariota may be comfortable enough in this system to lift the offense. His mobility will help mask the play of the struggling offensive line. This unit was addressed once again in the draft. Many of the veterans on the line were injured at points last year. Now that they are healthier, there is optimism that the line will begin to gel. Dorial Green-Beckam was taken by Tennessee in the second round of this year's draft. Additionally, the acqusition of Harry Douglas and Hakeem Nicks in free agency signaled that the team was preparing to move on from Justin Hunter. With Hunter's recent arrest for a stabbing incident, they will have no choice but to proceed with that plan. Even with the loss of Hunter, this receiving corps seems stronger, at least on paper. Mariota is already far more accurate than Jake Locker or Zach Mettenberger. If he can get the receiving game on-track, this will keep defenses from stacking the box and give its backs a better chance of gaining yardage. While the long-term outlook for this team is unclear, the sign in the short-term point to improvement that will lend itself to better outcomes for Tennessee runners.

Bishop Sankey POSITIVES

  • Sankey is most likely to be the starter at the beginning of this year..
  • Unlike last year, Sankey has been able to participate in all the team's OTAs in 2015.
  • Sankey has the atheltisism and physical tools needed to produce at the NFL level.

BISHOP SANKEY NEGATIVES

  • Unlike last year, Sankey has competition at the position from rookie David Cobb.
  • Considering that he also struggled last year, Sankey will likely be on a short leash.
  • Sankey's decision making on the field hasn't been very good to this point.

David Cobb POSITIVES

  • Cobb does everything an RB needs to do at the NFL level competently.
  • Cobb especially excels when near the goal line.
  • Cobb projects to be an eventual three down back.

David Cobb NEGATIVES

  • Cobb has been battling a hamstring issue in OTAs, possibly slowing his development.
  • Cobb isn't a "special" or "dynamic" back with outstanding skills in any area of his game.
  • Cobb needs some minor improvement in pass blocking.

FINAL THOUGHTS

Sankey will start the year as the committee leader, but failure to thrive in the role will mean David Cobb will get an extended look. Anticipate that Cobb will win the bulk of the carries before year's end. This means that though Sankey is going relatively late (currently late eighth to early ninth round in 12-team non-PPR redraft formats), David Cobb is the better value (typically going in the beginning of round eleven). When Cobb wins the job, count on him to be a viable flex play or spot starter for your team.

Sankey's 2015 PROJECTIONS

Bob henry’s PROJECTIONS

GRSHYDY/RTDRECYDY/RTDFPT
16 125 490 3.9 2 18 125 6.94 0 69.68

Jason Wood’S PROJECTIONS

GRSHYDY/RTDRECYDY/RTDFPT
16 180 700 3.9 5 22 165 7.5 1 118.68

Cobb's 2015 PROJECTIONS

BOB HENRY’S PROJECTIONS

GRSHYDY/RTDRECYDY/RTDFPT
16 170 710 4.2 5 20 150 7.5 1 122

Jason Wood’s PROJECTIONS

GRSHYDY/RTDRECYDY/RTDFPT
16 75 300 4.0 4 11 65 5.9 0 58.50

OTHER VIEWPOINTS

In his Bleacher Report article, NFL analyst Rivers McCown doesn't like what he saw of Sankey in 2014:

"Between those issues, his vision and his inability to break tackles beyond the line of scrimmage, it's hard to argue that Whisenhunt was wrong in his usage of Sankey last season. He's a very flawed back right now, and backs like that have to be spotted carefully..." 

"...Now, I'm not here to bury Sankey's career. He was a rookie. NFL players often make the biggest leap in terms of learning systems and NFL-caliber moves in their first offseason. But given Sankey's utter lack of ability to crystallize what he was supposed to be learning from Whisenhunt all season, I don't think I'd bet on it happening."

Eric Galco had the following positive notes about Sankey in his October 2013 report at Optimum Scouting:

"With most NFL teams have some sort of zone blocking scheme in their play design along with Sankey’s ability to utilize man-blocking concepts if need be in the box, it’s easy to get excited for Sankey’s future as an NFL runner. The lack of open field, big play elusive moves along with just good, not great, long speed likely keeps him from being a first rounder as of now, mostly because of the lack of premium placed on running backs. However, Sankey wins in the same way Ray Rice did in college, and while Sankey may not be as compactly built or as polished as Rice was out of college, Sankey does have similar productivity upside, especially if he can land in a zone blocking scheme."

Based on Sankey's elusiveness, Nate Liss also expresses optimism for Sankey in a June 2015 Tweet:

"Bishop Sankey forced more missed tackles than Jeremy Hill — on 70 less carries."

Lance Zierlien believes Cobb can contribute on the right squad: 

"Cobb's highlights might bore you, but he's custom-made for physical running teams. Adjusting his style to the speed of the NFL game might take some time, but Cobb's downhill, run-finishing style fits what running games are becoming in the NFL and, in the right scheme, he has a shot to be more than just a complementary back. Cobb will have to do everything he can to make himself quicker in order to avoid becoming nothing more than a grinder."

Dan Lavoie of SB Nation feels that there isn't much upside with Cobb: 

"He could start games as a rookie, although I think he can still improve his decision-making and pass blocking. I'm just not sure how much upside is there. I'm reminded of Rashard Mendenhall when I watch Cobb. He's a powerful back that's tough to bring down, and he'll get you positive yardage most of the time. There's not a lot of wiggle in his game, though, and he doesn't seem like a pass catching type. I'm just not sure he can pace a rushing attack by himself. He seems like a good No. 2 back to me."