SI 50, Nos. 24–23: Derrick Henry and Andrew Billings
Get all of Doug Farrar’s columns as soon as they’re published. Download the new Sports Illustrated app (iOS or Android) and personalize your experience by following your favorite teams and SI writers.
With the 2016 NFL draft just a month away, it’s time for all 32 NFL teams to finish the process of getting their draft boards in order and ranking players based on their own preferences. At SI, it’s time for us to do that as well. To that end, Doug Farrar has assembled his own Big Board, with his top 50 players.
The SI 50 uses tape study to define the best prospects in this class, and why they’re slotted as such. As we continue with the first round of players, it’s time to appreciate the best power runner in this draft, and a defensive tackle with a skill set that will have you rewinding his tape to confirm what you just saw.
24. Derrick Henry, RB, Alabama
Height: 6' 3" Weight: 247
Bio: Derrick Henry has done nothing but succeed his entire football career. The 2012 Maxwell Football Club National High School Player of the Year broke a 51-year-old national record with 12,124 rushing yards, including 4,261 yards as a senior. He started at Alabama backing up T.J. Yeldon, but put up head-turning stats as a freshman and a sophomore (382 yards and three touchdowns on 35 carries in ’13, 990 yards and 11 touchdowns on 172 carries in ’14), leading everyone to wonder what Henry could do when Yeldon moved on the NFL and Henry was the starter.
Henry answered that question decisively in 2015, setting SEC records with 2,219 rushing yards and 28 rushing touchdowns. He won the Heisman Trophy, and the Doak Walker and Maxwell awards.
Henry comes into the NFL with as much power and production as we’ve seen from any running back prospect over the last decade. Now, the question people have is how he’ll adapt that running style to an NFL that doesn’t reward power backs as it once did.
Strengths: Powerful, well-muscled player who breaks tackles fairly easily and consistently. Very hard to stuff, because he’s always running forward with an attack mentality. Smooth strider to and through the hole. Generally runs low for his height—pad level isn’t a consistent problem. Excellent vision to switch gaps and quickly find openings. Uses long legs to propel himself through trash, and sticks his foot in the ground when cutting and accelerates from angles with quickness and power. Doesn’t really have a burner gear downfield, but combination of musculature and stride speed makes up for it, and he’s not easy to bring down once he’s full-steam ahead. Expert at bouncing off first tacklers and picking up velocity in short areas to surge ahead. Excellent short-yardage and red-zone runner. Generally takes more than one guy to bring him down in a pile. Powerful blocking and nascent receiving ability make him a legitimate every-down back in the right offense. Doesn’t wear down in games—his last few carries in a game can be as punishing as his first few.
Weaknesses: Henry isn’t a burner to the outside, and may find himself with issues getting past the NFL’s more varied fronts when he hits the edge. Needs to work on his balance when trying to shift and cut horizontally—he’s more a forward than sideways player. Opponents have learned that tripping him up and chopping are effective methods for stopping him behind the line of scrimmage; he could stand to pump his legs more to counter that. Narrow-framed running style, especially with his lower body. Workload is an obvious concern, especially in the 2015 season.
Conclusion: With backs of Henry’s size in today’s NFL, the question is whether they’ll get with a team that will use their attributes to their full advantage, without trying to make them into players they’re really not. If Henry lands with a team like the Panthers or Seahawks, who design their offenses around power running, he’s got the potential to be truly special as he rounds out his game. If he’s in an NFL offense where his relative lack of twitchy speed and history as a receiver are drawbacks, things could get complicated. Henry does a few things very, very well, and hopefully he’ll be allowed to back on his best traits.
Pro Comparison: LeGarrette Blount, free agent (Undrafted free agent, Buccaneers, 2010, Oregon)
23. Andrew Billings, DT, Baylor
Height: 6' 1" Weight: 311
Bio: Billings was already well-known around the Waco area as a dominant high-school defensive tackle and powerlifting phenom before he chose Baylor—he totaled 266 knockdowns in his junior and senior seasons, and set a Texas state record for lifting with 2,010 pounds (805-pound squat, 705-pound deadlift, 500-pound bench press).
It didn’t take him long to bring that power to the NCAA, as he amassed 17 solo tackles, four tackles for loss, and half a sack as a true freshman in 2013. Then, he kicked up his game over the next two years as a starter, culminating in a ’15 campaign in which he was named the Big 12 Defensive Player of the year with 31 solo tackles, 14 tackles for loss and 5.5 sacks. But as it is with most nose tackles, you have to get past the stats and watch the tape to discern Billings’s true effectiveness. He’s developed into the kind of player who can be the epicenter of a defense with his impressive attributes and unique skill set.
If there was any doubt about Billings’s speed and agility based on his Baylor tape, he erased it at the combine with a 5.05 40-yard dash and a 1.77-second 10-yard split, among the quickest for any defensive tackle in this class. He also ran a 4.96 40 at his pro day. Put simply, Billings has been under the radar a bit too much for the potential he brings to the NFL and the rare package of things he can do.
Strengths: Dominates at the one-tech and head-over nose positions, but can also kick outside to three-tech. Incredibly powerful upper body and short, squatty stature gives Billings a tremendous push at the snap—when he gets his hands under a blocker’s pads, he starts pushing back from the start and can just wreck an opponent. Weightlifting monster who brings every bit of that attribute to the field. Incredibly good at slipping off blocks and getting to the ballcarrier, and when he’s got his arms wrapped on that ballcarrier, it’s usually all over. Very quick off the snap—his first step is pretty insane for his size, and he has the ability to shift gaps on the hoof. A potential force in twists and stunts. Open-field agility with his body type seems like an optical illusion, but it’s there. Billings has the short-area speed and agility to track down runners and chase quarterbacks around the pocket. Will slice through double teams with pure power at times. Primary technique feature is the way he gets to a blocker’s outside shoulder and rocks him off-balance. Hand moves are a work in progress, but he fights constantly through the play on an every-play basis. Full-field player who can drop into coverage credibly, and has the straight-line speed and play intensity to chase and catch downfield runners (this play against Kansas is pretty ridiculous). Pass-rush isn’t his primary attribute, but it could be developed into a strength—right now, he just bulls people over to get to the quarterback. A player with a lot of great tape who can be even better with more development.
Weaknesses: Billings uses his forward weight to rock defenders back, and it’s effective, but it does lead to a bit of lunging at times. Not especially quick to re-direct after the first block. Can wear down a bit at the end of high-rep games; higher pad level is the tipoff. Like most collegiate defensive linemen, Billings needs a fuller palette of hand moves and techniques to rip through blockers.
Conclusion: When Dick LeBeau spent his second stint at the Steelers’ defensive coordinator from 2004 through ’14, he would talk about how important Casey Hampton was to his multiple fronts as a nose tackle who could do everything from taking on double teams to dropping into coverage and into zone blitz constructs. Billings has the potential to do and be all of that, and in any multiple-front defense, he has the capacity to dominate with his rare combination of quick-twitch athleticism and absolutely stunning power. A player on the ascent, and I may regret not ranking him higher when all is said and done.
Pro Comparison: Casey Hampton, Steelers, 2001–12 (first round, Steelers, 2001, Texas)