Draft Prospect Watch: Stepfan Taylor (Stanford)

To anyone outside of Ann Arbor or Alabama, college football is pretty much the NFL D-league. Here in the Northeast, Mike Francesca almost sounds like he’s running gassers when he’s forced to discuss amateur ball on the radio. It is the NFL’s moment in the spotlight.

That said, the NCAA still retains a bit of its mystique. You see it when a team like Notre Dame returns to national prominence, generating real buzz around the BCS title game. And you see it in college stars who, although clearly destined for short-lived professional careers, channel their indisputable athletic prowess dominate on Saturdays. Stepfan Taylor is such a player.

As I listened to Brent Mussberger sing Taylor’s praises during the Rose Bowl, I realized what a special back on a special college football team he has been. Stanford was a Pac-12 afterthought when Taylor first set foot on campus. The transformation to national powerhouse is now complete. Taylor helped usher in a new era for a school with a long tradition of success on the gridiron.

Taylor’s game doesn’t suggest he’ll star at the next level, however. His running style and decision-making make for an odd fit in the NFL. He runs much too upright, and he sometimes turns on the jukes when one cut would do. At times he shows incredible patience, then seems to read his blocks poorly on other runs. Sometimes he goes down in a heap after the first hit, but other times he gets up a head of steam and really punishes tacklers at the end of runs. Ultimately, he doesn’t seem elusive enough to make big gains out of nothing at the next level, nor does he generate the push to be an effective short yardage back. (Goal line stand by Notre Dame, anyone?)

That said, I think there’s an important role for Stepfan Taylor at the next level. Taylor rarely fumbles – I counted two in two years as the every down back. Taylor is also effective in the passing game: he catches the ball well and turns on his burst in the open field, and he is a dedicated, sometimes even lethal, pass blocker. Taylor is, in short, Kevin Faulk: he is unlikely to strike fear into opposing defenses, but he may become a smart coach’s go-to back with the game on the line.

In a league where ball security and versatility are tough to come by, Taylor warrants a late round draft choice. Teams would regret passing over more talented running backs for him, but a squad with a hole at the bottom of its backfield depth chart will be glad it took a flyer on him in the fifth or sixth round.

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