Toby Gerhart, and Rethinking Free Agency

A guy with a track record for doing this in the League has to be able to step into the Jags starting roll better than anyone in this draft, right?

A guy with a track record for doing this in the League has to be able to step into the Jags starting roll better than anyone in this draft, right?

Toby Gerhart probably feels overlooked. Rightfully so. A podcast host suggested to vaunted draft pundit Greg Cossell recently that the Jaguars starting running back gig was Gerhart’s to lose. Cosell’s response? “He’s not going to be the guy that carries the ball 25 times a game.”

Gerhart disagrees. “I can come in and be the dominant guy.” He points out, essentially, that he has a veteran’s feel for the game, without any of the unwanted tread on his tires.

With all due respect to Cossell, he thought Trent Richardson was the second coming. So even the great ones get one wrong now and then.

So let’s take Gerhart up on his proposition: how does his body of work stack up against others who might be taking their first snaps as a full-time starter in the NFL this season?

Gerhart is obviously a bigger back, and plays like it in many ways. He squares his pads up to the line of scrimmage, even when moving laterally. He keeps his feet moving and runs through contact with very good balance. He doesn’t explode towards the line of scrimmage, though, and sometimes seems plodding in his movement.

Gerhart also plays like a smaller back at times. He has pretty good lateral agility for his size, including some stop-start movement in the backfield, and jukes in the open field. He has very soft hands, and looks comfortable in the screen game. He presses the hole on inside runs, but flashes good cutback ability.

Gerhart has always lacked either the flexibility or the instinctive timing to lower his shoulder effectively, though. When tacklers come in high, Gerhart shakes them off rumbles for another ten yards; when they come in low, Gerhart hits the turf hard. If Gerhart is ever to hit 200 carries behind an unproven Jaguars offensive line, he’ll have to run behind his pads more effectively, and will have to lower his shoulder to meet tacklers.

Overall, I like Gerhart’s game.

What’s more, I think Gerhart’s situation reflects a certain tunnel-vision in the League. Execs often prioritize building their team through the Draft. The team gets younger players at a more affordable price, the strategy goes, while free agents sometimes come with skeletons in their closet and don’t always integrate their game into a team’s scheme effectively. Some execs seem to barely bat an eye as good free agents flock to other teams at a good value.

Although drafting well is important, targeted investments in free agency can complement a team’s draft strategy. It’s widely recognized that rookie running backs stand to have as much early success as almost any other position, at least amongst the skill players. Why shouldn’t the same be said for a low-mileage veteran back? Given the short careers NFL running backs face, Gerhart may have as many productive years in front of him as any rookie.

Gerhart will likely give the Jaguars better carries than any back drafted in the early rounds. Gerhart is at least the equal of Carlos Hyde, for example, a player widely considered a top-50 pick. The Jaguars got Gerhart at a modest $10 million over three years, and the team gets to fill other needs on Draft day.

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