Oregon running back Kenjon Barner gets in some work for the North squad during Tuesday's Senior Bowl practice.
MOBILE, Ala. — If you're at the Senior Bowl looking for Bengals running backs coach Jim Anderson, as his legion of friends around the NFL do, look for, well, the running backs.
"When it comes to this position, he's definitely the pioneer," says Ollie Wilson, who has coached NFL running backs for 24 seasons. "His workouts are infamous around the league."
But those campus drills that Anderson unleashes on prospects won't happen for another two months. Tuesday is simply his letter of introduction to just some of the prospects that he'll become married to before the April 25-27 NFL Draft.
The Bengals personnel department has already courted the running backs heavily during fall scouting, but now on Tuesday morning Anderson is seeing for the first time Oregon's Kenjon Barner, UCLA's Johnathan Franklin and Fresno State's Robbie Rouse during the North practice.
The Dean of NFL assistant coaches is leaning on the fence ringing one of the end zones of Ladd-Peebles Stadium for the practices of both teams. That's where the running backs are going through drills for ball security and pass protection, two absolute musts for an AFC North running back.
Draft gurus like Rob Rang of CBSSports.com suggest that the backs in this Senior Bowl aren't indicative of the talent that is out there. There is North Carolina's Giovani Bernard and Alabama's Eddie Lacy. Plus, South Carolina's Marcus Lattimore was on the field Tuesday after practice showing his rehab from a shattering knee injury is going well. While it's a deep class of guys with varying styles, Rang thinks it's also going to be the first draft in recent memory there's not a first-round back.
(Given Cincinnati's injury track record with rookie running backs in the last half of Anderson's tenure with Ki-Jana Carter, Chris Perry and Kenny Irons, don't look for Lattimore.)
So, in between greeting everyone from former Bengals linebacker Adrian Ross trying to hook on in player personnel, Panthers assistant coach and former NFL tackle Ray Brown, and fellow running backs coaches he once scouted, Anderson pulls out a notebook.
"Lean. Soft hands. Runs high," say some of Anderson's notes and the teams have yet to line up for their first nine-on-seven drill. With Bernard Scott heading into free agency after undergoing reconstructive knee surgery, the conventional wisdom is the Bengals are going to expend an early pick (second round?) on a running back to team with grinder BenJarvus Green-Ellis.
More conventional wisdom is that the Bengals are looking for a wispy, speed back that can make people miss and take it to the house while Green-Ellis makes the sausage on third-and-1 and in the red zone.
But Anderson doesn't go as far Tuesday. "A complement" is what he says, and he doesn't rule out Scott. The term "speed back" concerns him.
"You have to play between the tackles in our division," Anderson says. "You can't always go outside. At some point you have to stick your foot in the ground and get upfield."
What Anderson is looking for is a complement-plus. In Green-Ellis the Bengals have the guy that can carry the load, another AFC North requirement. But what if they don't have him for a few games and have to turn to the No. 2?
"If you have a guy that can't do some of the things that he can do, and you really need a guy that can carry it a lot in this division, then you can't do what you do on offense," Anderson says. "You'd like the (other back) to emulate him in some way. Maybe the guy is like the other guy, but brings a few different things to the table. But sometimes you can't have your cake and eat it, too."
He's talking about catching the ball, or accelerating to another level, or making tacklers miss.
"Doing something special," he says.
As he heads into his 30th season, the longest assistant's tenure with one NFL team, Anderson has coached 14 different 100-yard rushers, 18 1,000-yard seasons and 10 Pro Bowl seasons.
"Trust your eyes," he says.
He discovers right away the thumbnail reports on these rosters are pretty much right on.
"The body structures are different. One team is lean, supposedly shifty and nifty," Anderson says of the North. "The other team has guys that are thicker with more thrust."
Anderson, whose first Senior Bowl notebook in 1984 featured Stanford Jennings, is jotting notes Tuesday afternoon about Stanford's Stepfan Taylor of the South. He could show you the notes, but he'd also have to put you on the physically unable to perform (PUP) list. The draftnicks say at 5-11, 215 pounds, Taylor is no burner and too much like BJGE.
But Charles Davis, NFL Network analyst, says to look behind the numbers.
"He does everything well," Davis says. "He's as good a pass protector for a running back that's come along in a long time, and he runs better than people give him credit. Go and look at his numbers and I think you'll be surprised. And it doesn't go on the ground very often. He's had more than 300 touches without putting it on the ground."
Too much like BJGE? Pass protecting is big for Anderson. This is not 1984 and Student Body Right. This is 2013 with college offenses spread thinner than a widow's peak. Two of the casualties of the decades, he says, are the size of backs and their ability to pass protect because of the evolution of the college game.
There are a lot of swings and misses for both sets of backs Tuesday when it comes to pass protection.
"It's a good thing you can't blitz in this game," said one observer wryly as another back failed to pick up another backer in a blitz drill.
In another drill, notebook pulled out of the pocket, Anderson watches the North backs attack the bag simulating a blitzer. The gurus say this is not exactly a physical group. The 5-11, 192-pound Barner, the 5-10, 198-pound Franklin and the 5-7, 190-pound Rouse aren't exactly built for blowing up Terrell Suggs on third-and-five.
"You watch their technique. You watch to see if they have been exposed to pass blocking," Anderson says. "Are they willing? Does the guy step into it with his inside leg? Do they improve the next day. Is he coachable?"
If the landscape has changed, so have the kids. Barner acts like he's 35. Smooth. He knows the rap. Not real physical. Not used to running between the tackles in Chip Kelly's flying circus.
"There are a lot of questions about whether or not I can block and I want to go out there and show them I can do that," Barner said after practice. "Teams know I can play from talking to (them). A system doesn't change a player. It's the same player, just in a different system. Same attitude. Same mindset. You work and you grind it and play the game of football."
Rouse looks smaller than listed at 5-7, 190. For instance, he doesn't look as big as Bengals 5-7, 180-pound receiver Andrew Hawkins, and Anderson doesn't know quite how to view him. Anderson does know when a guy is that small, "he has to be able to do something special."
Rouse himself makes a passionate argument. He says his role models are guys like Denver return man Trindon Holliday (5-5, 166), Baltimore running back Ray Rice (5-9, 195), Saints running back Darren Sproles (5-6, 181) and Chiefs running back Dexter McCluster (5-9, 165). The NFL Network's Davis is a big fan, noting Rouse's Fresno production of nearly 1,500 yards rushing and 63 catches.
"Ray Rice, I feel like I idolize his game as far as how he can catch out of the backfield that can also get 20-plus carries. I feel like I can do the same things," Rouse says. "With the spread style of offense, I think (the NFL) is looking more at smaller backs."
Like Barner, Rouse sounds like a grizzled pro when it comes to explaining what he brings to the table and the dominance of the blitzers.
"The thing is I had Coach (Pat) Hill, a hardnosed coach in a pro-style offense being able to stick my nose in there throughout my whole career," he said. "I've had 30-plus carries, maybe one game 40-plus. Plus, I've had to block up linebackers and take on blitzers and things like that. I can do that and I'm willing to do that. I'm excited to watch some film and improve tomorrow. (The blitz drills) aren't realistic about what you do in a game. You can cut (block) them and they know (in practice) they can bull rush you and the defense has the advantage in that drill."
TAPE GETS FINAL WORD
And Rouse did get tossed around, but good for him Anderson puts most of his stock in game tape. And he when he does go back and look at the practice tape, Anderson sees if a player improves from Monday to Thursday.
Plus, these are literally baby steps for the coaches. They and the scouts still have next month's NFL scouting combine to not only watch these players, but interview them. Then in March there are the campus visits and one could see a West Coast jaunt of Oregon, Fresno and UCLA in Anderson's future.
"This is just a starting point," Anderson says. "You go to the game film to answer the questions you have here after you watch out here. That's what it comes down to: the tape. Go back and look at the games. That's the answer. How do they play in the games?"
When Anderson arrived in 1984, the Bengals were the epitome of the big-back team and their bell cow was a fullback in Pete Johnson. Owner Paul Brown had the first modern big back in Jim Brown in Cleveland and his best Bengals offenses had 230-pound plus guys like Johnson and Ickey Woods, and the best back in Bengals history is 225-pound Corey Dillon. Current owner Mike Brown muses in the stands here Tuesday there was a time 60 years ago when backs were rarely 215 pounds and it's getting that way again. His current bell cow, Green-Ellis, goes 5-11, 220.
But Mike Brown, always a fan of the pass game, also saw the versatility the '80s game needed and went against tradition during Anderson's first season with the team. He traded Johnson for San Diego's 5-10, 180 James Brooks and it turned out to be the best trade in club history because Brooks not only once gained 1,200 yards, he went to multiple Pro Bowls on the strength of his receiving.
Anderson still preaches versatility and there are still the eternal running back truths that were evident in 1984.
"The big backs don't surface as much. When they do, they get drafted right away," Anderson says. "You really want guys that can do a little bit of everything while keeping in mind you want something special. It's the same thing. You're looking for height, weight, speed, the ability to accelerate, vision. Toughness."
That's the stuff teams still need. And while the Bengals don't figure to take a back in the first round, Anderson isn't on that Arian-Foster-free-agent-you-can-always-get-a-back wagon that says you can get a back anywhere.
"Look at the production of the guys that got drafted last year. You look at the kid from Boise State and Wilson," Anderson says of Doug Martin and David Wilson going back-to-back late in the first round.
Plus, he looks at Denver taking Ronnie Hillman and Baltimore taking Bernard Pierce in the third round.
"They knew what they were," he says.
The notebook comes back out.
But the game film waits.