Royce Freeman became the leading rusher in FBS history this season. With the Pittsburgh Steelers facing a decision about 2018 and beyond with Le’Veon Bell, they at the very least will be looking into the 2018 running back class to see if any player is worth stepping for Bell in the longterm. Does Royce Freeman have the skill and style to catch the eye of the Pittsburgh Steelers?
School: Oregon Ducks
Royce Freeman is very savvy as a zone system, one-cut runner. He is crafty in finding holes in the line and knowing when to turn plays upfield. Seeing into the second level and setting up runs with his movement behind the line of scrimmage is a strong trait that will translate to the NFL.
In the play below, you see Freeman flowing to the hole between the left guard, 54, and the center 55. However, Freeman knows that 54 is pushing his defender right to left in the zone blocking scheme. Freeman uses this original hole to set the safety up to think that is where he is going to hit. When the safety starts to come down into the box, Freeman is cutting away, between the left guard and left tackle to run right past the safety in the second level.
Freeman’s vision comes up in the second level as well. Below, he is following a blocker into space. However, watch 19 on the defense. He is shedding his blocker and is going to fill the hole. Freeman notices, steps hard into the hole to sell that is his decision and then makes his quick cut back outside to find the pylon. He is a smart, crafty runner.
Freeman is able to run with this style so successfully because of his quick jump cuts. He is smooth in the hips and able to keep his speed while juking left and right in combination. Most backs his size live between the tackles in the sense of power, and carrying defenders for extra yards. For Freeman, he can live between the tackles and hardly get touched until the open field.
The questions with Freeman will come in his physicality and his breakaway speed. Freeman is a big runner, but as mentioned, does not suit the style of your power, goal line back. He often breaks tackles, but in college has let defenders come to him rather than seek out contact. This will be a question for a player who consistently is running between the tackles.
Then, there is his breakaway speed in the open field. Freeman is usually strong at getting to the open field, and has a quick burst and agility to do so. However, he does not quite have the burners to turn any burst into space a touchdown. He relies much more on his savvy and smarts to burst big plays.
Freeman has also had little productivity in the passing game, and is a questionable pass blocker.
Pro Comparison: Jordan Howard
Jordan Howard, like Freeman was a bigger back in college who did not necessarily win with strength or speed. Heck, Howard still could be classified in a similar light. However, Howard had the vision and the one-cut ability to find holes, wiggle through them, and squeeze into the open field for extra yards. This is the same dynamic that Royce Freeman brings. It is why Howard fell all the way down until round 5. It is also why Howard was able to break out and be a leading rusher as a rookie when tossed into the fire. Howard has more power, and is more prone to seeking out contact to finish runs and punish defenders. However, if Freeman can improve in that area, there is a chance that he is able to wiggle his way up a depth chart in the NFL and into a starting role.
A Fit for Pittsburgh Steelers
If the Steelers are going to look at running back at all in this draft class, Royce Freeman could be a name on their minds. First, he is not going to cost a first round pick. He is going to slip into the middle rounds, where picking a running back is much safer. His style also fits the Steelers. The patience and the vision are not on the same level, but do compare to Le’Veon Bell. James Conner did so well as a runner in spurts because of the style difference from Bell to Conner. They style difference from Freeman to Conner could make the two a duo that can attempt to replace Bell. The issue with rolling with Conner and Freeman together is that neither provides much in the passing game and anything as a pass blocker. While the fit is there schematically, he would have to fall to the point where he is some sort of bargain if the the Steelers are going to have interest in Royce Freeman.