Ameer Abdullah is a good NFL prospect, but not a great one.
That is something that became apparent against Michigan State this past weekend. Before that game, Abdullah had compiled 833 yards and eight touchdowns on 114 carries in five games. Averaging 7.3 yards per carry, the running back played a huge role in Nebraska's five game winning streak, with no more important play than that final receiving touchdown against McNeese State.
If Abdullah sustains his production and Nebraska finishes the season with a decent record, Abdullah should be a Heisman nominee at the very least. However, those numbers mean little for his NFL projection. Those numbers say more about his situation rather than his ability as a bell cow running back.
Before the Michigan State game, when Abdullah had just 45 yards on 24 carries, Nebraska had primarily faced poor run defenses. This means that Abdullah was routinely put in situations where he didn't have to do anything strenuous to create yardage.
These are the type of plays Abdullah has been making on a regular basis this season. They aren't the kind of plays that NFL running backs see on a regular basis. Your average NFL back can expect to be sent clean into the secondary without having to create a running lane maybe 10 times across a whole season.
Against Michigan State, Abdullah was put in a situation that is more reflective of what an NFL running back faces.
He wasn't given free runs into the secondary. Against better, more disciplined athletes, Abdullah was forced to work in tighter areas against players who typically showed more power at the point of contact and better technique than the defenders he had previously taken advantage of. He was still able to show good leg drive on occasion to get forward momentum, but he couldn't break tackles, make defenders miss or create running lanes with any kind of consistency.
Abdullah's situation accentuated his ability during the first couple of weeks of the season. That ability may not be worthy of becoming a first round draft pick, but it is definitely worthy of playing in the NFL.
Balancing a larger sample against lesser opposition versus a smaller sample against tougher opposition can be tough. While the situation must always be considered in terms of usage, teammate reliance and opposition faced, focusing on traits becomes much more important with a player such as Abdullah.
The senior back is listed at 5'9” and 195 pounds. He is somewhat diminutive on the field, but doesn't appear to carry a frame that will make him easily punished in the NFL. His low center of gravity aids his efforts to avoid taking big hits and his strength shows up in his game as he doesn't show a reluctance to run hard on a regular basis.
Abdullah's effectiveness in the NFL will primarily be reliant on his ability to get the most out of his quickness and acceleration.
On this play, we can see how quickly Abdullah recognizes the cutback lane after he receives the ball from his quarterback. This is a trait that should be independent of how good his opposition is. He makes a read off the defender's positioning against his blocking and finds space in behind. That space is created because the defense lacks discipline upfront, but that shouldn't be considered a negative against Abdullah.
After making the cutback, Abdullah shows outstanding fluidity and balance to keep his momentum moving forward. He very easily springs past an incoming defender in space on the second level before regaining his speed to run to the endzone. Abdullah had a lot of space to work in, but his physical talent was apparent either way.
That was a very decisive cut and read, but NFL backs need to also be subtle in their movements behind the line of scrimmage.
When Abdullah receives the ball from the quarterback on this play, he keeps his eyes up and hesitates slightly for a moment to make sure that his blocking in front of him has time to develop. Once he recognizes the open running lane, he doesn't second-guess himself. Instead he decisively accelerates and easily finds his way deep into the defense.
On the whole, Abdullah should be considered a good decision maker and runner behind the line of scrimmage. However, situation affects this at times also.
On this play, the only way Abdullah can make a bad decision is if he completely reverses field to run towards the other sideline, if he hesitates for an exceptionally long time or if he runs into a blocker. He is afforded a huge margin for error because of how few defenders have recognizes where the football is and because of how effective his blocking is.
Of course, Abdullah could have made a bad decision here and he did ultimately make a good decision, but it's hard to give someone credit for answering a question when 90 percent of the obvious answers are all correct. It was tougher to make a wrong decision in this situation.
In the NFL, Abdullah should have an immediate role on the field as a space back.
NFL offenses are as wide open as they have ever been. There is a clear emphasis on widening the field and using more misdirection to put athletes in space. Running plays that focus on putting defenders on the edge of the offensive line so they can use their athleticism have become more prominent than running plays that ask backs to make reads behind a fullback between the offensive tackles.
The above misdirection handoff allows Abdullah to use his acceleration to outrun the hesitating defender to the edge, immediately putting him in space on the second level.
When the San Francisco 49ers drafted LaMichael James out of Oregon a few years ago, this appeared to be their plan for him. James showed flashes of ability on these types of runs when he saw the field, but he didn't prove to be consistent enough for the 49ers to get him on the field often enough. James was released this season largely because his physical ability couldn't carry him in the NFL.
One of the more notable aspects of Abdullah's season so far has been his receiving ability.
On both of these plays he makes impressive receptions. That kind of comfort as a receiver allows him to be comfortable after the catch as he shows very impressive awareness on both plays to evade defenders in space. Abdullah's understanding of how to use his blockers on the second play is particularly enticing.
It takes a special player to be a first round pick in the NFL draft as a running back nowadays. Even a player as spectacularly talented as Todd Gurley isn't considered a lock because of the position he plays. While Abdullah may be closer to Lamar Miller than LaDainian Tomlinson, that doesn't mean he can't become a very valuable player to whatever team eventually takes him.