Wendell Smallwood finished his junior season at West Virginia as the Big XII’s leading rusher, carrying 238 times for 1519 yards and 9 touchdowns while leading the nation with 59 carries of 10+ yards. He also contributed heavily in the passing game, consistently picking up blitzes and adding 160 yards on 26 catches out of the backfield. Smallwood isn’t the flashiest runner but good things seem to happen when he touches the ball.
Smallwood weighed in at the Combine at 5’10 208, which is probably a little on the small side in today’s NFL. Though durability has a slightly reduced importance in the running back by committee era, you would still like your back to be able to carry a 3-down load if necessary, and Wendell’s relatively (read: RELATIVELY) slight build has raised questions about his ability to do that at the next level.
Smallwood goes from 0-60 faster than anyone I’ve seen in a West Virginia backfield not named Slaton or White. His acceleration through the hole and into the second level is truly special, and was the main reason he was able to lead the Big 12 in rushing this past year. Negative plays simply don’t occur when you get to the line that quickly, as evidenced by the fact that Wendell only lost 46 total yards over 425 career carries.
His Combine and Pro Day numbers back up these observations. A 6.83 3 cone drill (1st among backs), 11.14 60 yard shuttle (1st by a mile), and 4.41 40 (WVU Pro Day – would’ve been 2nd at the Combine) show a high-level athlete with elite burst.
In the Running Game: B+
He won’t blow you away with his shiftiness, he won’t straight Gump away from people, and he won’t run over them, but damnit if Wendell Smallwood doesn’t move the chains. He’s a “one cut and go” kind of guy, but once he makes up his mind he hits the hole with elite acceleration and finishes runs with physicality.
Here’s a perfect example against Texas:
#21 thinks he’s taken the correct angle, but Smallwood’s burst leaves him in the dust.
Here’s another nice one against Baylor:
Once again, Smallwood’s acceleration makes some of these defenders’ angles look terrible. Everybody’s favorite action figure Shawn Oakman thinks he has Wendell dead to rights but is left grasping for air. He ends up running out of gas and getting caught, but the cut and acceleration through the hole create an explosive play for WVU.
Unfortunately, this full-steam-ahead running style ends up being both a blessing and a curse, as it’s both the reason he always seems to pick up 6 yards and rarely picks up 60. He has good vision but doesn’t always display the change of pace or patience of someone like LeVeon Bell, which occasionally means his blocks don’t have time to develop. Here are two plays against Texas Tech to help illustrate this:
On this first play he gets downhill so quickly that he doesn’t even give himself a chance to see the cutback lane. #62 gets a great chip on #4 on the back side before breaking free into perfect position to seal the cutback lane on the front side. If Smallwood shows a bit more patience, he has nothing but green space in front of him. Instead, he picks up a yard forcing a 3rd and 7.
Now, the 2nd play:
This time you can see that with just a little hesitation he gives #62 time to turn his man inside and create the running lane. A little bit of patience can make all the difference in the world. Fortunately, this pacing/patience is something that Wendell can be coached up on and I think we’ll see him improve as a pro.
In the Passing Game: B+
This is where Smallwood has a great chance to make his bacon early on. He is sound in his pass protection and though he’s not the most polished route runner, he shows good hands when he’s asked to be a receiver. In this regard he actually reminds me a bit of Charles Sims, who’s had a productive first couple of season in Tampa Bay. Here he is at the combine:
I know it’s a short clip and is not a game situation, but it is a game simulation (that angle route is a very common one for NFL running backs) and you can see that he catches the ball very naturally.
And here’s Wendell sticking his nose in there against a Baylor defensive lineman, giving Skylar Howard time to find Shelton Gibson open along the sideline:
Bonus gif time for the Shelton Gibson catch and run. He’s fast.
Unfortunately, he had a run in with the law that can’t be overlooked. It may have been a one-off kind of situation, but the fact that he was in the situation at all is something that all 32 teams will take note of. By all accounts he’s a hard worker, and I can say from my own observations that Wendell always played hard and never complained about touches (though the fans did that plenty on his behalf). However, there are lots of guys who work and play hard, so due to this blemish I can’t give him above a B-.
Here’s the grading scale that I’m using:
And on down to 0. You get the idea. Smallwood graded out with a B in Size, A in Athleticism, B+ in the Running Game, B+ in the Passing Game, and a B- in Intangibles. This gives him a total of 19.5 and an average of 3.9/5, which we’ll round up to a B+. And this feels fair. The biggest gripe I had with West Virginia’s offense this past year was that we didn’t give this poor guy the ball more (see?). 238 carries may seem like a lot but really it’s only about 18/game, which probably isn’t enough for a guy that averaged 6.4 ypc. Good things just seemed to happen when he was involved and he had a knack for providing a spark either on the ground or through the air. That has to mean something.
Where should he get picked?
Wendell is a very good athlete with a versatile skill set and fixable weaknesses. Prospects like that usually aren’t around for too long. Most of the stuff that I’ve read feels that he’s solidified himself as a Day 3 pick, and that was before he ran his 4.41 at West Virginia’s Pro Day. Apparently his hands were also on full display at the Pro Day, so I have to think that solid Day 3 pick is a bit conservative by now. At this point I wouldn’t be surprised to see him sneak into Friday, but if he doesn’t I definitely think he’ll be off the board early on Saturday.
As far as where he fits, Smallwood’s running style is well-suited for a zone blocking scheme where he can get downhill, find a crease, and get upfield. Dallas at 67 feels a little early, but I think they’d jump on him if he’s still there at 101. Philly at 79 feels like less of a reach, especially since it looks like they’re going to take a QB at 2 and don’t have a pick in the 2nd or 4th round. They may want to jump on Smallwood if they like him and think he’ll be gone by 153. Other possible destinations could include teams like Arizona at 92, Denver at 94 or 98, or Jacksonville at 103. I also think he could be a very good fit in a place like Green Bay or Pittsburgh, but with the running back depth on both of those teams he’d probably have to fall pretty far for them to consider it.