NEPD Staff Writer: Oliver Thomas
The New England Patriots have serious concerns heading into training camp, but running the ball is not one of them.
Six halfbacks find themselves on New England’s 90-man roster. That list includes 2011 draft picks Stevan Ridley and Shane Vereen, veteran return specialist Leon Washington, as well as ground-and-pounders Brandon Bolden and LeGarrette Blount.
And then there’s undrafted rookie George Winn.
A highly productive player at the University of Cincinnati when given the reins, Winn amassed 1,334 rushing yards and 13 touchdowns as a redshirt senior in 2012.
The 22-year-old was signed by the Houston Texans on May 10. Yet after three days of rookie minicamp, the 5’11”, 210-pound Bearcat was waived. He spent a month without a team before the Patriots gave him a call on June 17.
Two organizations in two months, Winn has been rendered an NFL afterthought. A bottom-of-the-depth-chart back. A camp body. The question is, why?
Was he seen as a byproduct of a high-volume college workload? He rushed the ball 243 times last season.
Was he seen as a one-year wonder? He spent his previous years behind current St. Louis Ram Isaiah Pead, taking a total of 78 handoffs between 2009 and 2011.
Was he seen as a man of inferior size, power and speed? Winn measured out as 5’11”, 210 pounds at the NFL Scouting Combine. He benched 22 reps of 225 pounds, leaped 119 inches in the broad jump and ran the 40-yard dash in 4.75 seconds.
Whatever attributed to his detracted value, Winn’s football fate will be decided by more than what’s on paper. To grasp an understanding of what Winn can do, it’s important to take a look at what he has done.
It’s time to revisit the tape of the former Brian Kelly recruit.
There is little hesitation in Winn’s game. He is a decisive runner who relies on his eyes to cut through defenses.
As a result, Winn was able to establish himself as the beast of the Big East last season, leading all rushers in terms of yardage and touchdowns.
In the Belk Bowl against the Duke Blue Devils on Dec. 27, 2012, Winn’s vision-first approach was on display.
Out of shotgun, Winn flanked quarterback Brendon Kay and was set to run through the weak-side B-gap.
Winn took the ball and kept his shoulders square to the line, which allowed him to diagnose the defense.
He saw four Blue Devils lurking at the line of scrimmage. He looked ahead and saw two linebackers and a safety lurking at the second level. He looked in his peripherals and saw the cornerbacks engaged on the outside.
Winn chose the outside and made a beeline for the gap. He cut through seven defenders on his way up the field.
He was eventually taken down by the eighth defender, who had to come from across the both sets of hashes to record the stop.
With Winn making the most of his blocks and the spread offense, the scamper that started at Cincinnati’s own 46 ended on Duke’s 31.
The East-West Woes
Winn is at his best when he’s running perpendicular to the line. When he’s running parallel to the line, he has a difficult time getting out of first gear.
In layman’s terms, he’s a downhill runner. He’s better off charging tacklers than dancing around them, waiting for a runway to open up.
Facing the University of South Florida on Nov. 23, 2012, this sentiment was apparent.
Winn aligned next to Kay facing the Bulls’ 4-3 front seven, which also had the weak-side linebacker cheating up to the edge.
Winn got the ball and proceed to run off-tackle to the near sideline. There just wasn’t any space for him to lower his shoulder once the defense caught up to his lateral movement.
Winn took too long to change field and got consumed by two USF tacklers in the flat. Consequently, he was pushed backwards.
Not only was Winn’s east-west carry short-lived, it also lost a handful of yards.
If Winn can stay north-south, then it usually works in the offense’s favor. Once his run-at-you style is taken away from him, though, he doesn’t have the lateral twitch to easily turn the corner.
Nevertheless, that doesn’t necessarily make him a one-dimensional player.
Winn caught 15 passes for 128 yards in 2012. In the three previous seasons, he caught a grand total of four passes. That stat line may give off the impression that he is a non-factor in the passing game, yet that’s actually a little shortsighted.
To give credit where it’s due, Winn is an asset when it comes to pass protection. He backed that up on Sept. 29, 2012 versus the Virginia Tech Hokies.
On a 3rd-and-long, Winn served as the key cog in preventing a sack, as Cincinnati went up against eight men in the box.
Off the snap, quarterback Munchie Legaux dropped back while Winn stepped up to disrupt the middle linebacker blitz.
Winn engaged with the linebacker, holding his ground and maintaining a well-anchored base. Despite being undersized in contrast with his counterpart, he still left his quarterback plenty of space to release to football.
Legaux targeted No. 7 — current Patriots wide receiver Kenbrell Thompkins — over the middle for a first down.
Winn’s ability to hold his own against a man of imposing stature helped his offense move the chains. In order to keep defenses honest, he’ll have to continue to do exactly that at the next level.
Winn may not have the size of your prototypical goal-line back, but he does have the leg drive. And more often than not, that leg drive doesn’t give up without a fight.
On Dec. 1, 2012 versus the University of Connecticut, Winn showcased that lower-body strength as the Bearcats neared the goal line.
Working out of “11” personnel, Kay took the snap from shotgun and planned to deliver the ball to his lone back. But with six Huskies crept up to the neutral zone, that plan lacked the element of surprise.
It didn’t matter.
Winn took the handoff from Kay and ran up the gut before veering through the C-gap. It looked fine in theory. The problem, however, was that a trio of UConn defenders were within shouting distance of the same gap. Another defender was nipping at his heels.
Winn’s early lane came to a close. He was hit both high and low by multiple tacklers, appearing to be halted after a gain of two yards.
No Cincinnati offensive lineman was in position to make an additional block. Winn was ahead of the pile and losing leverage.
Yet just as the play looked finished, Winn lowered his center of gravity and backpedaled.
He turned out of the wrap-up tackle, lunged forward and fell into the end zone for a touchdown.
The ability to keep your feet moving through contact is a vital trait for a running back. It can turn negative plays into positive ones; or in this case, two-yard gains into four-yard scores.
It’s about more than power or muscle.
It’s about effort.
For Winn, effort is everything. According to Jon Moore of RotoViz.com, he led all BCS conference backs in games with a rush of 18-plus yards last season. He did so without burner speed, elite change of direction or wrecking-ball type power.
If Winn flashes enough during training camp, he may just find a way to stick around Foxboro on the 53-man roster or the practice squad. But the sheer quantity of talent at the position — a group which accrued 2,022 rushing yards and 22 overall touchdowns last season — will make it very difficult to do so.
Regardless of what transpires between now and Sept. 1, there’s a lot to like about the hard runner from Southfield, Mich.
He’ll find a spot in this league, even if it’s not with the Patriots. And he’ll do so because he can get the most out of his ability.