In its 80-year history, the Heisman Trophy Award has offered mixed signals in terms of success at the NFL level.
Of the three Heisman finalists this season, winner Derrick Henry will certainly have some NFL buzz in 2016. However, with his size, there are some limitations which have to be acknowledged. Henry has excellent burst into and through gaps. Where he runs into trouble is when he must make lateral movements and display an extra degree of shiftiness.
Henry has the look of a quicker Brandon Jacobs. While that is nothing to sneeze at, as Jacobs had a strong NFL career, it does not quite fit the value of a top pick at the running back position. Henry has the chance to be an over-slotted pick, but it is difficult to say he will be a Trent Richardson-esque bust.
On the other hand, Ezekiel Elliott finished below the Heisman finalists. While he criticized his coaches, Elliott responded the right way to that episode. He is a perfect match of size, speed and agility. He should be the top running back taken in this coming draft.
The other two finalists, Deshaun Watson and Christian McCaffrey, have another year of eligibility to improve their draft stock for the 2017 or even 2018 selections.
Watson is an interesting case. He has the athleticism to move around and make plays; you just don’t want him to take too many hits at the next level. That makes those tools a bit of a moot point. To have success in the NFL, a quarterback must be able to make throws in the pocket. Like most college quarterbacks these days, Watson takes most of his snaps out of the shotgun. With limited size at 6-foot-2 and 210 pounds, he must become particularly resourceful in order to make it in the pros.
Watson has a solid deep ball. He has the touch and places the ball well, which puts him on anybody’s radar. Watson may be the top quarterback prospect next season, but he must show scouts he can compensate for a relative lack of size. While Watson puts nice touch on the ball deep down the sidelines, more timing routes and out routes along the sideline will determine his success at the next level. More of these throws and routes are necessary before projecting his probable level of success in the pros. Showcasing more pocket presence (like Cal’s Jared Goff) will also help make Watson an elite pro prospect.
McCaffrey was a do-everything back in 2015, earning him the trip to New York. While he has time to grow into his frame a little more, McCaffrey is smaller in stature, which never bodes well for an NFL running back.
While he may have some limitations, there are no questions about the explosiveness of McCaffrey. In 2015, he showed the ability to score from anywhere in any way. Any running back who attacks Barry Sanders’ records is certainly doing something right. The ability to receive out of the backfield is a necessary tool at the next level.
Dalvin Cook also finished toward the lower end of the top 10 in the Heisman voting, but his vision stands out to me. He also has the elusiveness to match, making him a better pro prospect than McCaffrey, despite having a similar level of size.
Over the past 20 years, the Heisman Trophy has been won by players such as Eddie George, Carson Palmer, Charles Woodson, and Cam Newton. However, it was also won by Troy Smith, Matt Leinart, Jason White, Eric Crouch, Chris Weinke, and Danny Wuerffel.
There is no guarantee that some players will easily slide from the college game into the pro game. Even if they are legendary players in the FBS, the NFL is very stubborn with systems and egos. Pro ball is an unwelcoming place if you do not fit a team’s system.
This is more so proof of the troubles quarterbacks have had in making the transition from college to the pros. The Heisman Trophy has been friendly to quarterbacks who play in a spread offense or run for a bunch of yards. Neither is a fit for sustained success in the NFL. Enter Tim Tebow and Robert Griffin III. Tebow never had the mechanics or the skill set to succeed at the next level, and his inability to adapt ended his career early. Griffin was much of the same. He used his athleticism to succeed in his first season, but took too many hits to stay on the field and ultimately lost his job.
Running backs are a different tale for the Heisman, a mostly a quarterback- and tailback-oriented award. The honor generally goes to large, workhorse backs or small, shifty, and quick tailbacks. While the smaller backs can become third-down backs in the pros, the larger backs have enough to take the pounding in the NFL as every down backs. However, you can also run into the issue Ron Dayne faced. He was large enough, but he just did not have the shiftiness. This is similar to Henry, but the most recent winner does have a few more tools. McCaffrey is the closest to a third-down back right now.
Mark Ingram is an example of a back which can succeed in the league after starring in college, while Reggie Bush put a ceiling on shifty backs (whether he is a recognized winner or not).
Does the Heisman Trophy translate into professional prosperity and sustained brilliance?
It’s all in the details.