Despite a productive career to this point, Royce Freeman decided to return to Oregon for his senior season. Some thought Freeman didn’t like the grade that he received from the NFL Draft advisory board, but according to Freeman, it’s more about getting his degree and continuing his development under new Head Coach Willie Taggart.
Freeman put together a phenomenal freshman season and backed it up with an even better sophomore campaign. After compiling over 3,700 total yards and 38 touchdowns in two seasons, Freeman had huge expectations entering his junior season. The general belief was that Freeman would compete with Christian McCaffrey for the title of the Pac-12’s best running back. Ankle and knee injuries early in the season set an entirely different tone.
After just 11 carries versus UC Davis in the 2016 opener, Freeman torched Virginia for 207 yards the following week. Then, after suffering an injury against Nebraska, his season started going off the rails. He battled injuries for the next six games before finishing the season with three straight 100-yard rushing performances. Entering the 2017 season, Freeman already owns Oregon’s single-season record for rushing yards. With 938 yards and 10 touchdowns, he’ll own the school record in both of those categories as well.
Freeman is one of those prospects that people either love or hate without much of a middle ground. Let’s take a look at where he excels and what he can work in his senior season at Oregon.
– NFL body
– Receiving ability
– Forces missed tackles
Freeman, at 6′ and 230 pounds, has an NFL body as well as several other desirable traits. His two biggest strengths are his vision and footwork. These two traits are what save him as a runner. Behind the line of scrimmage, he uses his feet to buy time for his blockers to get in position and to set up outside runs. He’ll change his stride as needed in order to allow a crease to open. He has a nice jab step that he uses to force defenders to commit one direction before he goes another. On this 4th down and 1 run against Washington State Freeman uses his jab step to force the safety (#18) to commit to a run up the middle before Freeman bounces it through a huge hole on the right side of the line.
He has a thick trunk and a nice combination of strength and flexibility in his lower body. He combines both on this goal line run against TCU.
As you can see here against Stanford, Freeman makes the most of his excellent balance. In the open field, his balance allows him to run through tackle after tackle while keeping his feet.
All of these traits combined make Freeman a nightmare for would-be tacklers both in close quarters and in the open field. He isn’t the type of back you think of when you hear the word elusive, but that’s exactly what he is. With power, balance and quick decision making, he rarely loses one-on-one situations in the open field. According to Pro Football Focus, Freeman was college football’s third most elusive running back in 2015. He ranked third in broken tackles and yards after contact. He led the NCAA with 36 breakaway runs (runs of 15 yards or more).
With 65 catches in 39 career games, Freeman is also someone who demands your attention in Oregon’s passing game. Over the past three seasons, he’s run a variety of routes out of the backfield, the slot and even split out wide. He has shown the ability to get behind the defense on go and wheel routes. He has great hands and rarely drops a pass. Dropped passes aren’t an official stat, but according to the work of PFF, Freeman had 42 receptions and only two drops through his first two seasons. His catch-and-run ability adds another dimension to Oregon’s offense in the red zone.
As a blocker, Freeman is reliable whether protecting the quarterback or leading the way for another ball carrier. He’s not perfect and there’s still room to improve, but he’s shown some effectiveness and more importantly, the mentality and that’s what I want to see. If a running back has the physical mindset to take on pass rushers and protect his quarterback then the scheme and nuances that go along with it can be taught.
– Lacks sustained burst
– Lacks explosiveness
– Lacks long speed, no extra gear
Freeman biggest weaknesses are pretty straightforward. He’s not an explosive runner. With that comes a lack of sustained burst, lack of breakaway speed and no extra gear in the open field. Although he’s not fast by Oregon running back standards, he does have decent speed for his size. However, more often that not, he’s hawked down from behind, even by defenders with bad angles. To be clear, he’s not out there running the same speed all the time. He has an initial burst and it shows up most often after catching a pass. Remember the NCAA-best 36 runs of 15 yards or more in 2015, they usually ended like this run versus USC.
If you are looking for a running back with a fast 40-yard dash time, then Royce Freeman is not for you. If you prefer a productive running back who isn’t guilty of any one glaring negative that will keep them off the field, then Freeman is your guy. While a lack of explosiveness is concerning when projecting a running back, there will be more than a few NFL teams who believe his positives outweigh his negatives and will translate to the NFL.
Freeman has been good in space at Oregon, but that’s not his ticket. Ultimately, his NFL success depends on his landing spot. Let’s pretend for a minute that a room full of people smarter than you and I will match Freeman’s strengths with the strength of their offensive scheme. When that happens, those of us with Freeman shares on our Devy taxi squads will feel rewarded.
I’ll leave you with one run that almost perfectly sums up Freeman’s game. He shows off his vision, footwork, decisiveness, balance, and ability to break tackles. You’ll also notice the absence of explosiveness and an extra gear once he hits the open field.