While this year’s running back class is headlined by Ezekiel Elliott and Derrick Henry, there are plenty of other backs who can contribute and find a role in the NFL. One of those is UCLA running back Paul Perkins. He isn’t the biggest at just 5 feet 10, 208 pounds; nor is he the fastest, having run a 4.54-second 40-yard dash at the combine. However, he is an incredibly elusive back who excels making numerous cuts thanks to his vision and quick feet. It only takes a few minutes of watching him before you come across a spectacular cut or series of cuts.
This is a power run to the right. UCLA pulls the left tackle, but he doesn’t wrap around the right guard to pick up the linebacker properly. That leaves the linebacker unblocked in the hole. Perkins spots him early. He cuts inside to get the linebacker moving his feet and shifting his weight inside. Perkins then quickly cuts a second time, this time back to the edge. The linebacker is left on the ground, stunned by the quick cut. But the run isn’t over there.
Perkins attempts to bounce his run outside, but his right tackle can’t contain the block. That forces Perkins to cut back inside and over the line of scrimmage. Once he makes his cut, he gets vertical, until the deep safety attempts to make a tackle. Perkins makes another fantastic lateral cut to dodge the safety before making one final cut to elude a corner diving at his feet. The play should have been a tackle for loss, but Perkins has the ability to make multiple defenders miss and turned the play into a big gain.
What’s more impressive is his patience. Many backs with elusiveness similar to Perkins often get carried away with trying to do too much, believing they can make every defender miss. But what Perkins does well is set up blockers and wait for blocks to develop.
Here we have another power run by UCLA, this time pulling the right tackle. As Perkins approaches the line of scrimmage, he remains patient behind the pulling tackle. He cleverly takes a step towards the inside. That draws the linebacker inside and allows the tackle to seal him off inside when Perkins bounces his run outside. The step inside also forces the other linebacker, who is unblocked at this point, to stop his feet. As Perkins reaches the second level, the linebacker has to get his feet going again and is slow to get across to make the tackle. He manages to get an arm on Perkins, but not much more. Perkins slips through the tackle attempt on his way to a touchdown.
Patience and ability to set up blocks isn’t something typically seen in younger backs. It’s a trait that normally comes with maturity. Perkins is ahead of the curve in that regard, which is a positive sign for him.
Perkins is someone who will have to find a role with a team. He doesn’t look to me like a workhorse back that you let carry the ball 25 times a game. He’s more of a change-of-pace guy, suitable for the third-down-back role. He has good hands and can be a threat out of the backfield and in the screen game and on checkdowns in the flat. UCLA tried to have him run wheel routes, but he doesn’t possess the breakaway speed required to really separate on those types of routes. He’s more effective on short passes that get the ball in his hands early and allow him to try to make people miss.
But Perkins’s effectiveness in the NFL might come down to his ability to pass protect. Third-down backs have to be willing and able to diagnose and block extra blitzers in key third-down situations. In college, Perkins displayed the willingness to make a block, but was inconsistent in containing them.
On this play, USC sends a big blitz at UCLA on third and long. The offensive line slides to the left, leaving the right tackle to block two defenders. Perkins is smart enough to spot the threat and works quickly over from his position to pick up a blitzer. Perkins squares up the blitzer and stays low. He gets knocked back and loses leverage, but maintains the block long enough to allow the quarterback to step up and deliver the throw.
The willingness to be physical and the intelligence to read and recognize the blitz is clear to see from Perkins. The problem is that he might not be strong enough to hold up consistently in the NFL. He managed to maintain the block long enough on that play, but against Stanford, he struggled.
Here, Stanford sends the slot corner on a blitz. Perkins does a good job spotting the blitz and getting in position to pick it up. However, he gives up leverage with his hands, allowing the defender to get his hands inside on his chest. All it takes is that quick punch, which knocks Perkins back and opens up the inside for the defender to burst through. The quarterback does an excellent job reacting to the pressure and scrambling to avoid the sack and bail out Perkins.
Later on in the same quarter, Perkins surrendered another pressure.
This time Perkins is given a bigger defender to block. The line slides away from him, leaving Perkins on an island on his own against the defender. Perkins makes the mistake of lunging at the defender, who simply clubs his hands away and skips past him with a swim move. The quarterback once again bails out Perkins by scrambling to avoid the sack.
How he develops as a pass protector will likely determine how much of an impact Perkins can have, especially early in his career. Washington had a similar situation with Chris Thompson when it drafted him in the fifth round in 2013. Thompson is smaller than Perkins, but has developed into a strong and trusted pass protector. That has given him the right to be on the field on third downs and stay on the field in passing situations.
Perkins looks like a third- or fourth-round pick to me, with the ability to create something out of nothing and an advanced understanding of how to use and set up blocks. But without exceptional speed or strength, he’ll be limited to a backup role that will require him to develop as a pass protector if he is to see the field.
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