The 2014 rookie running back class is one of the weakest in years. Every back seems to have some good skills and some glaring holes in their game. Auburn’s lead back Tre Mason is no exception while he has a lot of wiggle; I have some serious doubts if he can be a starter at the next level. Now a potential wrist injury may even impact things to a greater degree. To get a better idea of the skills he can bring to the NFL, I reviewed four of his 2013 games against Florida State (national championship game), Alabama, Missouri, and Texas A&M. All of these opponents have plenty of NFL caliber defensive players, so his skill set will be easier to compare to NFL level talent.
At the Combine, Mason measured in at 5’ 8” 207 lbs. and ran a good 4.5 40 time, but looked dreadful in pass protection drills. I didn’t see an elite athlete who can make a huge difference in the NFL. He might be a volume back if he reaches his high upside. The son of one of the founding members of De La Soul looks more like a larger version of Atlanta Falcons Jacquizz Rodgers aka short with quick feet and hips but lacking the power to be an NFL starter. When you look at Rodger’s NFL production or lack thereof, you can tell that isn’t exactly a compliment.
The runner is very explosive as he starts and stops his feet quickly. There is a bounce to his step that he always seems to be hovering instead of planting his feet. The problem is that Mason doesn’t have a lot of leg power or strength, so he is stuck taking what the defense gives him, instead of moving the pile. This limits him as a goal line option, but he does get good leverage and can make himself small in the hole. He has a good forward lean and kept his feet chopping trying to find an opening. The back sometimes braces him with an outstretched hand to regain his balance. Despite this lack of power, he found his way into the end zone more often than not.
His excellent vision helps him find the best angles to take, along his fantastic jump cut, lets him get away from slower defenders with ease. Mason combines that quickness with a deadly shoulder shake/juke to freeze the defense in their tracks. It’s his lateral agility and balance that makes him hard to tackle as you must secure him around the waist; otherwise he might squirt right around or past you. He gets brought down quite often near pile of humanity when he doesn’t pick up his feet. Another issue that I have is his tendency to put his back to the defense and try to leg press his way to moving the pile forward. Rashard Mendenhall always tried that move and it did not work often. I have serious doubts that he will be able to take the pounding that an NFL starting back has to endure as he receives more punishment than he delivers.
Mason is a better outside runner as he can make people miss in the open field, but he doesn’t have the explosion to create huge chunks of yardage. Much like Rodgers, he might be a better returner than a running back. He runs a bit too high for my taste, but he may be able to be successful in a one-cut and read offense that would use his quickness as strength. If the young back is used on counters and sweeps with a zone blocking offensive line, he could be more effective than his skill set. He has a good spin move that he uses with his stutter step that makes him more slippery than he really is. The majority of the time, Mason lowers his shoulder, gets low, and keeps moving forward with sheer determination.
I see Mason as more of a change of pace back than a starter, but that has some major flaws. The runner would simply get in the way of defenders when he was trying to pass block. He did not step up and got knocked back or off-balance. Pass protection seemed to be a foreign language to him. He also catches the ball too much with his body, which hurts him as a third down back. When any other offensive player has the ball, Mason looks lost on what to do next. He needs to be more aggressive and try to block defenders, creating space for his teammates.
I have Mason just inside my top ten running backs, but I have seen him ranked higher. There is nothing that jumps out at me as special with him. A team that uses multiple running backs may be able to get the most out of him, but he will need to make drastic improvements in the passing game to become more than a two down back. Location will decide more of his value than anything else I’m afraid.
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