By Adam Hensley
Akrum Wadley dazzled people while at Iowa, especially in his final two seasons in a Hawkeye uniform, side-stepping and high-stepping his way onto highlight reels.
Many believed the running back would fall somewhere in the first five or six rounds of the NFL Draft, but Wadley never heard his name called. Despite this, he has the best shot out of any of the undrafted Hawkeyes to stick around with an NFL squad.
Wadley racked up more than 1,000 yards in each of the last two seasons at Iowa while scoring 10 times on the ground and three times through the passing game in each season, so it’s not as if he doesn’t have a respectable body of work under his belt.
What Wadley has going for him is his elusiveness and productivity in the passing game. The NFL is a pass-first league, whether fans want to admit it or not, and Wadley’s playing style should easily mold well with just about any offensive system.
“Wadley is a bit one-dimensional given his small stature [5-10, 184 pounds] and underwhelming play between the tackles, but his potential as a pass-catcher is significant enough for him to make in impact early in his career,” wrote Pro Football Focus’ Austin Gayle.
DeMarco Murray used to be the No. 1 back in Tennessee, but he’s no longer with the Titans, opening the door for Derrick Henry and Dion Lewis … and Wadley.
The Titans split carries pretty evenly between Murray and Henry last year (184 to 176, respectively), and there’s no reason to believe Tennessee won’t elect to run a backfield-by-committee approach in 2018.
Many compared Wadley to Lewis was previously in New England — not an every-down back, but a guy who did his damage as a passing threat out of the backfield.
“The Tennessee Titans may already have their go-to third-down back in Dion Lewis, but Wadley can step in as a key depth piece behind Lewis, especially if he improves in pass protection and flashes his pass-catching talents in camp,” Gayle writes.
Looking at Tennessee’s running-back production in the passing game last year, Murray was the only rusher with more than 136 receiving yards (266 to be exact). Henry chipped in 11 catches for 136 yards, but that’s not his style of play; he’s a downhill, punishing runner who’s great between the tackles, as he demonstrated when he won the Heisman Trophy at Alabama.
But Henry is the only running back left on last year’s stat sheet who caught a pass. Granted, Lewis, who has caught at least 32 passes in two of the past three seasons, will fill an immediate void left by Murray, but there’s plenty of opportunities for Wadley to step in as a situational guy.
Tennessee hired offensive coordinator Matt LaFleur this offseason after he spent the previous season in charge of the same duties with the Los Angeles Rams.
LaFleur’s system specializes in targeting running backs in the passing game. Last season, Todd Gurley (the Rams’ starting running back) was targeted 87 times — second on the team. He led the team with 64 receptions and ranked second with 788 receiving yards.
Titan running backs caught 50 passes last season totaling 402 yards. Under LaFleur’s helm, Ram tailbacks caught 73 passes for 841 yards (with Gurley accumulating a bulk of that production, however).
That being said, 18 percent (or roughly one out of every five attempts) of the Rams’ passes targeted running backs, and tailbacks accounted for 22 percent of Los Angeles’ completions.
Granted, Wadley is not Gurley by any means, but entering a system proven to featuring backs in the passing game bodes well for Wadley and his hopes to stick with an NFL roster.