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LJ Scott’s Low Risk, High Reward NFL Future

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Michigan State’s junior running back is headed for the NFL and has the opportunity to make some team look very smart.

NCAA Football: Utah State at Michigan State Mike Carter-USA TODAY Sports

As recently as 15 years ago, LJ Scott’s decision to leave the Michigan State Spartans for the NFL with a possible year of eligibility remaining would have looked extremely risky. The senior has barely played this season and looked less then effective while on the field.

But in today’s NFL, Scott has the chance to make some NFL executive look like a mid-round draft genius.

Scott, who declared for the NFL Draft earlier this week, exploded onto the scene as a freshman in 2015. In the middle of a busy backfield rotation, Scott made one of the biggest plays in MSU history, fighting his way across the goal line in the 2015 Big Ten Championship Game. Since then, the expectations have been high, but the production has been inconsistent.

In his sophomore campaign, Scott nearly ran for 1000 yards in the relative ambiguity of a 3-9 season, leaving most analysts thinking “if only he was on a good team!” However, the following year as the Spartans rebounded, Scott’s progress went stagnant. His stats looked similar on paper, but Scott fumbled the ball a career high five times in 2017.

An injury-plagued 2018 has given Scott the opportunity to return for a redshirt-senior season, and after two relatively down seasons, that may make sense. But Scott’s decision to jump to the NFL was the right one, and one that may pay off if he can prove himself.

In an ever-evolving draft class, Scott isn’t expected to be one of the top running backs available. He does, however, offer NFL skills that are sure to go noticed in the draft process and earn him a selection. When he is drafted, likely somewhere in the third-to-sixth round, Scott is going to join a team as a low-risk option. On average, players picked in the fourth round or later aren’t expected to stay in the league for more than a few years. Meaning not even the general managers who select them have too high of expectations.

However, Scott is in a unique position. Early in the season, the biggest knock on the running back was his inability to create explosive plays. But as the season has gone on, that blame clearly shifted from Scott to the MSU offensive line. The senior was the only Spartans back who found any success at all running between the tackles, and a look back at some of those runs shows just how hard he had to fight to get any yards at all. Assuming a healthy ankle, the worst offensive line in the NFL can still create better push for Scott than what he was seeing this season, and as he proved in 2016, it doesn’t take much space for Scott to make a play.

The biggest, and very real, concern with Scott is his propensity to fumble the ball. There is little-to-no room for error on an NFL roster for running backs who fumble, and a mid-round draft pick who can’t hang on to the ball is a combination that almost always ends with a pink-slip. Because of the smaller sample-size, it’s impossible to tell if Scott’s 2017 fumbling issue has been fixed.

Scott’s attractiveness to an NFL team is clear in today’s league. Gone (for the most part) are the days of a bell cow running back. With the exception of only the best backs in the league, nearly every team relies on at least two different players. As the best offenses in the NFL have proven, running between the tackles is still important, and there is no doubt in Scott’s ability to hit a hole with explosiveness.

Similar in size to Chicago Bears running back Jordan Howard, Scott can easily be seen filling the role of a team’s down-hill runner while someone else acts as the swing-back, speedster. Scott’s ankle injury is the first serious one of his career. He’s played against plenty of strong defenses, focusing in on stopping him. The guy can take a hit and keep rumbling, and has plenty of skill to make a defender miss in a phone booth.

Scott still has plenty to prove, and it all starts with the Michigan State bowl game. While many (correctly) chose to forego their team’s bowl game for draft preparation, Scott can use the bigger stage to put on another show. Follow that with strong pro-days, and Scott could find himself in a good draft position.

For a number of reasons, Scott’s college career fell short of what many had hoped. But his NFL career is still as promising as ever. As long as he keeps fighting for that last yard.