People knew that running back Kenneth Walker III was good when he transferred from Wake Forest to Michigan State after the 2020 season. What people didn’t know was just how brightly he would burst onto the national stage over the course of the 2021 season.
There’s some disagreement over who the top running back in the 2022 NFL Draft is, but there’s no argument that Walker needs to be in every conversation over which runner should be considered tops. Walker brings good size, great vision and athleticism, and Pro Bowl upside in the right system.
It’s no wonder that the New York Giants have been paying attention. The Giants might not be able to spend a high pick on a running back, but they could be looking for a long-term answer at the position, and Walker certainly has the potential to be that.
Prospect: Kenneth Walker III (9)
Games Watched: vs. Northwestern (2021), vs. Miami (2021), vs. Rutgers (2021), vs. Michigan (2021)
Games Played: 32
Yards (YPC): 2,794 (5.8 per carry)
Yards (YPC): 136 (7.2 per catch)
Total Touchdowns (rushing/receiving): 36 (35 rushing, 1 receiving)
Games Played: 12
Yards (YPC): 1,636 (6.2 per carry)
Yards (YPC): 89 (6.8 per catch)
Total Touchdowns (rushing/receiving): 19 (18 rushing, 1 receiving)
Best: Athleticism, vision, contact balance
Worst: Pass protection, receiving
Projection: A starting running back with Pro Bowl upside in a zone blocking scheme.
Michigan State running back Kenneth Walker III has a great combination of athleticism, vision, and contact balance to play the position at the NFL level.
Walker has a diverse set of experiences in Michigan State’s offense. He aligned beside the quarterback in Michigan State’s Shotgun set, behind the quarterback in “i” formations, and even behind center as a Wildcat quarterback on occasion. He has run out of Man-Gap schemes, outside zone schemes, and inside zone schemes.
Walker runs with great tempo in the backfield. He plays with plenty of patience, giving his linemen time to establish their blocks, while also varying his stride tempo to throw off defenders’ timing. Walker has great vision as a runner, picking out running lanes, cutback lanes, and anticipating defenders at the second level. His patience gives him plenty of time behind the line of scrimmage to read the defense and pick out his path before he commits.
Walker typically runs with a short stride length, but very high stride frequency. That gives him good speed while also having great contact balance and change of direction skills. Walker almost always has a foot on the ground and has great stop-start quickness, allowing him to change directions on a dime. All together, Walker has a rare combination of size, speed, and quickness to go with his field vision.
He uses his vision well to pick out running and cut-back lanes in zone blocking schemes. Walker has plenty of speed to gain the edge in off-tackle and outside zone runs. Likewise, he has great burst out of his cuts to create separation from defenders out of his cuts and run away from them in the open field. Walker runs with good aggression in man-gap schemes, pressing the line of scrimmage and consistently looking to finish behind his pads.
Walker is an unknown quantity as a receiving threat. He only caught six passes in two years at Wake Forest and thirteen passes last year at Michigan State. Walker runs a very limited route tree and his ability to run a full NFL route tree is unknown at this point. Likewise, he appears to be a “hands” catcher who presents a good target for his quarterback, but that is a very limited sample size and we don’t know how consistent he is as a receiver.
Walker also needs to play with more aggression as a pass protector. He understands his assignments but doesn’t come up to meet defenders with force. Rather than striking defenders and using his leverage and size to his advantage, Walker appears to try and “catch” defenders.
Walker is very difficult to bring down in the open field but appears relatively easy to bring down behind the line of scrimmage. He can get caught trying to do too much in the backfield, stringing moves together to try and break a big run as opposed to picking up what he can.
Overall Grade: 7.7
Kenneth Walker projects as a starting, every down running back at the NFL level. He has the versatility to play out of any blocking and offensive scheme.
That said, Walker’s skill set would likely be used to the greatest effect by a team that makes heavy use of zone blocking schemes. Zone schemes allow Walker to make full use of his great field vision, agility, and burst. Walker’s vision allows him to easily pick out running lanes, while his stop-start quickness, agility, contact balance, and burst allow him to make defenders miss in a phonebooth.
Walker is legitimately tough for lone defenders to bring down, particularly in the open field, and he has the athleticism to turn a missed or broken tackle into a touchdown. Of course, he has a tendency to trust his athleticism a bit too much. That can get him in trouble against penetrating defenses, but it paid off more often than not at the collegiate level.
Walker’s lack of experience as a pass catcher is a concern, but he has shown enough to suggest that it is an area of his game that can be coached up. He does show good hands in his small sample size, which could give teams confidence that his skills can be expanded upon. Of greater concern is Walker’s pass protection. He doesn’t show the same toughness and aggression as a blocker as he does as a runner. Walker is willing to take on contact with the ball in his hands, but seems to prefer to wait for defenders to come to him as a blocker. He has the traits to justify being on the field for every down and distance, he just needs to unlock them in the passing game.
Teams will have to square Walker’s potential limitations in the passing game with his proven upside as a runner. He has the traits to be a Pro Bowl runner if teams can develop Walker in the passing game enough to get him on the field consistently.