From the Trenches
By Matt and Mike Vahey – Optimum Scouting
The first article in our ongoing series highlighted our take on Offensive Line and the traits we value for that position. Next up From the Trenches, we will be discussing the evaluation process of running backs; once again from the perspective of ex-offensive lineman. For running backs, there are a few traits and skill sets that really set the good backs from the not so good, and we’ll outline those traits below.
When evaluating running backs, just like any other position, you need to have a certain set of skills that will standout on film where an evaluator can say “he can play in the NFL or not.” So when we watch the running backs, what we look for are the following: decisiveness/vision, explosion (acceleration), agility, and (one we highly tout) toughness. While there are other skills, such as speed (we’ll touch on that later), durability, ball handling, etc…, we feel that these are the skills that every good running back must have to succeed at the next level.
This might be the easiest skill set for us to evaluate for running backs. Offensive linemen know the running schemes just as well as the running backs. When breaking down film, we can very well judge a back’s ability to see the field and then make the split second decision needed to create a successful play. A great example would be in a zone blocking scheme; it’s very clear on the tape when a running back will press the line and wait until they see a seam to run. What we look for, is a back’s ability to dissect what’s going on in front of him and make a play based off what he sees. For example, as they press the line, we want to be able to see if a back can correctly determine if a cutting lane is open or if they can stretch a run to the edge based on how blocks are unfolding in front of him. We don’t just want to see a guy sprint to the edge because he has speed, we want them to make smart decisions based on what unfolds.
Decisiveness and vision are two of the most important traits a running back must have. The split second decisions and ability to see the field give a back an advantage and gives an offense more flexibility in terms of what they can run, which in turn takes pressure off quarterbacks.
This isn’t to be confused with overall speed. Too many times scouts will get caught up in a player’s 40 time and get blown away. When we talk explosion/acceleration, we’re talking about a backs ability to see a hole and accelerate through it. A player may not have the fastest out-right 40 time, but if they have the ability to explode through a hole at full speed then they can be successful. A great example of acceleration is Adrian Peterson, again we do not confuse ACCELERATION for SPEED. When you put on his fill you will see him combine his vision to quickly identify the hole and then accelerate quickly to full speed through the hole. While this is not to say speed isn’t crucial, but for every Jamaal Charles there are a countless Darren McFadden’s.
This is where the truly great backs can separate themselves from the pack. As a running back, your primary duty isn’t always going to be getting to the edge on a stretch run, typically you’re going to be called upon to run between the tackles and this is where a player’s agility shines. The ability to quickly change direction to make defenders miss is a trait that is truly “unquantifiable”. The best example of this in today’s NFL would be Le’Sean McCoy of two seasons ago. His ability to change directions quickly while staying balanced and make defenders miss at full speed is unmatched when he is healthy.
This trait, as former offensive linemen, we respect the most out of potential NFL running backs. While a bit vague, we can some it up for everyone in the following manner. We evaluate toughness as: dropping one’s head for extra yards, the willingness to keep attacking a defense play after play, sticking their neck out for quarterbacks in pass protection, and a willingness to run between the tackles. These are just a few indications of toughness, but ones that we value most.
The reason we value toughness? It shows a grinder mentality, a player who is more about the greater good of the team than their individual success, and this is something that offensive lineman can truly get behind. We point to Eddie Lacy as the prime example of toughness. He’s a player who dishes out punishment as well as any back in the league, breaking tackles and showing a grit that his teammates truly value.