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The NFL's '5-tool' players

They're an offensive coordinator's best friend, and a defensive coordinator's worst nightmare. Speedy, versatile players like Jamaal Charles, Darren Sproles and Golden Tate are changing the game.

Chris Graythen

In baseball, the "five-tool player" is someone who can hit for average and power, has speed on the bases, and can throw and field at his position. In football, that expression doesn't translate. The closest thing is a guy that can rush the football, catch it after running a crisp route, block, return punts and kicks, and break tackles. NFL players are a gifted athletes by nature, but the ones that separate themselves have all that kind of "five-tool" talent.

Three NFL teams, the Chiefs, Seahawks and Saints, all have their own "five-tool" offensive weapons, Jamaal Charles, Golden Tate and Darren Sproles. All three teams feature those players in their game-plans.

Sproles, Charles, Tate, C.J. Spiller, LeSean McCoy, Randall Cobb, Shane Vereen, Percy Harvin and rookies like Tavon Austin, Giovani Bernard, Andre Ellington, etc. are finding themselves more valuable to offensive coordinators that have to deal with increasingly complex, innovative and versatile defenses. The ability to move players around formations and use them in multiple roles helps teams become more multiple in their attacks and more difficult to defend.

Let's take a look at a few examples from Week 3 to see how offensive coordinators use their "five-tool" players.

Jamaal Charles

20 rushes for 92 yards and touchdown, 7 receptions for 80 yards - 172 all purpose yards.

Charles, 26, has already played six seasons in the NFL, but he shows no signs of slowing down. He's technically a running back, taking most of his snaps in the backfield, but has a penchant for playmaking in the pass game with his open field running ability.

Last week, in Kansas City's win over Philadelphia, Andy Reid and company rode Charles as he carried them for 172 all-purpose yards, 92 yards and a touchdown on the ground, plus seven catches for another 80 yards. If you go back and re-watch the game, Charles makes it look easy.

1-10-50 (:42 1st Quarter) (Shotgun) A.Smith pass short right to J.Charles to PHI 37 for 13 yards (E.Wolff).

Late in the first, Andy Reid's Chiefs dial up a screen pass on first down. They go with a trips formation to the left with a lone receiver to the right, and the Eagles respond with a nickel zone look. In this case, with five defensive backs dropping into their respective zones on the perimeter, the two remaining linebackers have the underneath middle to cover. This leaves Charles a lot of room -- and once he makes the catch he breaks two tackles, bowls over a defender, and is finally brought down. Not bad for a first down at the 50.


This next play, late in the 2nd quarter, ended up having no outcome on the game, but is a great example of Charles' open field decision making, smooth gait, and outright speed.

1-10-KC 33 (:56 2nd Quarter) (Shotgun) A.Smith pass short left to J.Charles pushed ob at PHI 48 for 19 yards (C.Williams).

The play design is simple yet effective -- the Eagles are playing their linebackers deep here, anticipating some longer passes as the time in the half dwindles down to under a minute. With the amount of room in the short-to-intermediate zone, a screen pass is a smart thing to dial up. Naturally, Charles gets more than you'd expect.


With the help of a few key blocks up front, Charles gains 19 yards on first down to push the Chiefs past midfield. He also has the piece of mind to get out of bounds and avoid any big hits.

Speaking of big hits, as an NFL running back, you can expect to take hits anywhere from 10-25 times a game. This is why you don't see many 'bell-cow' backs with the speed and explosiveness as Charles. For whatever reason -- innate talent, vision, agility, strength -- Charles does a great job of managing to avoid taking devastating hits, and can handle the load of carrying it 20 times a game and catching seven passes, like he did on Sunday.

Bottom line: Charles can do it all, and any time he touches the football he has the potential to break a big gain.

Golden Tate

5 receptions for 88 yards, 2 rushes for 29 yards, 4 punt returns for 33 yards - 150 all purpose yards

Golden Tate is different than Jamaal Charles in a number of ways -- Charles is probably faster and they play different positions, so they're asked to do different things because of this -- but they both share the ability to break tackles. In fact, per Football Outsiders, no one player in the NFL broke more tackles per touch than Golden Tate.

Seattle apparently noticed this as well, because they put him in a position to do just that on Sunday, and the former Notre Dame star racked up 150 all-purpose yards through the air, on the ground, and in the return game.

They got him started early with a screen play to the left.

1-10-SEA 29 (11:31 1st Quarter) G.Tate left end to SEA 49 for 20 yards (J.Evans).

You can see that Seattle is in a two tight end set to the wide side of the field. After motioning Tate to that side, Zach Miller and Luke Willson lead block on the little tunnel screen. The Jaguars' Allen Russell (#50) has a bead on Tate but as Golden is known to do, he shrugs off the tackle attempt and picks up an additional 15 yards or so.


Later that quarter, Tate gets the call again, but this time the Hawks use a little misdirection with an end-around reverse.

1-10-JAX 40 (2:22 1st Quarter) G.Tate left end to JAX 31 for 9 yards (R.Allen).

Similarly, Jacksonville linebacker Geno Hayes has a bead on the runner in the backfield, but Tate -- the former high school running back that still runs like it -- gets around him.


Now, the thing that sets Golden Tate apart from other strong running receivers is his ability to run deep routes and high point the football.

3-10-JAX 24 (15:00 2nd Q) (Shotgun) R.Wilson pass deep left to G.Tate ran ob at JAX 4 for 20 yards

Below, Tate runs a little out route against a cover-2 look, Russell Wilson feeds him, and Tate taps his feet in bounds.


One of the reasons I like Tate, apart from being a homer Seahawks fan, is that he can also play the role as a deep threat, can win on one-on-one on the outside, and is brilliant at high-pointing the football and coming down with big catches.


"Strong hands," as they say in the scouting community.

It's worth noting, since we're talking about "five-tool" guys, that Golden Tate is a very good blocking receiver downfield, and just speaking anecdotally, I can remember multiple occasions where he sprung Marshawn Lynch for big gains and touchdowns by setting key blocks downfield.

Darren Sproles

3 rushes for 17 yards, 4 receptions for 39 yards, 3 punt returns for 53 yards, 109 all purpose yards

How can you not like Darren Sproles? He's a little ball of explosiveness. Sproles' game has been well documented in many places and he's been giving defensive coordinators headaches for years, but his presence was fel throughout New Orleans' win over the Cardinals last week.

It started early, five-and-a-half minutes left in the first quarter, when the Saints came out in a formation with Sproles all the way out on the wing, Robert Meachem in the slot, and Jimmy Graham flanking him on the inside.

2-16-ARZ 27 (5:34 1st Quarter) (Shotgun) D.Brees pass deep right to R.Meachem for 27 yards, TOUCHDOWN. Pass 26, YAC 1

Sproles runs what looks to be a nice screen pass setup, and no less than three Cardinal defenders bite on the fake. Jerraud Powers and Tyrann Mathieu, both on the outside, step forward to blow up what would have been a hard play to defend in the first place, giving the ball to Sproles in space, but Brees pump fakes and lofts a beautifully thrown pass to the corner for a touchdown.


2-4-NO 18 (2:35 1st Quarter) (Shotgun) D.Brees pass short right to D.Sproles to NO 29 for 11 yards (J.Powers) [D.Dockett]. Pass 2, YAC 9

As I said, even a short pass to Sproles, when he has some room to move, can be dangerous. Below, Sproles runs a route from the slot -- remember, he's technically a running back -- and picks up 11 yards in what looks like a relatively easy fashion.


Tackling Sproles must really suck.

4-18-ARZ 35 (5:24 2nd Quarter) D.Zastudil punts 51 yards to NO 14, Center-M.Leach. D.Sproles to NO 42 for 28 yards (J.Brinkley).

I haven't really mentioned the return game yet, so here you go. With 5:24 left in the 2nd quarter and the game still tied, Sproles breaks one, picking up 28 yards and giving the Saints good field position. They'd go on to score, and they never looked back. Just to show you how complete of a player Sproles is, let's look at what he did to help out on that drive.

Obviously, first, he got them field position.


He caught a pass out of the backfield (as opposed to from the slot) and picked up 8.

1-10-NO 42 (5:08 2nd Quarter) (Shotgun) D.Brees pass short right to D.Sproles to 50 for 8 yards (Y.Bell). Pass 5, YAC 3


Later that drive, he laid a key blitz-pickup block -- remember, "five-tool" -- that allowed Drew Brees to make this pass to Jimmy Graham.

2-10-ARZ 16 (2:56 2nd Quarter) (Shotgun) D.Brees pass deep left to J.Graham for 16 yards, TOUCHDOWN. Pass 16, YAC 0

This is why Sproles gets so many snaps, even when sharing the backfield with Pierre Thomas and Mark Ingram.


Oh, right, he's a running back. I almost forgot, so it's worth showing that he can also run the ball.

2-10-NO 32 (14:22 3rd Quarter) D.Sproles right end to NO 47 for 15 yards (J.Abraham).


Sproles' explosive speed allows this play to work, as he gets lateral quickly, then moves downfield with some nice blocking in front of him.

There you have it. This list of "five-tool" players is certainly not exhaustive nor is it official. But these three helped their teams in Week 3 in a variety of manners. Their versatility will continue to give opposing coordinators headaches.

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