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NFL Draft 2014: What do you watch when evaluating running backs?

What kind of things will teams be looking for among the prospects in this year's draft? Danny Kelly walks us through the traits scouts look for when evaluating running backs.

Over the past couple of weeks, I've researched and broken down some of the scouting methodologies that NFL teams use, I've explained how each combine drill translates to the field and I've illustrated some of the terms player reports commonly feature. These segue nicely into my current series breaking down the attributes, tools and skill sets that scouts look for in NFL Draft prospects when evaluating their play in games.

As I said last week when talking receivers, combine workouts and measureables are excellent benchmarks for athleticism, and at this time of year they're always at the front of our minds. Still, breaking down tape is the absolute best way to evaluate individual players. It's a complex and highly varied process across scouting departments league-wide, but the evaluation of game film can be boiled down to a simple question, whether you're a personnel exec, a pro scout, a pro draft analyst or an amateur fan at home:

What do you look for?

Running backs

While the market speaks loudest, I still believe that there's great value in an elite-level lead running back, and you can look to the Eagles, Vikings, Seahawks, 49ers, Chiefs, Redskins and Bears, among others, as examples of this school of thought. That said, 2013 marked the first year since 1964 that a running back was not selected in the first round of the NFL Draft and 2014's draft might make it two years in a row.

Due to a litany of factors -- prevalence of injuries, increase in the passing game, surplus of talent, the use of backfield committees and mediocre results from first-round picks -- the value of running backs has plummeted. Instead of concentrating on finding and investing money and draft capital into a "lead, bell-cow back," a guy who can take 15-18 carries a game, teams have looked to build a backfield with multiple players suited for the different required jobs.

The "change-of-pace back," the "scat back," the "third-down back," the "short-yardage back," ... there are many roles in modern offenses. As I stated for the wide receivers group, I'll avoid getting too specific within each subgroup of the position, and try to simply list off the variables that scouts look for overall.

I'll start with a factor that is rarely overlooked:


It's a big man's game.

There's a reason that speed-freak running backs like Dri Archer and De'Anthony Thomas are likely going to end up as mid- to late-round picks and probably future specialists at best, with Archer in particular more likely to move to receiver on a permanent basis. That's not to say that one has to be a giant to play running back in the NFL, but having a little bit of mass is a variable that scouts and GMs simply cannot ignore. We operate in a universe that is bound by the laws of physics.

So, when legendary coach Bill Walsh laid out his scouting checklist for the running back position, he started out with a vague requirement: His running backs would have to be "large enough to take punishment."


He went on:

"There are obvious talents necessary to play the position, but perhaps the most overlooked is durability and stamina. This player must be nearly as effective in the fourth quarter as he was in the first. You fashion your offense as to the talents of your halfback. Typically, you are looking for the real competitor who is unmoved by the abuse he endures during a game. He is able to focus and concentrate on doing his job every play. He is going to get a lot of abuse and the unexpected is going to happen to him time and time again."

While I've already pointed out that the old-school, 20+ carry running back is going the way of the buffalo in the modern NFL, Walsh's comments make my mind immediately go to current 49ers running back Frank Gore.

Gore is a sustainer, even at age 30. He wears you down. He breaks your spirit, and in the fourth quarter, when the defense is sick and tired of tackling you, he busts a run up the gut and breaks your spirit. I saw it happen to the Seahawks in Week 14 at Candlestick, and it's something that Gore has done time and time again over the course of his career.

To reiterate Walsh's point:

"You are looking for the real competitor who is unmoved by the abuse he endures during a game... A player must be nearly as effective in the fourth quarter as he was in the first."

I think of Gore, Marshawn Lynch and Adrian Peterson as the gold standard for this. Running backs like Eddie Lacy, Le'Veon Bell, Zac Stacy and Alfred Morris are the future. Trent Richardson was supposed to be this guy, but the jury is certainly still out on that. As for this year's NFL Draft class, I'd look to guys like Jeremy Hill, Carlos Hyde, Andre Williams, Terrance West and possibly Charles Sims as the potential sustainer types because of their size and proven ability to handle a workload in college.

Per Walsh:

"Even with all (required) abilities, the most important aspect is probably durability, without which the other talents become of diminished value. You must be able to count on this player if he is a key part of the offensive philosophy."

So, size is an easy to spot and scout factor, but also an important one. That brings me to more variable and subjective factors:

Physicality & balance on contact

When I asked, and Lindy's Draft Guide analyst Derek Stephens about this, he replied, "look to see if the back is disrupted and slowed by contact and whether he can brush off arm tackles. Watch to see if he can maintain footing and momentum through contact."

Arizona's Ka'Deem Carey, below, demonstrates this idea:

In the easiest possible terms, is a back spun around, pulled down or stonewalled at the first hint of contact? If he's hit directly at the point of attack, can he bounce off of or run through the hit? These are things to watch for.

Relatedly ...


Power and physicality can be used synonymously, but there's a slight distinction in my mind. The ability or willingness to sacrifice your body and throw yourself around (physicality) is not the same as the ability to really move people. Push the pile. Hurt people.

Within this skill set, there are a couple variables: One, some human beings are just more powerful than others. "Country strong," "old man strength," whatever you want to call it. Two, there are fundamentals involved: a running back who displays excellent forward lean while running behind his pads will generate more power through the hole. A low center of gravity will keep him moving forward without getting stacked and pushed back at the point of attack.

Look for players who consistently fall forward and keep their feet moving when they're first hit by defenders. Carlos Hyde of Ohio State exemplifies this trait.


Pass protection, effectiveness in the pass game

These aspects might be a little underrated for running backs, but in the modern game are becoming more and more important. Teams throw more than ever on a league-wide level, and if a running back cannot earn the trust of his offensive coordinator to protect the jewel in the crown, the quarterback, then he won't see the field all that much.

Without getting too technical into the nuances of pass protection as a running back, suffice to say that it's a challenging responsibility to master and it's exceedingly important at the next level. Watch for a running back's ability to work inside out to pick up free rushers or blitzers, and stonewall their momentum or reroute them out of the pocket. Can the running back keep a wide base to pick up the linebacker or safety coming in untouched outside? Can he mirror on the edge if he's tasked with protecting the backside of the play?

Devonta Freeman is a skilled pass protector, and it's one of the reasons he emerged as the top dog in Florida State's talented backfield.

Relatedly, a running back who can make a difference in the pass game, on screens or dumpoffs, increases his value. This means: an ability to find a soft spot underneath or laterally, to catch the football and make moves in the open field.

Tre Mason illustrates. (Holy crap, look at Greg Robinson murder that guy on that downfield block.)

Further, a running back who can run routes like a receiver, catch the ball with his hands, away from his frame, is even more valuable because he adds another dimension to the playbook and can be used to exploit mismatches as a hybrid receiver that can motion to the wing.

Ok, enough of that boring old-school fundamental crap. Let's get to the sexy stuff.


This one is simple. In this game, speed kills -- it stresses a defense, it gives you more options on offense. As Stephens looks for when he's scouting for CBSSports/ and Lindys, "Can [the running back] pull away when he's in the clear? Some guys have a strong initial first step but bog down after 8-10 yards, and vice versa."

Some players have what's referred to as "long speed" -- or the ability to gear up over time and outrun opponents. Some have impressive short-area burst and can get to top speed quickly, but then don't have a second gear to hit the home run.

(just ignore the music)

Breakaway speed combined with a quick initial burst, that's a deadly combination. Speaking of a quick initial burst, as LaDarius Perkins exhibited above ...

Suddenness, first-step explosion, change of direction:

Acceleration: How quickly does he get up to speed? Every amateur and professional scout has a bias toward certain attributes of some sort, and for whatever reason, I am totally biased toward this in particular. Explosiveness, quick-twitch movement skills, "zuzu," as Greg Cosell and Ron Jaworski say, it's a must, in my book. Essentially, a running back who can stop all momentum and get back up to full speed quickly is what I'm looking for.

I'll let Lache Seastrunk demonstrate:

Similarly, the ability to change direction explosively without stumbling or falling down must be assessed. At times you'll see a runner get ahead of himself on his top half without letting his legs catch up and the result is an awkward tumble. The ability to change direction without gearing down or losing speed is even more valuable.

Decisiveness, burst through the hole

From Stephens' notebook on scouting: "Does [the back] commit downhill as soon as he recognizes the crease? Does he clear the hole when it's there, or does he lack that second gear and get wrapped or disrupted in the hole too often?"

Decisiveness can be a little difficult to assess without knowledge of the design of the play that was called, but the easiest way that I have determined to evaluate this is to watch for hesitation or wasted steps. "Dancing behind the line," overshooting an opening downfield, running into your own blockers, being too tentative to run down "into the briar patch" and too willing to try and bounce the football outside -- these are all negatives to be on the lookout for.

As for burst through the hole, this is related to suddenness and first-step explosion, and can be a huge difference-maker.

Below, Florida State's Freeman again provides a few excellent examples of both concepts:

Vision, instincts

Vision is closely intertwined with decisiveness, and again, it can be difficult to evaluate without the benefit of knowledge of the play design and perspective from the end zone coaches tape. That said, a player with excellent vision should know where every box defender is on a certain run play and be able to quickly diagnose where the crease will/should open up.

I've heard stories from players that Marshawn Lynch is already looking to the second level -- past the defensive line to the linebackers or safeties -- by the time he takes the handoff of the football. This helps him to identify the proper cutback lane that will not only allow him to get past the line of scrimmage, but also past the linebackers and into the open. Before that, though, Lynch is, through peripheral vision, watching his linemen move laterally in Seattle's zone blocking scheme and he works off of how the defense responds.

It's a violent, chaotic scene, and a running back must decide absurdly quickly which course to take upfield. The split-second decision-making combined with the natural ability to process complex spacial information is why Bill Walsh said that "pure running instincts become critical" for an NFL running back.

"Instinct" is a vague and intangible term, but in my mind, measures the ability of a back to process this information quickly.

From Walsh:

"You just can't play this position without instincts. There has to be an intuitive style and it differs by degree with every running back there is. Without those instincts, as we learned with Terrance Flagler after we spent a No. 1 pick on him, you can't play the position. In practice, Terrance could do everything that you wanted. But in a game, he just wasn't instinctive. So that is critical."

Watch the linebacker closely here below. His movement after the snap is integral to why Tyler Gaffney was able to bust this run upfield for 10 yards. Had he crashed down inside of the pulling guard, it would've been a different story. Gaffney sees this early in his run and reacts accordingly.

Vision and instincts are key here, but it's clear that decisiveness and burst through the hole are too related.


Almost contradictory to everything I just said, to succeed at the next level, a running back must exhibit patience. He cannot outrun his blockers, but first must allow them to set up their blocks within the construct of the play design. Pretty much no one -- except maybe Adrian Peterson or LeSean McCoy -- is going to have success at this level by just winging it on athletic ability alone.

Walsh discusses the importance of patience:

"Despite the instincts you look for, there should be discipline to get the first four yards within the scheme and then rely on instincts to take it beyond that. Of course there are times when an instinctive back does things on his own early in a play. But when you begin to leave the designed play too often, you are not going to serve the team with consistent gains that the offense must count on."

When Marshawn Lynch first arrived in Seattle, he possessed all the elite-level attributes that he does today, but too often tried to operate outside the framework of the offense. This led to a reputation for dancing around behind the line and way too many tackles in the backfield. When Tom Cable arrived to install his zone blocking scheme, he had to sit down with Lynch.

"We made a deal -- you have to do it the way I tell you to do it, I ask you to do it," Cable said at the time. "And he's done it. So a lot of credit goes to him because he was willing to kind of maybe push his ego or push own beliefs, to some extent, aside and then embrace something new.

"Because this is a system that asks backs to do things a certain way. Once you get in and through the line of scrimmage, then do your thing. You can do all the craziness you want then. But you've got to do it this way from A to B. And he bought in from A to B. And after that, what you do [get to point] C on is you."

That brings me to ...

Second-level vision

Per Stephens: "Can he extend plays with awareness and anticipation once he's through the hole, or is he one-cut-and-done?" Again, not a singular talent, as it's related to instincts, vision, balance, suddenness and decisiveness. Once that player gets to point B, what does he do to get to point C and beyond?


I'll wrap this post in a similar manner to how I wrapped last week's post: this list of skills and tools to evaluate when watching college running back prospects is not complete nor authoritative. When I set out to write it, I hoped that it would generate some discussion in the comments section about priority and weight that different evaluators might give each aspect. Which tools have I missed? Which skills are most important at the position? As with anything in scouting, it's probably subjective.

Photos: Derick E. Hingle-USA TODAY Sports, Greg Bartram-USA TODAY Sports