For all those Sunday morning quarterbacks, and Monday morning general managers, here is a breakdown of how to scout a running back.When looking at running backs, we can make a few general assumptions. The first generalized idea is that all running backs are good athletes. Most backs would be good at other sports, or have more natural ability than most other players on the field. Remembering this when you look at a back is important. I also find that it is a position where you must consider schemes and compare talent across the board more so than others.
When scouting a running back, it is important to not only look at what he does well versus what he does not, but to also look at what system he will fit into. This is where having a good understanding of basic blocking schemes and angles comes into play. We’ll look into this later in this piece, but for now let’s take a look at the traits that we evaluate on a running back. Please note that in my few years of scouting I’ve come across many different templates for scouting a running back. Again, this list changes a lot by scheme and I’ll do my best to point out those areas critical to certain schemes.
Speed: Obviously speed is a key component to being a good running back, but it is not an absolute. Many running backs can overcome a lack of speed by having good vision, strength and instincts. Speed does make a player more dangerous though. In most NFL offenses today, each team has a speed back and a power back. We generally look for a player that can run a sub-4.5 40 yard dash here. Acceleration is also important, as it determines how hard a player can hit the hole and if he can pull away from a defense. We’ve seen the impact that Reggie Bush has had already in the NFL on natural athleticism and speed alone. A dangerous risk with speed backs is that they do not always transition well to the NFL, where linebackers are as fast as defensive backs. Most speed backs that do not have a complete skill set are relegated to third-down duty.
Scouting point: Unless you can gain access to a Pro Day or the NFL Combine, speed is hard to scout on film. You can watch to see how quickly a player hits the hole or if he can run away from defenders, but a lot of this also depends on the defender chasing. The best way to scout for speed is to watch the defense. If they are taking angles and still not catching a player, it is safe to say he has the needed speed to make it in the NFL.
Schemes: Obviously speed is important to every scheme. Teams like Pittsburgh and Denver however have churned out 1,000 yard backs without the need for elite track style runners. In an offense that is built on running between the tackles or a zone style offense, speed is not as important. When you look at the spread offenses of the NFL though, you will find most teams have backs more adept at running outside and with better speed.
Agility: Agility may be more important to the position than pure speed. Agility is the player’s ability to cut, his flexibility and overall athleticism. An agile back can make people miss in the open field and has the balance to make a cut on a corner. Agility is hard to purely define, but I would say it is changing the body’s direction with speed and precision. That sums up what a good running back must be able to do, especially on outside runs and counters.
Scouting point: This is much easier to scout than speed. An agile runner is going to make fine cuts in the backfield and upfield. While you want a back to hit the hole hard, watch him after he clears the line of scrimmage. Agility is also easy to spot on tests such as the three-cone drill and pro agility drill. Watching a player change direction, as well as his balance, are key things to watch for here.
Schemes: Barry Sanders made a living by cutting in the backfield, a practice that is no longer deemed acceptable in the NFL. Sanders was able to do this because of his elite agility. Runners today are asked to make one cut and get up-field in a zone blocking scheme. In a man-scheme, runners are asked to make a cut once they clear the line of scrimmage. Agility is very important to the zone stretch, which allows the runner to basically run to the sideline and cut to the first opening he finds.
Vision: A back’s ability to get to the open field has more to do with his vision than any other aspect. You’ll often hear coaches and scouts talk about vision, but few people understand what to really look for here. To know what we’re trying to spot on tape, we must know what people mean by “vision”. Vision is the running back’s ability to find the opening. Tom Landry used to call this “running to daylight” and that is a pretty good definition. Vision is what separates the Pro Bowl running back from the athletes carrying the ball. Being able to not only see the blocking in front of you, but also the defenders, may be the most underrated talent at the position.
Scouting point: Again, this is not easy to scout on film, but here are some tips. Watch to see if the back avoids tackles three yards behind and beyond the line of scrimmage. When the player has the ball in space, for example on a screen pass, does he navigate through traffic well and find the openings. Watching the player on inside runs is also important. Is his initial cut into daylight, or is he missing openings? Try to watch each run play 2-3 times to get a good idea of where the hole is versus where the player runs to.
Schemes: Zone blocking teams love backs with above average vision, because they are generally asking them to stretch and find a seam. Man, or power, running schemes do not ask their backs to see much before they cross the line of scrimmage. They almost prefer a head-down, bulldozer type approach with a cut made at the second level (linebackers).
Strength (lower): Lower body strength is the catalyst for a running back’s production. Not only does this power him through tackles and the line of scrimmage, lower body strength has a direct correlation to speed. When you look at some of the great running backs in history, all had well developed thighs and used their legs to power through and around tacklers. Having a strong lower body allows the player to also avoid injury. When evaluating a player in person, especially at workouts, I like to pay close attention to their thighs, calves and abdominal muscles. One recent concern is that overdeveloped hamstrings are more likely to strain, but there is little evidence to back this claim up.
Scouting point: You can scout this area on film, but you are best served judging in person. The eye-ball test is sufficient here. When a player has strong, muscular legs you can assume that he has spent time in the weight room developing his body. Underdeveloped legs will appear straight throughout the thigh, with little curvature at the knee and calf. As uncomfortable as it sounds, you can also determine a lot about a player by his gluteus maximus. Ideally a player will have a round muscle here, with little fat. You will see this referred to at times as “bubble”.
Strength (upper): Upper body strength is also very important to the running back. Backs must have strong arms to not only carry the football without fumbling, but also to ward off tacklers and be an effective blocker. Having strong biceps is obviously important, but many scouts and trainers feel that the core of a player’s strength lies in his abdominal muscles. Being able to withstand tackles is a key to staying on the field, and the more muscle a player has the less he is going to be hurt by a hard hit.
Scouting point: This area is harder to scout without being able to watch a player lift weights. You want to look for a player that does not fumble and can effectively use a stiff arm to push off tacklers. If a back is being consistently over-powered by player’s comparable in size when blocking, this is an area to mark as a concern.
Footwork: Footwork is as important as any other aspect to most skill players in the NFL. A running back must be able to cut, plant and move in and out of lanes quickly and accurately. This all starts with footwork. Many running backs will train their entire careers running rope ladders and jumping rope to gain better foot speed, balance and agility. Having quick feet can make the difference between hitting a huge opening and having a hole close on you. This is also very important for running backs that will be used as receivers.
Scouting point: Footwork can be harder to scout on film than most believe. You must pay keen attention to where a player plants, how he cuts and also how quickly his feet are coming off the ground and returning. This is a trait that you have to scout entirely by itself. You can’t watch footwork and try to evaluate vision or agility at the same time. A tip is to train yourself to watch this on every player to gain an idea of what elite footspeed and foot work are.
Hands: Being a good receiver is becoming more and more important to the role of a NFL running back. Gone are the days of a back only being a runner or blocker. The new era of spread offenses in the NFL has ushered in the new breed of back that must be able to catch and run. Even traditional smash-mouth teams like Pittsburgh is starting to use their backs as receivers out of the backfield.
Scouting point: This is fairly easy to scout. If a player is used as a receiver, watch to see if he catches the ball with his hands out-stretched away from his body. Also, try to track receptions versus drops and if the player is used in the slot or only from the backfield.
Blocking: While we are seeing more backs as receivers, there is also still a strong need for an extra blocker on passing downs. Running backs must be able to hold their ground in the backfield and protect their quarterback. Most backs will be asked to be a last-line of defense on the quarterback’s blind side (back side). Being a willing blocker is half the battle here, but understanding angles and techniques are important as well. Being a strong blocker early in your career is a great way to see playing time immediately.
Scouting point: Again, this is fairly easy to scout. Watch to see if the player remains in the game on passing downs, and what he is asked to do. When the player remains in to block, watch to see if he remains alert and protects his side. When engaging a defender, does the back use his hands to thwart the pass rusher, or will he just throw his body at the rusher? We want a player to use his hands 90% of the time, but to be smart enough to cut a defender that he gets to late or cannot control with his hands.
Inside Running: Inside running is not something that we so much scout, as we observe. It is not a trait that we can put a solid number to and so much of inside and outside running relies on the defense and most importantly, the offensive line.
Inside runs are classified as any run inside the tackles or tight ends, whichever is the last man on the line of scrimmage.
Scouting point: Inside running can be difficult to scout, as it relies on more than the player you are watching. What I try to do is observe how well the player hits the hole and when his initial cut is. So much of running inside is hitting the hole hard and then looking for daylight. If the player runs timidly or looks to cut before the hole, he will fail at the NFL level. We want a runner to attack the hole at full speed with his pads low and the ball protected by both arms. When watching a runner inside, look for proper technique when taking the hand-off and securing the ball.
Outside Running: Like inside running, this can be hard to evaluate alone. Outside running will mostly occur on sweeps and tosses with lead blocking from a fullback or pulling guard.
Scouting point: Depending on the play, we want a runner to be more patient on the outside. The runner must give the blocking time to develop. This is called a “stretch” play by most coaching staffs. Runners will take the pitch and head parallel to the line of scrimmage. When they see an opening, or lane, the runner will attack the opening as he would on an inside run. Outside running depends a lot on footwork and vision.
Fumbling: This is quite easy to scout. Chart the amount of fumbles a player has in the games you watch and how they occurred. Was it a bad hand-off or did the runner never have possession? The addition of instant replay makes scouting this on live television much easier.