It seems like the 2020 NFL Draft just happened, but we move fast here at The Draft Network.
Currently going through summer evaluations for the 2021 NFL Draft class, our scouting team of Kyle Crabbs, Joe Marino, Jordan Reid, and Drae Harris are meeting up every day to discuss prospects, traits, and concepts. New to TDN is a daily scouting roundtable where we go through and identify the most important points of conversation from that day’s meeting.
On Thursday, we had an in-depth conversation about the running back position, breaking down key traits and trends to look for.
Vision Reigns Supreme
When it comes to ball-carriers, the first thing people usually look for are flashy traits like speed, power, or agility. According to our TDN staff, however, the most important trait is something far different: vision.
“The biggest thing I look for, because I don't think you can teach it at all, is vision,” Reid stated to open up the conversation. “That’s one of the very first things I look for. As a coach, I can guide you and tell you what to look at, but it just comes down to what you actually see on the field.”
Vision ranking this high in the discussion may seem a little odd on the surface, but makes far more sense the deeper you look, especially when taking into account recent draft misses at the position. Prospects like Trent Richardson seemed to have it all, but when it came to field awareness, decisiveness, and decision-making—all skills that factor into vision—Richardson struggled mightily.
Importance of Contact Balance
Although vision led the discussion, contact balance was the very text trait mentioned. After seeing the successes of players like Chris Carson, Nick Chubb, and Derrick Henry, it’s not hard to see why.
“(Contact balance) is kind of a new term in the scouting world, but that’s another thing that really comes into the equation,” Reid pointed out. “Kareem Hunt, particularly, was a guy who made this term famous when he was coming out of Toledo a couple of years ago."
Is Pass Protection a Priority?
Today’s NFL emphasizes passing as much as ever, which seems to suggest that pass protection is at an all-time high for running backs. However, with ball-carriers also being used as receivers more now than ever, it makes for a much more interesting debate. Not surprisingly, our staff had a few different opinions on the topic.
“In college, you aren’t going to find a lot of backs that are really good blockers,” Marino stated. “It’s just not something that's an emphasis, so some guys just aren’t going to come into the league with that type of polish.”
Reid would further add to this point, mentioning that running backs often don’t really know how to pass protect when entering the pro ranks.
“I don’t think you should knock a whole bunch of RBs coming out as far as protection because they often don’t really know how to do it”, Reid stated. “You don’t have to be a skull or bone crusher (because of this), but do you know where to go and can you execute the assignments you’re supposed to? It’s just a matter of when they’re involved in it, do you know where to go? Do you know where to fit (inside) of protections? Things of that nature.”
The recurring sentiment for both Marino and Reid seemed to be that they valued pass-catching more heavily than pass protection, with Reid using Alvin Kamara—a notoriously poor blocker—as a specific example.
“I’m not going to knock him for not being a good pass-protector, just because he provides so much as a pass-catcher,” Reid stated in regards to Kamara. "It’s important to figure out what a player can do, but not necessarily knock them for what they can’t do.”
Although Harris didn’t necessarily refute this statement, he did seem to put a bit more of an emphasis on pass pro and explained as much.
“If you think of the Senior Bowl, at least two days during the week they’re either doing 1-on-1s or working on pass pro,” Harris stated. “Every place I’ve been (as a player and scout) I can always remember back to working specifically on pass pro during 1-on-1 periods.”
Further adding to the pass protection debate was the topic of sub-package ability. In order to play on particular downs, a ball-carrier needs to do a variety of things, which often means the ability to pass-catch and pass protect.
“If you aren’t able to catch the ball out of the backfield, you're going to have a really hard time becoming a three-down back,” Harris stated. “Most of the game is played in sub. Not every back can play on third downs, so I think it’s definitely important to distinguish if he can or can’t.”
Marino further added to this, pointing out that sub-package ability doesn’t always mean third-down ability, a seemingly common misconception that circles around the scouting world.
‘Whenever I see third-down ability it feels very assuming that it just means passing downs, because third down could mean 3rd-and-1 and we are talking about a completely different skill set than what is (usually) implied,'' Marino stated. “A guy like Benny Snell could be used on 3rd-and-short and be very successful at it, but we aren’t talking about him catching balls out of the backfield.”
Ultimately, the staff was in full agreement that sub-package ability was an extremely important trait to possess, even if it didn’t prioritize as highly as vision or contact balance. After all, the more a prospect can do, the better off they’ll be.