Walking into the lobby of the Pro Football Hall of Fame a couple of weeks ago, the banner of 2011 inductee Marshall Faulk got me thinking about the runners who came into the league in the mid-to-late `90s.
Runners who had hall of fame ability but aren’t likely to be first-ballot inductees, if enshrined at all. Backs with specific skill sets worth filing in your mental Rolodex and using to compare to college prospects. Here are three I would recommend watching because I believe in their prime they all had complete games in terms of interior/outside running, big play burst, good feet, excellent after contact skills, and strong third down techniques as pass protectors and receivers.
Priest Holmes, Jamal Anderson, and Terrell Davis certainly are worth mentioning but I have a feeling at least two of those three backs will find their way to Canton before at least two of the three backs below. The point of this post is to think about what factors contribute to a starting-caliber NFL runner. It is the technique and conceptual skills behind vision (decision-making, patience, etc.) that earns a runner with the minimal required athleticism a chance see the field. It is the athleticism, consistent health, and great supporting cast that can make a good NFL runner great. Today we’re removing some of the icing to look at the cake.
Many people only think of Eddie George as an upright runner behind a huge Titans offensive line that allowed him to bully defenders into submission as a part of Tennessee’s conservative game plan. Because he only had two seasons out of nine with a four-yard-per-carry average, George’s Hall of Fame bid will probably need a Floyd Little-like supporter to earn serious consideration.
However, watch this vid and take note of some skills that I think could be the model for any aspiring power runner:
- Always talked about as an upright runner, watch this compilation and you’re going to see his body lean is consistently at a terrific angle to get yards after contact in every situation except when no defender is within five yards of him. Although Ray Lewis heaped praise on Texans runner Arian Foster with a stylistic comparison to Roger Craig, Foster’s pad level and smooth gait that belies his height reminded me of George since the Texas a junior at Tennessee.
- Note the way he dips his shoulders into contact or greets a defender with a forearm or stiff arm punch.
- As with any great power runner, he sets up angles with good footwork. George frequently uses a stutter step or fake to ruin a defender’s direct angle and then exploit that off-balance player by running through the less optimal angle of contact that results from George’s quick footwork.
Eddie George lost a lot of his change of direction due to a toe injury that occurred in the middle of his career, but prior to that injury he had big-play ability on an offense that lacked a true threat in vertical passing game and allowed defenses to stack the box to make the run its primary focus.
I believe Edgerrin James had the talent to make a run at Emmitt Smith’s record if not for the ACL tear in the third year of his career that took away some of his explosion as a cutter and most of his big-play ability. Including Marshall Faulk, I think James was the best all around back to enter pro football in the past 15 years – edging (no pun intended) Terrell Davis for that honor.
The clip below is the only one on the Internet that I could find with pre-injury footage of James. What you should carefully watch is his footwork to change direction in tight spaces and bursts without losing his balance. In contrast to a back like Eddie George, who had good feet to make a defender miss, he still often tripped over his own shoes as he pulled away from that first opponent. A pre-injury Edgerrin James is a different story.
James’ ability to keep his pads down hill after changing direction allowed him to run through the grasp of defenders and turn normal gains into bigger players. Another thing is the sharpness of these jump cuts, which make my ACLs ache just watching them (and my ACLs are healthy). James had it all: power, lateral agility, speed, and a complete set of third-down skills. Even during the post-injury phase of James’ career where he didn’t have many big runs but he frequently turned three-yard gains into 5-6 yard plays, I believe his skill at finishing runs – especially his pad level – is the model to judge other backs.
Taylor was known as one of the most physically talented backs in the NFL due to his height-weight-speed-agility numbers. And as many of these highlights display his mind-blowing athleticism, there is a lot more to his game.
Note the pad level Taylor has just as he engages an opponent. Like Eddie George, Taylor’s body lean is the difference maker when he engages contact. And as Chad Spann mentioned during our film breakdown, a running back who keeps his head up as he runs through contact has a better chance of maintaining his balance. Fred Taylor shows this numerous times in these highlights. Another technique on display in Taylor’s game is how effective he is at turning his pads downhill or towards an opponent just after he changes direction. This helps him lead with his pads and sometimes take away a defender’s angle on him.
A good example is a cutback at the line of scrimmage on with 1:02 in this highlight against the Carolina Panthers. Taylor makes two defenders coming from the outside miss, but his training to get his pads downhill help him run through a blow from the defensive tackle coming from the inside. Quickness and agility got Taylor to the line of scrimmage on this run and his burst got him a first down. However, it was the pad level that got him into positive yardage territory.
Two highlights later, Taylor bounces a run outside against the Colts after he gets through the line of scrimmage and with Bob Sanders coming fast, the Jaguars RB still manages to turn his pads downhill as he’s curling outside. This helps him run through Sanders’ hit for extra yardage.
Technique. Technique. Technique.