Behind the Scenes Thoughts on Running Backs in 2013 RSP

Lacy wasn't the back I liked the most, but he was the best fit as the RSP's No.1 back  in 2013. Photo by Mike Pettigano.
Lacy wasn’t the back I liked the most, but he was the best fit as the RSP’s No.1 back in 2013. Photo by Mike Pettigano.

In case you were on a covert mission in the jungles of southeast Asia to save the world from a mad scientist hunkered down in a secret lair who was just a step away from bringing the world to the brink of chemical warfare, the 2013 Rookie Scouting Portfolio is now available for download. The RSP won’t save the world, but it will have draftniks and fantasy owners ready to hunker down in their “war rooms.”

It earned me a seat “On the Couch” to talk shop the other night with my friends Sigmund Bloom and Cecil Lammey. You can listen to the episode here. It’s worth it alone to hear Lammey articulate his thoughts on running backs.

I occasionally get time have off-air chats on the couch with Sigmund Bloom. While his excellent show has a title that smartly plays off his first name, Bloom is more like the Gertude Stein of football talk. Rarely is there a conversation that we don’t arrive at an idea to explore. This ranges from writing about the emotional-intellectual transition players have to make from the college game to the NFL ( Talent and Production: The Great Emotional Divide), to the RSP Writers Project.

Last week I was sharing some of my rankings with Bloom prior to publishing the RSP. He suggested I share my thoughts on the ranking process with specific players – a behind the scenes retelling of my thoughts and feelings about players that delves deeper than their actual ranking and detailing of skills and potential.

What You Should Know About My Rankings Process

I have five steps that help me develop my rankings. They are each a process in their own right.  If I were working for an NFL team as a decision-maker in this capacity it would be six, but I’m a one-man band and I don’t interview people that often. I also don’t have resources to hire a PI firm.

These steps aren’t meant to impress you. I don’t have the end-all, be-all rankings. I think they are helpful and entertaining, but the act of ranking players is a troublesome process without a specific team philosophy in mind.

Evaluating player performance is difficult because you have to try to objectify a lot of subjective material. There are also times where you don’t get to see a specific skill from a player because of game situations or the system featuring the player. How to factor this into an evaluation process that ends with a ranking is challenging.

Despite its problematic nature, these processes help me learn more about the game, the players, and my strengths and weaknesses as an evaluator.

Stepfan Taylor by Han Shot First
I like Stepfan Taylor, but I liked his offensive line a lot more. Photo by Han Shot First.

The Method to the Madness of the Rankings Turnstile 

Sharing what I just did helps me provide some context about my rankings. Especially when I’m about to drop these kind of statements on you:

  • Two running backs were neck-and-neck for the No. 1 spot but one of them could have easily been third on my list and a third player if healthy, would have topped both of my final candiates.
  • One player dropped two over a dozen spots as I cycled through my process.
  • There were no less than five players spent moments at the top of my receiving rankings (This is for another article).

Developing RSP rankings is a series of steps that at first yields a rough ranking that I refine as I complete each process. I’ll eventually get to a point where the differences are small enough that I’m making more subjective calls because the differences in skill are minimal or the styles are divergent enough that you have to make a call on which style is most favorable to the broadest range of teams.

A good example is Eddie Lacy and Giovani Bernard. After note play-by-play detail and complete a position checklist, I perform a skills breakdown. The checklist is designed to say whether or not the player demonstrated an ability to perform these skills of the position to a minimal level of expectation that I estimate is “NFL-worthy.”

The skills breakdown is designed to evaluate “how good” the player performs these skills:

  • Star-caliber
  • Starter
  • Committee/Contributor
  • Reserve
  • Free Agent
  • Deficient

Lacy’s skill ratings by order of these categories was 1-6-3-0-0-0. Bernard’s was 1-7-2-0-0-0. On the surface, Bernard has 8 skills on the high-end of proficiency (star or starter) to Lacy’s 7. However using this info to rank players isn’t just a matter of who has more high-end skills and who has less.

It’s important to know which skills are ranked the highest. If Bernard’s two lowest-ranked skills are essential parts of carrying the football then depending what they are, it could make his rating less attractive to Lacy’s if the Alabama runner’s lowest-ranked skills are not as essential to core productivity.

In this case, Lacy’s lowest scores were his pass protection, receiving, and ball security. Bernard’s were power and pass protection. All of these “low” scores were at what I consider the “committee” tier, which isn’t really that low at all. Still, these were Lacy and Bernard’s weakest points as players.

Once I determine the tiers where these skill sets belong, I note how likely this player can improve upon this skill. This year, I provided charts in the RSP publication that illustrate how likely I think it is for the average pro prospect to improve in each skill area of his position.

As with any process that is trying to distill subjective elements into some level of objectivity, this is just a guideline.

For instance, it’s difficulty for many tight ends to execute hard breaks compared to wide receivers. Those that don’t already demonstrate the ability to do it at the college level often have a tougher time with it at the pro level. However, this is not always the case. If I’m watching a tight end demonstrate skills to make lateral cuts as a ball carrier where he drops his hips to change direction, then he is mimicking a lot of the motion one would see in a hard break.

Since his athleticism will likely translate to learning hard breaks, I’ll consider this as something that he can learn. There has to be some opportunity to account for exceptions.

Back to Bernard and Lacy. In their case, my process brought me to the obvious: They are both talented backs with opposite styles. This might seem like a lot of work for me to arrive at something that my wife and daughter – who aren’t fans – saw just by watching two different highlight videos.

However, the process also helps me make sure there are no major differences in talent level so I can feel sure that I’m at a point where I have to make a call that is more about style and fit than substance and talent. In the case of Lacy vs. Bernard, the Alabama runner does his best work between the tackle and his power is one of his notable strengths while the North Carolina back can dictate a defender’s angle of pursuit and exploit it.

Personally, Bernard appeals more to my sensibilities when it comes to runners. I love what he can do as a receiver and he has enough balance and strength to be a functional runner between the tackles. It’s possible he could get even better. Like Ray Rice, if Bernard adds more weight to his core, which could enhance his strength and explosiveness, we might be looking at a bell cow back in a few years.

What ultimately put Lacy over the top for me was his power. Although not as dynamic as Bernard, Lacy can catch the ball, make defenders miss, and flash some speed in the open field. The strength to run through tackles and bounce off hits at the line of scrimmage made Lacy a more attractive option for the widest range of teams.

So if you assume I like Lacy more you’d be wrong. I like Bernard more. However, the aim of the RSP liked Lacy best. In fact ,Jonathan Franklin and my No.4 runner had enough skill to make my top four players a grouping that is close.

If  Marcus Lattimore’s Health Was Not An Issue

The South Carolina would have easily been the top player on my running back board. I could have easily made Lattimore my No.3 runner. To be honest, I thought about placing him No.1 on my board and telling you guys to figure out how much his injury devalues him in your eyes. I realized that would be a cop-out, so I did my best to gauge the risk-reward.

Within the realism of my pre-draft rankings, one could make a good argument that he’s worth taking higher than where I ranked him.

Ellington's game made me angry. Photo by PDA Photo.
Ellington’s game made me angry. Photo by PDA Photo.

Difficult to Rank

If you think those players were difficult to gauge, try Clemson runner Andre Ellington. I spent 20-30 hours trying to figure out where he belonged in my rankings and the more I watched Ellington, the angrier I got. His low 40-time had nothing to do with my frustration. If anything, it was a backhanded positive that the guy could pull up lame and still run a 4.61.

What irked me was Ellington’s strength, balance, and blocking. In the open field, Ellington has nice displays of balance. I didn’t see the same instances of balance on more ordinary runs where quality backs – even lead backs known most for their skills in space such as C.J. Spiller – earn more yards after contact.

Ellington’s effort as a blocker was high, but his skill was not up to snuff. I had to go back and watch additional games of Ellington to feel I was on solid ground with my assessment. Even now, I can see how he could outplay where I rank him but I’d be even less surprised if I ranked him too high.

Arkansas runner Dennis Johnson was also no fun to rank. I still have concerns that his power will translate to the NFL. A 5-6 bowling ball, Johnson lacks the agility and vision that makes Maurice Jones-Drew special. I had to watch him multiple times beyond my initial research and I wouldn’t be surprised if I have him too high on my board as a contributor with sneaky lead back potential.

Scary-Easy Decisions

Joseph Randle. Cecil Lammey’s assessment of Randle was close to mine and I think Lammey had more equanimity to his assessment than how I felt about the Oklahoma State runner. It was so easy to slot Randle in a group of players who didn’t come close to his production, I’m still a little nervous that I missed something with his game. The problem is that I felt like there was nothing difficult about assessing his skill.

Spencer Ware. I could have ranked him higher because his pass protection is already decent for a college running back and based on what I saw it will improve fast. The scary part is that there is no 40 or shuttle time on him of record. I like to have these, especially when ranking a player as high as I placed Ware. At the same time, watching him get outside on non-pitch plays and use quick cuts to work around SEC defenders tells me that Ware could run the 40 in 4.7 and be an effective back.

Big Drops

Ray Graham. I love watching Ray Graham. You can hear from the podcast I referenced at the beginning that my fellow writers Bloom and Lammey love Graham. I just couldn’t bring put him any higher than I did at the end of the process. There was a point he was about 6-7 spots higher, but the tendency to use – and in my opinion, lean heavily on – cuts where he had to come to a complete stop to change direction hurt his potential.

This is a huge habit of Graham’s and not some small part of his game and I have concerns that he’ll have difficulty eliminating it from his game if he’s not quick enough to make defenders miss. Combined with power that I thought was average at best, I think there’s too much hope I’m feeling for Graham to improve upon than realistically expecting it.

Stepfan Taylor. His lateral agility is excellent and I think Lammey’s take on this is good. I didn’t see enough acceleration to his game to get excited about him. I think Taylor is a good college back capable of producing at the NFL level, but never a fixture as a lead back.

For analysis of skill players in this year’s draft class, download the 2013 Rookie Scouting Portfolio available April 1. Prepayment is available now. Better yet, if you’re a fantasy owner the 56-page Post-Draft Add-on comes with the 2013 RSP at no additional charge. Best, yet, 10 percent of every sale is donated to Darkness to Light to combat sexual abuse. You can purchase past editions of the Rookie Scouting Portfolio for just $9.95 apiece.


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