Matt Waldman’s RSP NFL Lens RB Bilal Powell (Jets): An Underrated Showcase of Cutback Running

Matt Waldman’s RSP NFL Lens examines a pair of cutbacks by New York Jets RB Bilal Powell and reveals why his footwork is something to note when studying NFL Draft prospects.

Bilal Powell was one of my top-ranked prospects at the running back position in the 2011 NFL Draft. Mark Ingram was my top prospect; Ryan Williams second, and Powell third — just edging out DeMarco Murray on my board due to injury history.

When I was contributing to the New York Times Fifth Down Blog, I explained that the sum of Powell’s skills was better than the athletic potential of flashier runners, including Mikel LeShoure, Daniel Thomas, Kendall Hunter, Stevan Ridley, Roy Helu, and Shane Vereen.

Examine Powell’s career through a fantasy football lens and he’s nothing more than a workmanlike option selected in the mid-to-late rounds of August drafts. In a more realistic scope, Powell has a lot of qualities that have made him a reliable and productive NFL contributor for seven of his eight professional seasons.

One of the most instructive for studying running back prospects is Powell’s cutback ability on outside runs. When a runner can cutback from an east-west path to a north-south track and do it efficiently, it’s a good indicator that the back has refined change of direction skills.

Ideally, teams are seeking a starting running back with technically-sound footwork and excellent quickness and stop-start acceleration. However, a running back prospect doesn’t need elite times in the 20-shuttle or three-cone drill to contribute in the NFL. If he processes information well and reacts with technically proficient movement, he’ll be quick enough.

Powell shows this on consecutive plays against the Giants — as he’s been doing for years.

If a runner can make cutbacks of this nature with one step, he has starter ability in this aspect of his game. If he can do it consistently with 1-2 steps (like Powell), he has committee-level skill in this area. A runner who often needs 2-3 steps and has displayed mobility in his knees, hips, and ankles has reserve-level skill in this area with potential for growth.

Powell’s overall game is an excellent example of substance over flash. If he were a little bigger, quicker, and faster, he might have earned the lead role long ago. However, the test of time has revealed that in the case of Powell’s draft class, flash without substance usually leads to a short career.

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