Matt Waldman is once again covering Senior Bowl practices and continues his previews of the skill position players in attendance with thoughts on the running backs.
Running back is one of the least understood positions in football evaluation because it’s viewed too often has all about athletic ability and instincts. The end product of a good running back is decision-making and execution that looks like instinct but it’s actually refined conceptual and technical acumen performed to the speed of instinct — it’s an important difference.
An understanding of this difference is often missing in evaluations as well as coaching and training. If an analyst doesn’t understand blocking schemes, he will be focused too much on athletic ability without context. If an analyst understands the basics of these schemes, he’s like to miss a lot of information watching a back, the back’s five linemen, and twice as many defenders without the benefit of rewinding the tape. Even former NFL running backs that are coaching and scouting won’t see every important detail in real time — and they will see more than most.
As is the case with the quarterbacks at the Senior Bowl, rehearsals reveal a limited perspective about its players — especially at an event where the player is behaving more like he’s in a college entrance interview than operating in an actual learning environment.
The greatest insights that teams can gain from running backs on the practice field this week is how they move in relation to their body types:
- How fast and wide can a back can open his hips?
- How many established footwork patterns does he know?
- How quickly can he learn new footwork patterns?
- How deep can he drop his weight?
- How is his back aligned with his lower body when dropping his weight.
- How good is his ankle flexion?
- What type of movement does he favor during scrimmages?
- Does he show an economy of movement in necessary situations?
Much of what I want to see will be available during drills but these instances will reflect the back’s potential when not under the lights of a game as opposed to his current reality as a player in a system he’s performed in for years. This is also another position where these nuances are seen best with the film.
Here are the backs participating in this week’s practices and my thoughts heading into practice. I anticipate there will be some additions from the East-West Shrine Game.
Bruce Anderson: While doubtful we’ll see everything I want to know about his speed quickness during practice, I want a better gauge of his initial acceleration and long speed. This also includes short-area quickness with cuts and stop-start movement. He runs a lot of intermediate and deep routes up the seams at North Dakota State, so watching Anderson match up with linebackers and safeties on shorter routes with quick breaks will be worthwhile. I’d love to evaluate more about Anderson’s pass protection but pass pro drills are the least imaginative exercises that don’t do a good job of evaluating the skill.
Dexter Williams: I think some of Notre Dame’s blocking schemes and alignments are difficult for a back to execute and Williams handled them well. I will be most interested in observing his athletic ability and running style through the lens of the bulleted list above. :
Karan Higdon: I have questions about Higdon’s ability to process events at the line of scrimmage and adjust his stride length in relation to them. His speed and acceleration relative to top athletes is also something I want to see more of where I can. Unlike many backs, who bounce plays too often to the edge of a defense, I’d like to see Higdon take this chance more often when there’s a clear opportunity.
Ryquell Armstead: I worry about his pad level and lean. He dropped his head into collisions and lost contests with defenders that he should have won. This is a difficult habit to fix. Armstead often stops his feet to change direction and it limits his potential to finish strong. Armstead’s patience often crosses the line into tentative behavior. Will this happen on base running plays in what’s usually a vanilla scheme for backs to operate this week?
Tony Pollard: From the games that I’ve watched thus far, I’ve seen more of Pollard as a receiver than a running back. However, I was impressed with what he did on the ground when Memphis used him at the end of games. He’s decisive, uses good pad level, and displays patience. I want to see him used in a greater variety of blocking schemes. Perhaps that will happen this week. If so, he could be an intriguing hybrid option.
Wes Hills: When studying him at Delaware and Slippery Rock, there were instances where he didn’t keep his feet moving to push piles. Kind of like a boxer who holds his breath during a flurry, the feet coming to a standstill when wrapped is a similar problem for a runner. He’s a long-strider who could be a lot better if he can demonstrate some variety to his stride length at the right times. I’m also curious about his hop mobility during certain drills and whether that is a factor with his potential as a “mover.”
Bookmark the RSP 2019 Senior Bowl Page to find practice reports, videos, and podcasts covering the practice week and the players.