Matt Waldman kicks-off a series on the vital link between footwork and skill-player performance in the NFL with an examination of Vikings running back Dalvin Cook.
What makes a player a productive NFL performer? If you scout players, it’s the most common question you’re asked after the specific “what do/did you think about…” their favorite player at the moment.
I’ve written tens of thousands of pages and spent thousands of hours on podcasts trying to answer that question in all the ways I can for readers and listeners. When I give a succinct answer, it will always be too vague to be prescriptive. When I give an in-depth answer, you’ll be spending years reading.
After all of these years exploring this question, I can give you one thing that all skill talents have in common: refined footwork.
Refined footwork is many things:
- Feet-eye coordination: This is both a raw and refined skill. Some possess enough of it naturally to perform at a contributing level despite room for greater development and production.
- Knowledge of angles: Ball carriers with refined footwork understand what can beat an opponent based on the opponent’s angle of approach.
- Knowledge of blocking schemes: The deeper a ball carrier’s understanding of his blocking scheme and the ways his opponents will defend it as individuals and as part of a team, the more likely he knows several ways to address the possible scenarios that may unfold in terms of anticipating open creases, setting up blocks, and addressing angles of pursuit.
- Knowledge of footwork patterns: Footwork patterns are like licks in music. There are a lot of them and no runner has the facility to use them all. However, there are a number of common patterns that are effective and often used to address a variety of scenarios:
- Avoiding interior penetration.
- Avoiding edge penetration.
- Bouncing to guard or tackle and cutting downhill.
- Transitioning from a long runway towards the sideline at top speed to a downhill path.
- Setting up a two-way-go against a defender playing over top from more than five yards away.
- Setting up a two-way-go against a defender playing over top fop from less than five yards away.
- Cutbacks of varying distances in terms of gaps.
- Reversals of field.
- Setting up linebackers in a hole.
- Transitioning from receiver to runner.
- Double-move routes.
- Release footwork.
- Break footwork.
- Drop footwork,
- Side-stepping pressure.
- Flushing pressure.
- Climbing pressure.
- Roll-outs, boots, and sprints.
In most cases, excellent footwork is refined from hours of individual drills, film work, group practice, and live performance situations (scrimmages and games).
Each week during the next month, I’ll be sharing examples of refined footwork from an NFL running back, receiver, and tight end that illustrates why it separates them from many pros. Two of these players are stars in the league. One has a chance to become a rising star.
The first in the series is Dalvin Cook. Like another that I’ll profile in this series, Cook has developed footwork that maximizes his style of play while minimizing his athletic shortcomings.
I thought Cook was the safest back in the 2017 NFL Draft class, despite an analytics-based belief (in some circles) that Cook was the riskiest. Cooks NFL Combine metric set off alarms for those who valued the Vertical Leap (30.5 inches), the 20 Shuttle (4.53 seconds), and the Three-Cone Drill (7.27 seconds).
These are not the metrics of a top-flight athlete at the position. The metrics-centric community wondered whether the eyes were lying to those watching the film.
What they were missing was a perspective that the analytics couldn’t provide: The Combine’s workouts can only approximate what’s important to running back play. There are players whose on-field styles don’t match the exercises in Indy.
Some backs don’t make hard cuts as a primary means of changing direction. In fact, most backs that graduate from top-flight athletes into refined and productive NFL runners develop far more efficient footwork that places greater emphasis on efficient steps and variations of gait that don’t correspond with the shuttles, cone drills, and vertical leaps.
Cook’s game has always been about curvilinear movement—bending around obstacles with a curved track similar to the way a street-racing motorcycle takes a corner—as well as variations of gait that he uses as a substitute for jump cuts, jump stops, or hard lateral cuts.
The lesson learned from Cook’s college tape is that if a back possesses refined footwork or curvilinear footwork as a substitute for the stop-start movement that relies on dropping the hips and/or the use of jump stops and jump cuts, then his lack of top-flight metrics in the three areas where Cook scored below-average for a starter shouldn’t sound alarms.
Video and Graphics Editing by Peter Gumas
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