Travis Etienne and the Value of Footwork/Agility Exercises


A video of Jaguars RB Travis Etienne performing a detailed footwork-agility exercise drill is making the rounds on social media. Matt Waldman covers the debate over the value of these drills and adds his perspective.

Whether it’s in a park, a backyard, or a private training facility, it has become a rite of the offseason for NFL players to post their workouts on social media. Filmed from a ground-level perspective, millions of fans watch NFL players sans football equipment, performing a series of complex football choreography.

Weaving their way through cones, rings, bags, trashcans, and mats, every NFL fan has become familiar with these workouts for at least the past 5-6 years. What are the actual value of these exercises?

It’s this question that a small subset of these fans–most of them analysts, coaches, and trainers–have an ongoing debate. Take Travis Etienne’s workout video as an example:

The FFAstronauts crew had some good-natured debate/trolling of each other over Etienne’s video and it highlights issues that are worth a football fan’s attention.

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

It’s good conversation here among people who have spent a lot of time studying the game:

  • A pair of former college wide receivers (JetPack and Cooper)
  • A college coach specializing in movement training (Cooper)
  • An analyst who has covered and studied movement training with an academic and esoteric bent (Caraccio)
  • An analyst with two decades of experience as as high school run game coordinator (Moyer)
  • An independent scout specializing in skill position players who breaks down movements in their minutiae (me).

The exchanges above give you a good idea of the range of opinions regarding these videos. One thing that I’m sure where all of us agree is that these videos have social media value for the trainers conceiving and implementing these exercises. Marketing is the biggest reason for releasing these videos to the public.

NFL teams don’t really care about them. They expect their players to work during the offseason and have the skills to perform the game plan.

My overall opinion on the actual value of these workouts? They can be helpful if the intent of the exercises are to develop basic movements that can be applied in various contexts. However, if the intent is to combine a variety of movements and approximate obstacles for the the player to react, it’s incomplete and potentially counterproductive.

Etienne is a great player to underscore the point. We already know that the areas of Etienne’s game that require the greatest improvement aren’t athletic but contextual (click the link below for the entire analysis):

Matt Waldman’s RSP Boiler Room No.237: RB Travis Etienne (Clemson) Patience Needed

Although Etienne improved some of his contextual weaknesses at Clemson during his final year of school, he still entered the NFL with decision-making flaws. This included timing with specific run concepts, cutback/bounce decisions, and as Moyer noted, inefficient footwork methods.

The fact that Etienne is further ingraining this inefficient footwork in the exercise underscores the point that he’s not working on drills that build and optimize the link between the physical and conceptual demands of the position. Theoretically, I’m more in the camp with Moyer and Cooper — the design of this exercise has an intention to meld a player’s movement to specific scenarios but the exercise isn’t mentally dynamic enough.

Sure, one can visualize a single football scenario here, but the arrangement of the equipment is so specific that it doesn’t provide the player the opportunity to encounter multiple decision points that happen during an actual play in the running game. One of the most important decisions of this type is pre-snap analysis of defensive fronts and early post-snap movement during the exchange point.

This part of running back play separates the Frank Gore’s from the Anthony McFarland’s.

And it’s this phase of running back play that is the area where most young NFL runners need the most work. Etienne’s college running back coach at Clemson, C.J. Spiller, was a first-round pick with one excellent season in Buffalo. One of the biggest reasons Spiller only had one excellent season was his limited conceptual development as a decision maker.

Spiller was a strong gap runner and that second year in Buffalo was the one season where he played in a gap-heavy run scheme. Whenever called upon to run zone, Spiller either lacked or ignored the conceptual framework of the play and it ended with too many unproductive and unreliable decisions.

As a running back coach at Clemson, Spiller may have learned enough by now from these experiences to teach the position effectively. And if you’re thinking worst-case, Spiller may have not learned a thing but his production in Clemson’s offense makes him a good match for his role in Greenville.

Spiller’s job isn’t to get Etienne ready for the NFL, so it’s only logical that Etienne still has areas to improve his game. Some of these areas may lead to him leaving yards on the field that other backs with less physical ability could exploit. If the flaws are bad enough, it could lead to coaches opting for another player on the depth chart, adding a free agent veteran to the stable, or eventually drafting another runner and relegating Etienne to a smaller role until his rookie deal expires.

However, this last point is the most important for fans: There are a lot of productive players in the league with flaws in their games: technical, conceptual, and physical:

  • Frank Gore was too slow.
  • Miles Sanders isn’t patient enough.
  • DK Metcalf lacks great bend into hard breaks.
  • D’Andre Swift is a limited decision-maker between the tackles.
  • Lamar Jackson doesn’t throw the ball with enough velocity for specific perimeter targets.

Perhaps some of these may not earn second deals as starters due to their limitations but they will contribute and all of them have been productive starters due to the strengths of their games. Every player has weaknesses but the successful players have enough compensatory factors to produce.

Some of these compensatory factors are the player’s skills:

  • Gore had excellent footwork, contact balance, and contextual knowledge and decision-making between the tackles.
  • Miles Sanders has excellent strength, speed, and quickness.
  • Metcalf has elite strength and long speed. He also has explosive hands to make press coverage a difficult assignment that many teams just won’t use against him.
  • Jackson is great in the pocket, throws well in the middle of the field with anticipation and accuracy, and his elite running is part of his “perimeter game” that stretches the field horizontally.
  • Swift has good long speed and strong pass-catching skills.

Some of these compensatory factors are the way the team uses these players. Elijah Mitchell has issues with his footwork and patience in situations that top running backs would earn a lot more yardage in San Francisco, but his decisiveness and speed fit well with what the 49ers want from a runner. Swift may be lacking between the tackles, but the Lions have another back who isn’t (Jamaal Williams) and the game scripts maximized Swift’s role that plays to his strengths.

Productive analysis accurately accounts for the strengths and weaknesses of the player, how the player meshes with the scheme, the surrounding talent of the team, and whether the team’s talent will optimize or minimize the opportunities for the player to do what he does best.

This is the toughest part of analysis. Breaking it all apart into components, much like these workout videos, is the easy part that generates clicks. The hard part is integrating all the components into strong decisions and execution.

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If you’re a fantasy owner and interested in purchasing past publications for $9.95 each, the 2012-2020 RSPs also have a Post-Draft Add-on that’s included at no additional charge.  

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Categories: 2021 NFL Draft, Analysis, J Moyer, Matt Waldman, Players, Running BackTags: , , , , , ,

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