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29 Sep 2012

Futures: Eddie Lacy

by Matt Waldman

Does the offensive line make the running back or is it the other way around? Some view the topic as an either/or answer. I don’t think the world is that simple.

I do think there are observational methods to tell us whether a college running back has NFL-caliber skill regardless of his current offensive line. I gave NFL starter grades in these linked reports to Ahmad Bradshaw, Matt Forte, and Joseph Addai in past Rookie Scouting Portfolio publications based on performances against top-tier defensive competition that limited these running backs to less than three yards per carry.

In each of their cases, the skills they exhibited despite their offensive lines getting dominated at the point of attack transcended the final outcome of the play, the game, and the box score.

However, a strong offensive line can also mask a running back’s deficiencies. I think a good example of a situation where the line made the back was former Alabama and (briefly) San Francisco 49ers back Glen Coffee, who I graded as a low-end reserve when I watched him years ago. Athleticism aside, good running backs must possess a consistent understanding of how to assess and act on situational risk-reward on every play. In English, that’s the decision-making aspect of vision.

When it comes to weak offensive lines, Alabama running back Eddie Lacy has no such problem. The Crimson Tide’s front five is considered among the best units in college football. However, even the best blockers have moments where the running back has to bail them out and do the tough sledding alone. The 6-feet-even, 220-pound Lacy had 12 carries for 55 yards and three touchdowns in a blowout against the Arkansas Razorbacks two weeks ago, but there were plenty of worthwhile moments to contribute towards an overall evaluation of Lacy’s skill as a runner.

"Skill" almost seems like a neutral term for a player like Lacy. The Alabama running back is definitely closer to the spectrum of Trent Richardson and Mark Ingram than he is to Glenn Coffee. Some of his most impressive moments in this game came on carries that netted less than four yards. There’s a lot more to see with Lacy that will determine if he has the goods to become as good of a prospect as Richardson and Ingram, but judging him solely on his ball carrying, there’s a lot to like.

Big Back Strength, Small Back Feet

Lacy's first attempt results in a two-yard gain on first-and-10 with 13:32 in the first quarter from a 21-personnel strong-side I formation with receivers 1x1. Arkansas plays a 4-3 alignment with the free safety in the box. The Crimson Tide will run power to the strong side. The right guard is supposed to pull across the center.

However, on this snap the Arkansas middle linebacker gets a good read on the play and penetrates the gap where the right guard is supposed to pull. Worse yet, the right guard doesn’t get to this gap because the Arkansas defensive end over the Crimson Tide’s tight end does a great of crossing the face of his opponent and creating a traffic jam in the middle of the line. It disrupted the right guard’s pull.

This play by the defensive end leaves Lacey in a one-on-one situation at the line of scrimmage with the middle linebacker. In most cases the defense will consider this a victory because the worst-case scenario of this play should be the middle linebacker slowing Lacy enough for help to arrive and stop the runner for no gain. But Lacy proves that there are no givens with a player of his strength and agility. The Alabama runner plants his outside foot after receiving the exchange from the quarterback, cuts inside the linebacker’s angle, and transforms this direct hit into a glancing blow.

This move wasn’t the impressive part of the play. Most running backs on an NFL roster should be able to change a defender’s angle with a step of space to operate. But Lacy strings together a spin move inside the defensive tackle as soon as he clears the middle linebacker that demonstrates the level of agility to layer moves in succession. This is what separates the potential starters from the rest of the pack.

When a bigger back like Lacy can make these moves in succession in tight spaces and squeeze a three-yard gain from a potential loss, he’s exhibiting some of the same skills I saw from Bradshaw, Forte, Addai and other recent NFL starters.
Lacy's second carry is an even more explicit display of his big-back strength and small-back feet. This is a first-and-10 run with 9:40 in the first quarter from a 22-personnel offset-I formation. The fullback is offset to the weak side of an unbalanced formation. Arkansas has 11 defenders in the box.

This run will be a zone play. The offensive line will slant right and Lacy begins the play pressing the run towards right guard. As the play develops, Lacy sees a cutback lane outside left guard.

The Crimson Tide back executes a jump cut to this lane. Although there are a lot of people who are quick to criticize backs for making jump cuts, they take issue with the decision-making process behind the execution and not the physical skill required to make them. In this case, Lacy has the room and the agility to make the move and still hit the cutback lane with room to spare. What remains to be seen is how often Lacy will try a move like this against an NFL defense. If he attempts to rely on it as a staple of his running style, the odds are against his success with it. If he uses it more sparingly like Frank Gore, DeMarco Murray, Adrian Peterson, and Trent Richardson –- big backs with good feet -– then it is a nice change-up.

Once Lacy bursts through the line of scrimmage he does a great job of lowering his pads to split both safeties at the three. He runs over the strong safety and drags the free safety across the goal line.

This is a nice demonstration of power and burst. Although Lacy earns a huge lane to generate the speed necessary to punish the duo of Arkansas defensive backs, the fact that the runner could generate this momentum after a jump cut on this angle is also uncommon. I still have more to watch with Lacy when it comes to gauging his explosiveness, but this play offers a promising impression. It’s even more promising when one learns that Lacy is dealing with an ankle injury this season that limits him in practice.

Brute Strength

There is an 11-yard gain with 10:42 in the first half where Lacy clears a huge hole inside left guard, gains four yards towards the left hash untouched, knifes through the backside linebacker’s pursuit wrap like a shark fin through water, and then bounces off two defensive backs eight yards down field. It’s a punishing run, but one any runner of his size should make with the momentum to pick up speed through a large hole. It’s a two-yard run on Lacy’s first carry of the second half that is a far more impressive feat of strength, balance, and agility.

This play begins from an 11-personnel set with receivers 1x2, and the run is an off tackle play to the right side.

The Arkansas defensive line penetrates into the backfield and Lacy runs through one wrap attempt to his outside leg just before the Razorbacks’ defensive tackle hits him high and wraps tight.

Lacy is strong enough to keep his legs moving towards the sideline, which is ho-hum for most 220-pound running backs. But the way Lacy hops over the fallen defender at knee level, with a 300-pound defender wrapped around him -- and still manages to stay upright -- is a true feat of impressive athleticism. The defensive tackle manages to hang on to Lacy until they reach the sideline.

The fact that the defensive tackle couldn't force a loss in a situation that would have resulted in negative yards for 90 percent of the backs he’ll face all year frustrates him, and it takes all his effort to throw Lacy to the ground after they are out of bounds. This is an inconsequential play for the team, but a "wow" play for the running back.

Pass Protection

Lacy will have to demonstrate a strong stand-up game as a pass protector and in this game his opportunities weren’t conclusive enough to make a fair evaluation. What I saw with his stand-up was a tendency to be late to diagnose the correct angle and an inclination to "catch blockers" rather than deliver a strong, two-handed punch.

Lacy did demonstrate a nice cut block, and that is an area where many good NFL prospects at the running back position struggle. The play occurs on a second-and-7 pass from the shotgun.

The defensive end works off the right side and Lacy makes the correct diagnosis and delivers a cut block where the running back aims his shoulders for the inside leg as he throws his body across the legs of the defender.

This is the aspect of cut blocking that many backs in pass protection fail to do. They either shoot straight ahead or for the incorrect leg. As a result, the runner’s body does not fly across the legs and hips of the opponent, and this makes it easier for the defender to elude the block and make a play on the quarterback. Although Lacy drops his head just a split-second sooner than he should, the fact that he displayed the correct aiming point and "drove through" the defender rather than "at" him sends the defensive end head over heels and clears a path for the quarterback to deliver the football into the flat.

I believe Lacy has the kind of skills to develop into an NFL starter. Although he has small-back feet, he runs with a big-back attitude. He is often the aggressor in a collision with a defender, and he knows how to attack with his pads or forearms to deliver a shot that wins the battle.

When I look at Lacy’s size, punishing style, and footwork, he reminds of what I saw from Mississippi State running back and current 49ers reserve Anthony Dixon. The difference is that Dixon played in a gap-blocking style of offense where he had one hole to hit and worked off counter action on a large percentage of his plays. He's struggled to make decisive plays behind the 49ers line. Although I think Dixon still has the talent to produce, his approach to the game has always been a question mark. If Lacy has a more proven work ethic, I don’t think the transition to the NFL will be as much of a problem.

Lacy’s style also resembles Rashard Mendenhall, but he’s not as much of a one-note spinner like the Steelers back. It also appears he lacks Mendenhall’s long speed. Of course, the thought process behind a stylistic comparison is another subject deserving of an essay.

Posted by: Matt Waldman on 29 Sep 2012

8 comments, Last at 01 Jan 2013, 7:05am by mano

Comments

1
by Raiderjoe :: Sat, 09/29/2012 - 7:23pm

Lacy should be good in NFL. Mifht be like Le'Ron McClain because think has girth and toughness to be NFL fullback.

2
by Subrata Sircar :: Sun, 09/30/2012 - 3:14am

Site isn't loading for me in Safari 6.01 today. Never been a problem before and still loads fine in Firefox 15.0.1 on the same host and on my iOS 6 device. Some JavaScript change?

4
by Dean :: Sun, 09/30/2012 - 7:39pm

And cue douchebag criticizing your choice of web browser in 3... 2... 1...

3
by Karl Cuba :: Sun, 09/30/2012 - 8:26am

I've recently found it pretty difficult to project college runners into the NFL, I've been doing pretty well in the past few years (in some cases assisted by FO's projection widgets) with qbs, receivers and most defensive players but I've been pretty hit and miss with runners, for example I loved Mark Ingram's feet but was concerned that Trent Richardson was making big plays in college by running through tacklers and that in the NFL he wouldn't be able to sustainably break through bigger, stronger men with good technique. (Boy does it look like I was wrong about Richardson, I haven't seen a runner trundle through tackles like that since Emmitt Smith. It probably helps him that NFL tacking technique isn't what is used to be.)

I find that it can be tough because it's hard to avoid looking at the result and ignoring the process because, as you say, line play makes such a difference. Everyone's process looks good when cantering through a hole that's four yards wide. The simplified reads out of the spread and the presence of a box safety also make huge differences to outcomes and change the process in a way that often makes comparison between runners very difficult.

I'm not sure I understand what's wrong with using a 'jump cut'. I've never heard criticism and commentators usually gush all over any player who executes one eg. Adrian Peterson against the 49ers last week. Could you please explain the problem, is it about losing leg drive and the propensity to get overpowered or is it about runners being over reliant on athleticism to get out of trouble?

5
by Dean :: Sun, 09/30/2012 - 7:44pm

When I'm watching TV or I'm in the stands, I tend to look for one (or more) thing that they do particularly well. If I see them breaking away and not getting run down from behind, that tends to translate well. When I see power, I look to see who's being overpowered. When guys whose games themselves translate into NFL prospects yet are getting run over by a back, I take it as a good sign that the back can play at the next level. With cutbacks, I look to see backs who can cut and hit the hole quickly and run downhill, but I also like to see them show an additional move once they hit the second level. None of this is scientific at all. It certainly doesn't compare to the above analysis. But in a back-of-the-napkin sort of manner, it gives me a general idea without taking so much effort that I lose sight of enjoying the game.

7
by Matt Waldman :: Thu, 10/04/2012 - 9:40pm

Good for you. I enjoy the analysis. I learn more about the game that way. However, if I'm in the stands or watching with friends, it's about entertainment more than education. Last thing I want to do is bore people around me by talking through the game. I just want to watch like it's an unfolding narrative of a movie.

6
by Matt Waldman :: Thu, 10/04/2012 - 9:37pm

RE: Jump Cuts

The problem with jump cuts is like the NRA's slogan that guns don't kill people, people do. It's similar with running backs and jump cuts. The very best running backs demonstrate a level of wisdom with how they use the jump cut. It's not their No.1 weapon in their arsenal.

Very few great backs used the jump cut as their most frequent method of cutback when behind the line of scrimmage or in a hole. Barry Sanders was one. Marshal Faulk could do it, but it wasn't his bread-and-butter move. Thurman Thomas did it a lot.

The problem with jump cuts in the NFL is that few backs possess the stop-start quickness to execute the jump cut in situations where they try it. The issues is that the runner has to come to a stop and accelerate anew. Even that brief moment generally takes too long against defensive tackles, defensive ends, and linebackers with more quickness than all but many 3-4 players on the average college team.

A runner has to be demonstrate good decision-making when and when not to use one in the NFL. Jamal Anderson and Jerome Bettis were big backs with great feet and could occasionally do it (although Anderson tore his ACL against Dallas on MNF with a jump cut), but they picked their spots.

A lot of the less successful NFL runners that were college stars rely too much on the jump cut. This change of direction is also less controlled and forces the runner to recover from an off balanced position so he better jump cut to the right spot. It's an extremely evasive maneuver and much like a driver of a car, if you can avoid the dramatic maneuver and be efficient, all the better.

I could write a book about projecting college runners into the NFL. In fact, I've written seven annual publications with a lot of discussion about this topic. I think the more you learn about the concept of "vision." Here are some of the ways that I define vision: reading the line of scrimmage before the snap, reading the development of the blocks after the snap, the patience to set up defenders a step ahead of where the runner is running, and the skill to balance patience with urgency while factoring down and distance, play call, and the defenders at hand.

Speed, strength, quickness, and agility are all baseline athletic skills that runners need to have at some level to succeed in the NFL. However, what separates the runners with the minimum baselines is good vision and mature decision-making.

I've broken down plays with 2010 NCAA touchdown leader Chad Spann where he talk about this a lot. I've interviewed backs like Demarco Murray about it at the Senior Bowl. You can find a lot of it at the RSP blog I often link to. I hope that helps.

8
by mano (not verified) :: Tue, 01/01/2013 - 7:05am

Walker is out this week http://www.fresh-tests.com/exam/650-987.htm with a broken jaw (wierdly kneed in the head accidentially in the week 16 Seahawks game). Not positive how replacing him with non-receiving threat Peelle 650-987 tests is going to mess up those plays (fewer TE arounds for positive).