by Matt Waldman
March is the month that I take 14-to-18 months of research and use it to generate rankings and analysis for the April 1 Rookie Scouting Portfolio publication. The labor involved in this compressed time period involves a workweek with hours averaging in the triple digits. I believe this will be the last year I have to do it this way.
I’m disclosing this because when you spend close to 100 hours in a five-day span reviewing play-by-play reports, scouting checklists, NFL Combine measurements, and watching several dozen sequences of plays another half-dozen times in order to write about running backs, you see things that you want to share. I’m not talking about hallucinations –- although I admit that I engaged in a brief, one-sided conversation with the side-view mirror of a red pickup truck parked near my favorite lunch spot in downtown Athens during the hour I took each day to leave the office that didn’t involve sleep.
That brief one-sided conversation reminded me of something Doug Farrar observed while having lunch at the Senior Bowl: Southern folk seem more accepting of eccentric behavior. I thought he was referring to someone else until that moment.
That Farrar is a perceptive guy.
Other than the realization that I’m eccentric, one of the big takeaways I had from these marathon analysis sessions of this running back class is that I think the NFL could be on the precipice of a more widespread change with how teams use the position in the passing game.
The hybridization of the NFL has been in progress for years. Marshall Faulk, Reggie Bush, and Darren Sproles are the popular choices as heads on the pro game’s Mount Rushmore of runner-receiver hybrids. Personally, James Brooks would be my fourth bust in that crew.
Brooks caught the ball away from his body on difficult passes even by wide receiver standards. And compared to other NFL backs of his era, Brooks saw a lot of downfield targets that many teams wouldn’t consider throwing to their runners.
These four would be my choices as the players who have ushered in the dawning of the hybrid runner era. Bush and Sproles have made splitting the back from the formation a more common and desirable practice, but Brooks and Faulk were evolutionary oddities. In fact, I’d argue that Faulk’s ability to run intermediate routes like a starting receiver made the Rams back ahead of his time in the same way that Jim Brown’s speed, change of direction, and short-area explosiveness in a 232-pound frame was ahead of the curve.
What is happening at the college level may be approaching a future that Faulk provided fans a glimpse of. The future is beyond the long handoffs and the occasional wheel and seam routes that Bush and Sproles execute. It’s the ability of runners of all shapes and sizes to make plays on targets in tight coverage or to see primary targets on so-called, "50/50 balls" –- even passes where backs are "thrown open" by design.
And it’s not just scat backs seeing these targets; prototypical bell cow backs and short-yardage types are getting into the act. This is a bold step forward in the evolutionary line of the position.
I realize this is anecdotal information. We may need to wait five years to see if there’s any data to support my assertion. Even so, it will have to mean that NFL offenses will have to target running backs in a way where we can quantify what I’m talking about.
I doubt this change happens anytime soon. But as an intense observer of football -– especially the college game –- it is becoming more apparent to me that running backs entering the league are better equipped to make plays rarely asked of them even five years ago. I find the diverse range of players within the position showing off these skills a fascinating development.
We could go back even earlier and talk about a player like Joe Washington, but Brooks and Faulk (and for the bigger backs, Keith Byars and Larry Centers) were the early trailblazers during an era where the NFL began making a pass-happy league.
These two backs made the notion seem possible. It was Bush who took it mainstream. Bush and the USC offense also gradually pushed the limits of the style of targets given to a running back. I have some examples of catches Bush made that were considered rare for a running back just eight years ago.
While it's an impressive display of speed and ball tracking that Bush makes look easy, this route is about running faster than the other guy. Still, to count on a running back to make plays with his back to the football this far downfield was a novelty and evaluators gushed about it.
The fact that USC was targeting Bush with greater frequency on deep routes than we’ve seen was also eye-catching.
This deep wheel route tight to the sideline drew comparisons to Faulk’s skill. Not to diminish the difficulty of the throw and catch, but relative to a sideline fade in coverage, it’s a wide-open target where the quarterback can allow the receiver to run under a high-arcing ball with only the sideline as the barrier to the reception.
It was when USC opted to target Bush in tighter coverage on 50/50-style balls where the confidence level in the player’s ability to win the football went up a notch.
This isn’t a tight-coverage play compared to what I’ll show later, but the willingness to risk a throw into coverage and let Bush fight for it if necessary was a departure from the norm.
Not Just Scat Backs
However, it wasn’t just the fleet-footed scat backs making plays. Peyton Hillis began his career at Arkansas as a running back, but moved to fullback when Darren McFadden and Felix Jones came to Fayetteville and many scouts considered the bruising runner a potential fit as an NFL tight end due to his receiving skill.
Hills remained a running back. While his span of prime production has been limited for a variety of ways, his receiving skills were unusual for a bruising fullback-running back tweener.
It’s still not a weekly occurrence that you see a back make this kind of reception in stride –- especially a one-handed adjustment. According to Footballguys writer and Denver ESPN Radio host Cecil Lammey, Hillis made these show-stopping catches look routine at Broncos practices.
Upping the Ante to Fades
A few years ago, Shane Vereen was targeted on this fade pattern in tight coverage.
It’s a great adjustment in tight coverage, especially for a player as short as Vereen who has outside position on the play and has to make the leap for the ball and stay inbounds. This is traditionally a tall-player route.
I presumed this type of target in coverage would remain in his college vault. Where it gets interesting is that the Patriots actually targeted Vereen in this manner. Not the exact route, but a confident throw in coverage.
One has to think that New England’s scouts and coaches saw plays like this from Vereen at Cal and that the small back continued to demonstrate this skill in Patriots camp, because it takes a lot of confidence in a back to throw this type of target.
This pattern of targeting receivers as intermediate or deep targets regardless of coverage or location near the boundary is increasing in the college game. While not a regular thing yet, the number of players with the skills to make these plays is growing –- recent incoming running back classes in particular.
A bruising back that was a high school wide receiver, Chris Polk is another a player whose downfield receiving belies his playing style at the line of scrimmage. I broke down a play at my blog last year where Polk was targeted on a 50/50 ball, winning it from the safety. Although the intelligence of the decision to throw the ball was questionable, it’s another sign that college teams are definitely growing bolder about using their backs this way.
Even LSU -– perhaps one of the most conservative offensive teams with the use of its talent –- has gone to the well with former wide-receiver-turned-thumper Spencer Ware. Check this out.
I realize many of these routes are wheel routes with no elaborate breaks, but the willingness for a passing game to target backs this confidently seems to be on the rise. This is an excellent adjustment in tight coverage normally reserved for a receiver or tight end. It is not what you expect from a player of Ware’s ilk. In fact, Ware's catch makes the seam routes once reserved for tight ends seem commonplace.
Here is one from Nebraska’s Rex Burkhead that’s impressive, but ordinary after looking at Ware’s reception.
This reception from North Carolina’s Giovani Bernard wouldn’t be special if not for the impending contact he has to take to make the grab.
The Next Step
There are players in this draft who I believe might represent where the position is evolving next. Although I like their talent, neither of these prospects are marquee rookies. It’s possible that we’ll never see them display the skills I’m showing you here in an NFL game. Nevertheless, it’s noteworthy.
Two of these plays come from my blog post on Boise State running back D.J. Harper. Both targets require wide receiver-like adjustments near the boundary or in tight coverage -– both intermediate routes.
When the quarterback is targeting a running back on post patterns from this far out with the confidence that he’ll win the ball against a safety, it’s a startling concept on football’s historic timeline. If Bush earned these types of targets eight years ago, the insanity surrounding his potential would have been unbearable.
The final play is actually one that I think was a "happy accident." It involves Utah State runner Kerwynn Williams, an underrated player who I think presents better draft-day value than either Andre Ellington or Kenjon Barner. Williams is targeted at the sideline on a play where I believe the quarterback misjudged the velocity of this throw.
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Williams catches this bullet with such a clean adjustment that at first it appeared the route could have been a fade-stop because of the skill it took Williams to make this turn and snatch the ball away from his body.
I see this play and wonder if there won’t be a team that drafts Williams and decides to employ the runner on fade-stops with success -– all because of this happy accident. It is, after all, how many great discoveries happen.
Matt Waldman authors the Rookie Scouting Portfolio, an online publication devoted to play-by-play analysis of offensive skill position prospects. Now in its eighth year of publication, the RSP provides pre- and post-draft rankings, analysis, and stylistic comparisons. Waldman also includes all of his play-by-play notes, grading reports, and a glossary that defines and explains his grading criteria. The RSP is available for download every April 1 and 10 percent of each sale is donated to Darkness to Light, a non-profit devoted to preventing sexual abuse in communities across the country.