by Matt Waldman
A couple of months ago, an employee from an NFL player-personnel department asked for preliminary input on a project he’s undertaking. He asked me to relay things I watch when I study offensive skill players that he could quantify. One of the things I shared pertains to running backs.
What many quality pros at the position have in common is how they handle backfield penetration. Every runner looks effective when he can generate momentum towards an open crease, however it requires a strong integration of multiple skill sets to foil early defensive penetration.
These skills include anticipating the penetration during the exchange with the quarterback, avoiding the defense after the exchange, and the runner redirecting his path to minimize a potential loss after the defense disrupts the intent of the offensive play. I see this happen most when a defense is dominating an offensive line and limiting the runner’s box score production.
Some the most memorable evaluations I have performed on prospects have been runners during games where their teams were overmatched:
- Marshall’s Ahmad Bradshaw versus a Top-10 worthy Tennessee defense.
- Tulane’s Matt Forte against LSU’s top-ranked defense.
- LSU’s Joseph Addai facing a top-ranked Auburn defense.
All three players performed poorly according to the box score data in these games, but what I saw them do on the field was impressive. Season-long production may demonstrate that the player is contributing to the team, but it’s one of the most overrated aspects of evaluating a prospect.
I find it more important to examine player performance independent from the quality of his production. I prefer to judge his skill on a series of behaviors and processes within the physical and conceptual scope of his position and his role in the game. This is more illuminating of a player’s potential than a box score.
However, there is an added layer of complexity that comes into play when a prospect has the talent to produce in the NFL, but he plays a position in college football where his physical dimensions don’t match the NFL’s traditional prototype.
Underscoring this challenge is the NFL embracing the latest offensive concepts that are successful in the college game. The more a team spreads the field, opts for read-option plays, and uses a multiple scheme, the more likely the team will be scouting players who were successful in these schemes. The problem is that, by traditional NFL standards, those players aren’t big enough to ride the pro rollercoaster.
When this happens, we often see these players earn vague position titles from coaches like utility back or offensive weapon. There are exceptions, but the vaguer the position title, the less likely the player will have a defined role and impact in the offense. It’s why this integration of skills to anticipate-avoid-redirect may not be as enlightening to scouts when they watch a smaller runner back.
These players are also a test of an organization’s overall vision. A personnel department can scout a player and determine he’s a worthwhile prospect, but if the organization isn’t aligned in its thinking, the coaching staff can miscast its young talent into an offensive design that doesn’t suit his skills.
Nothing like shopping for groceries to provide the chef all the ingredients for a fantastic Italian meal only to see him use these goods for a Mexican dinner.
Darren Sproles, Dexter McCluster, and Tavon Austin all fit that player type. McCluster was more Sproles-like in style when he joined the Chiefs, but the team had its share of running back talent. They converted the Ole Miss star into a full-time wide receiver and he has yet to make a real impact. Place McCluster in a system similar to the Saints and I think he’d be a standout.
Even as new schemes create a need for players without a positional prototype, "offensive weapons" without a traditional position have been around for decades. Two players that come to mind –- and there are several before them -– are Warrick Dunn and Eric Metcalf.
Dunn’s physical dimensions are in the same range as the McCluster-Sproles-Austin trio, but he proved he could do the dirty work between the tackles as a true running back. In contrast, Metcalf was a bigger player than all four of these prospects, but Bill Belichick’s use of Metcalf at running back in Cleveland yielded mixed results. Some of this was due to an old-fashioned scheme; the rest was Metcalf’s style.
Metcalf’s production made him a mediocre running back in Cleveland, but he was a good receiver in the short zone of the field and a fine return specialist. When the Falcons acquired Metcalf, they converted him to a full-time receiver in a run-and-shoot offense. Metcalf had 104 catches, 1180 yards, and eight scores in his first season.
Scheme made all the difference. Pair Metcalf with Belichick in New England and I suspect the Patriots’ head coach would have used Metcalf more like Wes Welker or what I expect the team to do with a healthy Shane Vereen this year.
A college player who reminds me of Eric Metcalf is Venric Mark. The Northwestern running back has flashed a similar type of skill to anticipate-avoid-redirect when facing backfield penetration but at 5-foot-8 and somewhere between 175-185 pounds, scouts will wonder which positional template Mark fits into -– if he fits into one at all.
He’s a player whose draft stock will not just be determined by his skill and athleticism, but by the performance of players like McCluster and Austin. If both of these young NFL talents falter beyond their special teams prowess, Mark will have to demonstrate that he’s a Dunn-esque exception to the rule as a runner or display the receiving prowess in the intermediate zone to earn a definitive position title and role.
While Mark has a knack for minimizing losses, his display of this particular integrated skill set won’t likely hold the same value compared to the likes of Bradshaw, Forte, and Addai because of his current size. Depending on his physical growth, level of skill, and an NFL teams’ perception of his potential, Mark could either be viewed as a pure running back or labeled an "offensive weapon."
Mark’s performance in last year’s opener at Syracuse provides a good showcase for his versatility, explosiveness, and vision -- but it also raises more questions about his future than definitive answers.
Quick aside: Thanks to Jmpasq at Draft Breakdown for supplying this YouTube clip -– replete with Eastern European play-by-play. Nothing like a little Nordic-Baltic flavor to your college football.
Beating Early Defensive Penetration
Mark's first touch is a first-and-10 run at the Northwestern 25 for no gain on the first play of the game. Mark begins the play as the slot back on the trips side of a 3x2 empty set versus a 4-3 defense with two safeties deep and an outside linebacker over the twin slot man. Venric shifts to the backfield as the pistol back before the snap and takes the exchange towards the middle of the line.
As he takes the ball, he slows his stride and dips a half-step inside the middle linebacker’s clean blitz up the gut. Mark’s ability to anticipate this blitz makes the linebacker miss the tackle, but he still has to deal with the presence of the defensive end off the left tackle coming down the line.
The end wraps Mark a yard behind the line of scrimmage, but Mark displays good body lean and pad level to drag the defender a yard to turn a certain loss into a no-gainer. Not an impressive play in the box score, but it’s a smart play that many young NFL backs do not make when they enter the league.
Watch the play again. Despite dropping his hips and leaning backwards just a few steps before slowing his approach to avoid that middle linebacker, Mark still generates enough strength to drag the end to the line of scrimmage. It’s a quick adjustment of his form that I like. I also appreciate that he keeps both arms around the ball and falls forward to prevent what should have been a loss of three yards.
The next play is an even uglier result in the box score, but another good example of integrating skill sets to minimize certain losses. This is a second-and-14 run at the Northwestern 42 with 13:58 in the first quarter. Mark is the tailback in a 20-personnel pistol with receivers 2x1. Syracuse plays a 4-3 with one deep safety.
Mark’s lead blocker is offset to the left tackle side.
The exchange takes place over right guard on this zone play and Mark gets the ball just as the edge rusher over the guard earns clean penetration into the backfield, meeting Mark four yards deep. Mark bends the run inside the edge defender and spins away from the wrap, backing his way towards the line of scrimmage to minimize the loss to one yard.
Here’s a positive game against a run blitz. Mark gains seven yards on this 1st-and-10 play at the Northwestern 25 with 10:53 in the half. Northwestern uses Mark as the back in an 11-personnel pistol with trips receivers on the weak side. Mark is offset over right guard on the strong side. The offense runs a zone-read towards left guard.
Mark takes the exchange towards the guard, reads the outside linebacker's run blitz up the middle, and makes a sharp dip to bounce the run outside the left tackle to the flat. This cut helps him avoid the linebacker’s grasp three yards in the backfield and Mark then runs through the reach of the defensive back penetrating inside the first blocker in space. Two defensive players are in the right place at the right time, and Mark foils both of them before he bends the run up the left hash.
He then beats two linebackers in pursuit from the inside to the flat as he crosses the line of scrimmage. By the time he’s wrapped from behind and hit over top, Mark gains seven yards on play that could have easily been a three-yard loss.
Minimizing Losses, But Can He Maximize Gains?
This is an example why, at this point of my evaluation, I think Mark is more Metcalf and less Dunn or Sproles. Mark gains three yards on this second-and-3 at the Syracuse 4-yard line for the first down, setting up a touchdown run on the following play.
Mark is the tailback in a 22-personnel strong side pistol set with the fullback over the strong side guard and Mark shading that strong side. Mark takes the ball over right guard, sees the weak side of the line collapse the left side of the defense to the inside, and cuts to the weak side tackle to reach the line of scrimmage. This is a good read of the situation and he now has three yards of open space with the linebacker and defensive back converging near the first-down marker at the one.
But Mark lacks the finishing power on this play to reach pay dirt. He lowers his pads into the linebacker and appears ready to bull forward for the end zone when the safety comes from the inside and hits Mark high. This collision knocks the runner off-balance and sideways, and it’s just enough that he falls inches shy of the goal line.
Mark’s pad level could have been better, but it was not bad. A 210-pound runner in this situation scores after this contact, but Mark is 25-to-35 pounds lighter than the prototypical NFL runner. He has the speed to build up momentum and drag defenders wrapping him from behind, but he’s not going to truck many safeties or linebackers head-on.
Promise as a Receiver
The wheel route is a common running back pass pattern nowadays, but I have to usher the season in properly for Aaron Schatz. He can’t get enough of them. Even so, this 21-yard pass reception with 7:00 in the half is a nice display of what Mark can offer as a receiver.
Mark flanks the quarterback on the strong side over the right tackle on this first-and-10 play from a 2x1 receiver, 11-personnel shotgun set. At the snap, Mark works across the quarterback near the exchange point and then dips just inside the left tackle and into the flat with a linebacker assigned in coverage.
Mark demonstrates good acceleration up the flat as the quarterback sells the play by sliding to his right to move the safety before throwing back to the left. Mark catches the ball in stride with his hands as the ball arrived over his outside shoulder near the pylon. Excellent catch and throw. I particularly like his acceleration late in the route to earn a step on the linebacker and his ability to catch the ball with his back to the quarterback.
Metcalf-Like Return Skills
Even if an NFL team lacking unity of vision drafts Mark and he doesn’t fit the offensive scheme, Mark should at least earn a roster spot on special teams. Mark had an 82-yard return for a score, that’s on this video. But I think the more impressive play is a 53-yarder later in the half.
Mark does a good job of retreating to his left to field the ball with his shoulders reset and squared downfield at the left flat of the 20. he bends the run inside the numbers towards the right hash, giving up four yards in the process. It's a fast move, but the juke and cut towards two defenders converging at the left hash that sets up a dip inside to take the corner on both players is a wicked move.
Here's the replay from the overhead angle.
When he reaches the 17 at the right hash, Mark is in the open field and picks up two blocks as he runs through the flat at the 25. He then accelerates past a group of four defenders in pursuit at the 35, gains another 15 to the 50, and encounters a Syracuse defender over the top at the 47.
Despite working across the field, Mark still has the speed to run past the defender at the 47 before his path is blocked at the 36. This slows Mark's pace just enough for the defender he avoided at the 47 to get back into the play and and wrap Mark to end the return.
It's not as pretty of a run as his return for the touchdown, but the moves and speed to get the corner are impressive facets of an athlete with several NFL-caliber skills. The question is whether Mark or his team can integrate those skills into a scheme that yields consistent productivity.