by Matt Waldman
What is your favorite position to watch? I get this question a lot. Originally it was running back. It's the most intuitive and improvisational role on a football field.
However, wide receiver and quarterback have so much to offer that it's hard for me to stick to running back as my answer. Then there are the players at the line of scrimmage on either side of the ball. The power, agility, and quickness that they exhibit in these brief, but pivotal battles are worlds unto themselves.
And the more I study defensive backs the more I admire their daring to walk that tightrope between aggressiveness and recklessness. If you want to develop a crash course in confidence under fire, become a cornerback.
However, the truest answer that I can give in lieu of my mind-changing with whatever position I'm studying in a given week is what all the best prospects have in common: I like watching football players.
It sounds like a copout, but stay with me. There are a lot of players in college football who participate in the game, but they are more athletes than well-rounded, conceptually aware players.
Some of these athletes develop enough to earn the term used for their position. However, the best prospects often transcend their position. They understand the game, play fundamentally sound at their position, and understand enough about the skills, fundamentals, and concepts of other positions to allow their coaches to stretch the limits of their role on the field.
These players are what coaches, scouts, and astute analysts call "football players." John Madden would often say, "Hines Ward isn't just a wide receiver, he's ... a football player."
Some of you may say what I'm describing is another term for versatility, but versatility is only part of the equation. These players also possess a comfort with physicality, display football intelligence and on-field awareness, and they process what's happening on the field quickly.
It's only fitting that I kick off Futures with Nebraska running back Ameer Abdullah, a prospect who earns this moniker. Abdullah is versatile, comfortable with physical play, he has on-field smarts, and he thinks fast.
While the film displays these positives of Abdullah's game, his athleticism falls into that gray area where his display of speed and power might or might not be NFL starter material. If Abdullah's performance against Illinois is indicative of what he'll do the rest of the year, then the Nebraska runner could be a classic case of a prospect whose NFL Combine performance will add a needed layer of information to make the final call.
A Versatile Football Player With a Library of Effective Moves
Many decent NFL backs have such a limited repertoire of moves that it seems as if they lean too hard on their signature move. Rashard Mendenhall and his spin move is an easy example.
Abdullah is not one of these backs who is overly dependent on one or two moves to earn yards. Here are four plays that illustrate the Nebraska runner's deeper than average repertoire not only as a ball carrier, but as a complete football player.
The first play is in the opening quarter from a 21 personnel pistol formation, with the ball at the right hash against a 4-3 defense with a single safety deep. Nebraska determines the ball placement, field position, and defensive alignment are good reasons to try a sweep to left end.
Nebraska pulls the right guard and the quarterback exchange also features a nod to the read option, which makes the most of the offense's use of the pistol. All of the conditions are well designed for this play to work.
What's left is for Abdullah to execute with patience, athleticism, and creativity.
Abdullah sets up his attack of the crease with a brief dip towards the outside receiver on the twin side and then breaks between that receiver's block and the block of his lead fullback. This is patient running and an understanding of his blocking scheme.
Abdullah crosses the line of scrimmage with enough burst to beat the cornerback working through a receiver's block to earn the first down. Once in the open field, Abdullah makes a hard cut in the flat to beat the safety to the outside and uses a pony kick (a la Walter Payton) to keep his balance through extraneous contact to his legs.
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By the time the runner reaches the 15, he has picked up two blocks to seal the inside pursuit. When Abdullah reaches the 5, he issues a stiff arm to the closest defender, nearly staying in bounds as he attempts to dive past the pylon.
In one play Abdullah displays the footwork and patience to vary his pacing, stride, and methods to change direction. He also executes a pony kick to work through trash and finishes with a stiff arm. Many running backs wouldn't have had the physical vocabulary to summon half of these moves on the same play.
This extensive physical vocabulary doesn't make Abdullah a future star, but the more ways a runner can address the opposition, the less he has to rely specifically on dazzling physical skills. Lions' running back Joique Bell has a strong vocabulary as a runner.
This third-and-13 pass play highlights additional moves not seen during the sweep. Abdullah is the slot right receiver outside the hash marks in a 2x3 empty shotgun set at the 22 of Illinois. The runner sets up his out route with a good set that leads the defender to believe that Abdullah is making a break to the inside before bending the route outside.
The actual break needs additional refinement to become sharper, but the setup during the stem -- featuring a head fake inside and a stutter step -- is not only good work for a receiver, but it's two moves that also come from a library that Abdullah draws on as a ball carrier.
The fact that Abdullah flattens the trajectory of the break just enough to work towards the quarterback is also notable. Considering that most backs are given props for running a decent swing route, wheel route, or setting up an effective screen play, Abdullah is ahead of the curve.
It also doesn't hurt that he catches the ball with his hands away from his body and early enough that the pass is not directly over his head or traveling behind the runner when his hands meet the ball. Abdullah finishes the reception by snatching the ball with a sudden, decisive motion, securing the target and turning up field.
Abdullah ends the play with a straight arm on the trailing defensive back as he reaches the sideline. On this 15-yard gain, the Cornhuskers' starter flashes a stutter step, a head fake, and a straight arm. None of this is wasted motion or a sign of indecision; these are focused, effective moves.
As seen on this pass play, Nebraska has a lot of confidence in using Abdullah in more ways as a runner. Here's the rare play where the lead back becomes the lead blocker.
This is a successful play because Abdullah understands how to make an effective cut block on the linebacker. Although the runner could do a better job cutting across the body to the "far side" leg, the fact that Abdullah makes the attempt with his head up is good technique.
A cut block has similar principles as a punch, which is to focus on punching through the target rather than simply landing on the target. The heads-up approach allows the runner to gauge the trajectory of his cut block and work through the defender. It's a common error for runners to cut with the head down, and this lack of technique causes the runner to miss the target or not work completely through it.
Each of these plays demonstrates a strong working vocabulary of football technique and savvy. This option pass is the least successful of the four, but possibly the wisest of them all.
The play begins as a toss to the right side with the right guard kicking to the edge ahead of the lead fullback. It looks like a run, especially with the toss coming early. Abdullah sets up the pass with a head fake to force the linebackers to account for the inside gaps.
When Abdullah sets up to pass, he feels the pressure reaching the pocket and opts to throw the ball away. Many running backs try to force the pass to the receiver and overestimate their ability.
Even when runners show the awareness to throw the ball away, they don't see the field well enough to make the right decision. However, Abdullah finds the open flat and delivers it to an empty spot just as he takes a hit from the pass rush. The runner's decision is an illustration of football smarts in a scenario that is often outside his role.
The danger of highlighting this play as an evaluator is that fans may overreact and presume Abdullah will be a wise decision-maker all the time and not given him any room to make foolish decisions as a rookie. It's this first year where even smart football players make basic mistakes during the transition from collegian to professional.
However the value of sharing this play is the potential that Abdullah has as a decision-maker if he can make the transition to the NFL as well as he did from high school to big-time college football. Keep this in mind with every prospect and it will limit the potential to overreact to a player's early struggles.
College Power or NFL Power?
Abdullah has the smarts of a future NFL lead back or feature back, but does he have the physical skills? This game doesn't provide a conclusive answer. If the rest of his tape is not conclusive, then NFL Combine and Pro Day workouts will offer a layer of information that could prove helpful.
Here's a red zone run from the Illinois 2 where Abdullah scores. It's a deceptive display of good power on a run designed to work up the left hash behind the center and guard while the right tackle slides inside to contain pursuit.
As Abdullah takes the ball up the gut, the defensive tackle meets the runner at the line of scrimmage after making easy work of the left guard. At first glance it looks like Abdullah gets stood up and his teammates push the runner across the goal line.
However, a close look reveals Abdullah does all the work on his own. What's notable is the runner's pad level, which makes it difficult for the defensive tackle to gain control of his opponent after the initial wrap. Abdullah also keeps his legs moving and does most of the work to win this battle -- not bad for a 195-pound runner on an interior run where the blocking fails.
The reason Abdullah bucks the odds and wins this mismatch with the defender stems from his willingness to attack first. Many runners of Abdullah's size see a lineman and try to avoid contact, but Abdullah leads with his pads and digs in. Jamaal Charles does the same thing in these situations and it's a reason why he's a successful interior runner despite his small stature for a feature back.
College breakaway Speed or NFL Breakaway speed?
Another aspect of Abdullah's game where there may be room for debate is his speed. The Cornhusker has NFL speed, but does it qualify as breakaway speed at the professional level?
I analyzed this 43-yard touchdown at my blog and it's an indication that Abdullah has the goods.
The key factor is the actual distance that Abdullah runs on this option pitch. He begins in the middle of the field, bends the play to the right sideline, and ends the play at the opposite hash and still beats a cornerback who only has to cover half of the distance that Abdullah manages.
One thing is certain: Abdullah demonstrates stamina with whatever speed he has. Marshawn Lynch isn't a burner, but he runs at a good pace with stamina, which is why his best runs have such an epic quality.
Abdullah's speed also remains effective despite changing direction. This cutback to the left side from a 12 personnel set with receivers twin left is a good example.
The ball is near the right hash and Nebraska faces a front that is favoring the offense's right side of the box. The Cornhuskers line slants right, Abdullah reads the pursuit, and he cuts back to the left guard and left tackle.
Note how Abdullah initially bends the run downhill to avoid the outside pursuit during the first 5 yards of his gain, then bends the run again at the 37-yard line to avoid pursuit from the right side. This earns Abdullah the first down and open field well past the 50 until the pursuit pushes the runner out of bounds at the 38.
The speed Abdullah had to bend these runs as a change of direction is notable. Much like Darren McFadden or Charles Sims, Abdullah bends and changes direction like a motorcycle taking a corner. However, unlike McFadden, Abdullah has a larger repertoire of moves to change direction. The fact that he has the wherewithal to determine when to use a hard cut and when to bend is an enormous positive of his game.
It's also notable that opponents underestimate Abdullah's speed. Here's a first-and-15 in the fourth quarter where Abdullah earns 17 yards from a 12 personnel pistol against a 4-3 look with the defense shading the box with even distribution of defenders and one deep safety.
The Cornhuskers line slants right against these seven defenders in the box and Abdullah makes a sharp change of direction downhill inside the right guard, splitting the guard-center blocks with enough burst to beat the angle of the safety 4 yards downfield.
The safety overruns the angle, likely thinking that the runner isn't cutting back. However, Abdullah's cut was impressive and the burst was faster than the defender anticipates. It's a classic, chicken-or-the-egg argument when debating the merits of Abdullah's speed versus the defensive back's recognition and angle, but based on other plays in this game Abdullah is faster than defenders often realize.
When comparing Abdullah to his peers in a strong class of running back prospects, the fact that he's not a physical specimen like Todd Gurley or a speedster like Melvin Gordon will lead some observers to conclude that Abdullah is "a notch below" or even "just a guy." However, in the 2008 class -- one of the strongest I've seen -- Ray Rice was a notch below Darren McFadden, Jonathan Stewart, Felix Jones, and Rashard Mendenhall.
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In that same class, Matt Forte was considered "just a guy," after his first season in Chicago -- a back who did well enough with a good opportunity. Many compared him to Joseph Addai -- versatile but not special. Jamaal Charles was the 10th back selected in this class after the likes of five mentioned above, as well as Chris Johnson and Kevin Smith.
Like the 2008 class, there will be a lot of analysts comparing Abdullah's size, strength, and speed to his peers in the same class, but it only matters when determining where these players will be drafted. When it comes to NFL readiness, peer comparison within the draft class isn't as meaningful as if those skills translate to the NFL.
The 2008 running back class had 27 runners drafted by teams, and 11 of those backs had at least one productive season as a starter -- including Peyton Hillis, Tim Hightower, and Steve Slaton. Tashard Choice, Ryan Torain, and Justin Forsett were NFL-caliber backups.
If the 2015 class even approaches the talent level of the 2008 group, Abdullah could get lost in the mix because he's not a special athlete at first glance. However, don't count him out as a potential long-term starter in the NFL, because true football players who transcend the position are hard to find.
Matt Waldman authors the Rookie Scouting Portfolio. available for download now. The guide covers 164 prospects at the offensive skill positions (QB, RB, WR, and TE). If you're a fantasy owner the 56-page Post-Draft Add-on comes with the 2012 -- 2014 RSPs at no additional charge and available for download within a week after the NFL Draft. Best of all, 10 percent of every sale is donated to Darkness to Light to combat sexual abuse. You can purchase past editions of the Rookie Scouting Portfolio (2006-2013) for just $9.95 apiece. Take a video tour of the RSP.