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What do scouts look for in NFL running back prospects?

Keep this breakdown in mind when you watch collegiate running backs

New Orleans Saints v Los Angeles Chargers
Alvin Kamara
Photo by Harry How/Getty Images

In Part 2 of our scouting by position series, we dive into the running back position. This is a position that has changed dramatically in even just the last handful of years in terms of what is most important for running backs in today’s NFL.

Running backs come in a variety of sizes. Very recently, 6-foot, 247-pound LeGarrette Blount and 5-foot-9, 201-pound Theo Riddick reported to the same running back meeting room every day together in Detroit. Not only are their styles of play polar opposites, but obviously so are their body types. The New England Patriots have traditionally featured two very different styles of running backs with great success.

Speed is the most overrated attribute for a running back. Sure it is great if a runner can take one the distance and outrun 11 defenders, but it certainly isn’t required. 40-yard dash times are a useful tool, but don’t let that number sway you too much.

The trait that just missed the final list is balance and it usually is the first thing to go as running backs age. There are many examples, but watch David Montgomery of the Chicago Bears this preseason. He runs with outstanding contact balance and is extremely difficult to knock over. Everything Alvin Kamara does is in balance and it is remarkable to watch.

Power and strength are important without question. This is especially true as an inside runner, of course. Running through arm tackles and inflicting a punishing blow will never go out of style.

Agility is also essential to running back evaluations. Can a guy jump cut from one gap to another laterally like LaDainian Tomlinson? That type of left/right agility puts a ton of stress on pursuing tacklers, as their aiming point changes in an instant. Backs that are “Track runners” like Brandon Jacobs for example, need a defined lane and then get downhill, but ball carriers with great agility create space and running lanes on their own.

Ball security and blocking also have value, without question. A running back doesn’t have to be elite in these categories to be a great asset to his football team, but if he is deficient in either, he simply cannot see the field.

There is also a mindset to truly being a workhorse running back. Emmitt Smith comes to mind as someone who handled a massive workload because of his competitiveness and mental toughness. In so many instances, Smith’s body was failing him, but he put the Cowboys on his back and Dallas rode him to victory because of his mindset. The great ones in history wanted the ball (and got it) when it mattered most. Even when everyone in the stadium knew they were getting the ball, guys like Earl Campbell, Jerome Bettis and of course Smith buried their opponent when the game was on the line.

Three Most Important Traits

3. Vision

If you can’t see it, it doesn’t really matter how talented your body is. Great runners are almost like chess players in that they are looking two and three moves ahead. With great vision, it allows their mind to decipher what obstacles lay ahead. Barry Sanders had many unbelievable running skills, but much of that would have been for naught if he didn’t see the field as incredibly well as he did. Big, fast running backs with poor vision don’t go anywhere in the NFL.

2. Burst

Burst is different than speed. Burst is a player’s ability to accelerate. For a running back, it is more important to get to zero to 60 in an instant than it is to reach a high top speed. When a ball carrier sees a hole, he needs to hit it and hit it quick. Think about Le’Veon Bell’s unique style. He seemingly waits forever as a hole develops. Then he attacks it. If/when Bell’s burst leaves him, that style of running will no longer work. Much like a pass-rusher’s ability to turn speed into power, a running back with a great burst creates a lot of force (Remember — Force = Mass X Acceleration) and becomes much more difficult to tackle while eating up a chunk of yardage at a very fast rate.

1. Receiving Ability

This might sound blasphemous, but in today’s NFL, the passing game rules. Big power backs who can’t catch the football are nearly extinct. If such a player is on the field, the defense just has too strong of a run indicator. At a minimum, a running back must serve as a dump off/screen option for his quarterback, but more and more, that isn’t enough. Kamara was mentioned above for his balance, but his receiving skills are second to none right now. His ability to split out and run wide receiver routes just has immense value.

Think about this for a minute: When teams are defending the Saints this year in their 11 Personnel (1 RB/1 TE), New Orleans will have three wide receivers on the field, Jared Cook and Kamara. Cook is listed as a tight end, but he really doesn’t block anyone and in reality is a king sized slot receiver. Kamara is the key, though. If defenses play the Saints with their nickel package, Drew Brees can motion Kamara out wide. In essence, New Orleans’ 11 Personnel is much closer to a five-wide receiver package than many fans realize. If the defense is in dime, though, Brees can just hand Kamara the ball repeatedly against very light defensive personnel. Michael Thomas is a great player, but Kamara presents many more problems for a defense … because of his receiving ability.

Next Up: Wide Receivers