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Running Back Strategy

Photo by Tommy LaPorte/Icon Sportswire

Scouting Notes

Running Back Strategy

After quarterback, there isn’t a more talked about position than running back in this years draft. Opinions on the importance of a running back vary from an elite back changes an offense, to it’s all about the offensive line play, or you can plug a lot of guys in with success and don’t ever take one in the first round. There is no correct answer, as each team has a different viewpoint and has found success.

The top two backs of the final four NFL teams in the playoffs were Ezekiel Elliott and Le’Veon Bell, who are two of the five best running backs in the NFL. The running backs by committee were Devonta Freeman, Tevin Coleman, LeGarrette Blount, Dion Lewis, and James White. There were a lot of great backs and successful specialists in the playoffs who were catalysts in their teams’ winning seasons.

While there were a lot of good backs on teams in the playoffs, a lot of teams around the league are desperate to fix their backfield situation.

This running back class has been called the return of the running back, and it is not just because there are too many Star Wars fans out there. There are top-end backs such as Dalvin Cook and Leonard Fournette, who have been described as generational talents. There are players like Joe Mixon, an elite talent with off the field issues, and Christian McCaffrey who brings versatility to an offense with his ability to catch the ball out of the backfield.

The talent of this class isn’t just top heavy — it is deep. There are guys who will receive second round grades who go in day three due to the sheer depth of the draft. So, when your team is on the clock, how should they approach running backs in the draft?

Should they take an elite talent early in the draft who can play three downs, or wait and get two backs in the later rounds who complement each other perfectly?

Taking a Running Back Early

The most obvious advantage to taking a back early is talent. Based on film, I have four running backs with first round grades in Dalvin Cook, Christian McCaffrey, Leonard Fournette, and Joe Mixon. Each back is different than the other, but all of them offer tremendous upside.

Dalvin Cook

(Photo by JCS/Icon Sportswire)

Strengths

  • Game breaking speed
  • Elite combination of vision, acceleration, power and balance
  • Catches the ball well out of the backfield

Weaknesses

  • Pass blocking
  • Off the field/ shoulder injury

Christian McCaffrey

(Photo by Jesse Beals/Icon Sportswire)

Strengths

  • Elusiveness
  • Elite combination of vision and patience
  • Versatility and receiving ability

Weaknesses

  • Power, though he shows good leg drive
  • Top-end speed

Leonard Fournette

(Photo by Stephen Lew/Icon Sportswire)

Strengths

  • Elite size, power, speed combination
  • Rare athlete at second and third level of the defense
  • Pass blocking

Weaknesses

  • Catching
  • Can struggle at first level of the defense with his lateral quickness
  • Durability

Joe Mixon

Photo by: Juan DeLeon/Icon Sportswire

Strengths

  • Elusiveness, quick twitch athlete
  • Good speed with elite acceleration plus the ability to decelerate
  • Pass catching and route running

Weaknesses

  • Power
  • Inconsistent vision
  • Off the field

Each running back can step in and start from day one in the NFL and be an immediate impact three-down back. A team wouldn’t have to worry about adding another running back for years to come other than for depth purposes or to spell the player to keep him fresh.

With the talent pool in the NFL, you could easily find another back, such as a Deangelo Williams in Pittsburgh or an Alfred Morris in Dallas, able to help take the load off your young star back. All four can be the catalyst of an offense, taking pressure off quarterbacks and becoming fan favorites.

The biggest disadvantage is position value and board depth. While all of these guys are first round talents, taking them means passing on another position of possible need. This draft class has a lot of running backs, but lacks depth at other positions such as number one receiver, quarterback, and offensive line. Does it make sense to take a running back so early, regardless of his talent, if you need another position and can get a starting back later in the draft?

Last season it made sense for the Cowboys to grab Zeke. He was an elite back in a weak class where the drop off was tremendous. This year’s class is so much deeper it can make sense to take two backs later in the draft to pair. In doing so you create a lethal duo while still acquiring your elite prospect at another position in the first round or second rounds.

Pairing Running Backs

With this strategy, a team would look to pick two backs with complementary styles in the third round and later . This draft strategy would be much like the Falcons did in separate drafts with Freeman and Coleman. Teams can go in many directions with this, but I wanted to show my three-favorite pairings for the sake of the argument. All running backs are graded as third rounders or later.

Curtis Samuel (3rd Round) & Brian Hill (5th Round)

Curtis Samuel

Strengths

  • Elite Route runner with quickness (can play WR)
  • Very good top end speed, elite acceleration and deceleration
  • Lateral quickness. Elite cuts and change of direction. Open field nightmare for defenses

Weaknesses

  • Not an every-down back
  • Not an in between the tackles runner
  • Bounces the ball outside, questionable vision

Brian Hill

Strengths

  • Powerful back who can take on defenders and succeed near the goal line
  • Good patience and balance

Weaknesses

  • Speed is not an aspect of his game, takes a while to accelerate
  • Not a weapon in the passing game
  • Not a quick twitch athlete, limited lateral quickness

This combination would be very Patriots-esque. You would have a 1st and 2nd down power back who can come in around the goal line and play the LeGarrette Blount role. Samuel can be used on third downs and you can kick him outside in the slot as well. He would be used as a better version of Dion Lewis, getting 10+ touches a game and finding a way to get him in space with matchup advantages. The two player’s styles of play would collaborate perfectly and combine to create a highly efficient backfield.

Marlon Mack (3rd Round) & Samaje Perine (4th Round)

Marion Mack

Strengths

  • Game breaking speed and acceleration
  • Elite athlete, with lateral quickness
  • Balance and power for his size

Weaknesses

  • Vision
  • Football IQ
  • Pass blocking

Samaje Perine

Strengths

  • Power and leg drive
  • Balance

Weaknesses

  • Vison — too often sees a defender and tries to run right over him.
  • Pass catching
  • Top end speed

This combination would combine Mack’s game breaking ability with Perine’s power running style. A team would have a player in Perine who could wear down defenses delivering body blows to the defense. Then they would use Mack to explode by the defense that is just half a step slower after dealing with Perine. Mack can be used on third downs in passing situations, and Perine can be an elite goal line back.

Jeremy McNicols (4th round) & Matthew Dayes (5th round)

Jeremy McNicols

Strengths

  • Power and leg drive
  • Patience and vision
  • Running routes and catching the ball

Weaknesses

  • Consistency
  • Elusiveness, lateral quickness
  • Top end speed

Matthew Dayes

Strengths

  • Lateral quickness and acceleration
  • Patience, and following pulling guards
  • Route running and catching the ball out of the backfield

Weaknesses

  • Power at first level
  • Balance
  • Pass blocker

This combination would be a unique on in the NFL. Both backs complement each other very well, but with both excelling in pass catching they could be lined up in the backfield at the same time and give the opposing defenses fits. They could rotate series with McNicols getting the goal line duty. Both backs would stay fresh which would help wear down the defense as the game goes on.

Conclusion

With a draft filled with elite running back prospects, it can be hard to pass on possibly the next Adrian Peterson, but understanding the board makes it possible. You can get two backs who play off each other’s strengths while also addressing a position of need earlier in the draft. The above combinations is as good or better than the talent of some of the first-round backs. Appreciating the depth of a position can be the difference between a successful draft and one filled with mistakes. Ultimately, this year it makes sense to wait to draft a running back.

Eliot Crist

Eliot Crist is a National Scout for NDT Scouting Services. He also works for Pro Football Focus as an analyst. He has experience in draft breakdowns, tendency scouting reports, and player evaluations. Eliot is passionate about breaking down film, showing the good and bad of players explaining what he sees in a player. He frequently appears as a guest analyst on football podcasts.

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