When Mike Loyko dreams of the perfect running back prospect, he thinks of Darren McFadden.
“He has the size, speed, vision and balance that an elite RB needs. When he is running he looks like he is in slow motion. He has a smoothness and everything looks easy.”
“I believe when he is healthy he is the best RB in the NFL that includes Peterson.”
That’s a bold statement from the head scout for NEPatriotsDraft.com, but Loyko is no amateur in the scouting community. After watching the 1994 NFL draft at just nine years old, his days have been filled with making mock drafts, studying film and putting together a draft book.
During Loyko’s time as a scout, he’s encountered some fantastic running back prospects.
Although he’s scouted dozens of the best backs in college football, the draft guru has a select group that stands above the rest.
“I also believe former BC RB William Green, who was draft by the Cleveland Browns, is one of the best college running backs I have seen, although his pro career was a bust.”
So what separates these backs from the rest of the pack?
For Loyko, there are several key traits that turn a good back into a great one.
One of the primary traits a back must possess is the ability to get to and through the hole with speed and explosion, he said.
Adrian Peterson is a perfect example of a back who exhibits this special quality. When Peterson receives the handoff, he wastes no time accelerating to the hole and bursting through it.
On the other hand, former Patriots’ first-round pick Laurence Maroney lacked this type of explosive start. Despite having a solid size/speed combination, Maroney would commit one of Loyko’s cardinal sins—dancing in the backfield.
Although Maroney averaged 4.4 yards per carry during his first two seasons, that number fell dramatically to a paltry 3.1 during his last three.
Loyko’s second key trait is one that is often overlooked by fans, but important to scouts and coaches: balance.
As Loyko puts it, “[A running back] must be able to take contact, break tackles and make cuts at full speed with out losing speed of balance.”
Along with that, he looks for a back’s vision and anticipation when examining game film.
While it’s certainly helpful for a back to possess all these traits, excelling at only some of them can make up for a lack of size or pure straight-line speed.
One only needs to look at former Patriot BenJarvus Green-Ellis to understand why balance, vision and power can mask speed deficiencies.
“He wasn't fast at all, and wasn't too athletic, but he never lost yard, didn't hesitate and could get the tough yards,” Loyko said.
Although Green-Ellis lacks the dynamic skill set to be an elite back, his tough running and ball security in New England earned him a nice contract with the Cincinnati Bengals this offseason.
However, while it’s possible to find a diamond in the rough like Green-Ellis, Priest Holmes or Arian Foster, that’s not to say the elite prospects in recent years aren’t worth a high draft pick.
Looking at the past three draft classes, some highly touted backs heard their names called in round one.
Former Clemson Tiger C.J. Spiller went ninth overall in 2010, and former Heisman Trophy winner Mark Ingram was scooped up with the 28th pick by the New Orleans Saints in 2011.
Although fewer teams have invested first-round picks at the running back spot over the past few years, the trend took a halt this April when three backs went on day one.
Alabama star Trent Richardson became the first back since McFadden to be taken in the top four before Boise State’s Doug Martin and Virginia Tech’s David Wilson were selected at the end of round one.
In offering his evaluation of the recent first-rounders, Loyko said Spiller “has the potential to be a real home run hitter when given the chance and can impact the pass game in a big way,” while stating that Martin “will be a solid all-around back.”
But Loyko offers his biggest praise for Richardson, the hopeful savior of the Cleveland Browns’ offense.
“It’s Trent Richardson and everyone else for me.”
During his time at Alabama, Richardson served as the backup to Ingram before taking over as the starter in 2011.
As a true junior, all he did was rush for 1,679 yards and 21 touchdowns while leading the Crimson Tide to a national title.
At a rock solid 5’9”, 228 pounds with 4.48 speed, Richardson epitomizes what an NFL back should look and play like.
By offering tremendous vision, power and the ability to both pass protect and catch the ball, he has the tools to become the league’s next great back.
As Loyko puts it, “In my mind he's in another class. He is one of the most complete RB prospects I have ever evaluated.”
Unless otherwise noted, all quotes were obtained firsthand.