A Day in the Life of a Scout: Running Backs

Matt MillerNFL Draft Lead WriterOctober 21, 2011

GAINESVILLE, FL - OCTOBER 01:  Trent Richardson #3 of the Alabama Crimson Tide runs for yardage during a game against the Florida Gators at Ben Hill Griffin Stadium on October 1, 2011 in Gainesville, Florida.  (Photo by Sam Greenwood/Getty Images)
Sam Greenwood/Getty Images

For all those Sunday morning quarterbacks and Monday morning general managers who hope to become scouts in the NFL some day, here is an in-depth breakdown of how to scout a running back.

When looking at running backs, you can make a few general assumptions. The first generalized idea is that all running backs are good athletes. Most backs would be good at other sports or have more natural ability than most other players on the field. Remembering this when you look at a back is important. I also find that it is a position where you must consider schemes and compare talent across the board more so than others.

When scouting a running back, it is important to not only look at what he does well versus what he does not, but to also look at what system he will fit into. There are basics that I look for in every player, and these baseline skills help determine the overall grade of a player.

Today we'll be looking at Alabama's Trent Richardson—the No. 1 running back in the 2012 NFL draft class.



Obviously, speed is a key component to being a good running back, but it is not an absolute. Many running backs can overcome a lack of speed by having good vision, strength and instincts. Speed does make a player more dangerous, though.

What I'm looking for: When viewing a game either on film or live, I want to see a running back that has the burst to hit the hole quickly and the speed to pull away in the open field. The need to outrun defenders can be overrated, but having the quickness to explode through the hole is vital for a running back.


Game notes: In this clip, Richardson shows ideal ability in getting to the outside. His patience from the handoff is key, as he waits for his blocks to develop. Once Richardson gets to the end of the offensive line, he changes gears and explodes to the end zone. This is a perfect example of being patient but having the speed to accelerate to the opening.



Agility is more important to the position than pure speed. An agile back can make people miss in the open field and has the balance to make a cut on a corner. Agility is hard to purely define, but I would say it is changing the body’s direction with speed and precision. That sums up what a good running back must be able to do, especially on outside runs and counters. 

What I'm looking for: For me, no trait is more important in a running back than agility. A player can run a 4.5 in the 40-yard dash, but as long as he's quick, flexible and light on his feet, I'm giving him a chance. You want a player who can quickly change direction, use their speed and flexibility to turn the corner and the balance to make changes and not fall down.


Game notes: Watch as Richardson makes multiple defenders miss in the open field. From the handoff we see Richardson make a decisive cut to elude one tackler and then cut across field into the opening. Before taking the ball in for a score, Richardson executes a perfect stutter-step that causes what should have been a sure tackle to break down.



A back’s ability to get to the open field has more to do with his vision than any other aspect. You’ll often hear coaches and scouts talk about vision, but few people understand what to really look for here. To know what we’re trying to spot on tape, we must know what people mean by “vision.”

Vision is the running back’s ability to find the opening. Tom Landry used to call this “running to daylight,” and that is a pretty good definition. Vision is what separates the Pro Bowl running back from the athletes carrying the ball. Being able to not only see the blocking in front of you, but also the defenders, may be the most underrated talent at the position.

What I'm looking for: A runner can be fast and strong, but if he doesn't have the vision to see the hole the offensive line has created and make adjustments away from defenders, he'll be worthless in the NFL. I look for backs who can see a hole, cut and explode to daylight. Runners who can't do this consistently will never make it in the NFL.


Game notes: Richardson executes perfectly here. Watch as he starts out running parallel to the offensive line, toward the sideline. Before getting to the hash marks, he sees an opening up-field and takes it. This is picture-perfect play and what every scout hopes for in a running back.



Lower body strength is the catalyst for a running back’s production. Not only does this power him through tackles and the line of scrimmage, lower body strength has a direct correlation to speed.

When you look at some of the great running backs in history, all had well-developed thighs and used their legs to power through and around tacklers. Having a strong lower body allows the player to also avoid injury.

What I'm looking for: It's always great to see a college running back shoulder through 180 lb defenders, but does he have the power to move the pile and fight through traffic? Being able to break arm tackles and churn his legs for extra yards is more impressive than bulldozing a freshman cornerback.


Game notes: Here we see Richardson take a normal inside handoff, but watch as he breaks the tackle of a defensive tackle in the backfield and then pushes the pile for extra yardage. This is the type of run scouts want to see to judge a player's ability in short-yardage and goal-line situations.


Footwork is as important as any other aspect to most skill players in the NFL. A running back must be able to cut, plant and move in and out of lanes quickly and accurately. This all starts with footwork.

What I'm looking for: Footwork is almost a sub-category of agility. You want a runner with a wide base when making moves side-to-side (better balance, quicker movements), and you want someone who is light on their feet and can quickly change direction.

 Game notes: This is what an NFL running back should look like. Richardson has a wide base, does a great job changing direction and then runs with power and speed when picking his hole. The ability to get through traffic on this play and pick up positive yardage is a great indicator of why Richardson is the No. 1 back in the country.



Being a good receiver is becoming more and more important to the role of a NFL running back. Gone are the days of a back only being a runner or blocker. The new era of spread offenses in the NFL has ushered in the new breed of back that must be able to catch and run.

What I'm looking for: A running back making the move to the NFL must be an able receiver—no questions asked. Catching the ball with your hands, arms extended, and then showing an ability to run after the catch will increase a good running back's value exponentially.

 Game notes: Richardson is an accomplished receiver, trusted by the Alabama staff to make plays. Here we see why. There are more exciting catches and runs, but in this video, Richardson does a great job catching the ball away from his body, securing it and then turning to run. This is textbook technique of how to catch out of the back field.



Running backs must be able to hold their ground in the backfield and protect their quarterback. Most backs will be asked to be a last line of defense on the quarterback’s blind side (back side). Being a willing blocker is half the battle here, but understanding angles and techniques is important as well.  

What I'm looking for: When watching film on a prospect, the No. 1 thing I want to see is effort. You can coach fundamentals, but if a player isn't willing to block, it's unlikely he will ever be great at it. Beyond pure effort, I look for running backs who aren't afraid to be physical. Taking on a blitzing linebacker or defensive lineman by getting low and using their shoulder to meet him is the best technique possible.

 Game notes: Richardson executes a clean back field block here by taking on the blitzer head on. The middle linebacker is at full speed when Richardson meets him, using his shoulder and drives up through the player. By meeting him here and not retreating, Richardson allows his quarterback to complete the pass.



Inside running is a combination of many skills. Vision, agility, strength and burst all combine to make a player a valuable inside runner. NFL teams need a back who can pound the ball and control the clock. This is where the money is made.

What I'm looking for: Inside running is a combination of vision and strength. Seeing the hole is step one, but having the power to run through traffic, break tackles and get to daylight is just as important. I want a running back who can break arm tackles, run with his legs driving up and with enough burst to get through the line in a hurry.

Game notes: Richardson has another perfect play here. From the snap, he is patient enough to let the blocks develop, then he explodes to the hole and has the strength to run through arm tackles. He also shows the agility to make tacklers miss at the end, picking up extra yardage.

Trent Richardson is a great example of what to look for in a draft prospect. He has ideal speed, strength and vision from the back field. These traits combine to make Richardson a top five player on my draft board and my pick as the No. 1 running back in college football.