How Do Scouts Break Down NFL Running Back Prospects?

Matt Miller@nfldraftscoutNFL Draft Lead WriterMay 16, 2013

HOUSTON, TX - JANUARY 05:  Arian Foster #23 of the Houston Texans runs the ball against the Cincinnati Bengals during the AFC Wild Card Playoff Game at Reliant Stadium on January 5, 2013 in Houston, Texas.  (Photo by Ronald Martinez/Getty Images)
Ronald Martinez/Getty Images

The one question I'm asked most by readers, Twitter followers or prospective writers is, "How do you break down NFL prospects?" It is also one of the toughest questions to answer in a tweet or quick email exchange.

Here, I'll go deeper.

Each position requires different criteria for scouting, but the method of scouting remains the same. Tape study, background checks and pre-draft workouts are all a part of the puzzle that makes up a player's pre-draft scouting report. But what goes into a deeper study of each position and each player at that position?

After starting with quarterbacks, here is a look at what it takes to scout running backs for the NFL.

1. Vision

You might think that speed is the most important aspect for a running back, but before that speed can be put to use, the ball-carrier has to be able to find openings to run through.

Arian Foster, Frank Gore and Alfred Morris are three of the best running backs in the NFL, and one thing they all have in common is amazing vision when asked to find a hole to run through. None of the three possesses amazing speed, but their ability to stay patient and wait for a hole—and then explode through it—makes them highly successful.

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Foster is the best at taking the ball laterally, waiting for an opening and then turning his pads and getting upfield to make plays. He will take the ball and wait for his line to develop blocks, then he punishes the defense.

That vision is what the ideal NFL running back possesses.

How do you evaluate vision? This can be a challenge in the college game, but ideally you want to find a running back who shows the ability to get his pads squared and heading upfield after taking the handoff.

It is more impressive to watch a back dance in the backfield and make defenders miss, but that's a perishable skill and one that doesn't always translate to the NFL. Good vision lasts a lot longer than quick feet.

Gore, as shown above, mixes vision and power without having the breakaway speed that some evaluators love.

You can teach a back to read a block, but this should be a developed skill by the time the player is in college. When I'm watching running backs each fall, I want the guy with the vision to find openings over the sprinter who simply outruns defenders to the corner every play.

2. Quickness

Barry Sanders, thought to be the shiftiest running back of all time, ran a 4.37 in the 40-yard dash. While that's a respectable time, Sanders' success didn't come because of his track speed. It came because of his quickness.

That's what I'm looking for in running backs.

Speed is a nice asset, and it's one we'll touch on later, but quickness cannot be beaten.

Running backs rarely hit the edge with room to run up the sideline—an area where speed is a need. Instead, backs are most often asked to pick up three-, four- and five-yard gains between the tackles.

What allows them to pick up routine yardage and turn that yardage into big plays is the quickness to shake tacklers and create hesitation in a defender. That's what Sanders did so well, and it's what makes guys like LeSean McCoy and Ray Rice so successful in today's NFL.

Both have good speed, but their agility and quickness in space make them nearly impossible to bring down if they have wiggle room.

3. Ball Security

Fumbling cannot be tolerated by a running back.

While this is a skill that can be taught—Tiki Barber is a great example of that—you want a back coming into the league with the ball security to step right in to your offense.

This is an easy one to scout, and it can be done with the help of statistics.

What I like to do is pull up a running back's stats on fumbles, and then go to those games where a fumble occurred to watch that play. Did the back have the ball too far away from his body? Did he receive a poor handoff from the quarterback?

Simply looking at statistics would be lazy scouting, and it would paint an incomplete picture of the back's ball security. Taking a look at those fumbles to see why they happened is the key.

4. Speed and Acceleration

Speed: The ultimate muse for most scouts.

It's so easy to become infatuated with a Chris Johnson or Darren McFadden because of what they do on the track at the NFL Scouting Combine. But on a scale of importance to the position, raw speed isn't high on my list.

That's not to say speed isn't important. It is, but only if the back has the other skills needed to find the hole and hold on to the ball.

Take Jamaal Charles, for example, as a speed back with the vision to bounce runs outside and then quickness to shake tacklers in the backfield. That's the type of speed you want in a running back.

When evaluating the college game, this can be deceiving. The runner isn't consistently facing top-level speed on every play in every game.

A speedy runner in college may not translate well to the NFL. That's especially the case if that speed is shown primarily when the back cuts across the field or makes jump-cuts to free himself from pursuit. Those are the types of plays that generally result in lost yardage in the NFL, so you have to be careful when falling in love with open-field speed at the college level.

Instead of just looking at 40 times or highlight reels, look to see how well the back accelerates away from defenders when there is an opening. Watch Adrian Peterson when he gets past the first wave of defenders and see how he hits a second gear and accelerates away from pressure.

That is the type of speed that correlates to success in the NFL.

5. Strength

No matter how fast, patient or smart the running back is, he's eventually going to meet a tackler in the hole and be faced with a fight-or-flight moment. Good evaluators want some fight in their running backs. When that time comes, you need a back who can lower his pads and pick up positive yardage.

Adrian Peterson had one of the greatest seasons in NFL history, thanks in large part to his 1,369 yards after contact (per Pro Football Focus, membership required). Just his yards-after-contact totals would have made Peterson the seventh-best rusher during the 2012 season.

One area that gets lost too often in scouting a back is his strength.

During the 2012 season, three of the top six rushers in the game were backs who topped 1,000 yards after contact (Peterson, Marshawn Lynch and Doug Martin). That strength aspect to their play makes them that much harder to bring down.

6. Durability

Scouting running backs can be over-thought at times, but one area I continue to stand pat on is the durability and production concerns of top college producers. Take Montee Ball, a Heisman candidate at Wisconsin, but a back who enters the NFL with already 924 carries on his 5'10", 214-pound frame.

Production is always nice, but it must be compared to the durability concerns of the player. We see now more than ever that running backs begin wearing down around age 30 in the NFL. If the player enters the NFL with four years of pounding already on their body, how much longer can they hold up?

This isn't to say that you should draft a non-producer over  Ball, but if there are two backs with similar grades, take the back with fewer carries.

7. Third-Down Skills

Over the last 30 years, running back responsibilities have evolved, especially on third down.

Backs are now expected to be solid receivers and blockers if they hope to see the field in passing situations. That means more and more we're looking at college running backs who have either shown themselves capable in these areas or have the upside to be coached into productive players in these critical situations.

The top back selected in the 2013 NFL draft, Giovani Bernard from North Carolina, was an accomplished receiver and return man for the Tar Heels. Bernard was seen as NFL-ready on third downs thanks to his receiving ability. That, coupled with his speed, vision and quickness, made him the top back in this year's class.

David Wilson was a first-round selection of the Giants in the 2012 NFL draft, but he struggled to see the field early in his rookie season because of his problems on third down. Once Wilson was ready as a receiver and blocker, he started to see the field more down the stretch.

You can teach a running back to block, and you can improve their route-running skills, but this takes time in a league that's becoming very impatient with draft picks. Finding a player who is NFL-ready from the outset is much more attractive.


The running back position can be easy to scout, but too often we get caught up looking at speed in the open field or a great stiff arm on one run. Highlight scouting has made evaluating the running back position more difficult than it needs to be.

What it all comes down to is the player's ability to find openings, the quickness to exploit that opening and then the closing speed to pull away from defenses when given the opportunity.

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