Here at DynastyNerds, we are all about the tape. The tape helps us understand the ‘why’ behind the numbers and analytics. It helps up to see potential that may not show up in the numbers. While we here provide high quality analysis, it’s possible there is a player that you want to know more about that we haven’t gotten around to covering.
In my experience, it has always been more valuable to build up people around me by sharing the tools and knowledge I have been blessed to accrue. As some say, my goal is to ‘train myself out of a job’; “teaching you how to fish” as it were. With this in mind, it is the goal of this series to help you in assessing tape on your own.
A bit of a disclaimer: while I have completed three of the 8 modules at the Scouting Academy, I am not a professional scout yet. I am still learning, as we all should be while pursuing our passions in this sport. With that said, this will begin a mini series on running back evaluation where I share my process in evaluating rushers. There may be better ways to do this (and I invite feedback), but hopefully this is a good starting point for anyone diving into player evaluation.
In order to do this right for NFL level competition, you must have NFL Game Pass for the Coaches Film, AKA the All-22. Both the sideline angle and end zone angle are required to evaluate RBs properly. I also recommend ScreenToGIF, a tool to create GIFs from the film you view on the screen.
The reason for this ties into perhaps the most important resource you can have: a network of people passionate about football. GIFs are nice to share with people smarter than yourself in a given area to gain their perspective. It was this activity that got me through the offensive line module (shoutout to @CoachPLFootball).
Lastly, make sure you have someway to document your observations. Pen and paper are more efficient in my experience, but there is value in utilizing spreadsheets if you find a system that works for you. All of these resources will be critical in doing this right.
What to Evaluate
The Scouting Academy equips students with ten critical factors for running backs: five common to all positions, five specific to the position. The first five, Athletic Ability (Acceleration, Agility, Explosiveness, Quickness, Change of Direction), Mental Processing, Competitive Toughness, Play Speed, and Play Strength. I typically use to describe the ‘why’ of success/failure in the second five factors. The RB specific factors include Vision, Burst, Finish, Receiving Ability, and Pass Protection. This series will focus on the first three factors which are important to the RBs’ success as a runner.
Now to watch the tape! This will be broken up into four phases. After establishing context we will look at the sideline copy of the tape for Phase 1. Then we will move to the end zone copy of the tape for Phases 2-4. It is in these phases where we can better evaluate what happened on a given play.
Before we start Phase 1, we must establish context. Understanding the game situation is critical because it will affect a player’s decisions, or at least what they should do. Do they press for more yardage or settle for what the defense gives? Do they fight for more yardage when finishing on the sideline or get out of bounds to stop the clock? The right decision should be driven from the game situation.
We need to know the following: score, down and distance, field position, quarter, time remaining personnel (on both sides of the ball), and alignments are most important. There are other details to be gathered like gameflow and success in the running game that could be important as well, but stick with the first set of context because those are concrete details. After gathering these details we can begin Phase 1.
For this phase we will utilize the sideline angle. Typically, I will watch this a few times at real-time speed, but first we want to add some information to the context we already have that cannot consistently be gathered from the endzone copy. Take note of the alignment of the outside receivers (who can provide extra blocking on the edges of the field) and the depth of the safeties (who can come down in run support).
Once we have that we can kick off the tape. What we are looking for here are burst and home run speed. Do not, bucket these into a single category of speed. Each contributes in separate ways to your evaluation.
Burst is focused on acceleration through the point of attack (POA) in the trenches. When the runner attacks the hole we want to get a feel for how quickly they accelerate through the hole. We could just look for acceleration to pop off the screen, but something to consider is the defenders’ (DL and LB) pursuit angles. Answer the question, “Is the RBs acceleration impacting the angles of the 1st/2nd level defenders?” Running backs that can consistently erase pursuit angles like Kamara, could be said to have “very good” or “elite” burst.
Now for home run speed; this is one of many aspects to consider when evaluating a runner’s finishing ability along with elusiveness, contact balance, and power. Once the RB is in the open field is he being chased down or is he pulling away? After answering that question the assessment of home run speed is incomplete. We must have the context of competition. If he breaks away from defensive linemen it’s not quite as impressive as leaving a defensive back with sub-4.4 speed in the dust.
Document your notable observations on the play, but remember that these are just part of the body of evidence. Conclusions about what a player is or can do will require time and tape. Let’s move on to phase 2.
Now we can get into the meat of the evaluation. The evaluation process could continue on the sideline copy (sometimes it’s all we have), but it is hard to really evaluate elements like spacing and movement in the trenches and the open field from that view. Since we have the end zone copy of the coaches’ film, we will use it to maximize our evaluation.
Pause End Zone Copy
First thing’s first…. pause. Pause the tape just before the snap. You might even “scrub the tape” (click and drag the playback slider) to get to that point. Once we are there, take stock of a few things. We won’t dive into the details of why these things matter to the evaluation of the running back, but as much as possible links to good resources on those concepts will be provided.
Identify Personnel & Defensive Formation
Identify the offensive personnel (10, 11, 12) and get an understanding of how many run blockers you have. Personnel can determine if the goal of the play is to spread out the defense (10), to appear balanced (11), or create an advantage in the run game (12). Identify the strong versus the weak side of the formation. Identify the RB alignment; is he in dot, or flanking a QB in shotgun. The alignment can affect a few things like how much time run blocks have to develop before the RB gets to the POA. Next we must understand the defensive formation and how it is meant to impact the running game. Some defensive fronts are meant to make reads harder for running backs, others are meant to beat zone blocks, etc.
The Mesh Point
Now we will let the tape play until the mesh point (the handoff) and pause again. There are a few reasons for this step. First, it allows us to identify the run blocking scheme (Inside/Outside zone, Power, Counter, Duo, etc) which will help us to identify the rusher’s responsibilities.
On a basic level, Gap style run blocks do not require RBs to make a read; the hole is predetermined. In Zone style blocking schemes, the RB is required to read the blocks and the flow of the LBs at the second level. These stimuli determine whether the RB should bang (through a hole in the trenches), bounce (get around the edge), or bend (cutback) on outside (O/S) Zone. On inside (I/S) Zone the RB is reading the “A” (between center and guard) and “B” (between guard and tackle) gaps.
The easiest way to tell zone apart from other schemes is the “zone step” where you will see the offensive alignment all step laterally in the same direction off the snap. To identify outside versus inside will come after the mesh point analysis, but essentially you want to see the alignment of the runner’s pads: near parallel with the sideline is likely outside zone, but pads angled toward the inside leg of the playside guard typically indicates inside zone. Power and counter utilize a pulling guard from the backside, while Power may include a playside halfback to kick out and Counter will utilize another pulling blocker from the backside of the play whether that’s a tackle or halfback. Other Gap blocks will often utilize combo blocking like Duo. Caution: Duo is often mistaken for inside zone.
Second, we can evaluate defensive penetration at the mesh point as well. This will tell us whether we are going to have an opportunity to evaluate the running back’s elusiveness, agility, mental processing speed, and perhaps his ability to create in the trenches.
Speaking of defensive penetration, we get to see how the defense is actually attacking this play. Do the defensive actions confirm what we saw pre-snap? If not, this is a great opportunity to evaluate the RBs mental processing speed, not that we can’t assess this trait if the D-line does what we expect. These cases give us extra confidence in mental processing speed if they adjust and succeed consistently.
The mesh point is the first point at which the runner can make decisions, but before he can do that he must read the blocks in front of him, especially in Zone. How are we to read blocks? Some may look at the position of the helmets, but really this is about positional leverage. To know which side of a block the RB should take, it’s easiest to “read the butt” as Arian Foster states in his instructional video. This really helped me read running lanes efficiently, and improved my judgement of a running back’s vision. We are still looking at the tape paused here, so we are only looking at how the runner should approach this in the first few steps after the hand off. Reading how the blocks develop will be something we continue to do in Phase 3.
Once we have identified the track, it’s time to move on to the third phase: from the mesh point through the trenches. We will pick this up in Part 2. Until then, keep grinding that tape!