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Ground Game Grinding: Evaluating RBs – Part II

Welcome back! Let’s continue the process for watching a running back carry. We will go from the mesh point through the trenches (Phase 3) and finish with Phase 4. If you missed Part 1 of this series – you can find it here. Let’s get to it!

Phase 3

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Now we are back to scrubbing the tape, moving beyond the mesh point to the trenches. Continue to watch the blocking develop by reading the butts! This will help us evaluate the quality of blocking. It is hard to stress how important this is.  In order to fairly grade a running back’s vision, and avoid assigning undue credit/demerit based on the results of the run, we must spend some time looking at the trench battles. A 20-yard run through a truck-sized hole is not the same as a 20-yard run through a narrow crevice. This sounds like common sense, but it’s easy to get caught up in the result rather than dig for the root cause.

Evaluating Vision

Once we have an idea of the designed track, the battles in the trenches, the flow of the d-line and linebackers, we can begin to assess the vision. What should we look for? We want to look at the running back’s ability to recognize d-line/linebacker flow, their mental processing speed as their track is affected or as the running lane opens up, their ability to anticipate holes coming open, and their agility and quickness to adjust to changing situations.

In Zone runs it is typical to see what may look like hesitation to hit the hole. As an evaluator, you must determine if that pause/stutter step is a mental processing hangup in his reads or if it’s a patient manipulation of the defensive tackles and linebackers. Getting this wrong could have you unjustly burying a good runner or elevating a bad one. Make sure you run the tape back enough times to where you can confidently determine if it’s hesitation or manipulation.

Since Zone runs require the RB to read blocks to find the hole to attack, we have a great opportunity to evaluate their mental processing as the play develops. Inside zone typically attacks the A and B gaps. Outside Zone attacks the edges, but the RB can “bang” through a hole that develops in the trenches, “bounce” to the outside, or “bend” to the cutback lane. Scrubbing the tape is a great way to watch how the runner responds to dynamic situations in the trenches. To make a more accurate determination of how the RB is processing action, we have to look at his feet. 

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In this slow-mo clip of Christian McCaffrey, we see an example of excellent feet (this is a Gap blocking scheme, but the concept of his feet still applies). McCaffrey’s feet have been described as always “in phase”. You will rarely see his feet conflict with his mind and you will hardly ever see his feet get “stuck in the mud” while waiting for blocks to develop. Along with his feet, we want to see some of the same traits we see in the clip such as hip flexibility, agility, explosiveness, and change of direction; all of these contribute to our evaluation.

In Gap runs, as opposed to zone runs, the running back is less reading blocks than he is a specific player. Since the running back is meant to attack a designed hole in Gap schemes (Power, Counter, and Duo among others) he is meant to read a specific second-level defender. If the offensive line wins all their blocks then we are looking at the mental processing speed of the RB to recognize the open hole and the linebacker’s position. Typically, there is going to be a block that fails, perhaps a critical one. In this situation, we would still evaluate the RBs mental processing speed, but we gain a valuable opportunity to assess agility, quickness, and ability to create. The ability to create is an aspect we will factor into his vision.

Assessing Patience 

How can we determine a lack of patience? If we see the runner accelerate to a designed hole immediately after the handoff without letting it develop, this is a blatant lack of patience. There was a tendency for me early on to evaluate any run where the RB ends up running into the o-line as a lack of vision and/or patience. Be careful to understand how the play developed and what information was in front of the running back at the time. RBs like Jordan Howard are very unappreciated because runs by players like him are hardly ever ‘Wow!” plays. In fact, many runs by Howard appear to end up in the back of offensive linemen, but when you look closely you can see that he is finding the small space where he can wedge between the leverage of the offensive linemen where he can then use his power to get an additional 2-4 yards. This is the type of patience we should look for in those RBs commonly defined as “plodders”.

For RBs lighter on their feet, revisit the section above under ‘Evaluating Vision’. Ask yourself the question, “did his feet help him escape or get him in trouble?” Excessive dancing indicates to me that a player is lacking in patience or the game may not have “slowed down” for them yet. Calm feet are a sign of patience. Calm feet can chop, power skip, along with other dynamic actions, but there will be a sense of purpose behind all of the foot movement. Wasted movement, once you learn to identify it, should be a red flag at the NFL level.

Next, we want to move to confirm burst through the hole. Before we get there we must take note of the size of the hole. To circle back to an earlier point, this should factor into your evaluation of a player’s vision on that play; again, a 20-yard run through a truck-sized hole is not the same as a 20-yard run where the RB “threads the needle” through the trenches. I find the most valuable plays to watch are those where the trenches aren’t pretty and those plays (that some may call boring) that don’t play out as designed.

Confirm Burst

Having looked at burst from phase 1, it behooves us to confirm from the end zone copy. Assessing this trait dovetails from the mental processing aspect of reading the blocks. We want to evaluate the 1-step acceleration again in the context of the spacing or size of the hole. Look for the pursuit angles of the defensive linemen and linebackers; accelerating and breaking bad pursuit angles isn’t the same as erasing good angles. Here is an endzone angle of McCoy ‘driving through the smoke’ which is a combination of vision, burst, and mental processing in the form of anticipation.

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Phase 4

While we have already evaluated home run speed in phase 1, and we can confirm some aspects like spacing with the end zone copy. There other ways a running back can finish a run. LeSean McCoy was known for his elusiveness and is often described as ‘slippery’. We have all seen the balance training of Alvin Kamara, and it shows in his contact balance. Runners like LeGarrette Blount and Jordan Howard are known for their power. Homerun speed can be seen when Phillip Lindsay gets in space. The elite runners in today’s game like Zeke, Bell, CMC, Kamara, and Gurley (before he got hurt) all have combinations of these finishing traits at the ‘good’ to ‘elite’ level. 

Power

One simple way to look at power is to examine what happens after the RB is engaged by a would-be tackler. Simply put we are trying to see how much forward progress the runner can generate after head-on contact or while they are in the grasp of a tackler. Does he drag a guy for additional yards? Does he lower his pads and run over the defender? Does he push the pile? Does he have an effective stiff arm? Does he run through, fall forward or get knocked back when engaged in direct, head-on contact? 

When answering any of those questions we want to apply the context of the body type of the opponent. Was it a linebacker or a DB that they carried for 5 additional yards? Is the defender lighter or bigger than the running back? These things are important for truly evaluating power. If it doesn’t matter who engages them 1-on-1 because they win those battles consistently, then we may consider them ‘elite’ in their power. 

Power can also be evaluated in with the running back’s use of hands. The stiff arm is a common tool used to create space, or even bury guys on the field. A less common maneuver is the underhook, used to throw tacklers by. We see a combination of these exhibitions of power in this Derrick Henry run against the Jaguars in 2018.

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Marshawn Lynch was one of the pinnacles of finishing with power among other traits. He shows his mastery of creating sideline violence.

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Creating Sideline Violence is a great read about finishing techniques along the sideline, and is available at ITP. When applying this information it is important to take in the context of body types and game situation to ensure a fair grade in ‘Finishing’. For example, the runner may avoid contact if he knows he is physically outmatched, but they may also step out of bounds to stop the clock instead of risking being tackled in bounds.  

Balance

In a similar way to power, we are looking for yards generated after contact. The difference is we are evaluating how well they stay on their feet after lateral contact. Poor balance can be related to poor play strength if a runner is going down to weak arm tackles. Recovery from breaking tackles is another place we can look for evidence of balance. Recovery from contact is a great feat when extending the play, but an ability to re-accelerate quickly is a bonus in players that have elite balance.

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Some things to keep in mind when tempted to hand out the ‘elite’ grade in a trait (as I have been tempted to do when I first started watching tape after seeing a highlight play or two) are the context of competition and consistency in putting it on tape. The reason it’s fair to grade Kamara with an elite grade in balance is because of that consistency regardless of who he plays against. Below we see another example of his insane contact balance.

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Elusiveness

LeSean McCoy was one of my favorite running backs in his prime earning the nickname of ‘slippery fish’ among fantasy circles. This nickname was well earned by his elusiveness which was very good, if not elite. His style of running often allows him to avoid major hits (a nice bonus for RB longevity, especially lighter players) and impact tackle attempts. This requires a couple of traits including good footwork, agility, change of direction, and vision to see the open field completely.

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Conclusion

This is certainly not all-inclusive, but hopefully, it is a good starting point for you. Other areas will determine a running back’s total potential on the field like receiving ability and pass protection (perhaps in a later post).

There are also contributing critical factors (athletic ability, play strength, play speed, mental processing, competitive toughness) to a player’s success or failure in a given area, some of which have been discussed. As you are grading the three traits we discussed (vision, burst, finishing) we can use these base traits to not only guide our grade but also helping us to assess usage limitations and potential paths for development. Additionally, these common traits allow us to better articulate how we arrived at our grade.

Once I have watched at least four games, it’s time to determine what I think I know about a player based on my observations. No player is going to be 100% consistent in a particular trait, but there will be trends. Those trends, negative or positive, are where I begin when drawing conclusions about a player. Be sure to track these trends throughout your evaluation in different blocking schemes, personnel packages, quarters of the game, etc.  

There are sure to be gaps or traits for which you lack a good feel, where there are only a few options to remedy the situation. One of those is obvious: watch more tape! The other is communication with those inside the respective organization (not quite as accessible). Third  Don’t be afraid to tell yourself that you don’t have enough information. Digging more could reveal some unique nuances to a player’s game.

Networking with some folks is also a good idea along with some good follows. Specifically, on the RB front, I must recommend @CoachPLFootball (great for o-line knowledge), @Angelo_fantasy (great for biomechanics), and many of our own Dynasty Nerds.

Review

Hopefully, this will assist you in getting started in your RB evaluations. Be patient with yourself and your process in the beginning. Eventually, your evaluation time will decrease, but speed is not the goal. 

Below is a 10,000-ft view of the topics covered across this two part series that can be utilized as a road map to get started in some basic RB evaluation. Get at me @FFB_Vern with any questions or suggestions, but for now… Grind That Tape!!!!

  1. Phase 1: Sideline Copy
    1. Assess overall play
    2. Initial assessment of burst and homerun speed
    3. Take note of alignment of the outside WRs and safety depth 
  2. Phase 2, Part I: Pre-snap Analysis
    1. Establish context (Down, distance, score, quarter, time remaining, etc)
    2. Pause endzone copy
      1. Identify offensive personnel/alignment grouping
      2. Identify defensive personnel and front (determined intended impact on running game – contain, penetrate, etc.)
      3. Identify the game situation
  3. Phase 2, Part II: Snap to Mesh Point
    1. Pause endzone copy at mesh point
      1. Identify the run blocking scheme (I/S / O/S Zone, Gap, Duo is not I/S Zone)
      2. Identify RB responsibilities in scheme
      3. Identify run track (read the butts)
      4. Does DLine action match what front indicated?
      5. Does DL penetrate? (If yes, assess RB mental processing and ability to respond; vision, agility, elusiveness, balance)
  4. Phase 3: Mesh Point to 2nd Level
    1. Evaluate quality of blocking (Critical to properly evaluate vision)
    2. Evaluate RB’s patience
    3. Evaluate RB’s vision
    4. Evaluate RB’s movement (feet, posture, agility, balance, etc)
    5. Confirm burst assessment (1-step acceleration, explosiveness)
  5. Phase 4: Trenches to finish
    1. Evaluate quality of finish
      1. Confirm home run speed
      2. Elusiveness
      3. Contact balance
      4. Power (including sideline violence in context)
  6. Conclusion
    1. Compiling notes; Identifying trends
    2. Identify unanswered questions 
    3. Watch more tape or ‘phone a friend’

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