BRONCOS

When the Broncos evaluate running backs, three traits are vitally important

Jan 23, 2023, 6:00 AM
DENVER, COLORADO - DECEMBER 12: Javonte Williams #33 of the Denver Broncos is congratulated on his ...
(Photo by Justin Edmonds/Getty Images)
(Photo by Justin Edmonds/Getty Images)

We are in my favorite part of the year; draft season! This is the time of year that I travel around the country to see some of the best talent coming into the NFL at all-star games and pro days. It’s also at this time when I get to reach out to my contacts in the scouting community directly. Texting or phone calls during the year are fine, but meeting in person and chopping it up over dinner and drinks is much, much better.

I am also in the film room. This year, I’m going to take you inside my process here on Denver Sports. I will be fully prepared for the NFL Draft once again, and I promise to give you the most insight into the draft of anyone in the Denver media. I’m not going to hit on every player, and I learn more from my misses than my hits, but I promise that nobody is going to work harder to find out as much as possible about this draft class.

Before we get to the individual player reports, I am first going to go over some of the most important skills I’m looking for at each position. This comes from studying this game professionally for nearly 20 years, film breakdown, and talking with scouts and GMs around the league.

So, what am I looking for when watching running backs? Here are my top three attributes for the position.

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Footwork

I promise not every position’s most-important skill will be footwork! That was my top skill for quarterbacks, as well, and this is a debate that Hall of Fame RB Terrell Davis and I have had time and time again. Who am I to argue with TD? He believes vision is most important, but I stubbornly still say it’s footwork. More on vision in the next section.

When a running back has great feet, he can create his own space with ease. Backs need to create their own space, and they can first do that with footwork. Speed and power come into play here as well, but if you don’t have the feet to maximize those other assets (including vision) it doesn’t matter.

Cleveland Browns RB Nick Chubb is my favorite running back playing in today’s NFL. Chubb has good speed, great vision, and he runs with power. However, it’s the way he runs with great footwork that makes him such a dangerous runner. Chubb is ready for the cutback lane via his anticipation, but his footwork allows him to extend plays to set up defenders before cutting back against the grain for a long gain.

I think Chubb is the best running back in the game. If there’s anyone in today’s NFL that plays like Davis did in his heyday, it’s the Browns’ superstar running back.

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Vision

Here you go TD! One of the best assets when Davis played for the Broncos was his vision. It’s the main reason he was such a good fit for Shanahan system. Davis saw holes and cutback lanes better than anyone during that time, and he rushed his way into the Hall of Fame because of it. Davis calls it ‘running to daylight’ but it’s the ability to see and anticipate where that daylight is that makes a running back special (like Davis was) in this department.

I’m looking for running backs how understand that football is a game of angles. It’s not merely “seeing” the holes develop, but it’s understanding where defenders will be as you get the handoff or make your first cut. Those with great vision understand where holes are *going* to be – not simply seeing where holes are at.

I asked Davis years ago if when he took the handoff, he was already making shoulder moves to set up linebackers at the second level. Davis laughed and told me, “I’ve already got those guys beat, I’m setting up the safeties.” That’s next level stuff. It’s as if a back has great vision because his body motion, timing, and patience as a runner is putting players in the place he knows they will be – and he can take advantage of that. Look at Los Angeles Chargers’ RB Austin Ekeler on the play below. He takes the ball inside knowing it will influence the safety, then he bounces outside and meets him at the goal line, where he cuts back inside for the score.

Ekeler is a premier running back in this league, and vision is a big part of his game. When a back has great vision, you’ll see multiple plays on film where he’s making defenders look silly. That’s not random, those plays come from great vision.

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Power

I need a little bit of power to my running back’s game. This is an attribute some may disagree with in my top 3, but I love big backs and I cannot lie. When a back runs with power it makes for an intimidating presence. Defenders will wear down if a back with a nasty streak wants to punish them anytime he touches the ball.

A power back doesn’t need to be a big back, but it certainly helps with the wear and tear the position takes on a weekly basis. Defenders are bigger, faster, and stronger than ever before. However, they are getting lighter to deal with the athleticism needed in this pass-happy league. As defenders are getting faster, they’re usually susceptible to a power player. In playoff football, you need to run the ball. Having a power runner can close out a game for you when holding onto a lead.

I don’t want backs looking for contact, just like I don’t want backs looking to bounce everything outside. If power is needed, use it. If the corner store (scouting term) is where you must go; get there in a hurry. I want backs who can use punishment as a weapon in terms of lowering their shoulder at the end of a run. Breaking out a painful stiff arm is something I like to see as well. Look at Broncos RB Javonte Williams – a player they missed much after he was hurt this year – on the play below. Williams runs with power, but he stays balanced, and he makes sure to punish a defender who tries to tackle him at the end of the play.

I love Williams, and the reason he was my no.1 running back in the 2021 NFL Draft is because he runs with balanced power. He does look for contact a bit too much in my opinion, but I still love his game and appreciate how effective he is after contact.

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Summary

Running back is the easiest position to transition from the college game to the pro game. Some don’t credit backs enough for their hard work, but that’s not me. I appreciate the position, and I’m fascinated by the best to do it at the pro level.

Get me a player with footwork, vision, and power. That’s the type of runner that Davis was, and there aren’t many that have all three assets. Great footwork means a back can run through trash at the line of scrimmage. Great vision means a back is constantly creating his own space with nuance. Great power means, well, you know – pain.

Next, get me an “inside/out” runner. I want a back to press the play as designed, but I want a back to have the freedom (and ability) to break a play outside if the middle is clogged up.

In addition to these assets, receiving ability is certainly important in today’s pass-happy league. Pass-blocking is also a key asset as well. However, when I’m watching film I initially look for these three when watching running backs.

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When the Broncos evaluate running backs, three traits are vitally important