Position Breakdown: Running Backs, Wide Receivers, and Tight Ends

To continue my Position Breakdown series, today we look at the offensive “skill positions.” One of the biggest traits I look for in all of these positions is overall athleticism. Instincts plays a significant role but a lot of that can be practiced and learned. You can’t teach athleticism. This is where we could discuss Bill Parcells planet comment: “There are only so many people on the planet with that type of athleticism.” As you can tell at tight end, some of the best ones are simply the best athletes, such as Jimmy Graham, Rob Gronkowski, and Vernon Davis.

Instincts play an especially larger role in a running back’s decisiveness and movement in tight spaces. He needs to anticipate the hole developing and then shoot through it before it closes. Then he has to know whether it’s time to lower the shoulder or make a move for the open field. For wide receivers and tight ends, instincts come into play when the ball is in the air or when they’re going over the middle to adjust and get themselves into position to make the catch (which also includes body control).

When thinking in terms of offensive skill position players, I want guys that are described as a “weapon.” Someone that creates mismatches versus a defense so that my coaching staff can use them in creative ways to exploit holes in the defense.

Running Back:

In the current state of the NFL, RBs are asked to do a lot more than just run the ball. It’s nice to have a solid-framed back that can pound it between the tackles, has plenty of speed to get to the edge, and has soft hands as receiver. But for me, the most important traits for a RB to possess are vision, explosive lateral agility, and acceleration. Vision is tough to measure as I consider it: a RB’s ability to see the hole as it is beginning to develop. If he sees it any later it will be gone by the time he gets there. He then must have the physical ability to get to and through the hole decisively and then get up field – this is where the acceleration and lateral agility come into play. So many athletically gifted RBs have failed in the league because they couldn’t find the correct gap or cutback lane. Vision is something that really can only be evaluated through extensive film study. Beyond vision, I want my starting RBs to have strong, compact, but muscular frames that make them hard to hit and tough to tackle. They must understand blocking concepts so that they can assist in pass protection and remain on the field on all three downs. Toughness is a major factor as RBs take as much of a beating on the field as anyone. Even with the greatest talent, a RB can become a liability if he can’t hang on to the football. A RB who puts the ball on the ground will find himself riding the bench no matter how well he runs. A perfect back will be elusive both in the congestion at the LOS and in the open field, but will also have the toughness and size to run over a LB if necessary to get that final yard for the 1st down. It is important to gauge a runner’s style to see how well it meshes with the team’s scheme. Sometimes talent trumps scheme, but a lot of times a useful RB can be found in later rounds of the draft simply because his natural running style fits well in the scheme which the team runs (Alfred Morris). A RB should understand the entire scheme and his job within it so that he may be moved around the formation – especially outside as a WR – to create mismatches with an opposing defense. That means the RB should have a good understanding of route running and concepts, a willingness to block downfield, and the intelligence to understand down/distance and game situations. To be a three-down back, a RB must be stout and technically sound in blocking. He’ll need to understand the blocking concepts as well as how to execute a block against both larger (DL/LB) and faster (DB) players. If he can’t block, a RB may only find himself on the field for 2/3 of the available time. As a change of pace RB, I’m looking for explosiveness in all facets. He should be quick, elusive, hard to cover, and generally an overall headache to plan for because you never know how he may be used. Top end speed with very good hands is incredibly important for the change of pace back.

Fullback:

I still believe every team needs a good all-around FB on the roster. I would settle for a TE who has very good blocking ability and can line up in the I-formation and block downhill. He’s got to be strong and understand the techniques of leverage. He needs to have the mentality to be able to make a critical wham block when necessary. In a lot of blitz schemes, the FB is left unmanned and can be a critical asset in the passing game. How often do you see a FB run into the flat and actually have a defender covering him? Not often. Even with limited explosiveness, a FB with good hands in the open flat is a weapon that can create first downs. One of my favorite plays in the NFL is the fullback screen because he’s never accounted for in man coverage and the defense is generally pulled in the direction of the RB action. A FB slipping out to the open side of the field with a few linemen blocking for him is a play that almost guarantees a first down. As defenses focus on getting faster – and therefore smaller – a FB will become an ever increasing weapon in the run game if he is willingly able to take on blocks and have the lunch-pail mentality as it’s a position that gets very little recognition. A good, versatile FB will also be a good special teams contributor on both sides of kickoffs, punts, and FGs.

Tight End:

The evolution of the tight end has led to a varied position in terms of what is asked of these players. Some are basically large wide receivers that are asked to be explosive and stretch the defense. Others are asked to be blockers first and then roll out into the flat and merely be a safety valve at times. With the progression of the NFL, I don’t think any team can get by without a TE that creates matchup issues in the passing game. The ability to use a TE as a Joker player and move him all over the formation is such an asset (especially in a no-huddle approach) because he can line up both as a blocker or a receiver (see Oregon’s use of the TE). Moving him throughout the formation also provides the QB with pre-snap intel on the defense’s intentions. Good heft (250+ lbs.) is absolutely necessary to be able to secure blocks and maintain them in the run game. The elite receiving TEs are in the 6’6” range and 265 lbs. Not everyone has the luxury to have that size and still have the athleticism that Gronkowski and Graham have. Good size is a must or else they’re just a WR lining up close to the offensive tackle. Elite explosive athleticism is something that all personnel evaluators are now looking for in their tight ends – a guy who is fast and can stretch the seam vertically, has good body control to cut sharply to create separation and then go up and get a jump ball over a safety if necessary. It used to be that offenses only used an outside WR to lift the safeties and allow other receivers to work underneath them. Now the TE has that same ability and can create more opportunities for faster WRs who can catch and run in the open field. Mentality will be important because if he doesn’t have a willingness to block then he’ll be a liability or a key for the defense on 1st and 2nd down. He’ll also need to have the toughness to go across the middle and make a catch in traffic even if he knows he’s going to get hit. Essentially you’re asking a player to block like an OL and catch like a WR. TEs will derive a lot of their blocking ability from being quick twitch and exploding off the ball into a defender before he can brace for impact. Good technique with hand placement, leg strength, core and upper body strength is important to engage, drive, and maintain a block on his defender (will block DEs, LBs, and safeties at different times). At this point in the NFL, a TE may be the most versatile player on the field as he will line up as a willing and able blocker on the OL, in the backfield as a FB, outside the numbers as a WR, or in the slot to either go out into a route or block and set the edge for a run to the outside. Long story short: A versatile elite TE can be an offense’s biggest weapon against any defense (outside of the QB, of course).

Wide Receiver:

The physical profile of WRs varies significantly. You can have a WR who looks like Wes Welker or Calvin Johnson and yet both are still effective receivers. To a large degree, both the WR’s skill set and the system that he plays in will determine his value and productivity. It is critical to study a receiver to determine the specific skills he possesses and then determine his fit within a system. The proper use of his skills is so vital. If you used Wes Welker in the same way as Calvin Johnson, he wouldn’t be a very productive WR. As Albert Einstein said, “if you judge a fish by its ability to climb a tree, it will live its whole life believing that it is stupid.” Obviously a principle that can be applied to all positions as well. Depending on each separate alignment (Z, X, slot) of WR there are certain traits you can look for, but it’s even better for a WR to body type and ability to line up anywhere on the formation. Again, that doesn’t mean they can’t be great WRs if they only fit one particular position. But no matter the physical build or alignment, a WR’s main two main functions are to get separation and to catch the football. One induces a better opportunity to do the other. To get separation a WR should have quick and precise feet. This will allow him to run clean and precise routes, stick his foot in the ground, transfer his weight correctly and quickly to make a sharp cut that will put distance between he and the defender. Before I ever look at a receiver’s hands, I watch his feet. How does he breakdown his steps, are his feet fast in doing so, and how does he use his feet to control the rest of his body and make his cuts? The best WRs will have extremely high football IQs to understand routes, route concepts, and how to read defensive keys to run option routes or know when to sit in the open zone. Once the WR is open, he must then catch the ball. Good, consistent hands is an easy trait to mark for success. But throws aren’t always perfect so a good WR will have terrific body control with precise hand eye coordination that allows him to exhibit a very large catch range. Once he locates the ball, he must be able to extend and catch the ball with his hands and then bring the ball in to secure it. Even the best WRs won’t be able to create separation on every snap so he needs to show a competitiveness when the ball is in the air. This covers everything from toughness to make a catch in traffic to his ability to go up and get the ball at its highest point over top of a defender. Once the WR actually has the ball in his hands, explosiveness is the next key I’m looking for. Lateral agility is major facet of the run after the catch. By specific alignments, slot receivers will be excellent at getting off the ball and will have superior change of direction skills. They tend to be quicker and shiftier. Outside receivers are usually larger in size with great speed to stretch the defense. Ideally, he’d be quick and physical off the LOS with great acceleration and top-end speed. One skill all WRs MUST have in my opinion is to be good blockers in the run game. They should have good strength, technique, and (probably most importantly) a willingness to execute the block. Inside WRs will sometimes be asked to crack block down on a LB or to take on a safety heads up so good core and arm strength, as well as the ability to gain strong leverage are great to have.

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  1. Pingback: NFL Running Back, Tight End, Wide Receiver Necessary Skills | Pro Football Hot Reads

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