The off-season is a great time to step away from the spreadsheets and statistics, and develop a different set of skills that will improve your Fantasy Football successes. I believe that a deeper understanding of the game’s subtleties will help your Fantasy teams in the long run. With no week-to-week pressures of lineups and injuries, what better time to dig in and learn how to do some scouting with rookie running backs?
As the NFL desperately attempts to make itself a year-round sport, the access to information is at an all-time high. Every football fan now can be an armchair general manager with broadcasting of the scouting combine and game footage available from every major college.
But how does this play into your Fantasy team? And what is actually important to look for?
Obviously dynasty leagues that have rookie drafts will be impacted. Those leagues are usually very deep, and place an emphasis on longevity. However, rookie scouting can also be helpful for keeper, re-draft, and MFL leagues. Particularly, deep and larger formats can get huge returns from finding hidden rookie gems.
Basic scouting consists of glancing over combine results and maybe watching the highlight plays on YouTube. By knowing what to look for and seeing the whole picture of a player can give you a huge edge in not only their upcoming season, but in future seasons as well. Today, we’ll explore how to scout running backs using game film and combine results.
Scouting Rookie Running Backs
Basic Film Study
The availability of film on the internet is amazing. Every spring I am like a kid in a candy store, looking for the next big time player. Watching film helps sort the studs from the wannabes and workout warriors.
With all of this power, comes a great responsibility. One of the major pitfalls of YouTube highlight videos, is that it’s only highlights. Of course Trent Richardson is going to look like the Kool Aid man if all you see are his touchdown runs! When looking for film, one should try to find full game footage to see what the whole story is on a player. Never trust highlight-only videos; they are for entertainment purposes only.
Now that you have found some whole games to watch, what do you want to look for in rookie running backs? From a Fantasy perspective, it’s often similar to what a pro team looks for.
First are the simple things that anyone familiar with can look for. Things like pad level, playing speed, power, and open field elusiveness are easily evaluated in every game. These skills translate into more yards, broken tackles, and touchdowns (aka more Fantasy points).
Next are details that the common fan won’t look for, but are crucial to any team. Are they experienced in pass protection and catching the ball? Can they split as a wide receiver or return punts and kicks? Does his celebrations make Ickey Woods blush? Any or all of these skills will help a running back stay on the field longer, meaning more chances for scoring your Fantasy team more points. Being flexible a la LeVeon Bell or even Tevin Coleman allows a team to utilize a player in more than one way.
More Attention Required
Running the Schemes
Something that requires a little more practice is determining if the running back finds the right hole, and goes in with authority. It isn’t rocket science, but it does have some complexity and requires some background in how offensive lines work.
At the most basic level, there are essentially two different offensive running schemes: zone and angle. Being able to tell the difference is key. You can learn a lot about rookie running backs depending on how they perform in both systems.
If you see an offensive lineman and/or fullback charging into a single hole, it’s likely an angle based system. Very popular in both pro and college systems, backs in these systems should be more cannonball and less ballroom dancer. It’s the offense inviting the defense to a brawl. Watch Wisconsin run their angle blocking scheme here:
The polar opposite scheme, zone blocking, is very popular as well. This scheme focuses on having the runner read a defender, and pick a hole based on that read. Zone blocking also incorporates the Read Option, a play style that has a running threat at quarterback as well as running back.
It’s important to be able to establish the two schemes for a couple of reasons. Having success with both styles in college will translate better to the more fluid offenses in the NFL. Rookie running backs that are successful in zone offenses usually have good downfield vision. Meanwhile, backs that manhandled defenses in power/angle systems will hit holes with authority, a good trait to have at the goal line.
Scouting the Combine
The NFL Scouting Combine is the most heavily publicized workout of the year. Collegiate studs are invited to sprint, shuttle, and lift for everyone to see. How to determine what parts of those tests are meaningful is a different monster.
For instance, the 40-yard dash is one of the most famous, yet equally over- and underrated tests performed. A running back will see a long breakaway run only a couple of times a season. Looking at only the complete time is going to give a false sense of usable speed. Chris Johnson had a blazing 40, but there is more to his game than just top-end speed.
However, the 10-yard and 20-yard split of the 40 can give coaches and Fantasy Football players a different story. These are distances that a running back will travel on a very regular basis. In conjunction with the 20 yard shuttle and Three Cone Drill, these tests will show who has pure acceleration and quickness. That burst will be more indicative of which rookie running backs can get to the second level of defenders, and get regular chunks of yardage. These kinds of players potentially provide a more consistent Fantasy value.
Size and Strength
Having explosiveness is an important attribute for a running rack, and the two tests that give insight are the vertical and broad jumps. Both of these test stationary leg strength and demonstrate who is going to go through defenders. On the other side of the coin, poor leg strength will probably lead to fewer broken tackles.
Hands down the most overrated test for rookie running backs is the bench press. Benching 225 pounds repeatedly is a good indicator for stiff arms, but so long as the player’s score isn’t abysmal, it won’t impact your keeper league. A poor showing can be a red flag showing weakness, but having a good showing isn’t necessary for scoring on your Fantasy team.
Also take note of the heights and weights at the combine. Being a bigger back with great burst a la Adrian Peterson or Todd Gurley is generally a great recipe for success. But being too heavy might limit a running back’s ability to break away from defenders. Meanwhile, runners that come in too light might have a hard time staying healthy.
Concluding and Utilizing
With all of this in mind, which rookie running backs do I like right now? Obviously if Leonard Fournette can stay healthy, his violent style will put points up for your team. Though they both have some red flags and questionable vision, Joe Mixon and Dalvin Cook are versatile backs that catch the ball well. Kareem Hunt might not be an immediate impact, but he’s a bit of a sleeper to me. He is agile, has good receiving skills, and has good vision. Talented as he is, D’Onta Foreman is an outright liability in protection and has a fumbling problem that teams won’t put out on 3rd down or in the 4th quarter. He can’t score you points if he isn’t on the field.
By using film scouting and combine results together you’ll have a much better look at what a player has been, and what they can be down the road. I recommend keeping notes of your opinions of a player as well. A running back may improve, or in some cases get worse, over time. It’s handy having a pre-generated scouting report ready when your Fantasy league starts drafting. Do note that using these methods of scouting can also be used on veterans of the NFL as well. Watching professional film is accessible to anyone who has NFL GamePass, and due to the beauty of the internet, past combine results are always a click away.
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