Breaking Down the Difference Between Good College RBs and Elite NFL Prospects

Randy ChambersAnalyst IApril 9, 2013

This college football player was terrific in college, so my favorite NFL team should draft him because it would put us over the top and make us Super Bowl contenders. As you watch the upcoming NFL draft, you are sure to hear comments like that from fans. There are a lot of guys out there who believe because somebody was great in college; they will be able to keep that type of production up at the next level.

I'm not sure how many times this has to be proven that it isn't true, but, uh, it isn't true. Just because a player led your school to a BCS bowl game, does not mean that he will suit up in an NFL uniform and begin doing the same thing. The list of great college players who turned NFL busts is longer than a marathon. There is also a lengthy list of guys who nobody was paying attention to coming out of college that went on to have a brilliant NFL career. 

The truth is that nobody truly knows what a team is getting when a player is drafted. However, there are certain things you look for when making a pick. One of the easier positions for a player to make the transition is at running back. Much of the basics are the same, as he receives the ball from the quarterback, finds the hole and tries to run as far as he can down the field.

But with today's college game changing so much and it being drastically different from the NFL, it is often the guys we overlooked that are tearing it up in the rushing department.

So what is the difference between a college back and an NFL runner? How do you know if somebody has the goods to be a terrific running back at the next level? While there are no guarantees that anybody will have a successful career in the pros, here are the things that you should be looking for, and that make the difference from a good college back to an NFL elite prospect.



As a running back, everybody wants to see the highlight film and what his 40-yard dash time is. Believe me, there is plenty of time to see all of that. I want to see if he is capable of holding his own in the blocking department. With many of the gimmicky offenses teams run at the college level, a lot of backs aren't even asked to block when they are on the field. And then you have the backs that don't put effort into blocking the extra defender, which is not going to translate well once he moves on to the NFL.

Blocking is much like rebounding in basketball. It is a question of whether you want to do it or you don't. Not everybody has the heart to leave it all out on the field and blocking is the dirty man's work that nobody really wants to do because there isn't much reward for it. Simply put: if you aren't willing to block, you aren't going to be an every down runner at the next level.

Here you see a Penn State defensive tackle that comes through untouched by the Alabama offensive line. Running back Trent Richardson notices the defender and doesn't think twice about getting in his way and making a play. He isn't going to shy away from the contact, and he has no problem getting physical to protect his quarterback.

Instead, Richardson squares up the defender and simply takes his legs out from underneath him, resulting in the defender doing a back-flip.  Usually you would want to see a running back get low and use the shoulder to take on the defender, but this got the job done and allowed time for the Alabama quarterback to throw for the touchdown.

Blocking is an extremely underrated part of playing the running back position because it doesn't end up on the stat sheet. However, something as simple as this can earn you a spot on an NFL team, and if you aren't willing to do it, even the most talented backs in the country could be turned down due to not being an every down player. This is all about effort and if you don't have it at the collegiate level, it is tough to imagine picking it up later on in your career.

Making plays in the running game is cool and all, but being able to pick up that extra blitzer or guy that broke free helps make a complete running back.



Another thing that running backs are being asked more and more to do at the next level is catch the football. Yes, running and blocking isn't enough these days. As the NFL slowly makes a transition to the spread offense and adding as many playmakers on the field as possible, the backs must be able to slip out of the backfield and hold onto the ball. Guys now must be able to consistently catch the ball with their arms extended, but also have to be able to turn up field and make a play after the ball is secured.

Sometimes you will see runners look up field before actually catching the ball, which usually results in a dropped pass. Some guys just have stones for hands and can't catch the ball no matter how nicely the quarterback puts the ball on them. Whatever the case may be, if you expect to be on an NFL field often, you will improve those hands and learn how to catch the ball.

As you can see, we are seeing more and more consistency over the last few years when it comes to running backs being used in the passing game. Besides a breakout season all the way back in 2003, when LaDainian Tomlinson caught 100 passes, the league began to see a decrease in running backs that finished the year with 40-plus receptions. Now, this is becoming the norm for most backs and even a runner like Danny Woodhead is making a living off the ability to make plays in the receiving department.

Besides speed and being hard to tackle in the open field, Darren Sproles has made a name for himself over the years because of his ability to catch the ball. Whether it is slipping out into the flat, running a slant across the middle or being included on a screen, his ability to rack up the receptions has made him one of the more valuable offensive weapons in the league.

Most would consider Ray Rice, LeSean McCoy, Arian Foster and Adrian Peterson to be the elite runners in the NFL right now. Well, all four of those talented players finished last season with at least 40 receptions. As the game changes, players need to evolve as well and adapt to what is needed from the position. Catching the football is now one of the main things a running back must bring to the table, and the numbers continue to prove it.


Running Between the Tackles 

This is an area where we will cover a bunch of things that the college running back needs to have in order to become that elite NFL runner. Running between the tackles is much more than getting the ball and actually running between the tackle and the guard. You have to have the agility to squeeze between tight spaces, vision to see the hole open up and the burst to hit the hole hard and break free.

It would also help if you were built to run between the tackles and had a little bit of size to your frame. Many college runners aren't able to run between the tackles because they aren't 200-pounds soaking wet with a pocket full of pennies. If you aren't built to take a pounding and can't get the job done at the college level, there is little hope for you in the NFL, where guys are much bigger, faster and stronger.

When Reggie Bush was at USC and even with the New Orleans Saints, many considered him to be a one-trick pony. He was considered somebody who wasn't big enough to take a pounding running between the tackles. Bush was someone you wanted to design plays to get him to the outside and in space where he could make people miss and eventually hit the home run.

That was until he showed up and silenced all those critics playing for the Miami Dolphins. As you see here, Bush is a patient runner, but by the looks of things, there is nowhere to go in this mess against the Arizona Cardinals. There are legitimately four defenders that can make a play and stop him for a short gain.

As the play continues to develop, Bush hits the hole hard and then cuts back quickly to avoid the defenders. He then sees another block being set up, which allows him to turn on the afterburners and stretch this play into a big-time gain for the Dolphins. It is a combination of quickness, agility, vision and that important burst that not everybody has.

To be able to run inside, you have to have all of those traits. And while every back may not have them, it is truly what helps separate the average backs from being great in the NFL. Flipping it to the outside may work in college because not everybody is on the same playing field. However, in the NFL, athleticism is everywhere and that type of stuff won't work for 60 minutes.

Running between the tackles is where the money is earned because it is grown man football and wears down the defense over time. The smaller backs aren't able to do it and some are just so impatient that it can become frustrating tying to coach them into an elite runner. You either have the burst and the vision to see make plays or you don't. You are an elite runner or you're not. There is a fine line between the two.


What's with These No-Name Backs Taking Over?

Foster and Alfred Morris are just a couple of the running backs that have emerged on the scene as elite NFL runners. What makes them special is that neither of them were highly rated players when coming out of college. Morris slipped down to the sixth round and Foster went undrafted in the 2009 NFL draft.

The problem isn't that these guys were terrible at the college level and then somehow transformed into superstar runners. The potential was there all along. It has more to do with these myths that are going on in the draft world and questions that held these teams back from pulling the trigger.

Watching the highlight tape of Morris, you see a beast of a running back. I don't think I saw one play on this entire film where he went down on initial contact. He broke more tackles than a bad fisherman, and he moved well for a man his size. He sees the field well and is able to cutback and make people miss. He obviously has no problems being physical and with his size at 200-plus pounds, he could develop into a solid blocker.

Sounds good right? The reason he was passed on by so many teams had to do with him coming out of Florida Atlantic University. Watching that tape, there is no way he slips down to the sixth round if he was doing all of that against teams in the SEC. Instead, he was running over defenders that played for Troy, UAB and Western Kentucky. The talent level wasn't great, which diminishes a lot of the accomplishments in many scouts' eyes. Anybody can beat the game on easy mode; it is what you can do on the hard levels that make you great.

Morris made a lot of folks look bad after rushing for 1,613 yards last season and 13 touchdowns. The same goes for Foster, who has become a household name over the years and a popular pickup with fantasy football owners. While he has turned the league upside down, he wasn't nearly as consistent at Tennessee as he is now. He also had issues of fumbling the football at crucial spots in the game, which didn't help his stock as well.

But what did both backs have in common? They both displayed a good job of catching the football; both were big and physical runners that could run between the tackles, and neither minded helping out in the blocking department. There are many keys to being a great back, but it is often the little things that separate the elite from the rest of the pack.


Any Elite RB's in This Year's Class?

The short answer is no.

Eddie Lacy is considered by many to be the top running back of the 2013 class, but he has some serious question marks. Along with a lengthy injury history that has followed him nearly his entire career, he just doesn't jump out at you as somebody who can carry a team by himself. He is well-built and has that Alabama pedigree, but he struggles at times when it comes to blocking, as well as seeing the field well.

Here you see Lacy just looking at the Mississippi State defenders. He took a poor angle from the beginning of the play and is now pretty much a non-factor in helping out his teammates. Lacy ends up slightly pushing a defender out of the way, but it wasn't nearly enough to help out his quarterback, who ended up throwing an incompletion due to pressure in his face.

You can see Lacy does a good job of getting in front of the defender this time, but he attempts to block high. He doesn't get as low as he should, which would have made the block a lot more effective.

The defender ends up getting to the quarterback, in a play that resulted in an interception. The good thing is that Lacy isn't afraid to look for the contact, and he at least attempts to block consistently. The bad news is that his technique is a little out of whack and he can't be counted on consistently to pick up the extra man.

Due to the questions as far as blocking are concerned, his injuries and his lack of field vision (You can see in this video), Lacy is a questionable first round pick in the upcoming draft. With the overall success we are seeing from backs less talked about, drafting a running back high in any draft would mean that they are a can't-miss prospect. Think of a Peterson or Richardson type runner, backs that are ahead of their time and can help out in every category.

Of course, those runners are few and far between and could be considered one in a generation player. As for the rest of the players on this year's draft board, Montee Ball is running on worn tires after carrying the ball an insane amount of times in Wisconsin. Giovani Bernard may be a little small to be a consistent in between the tackles runner, while Johnathan Franklin has inconsistent hands and has never been a great blocker.

There is a lot of potential in this year's running back class and a few guys in the later rounds that could end up surprising, but if we are talking about elite runners, it is hard to find one out of the bunch eligible this year.


What We Learned

We learned that playing the running back position in today's NFL is much more than being flashy and making people miss in the open field. You must have a fundamentally sound game and be willing to do many different things if you are going to succeed. This isn't college where you end up getting a pass because you are the most athletic person on the field. Guys must be willing to block, be able to run inside and need to have good hands to catch the ball.

This may not be the sexy part of the game that draws a lot of ratings, but those speedy backs such as Chris Johnson and Felix Jones are starting to prove they have a short shelf life.

Running backs must be fast and have the traditional parts to their game that most people think about. However, it is the basics of the game and the little things that help turn a good college running back into an elite NFL prospect.

Note: All screenshots were pulled from YouTube video uploaded by users 1tmulder, LeVol0ntaire and JPDraftJedi. All stats come from unless otherwise noted. Graphs were made using


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