What does the perfect running back look like? You might imagine it's someone like Jim Brown, Walter Payton or Barry Sanders. But for the modern NFL, how would you build the ideal running back?
Looking at the key physical components to running back play, a great player must have the vision to find holes, the arms and hands to break tackles and catch passes, the thighs and hips to run with power and the feet to elude tacklers and run into space.
Which current NFL players best highlight those attributes?
Head/Eyes: Frank Gore, San Francisco 49ers
One of the most important traits to running back evaluation, and success, is having great vision. All the speed, strength and agility in the world gets lost if the running back can't find the right running lane. Frank Gore's career in San Francisco is a testament to success based on vision and instincts. That's why he's the pick for the top of our running back.
Gore may not have exceptional speed or strength—although he has good levels of both—but what truly makes him amazing is that ability to find the smallest seam and crease in the offensive line and get through it. Even when the defense has completely closed down the rushing lanes, Gore somehow finds an opening and scoots through for a positive gain. That first- and second-level vision are ideal for today's one-cut back.
Patience, vision and instincts will take you far in the NFL, and unlike speed and power, they don't tend to wear out over time. Emmitt Smith proved that on his way to an all-time rushing record.
Arms/Body: Adrian Peterson, Minnesota Vikings
Vision will get a running back far in this league, but to truly be great, you must be prepared to throw a stiff-arm to the chest of a would-be tackler and create your own running lanes. That's what Adrian Peterson does best—use his dominating upper body to punish defenders and create big plays.
Peterson has the long reach you want in a running back and uses that well to throw a stiff-arm before a tackler can get within range. But at the end of that long arm is a soft hand, and when you factor in receiving ability, Peterson's hands are an added bonus to his incredibly strong punch.
Peterson's upper body is statuesque for football prospects, much like Jim Brown's was back in the day.
Thighs/Hips: Marshawn Lynch, Seattle Seahawks
The running back takes the handoff, finds his rushing lane and squares his shoulders to run upfield, but then he has a safety diving at his thighs to make a tackle and avoid a stiff-arm. What do you do? You drive your knee into his chest and keep high-stepping through trash for yards after contact. In today's NFL, no one does this better than Marshawn Lynch.
Lynch runs with anger, which is awesome, but he also has the leg power and drive to keep on trucking through arm-tacklers and defenders who drive at his lower body. He has the hips to roll through contact and continue to pick up yards and the thick thighs that make him tough to wrap up around the waist.
Lynch is the best power runner in the NFL right now, but if you could go back in time, no one did this better than Earl Campbell.
Feet: LeSean McCoy, Philadelphia Eagles
Agility, speed and quickness are so key to a running back's ability in space and in traffic. In today's game, the best attributes come from LeSean McCoy.
In terms of agility, McCoy rivals greats like Barry Sanders in his ability to make a defender miss in the open field. And while McCoy isn't as shifty or elusive behind the line of scrimmage, that's also a positive. The Eagles' running back brings breakaway speed to the game and gives our created running back the second gear to run away from the defense once he finds an opening.
Jamaal Charles would be a close second here, but due to McCoy's insane ability to shake a defender in space, he gets the nod. But if we're talking all time, no one can touch what Sanders did for the Detroit Lions.