On Jan. 1, 2007, the Boise State Broncos upset the mighty Adrian-Peterson-led-Oklahoma Sooners in the Fiesta Bowl. The game ended with running back Ian Johnson’s game-clinching two-point conversion in overtime on a Statue of Liberty play, and after the game, during a live interview with FOX Sports’s Chris Myers, Johnson got down on one knee and proposed to cheerleader Chrissy Popadics. She said yes, and Johnson, a sudden celebrity, forever captured Boise’s heart.
A few weeks later at the 2009 NFL combine, Johnson ran a running back-best 4.46 40-yard dash, but he ultimately went undrafted. He toiled in obscurity on Viking, Cardinal, Niner and Dolphin practice squads from 2009-11, and then joined the rest of us in civilian life. All the while, Boiseans lamented that the NFL wasn’t “giving Johnson a chance,” and many were convinced it was because he was just a small fish from a small city.
Really, it was because Johnson couldn’t move left and right. As his 40-yard time dictated, Johnson’s straight-line speed was great, but his lateral movement was stiff. For an NFL running back, a player’s most important trait is the ability to move laterally—especially within confined areas, it’s how he makes defenders miss and set up blocks. Lateral agility is rarely talked about because it can be hard to spot unless it’s on a Barry Sanders or Le’Veon Bell type highlight play. And, unlike straight-line speed (which is borderline irrelevant) lateral agility is difficult to measure nicely, making it nearly impossible for the masses to tweet and talk about.
It’s astonishing how often those traits are overlooked in the pre-draft process. A smart evaluator addresses these traits first when examining a prospect, because any player who lacks that trait will, to one degree or another, have limited upside. It’s crucial that an evaluator understand this—many draft busts are players whose team didn’t recognize, or honor, the repercussions of him lacking that trait.
With draft season upon us, these skills should be the starting points for discussions on all players. And almost any player who lacks his position’s most important trait should not be considered as a potential first-round pick.
Most important trait: Accuracy and pocket movement
The two go hand-in-hand, as all but maybe three or four current NFL QBs need a clean pocket in order to throw with consistent accuracy—and without accuracy, nothing else matters. A player’s field vision, football IQ, out-of-pocket mobility, arm strength and moxie have no meaning if he cannot put the ball where he wants. And usually, a player must put the ball where he wants within the timing of the play, which is why it’s imperative a QB give himself space to throw by moving within the pocket.
Who has this trait: Tom Brady (selected in Round 6 of the 2000 draft)
Who doesn’t: Blaine Gabbert (Round 1, 2011 draft)
Most important trait: Lateral agility
As mentioned in the first few paragraphs, running backs crucially use lateral agility to set up blocks and make defenders miss.
Who has this trait: Le’Veon Bell (Round 2, 2013 draft)
Who doesn’t: Darren McFadden (Round 1, 2008 draft)
Perimeter Wide Receiver
Most important trait: Beating press coverage
This trait—a combination of upper- and lower-body mechanics plus raw skill—is especially hard to measure in drills. How a player goes about beating press coverage depends on who is pressing the player and what the play call asks of the receiver. This is a classic example of why a player’s film is infinitely more important than his workouts.
Who has this trait: Odell Beckham Jr. (Round 1, 2014 draft)
Who doesn’t: Kelvin Benjamin (Round 1, 2014 draft)
Most important trait: Change of direction
Often in the slot, a player is running his route off the location of a linebacker/safety/slot corner. If it’s zone coverage, he throttles down and drifts into the void. If it’s man coverage, he sets up his breaks, leading the defender one way and then bursting the other. All of this requires multidirectional movement. Plus, most offenses are predicated on slot receivers gaining yards after the catch, which often requires a receiver to change directions after the catch.
Who had this trait: Wes Welker (Undrafted, 2004 draft)
Who doesn’t: Jordan Matthews (Round 2, 2014 draft)
Receiving Tight End
Most important trait: Ball-tracking
An in-line tight end must see and catch the ball at weird angles, like over his shoulder when going down the seams or away from his body when breaking on a corner routes. The really good receiving tight ends will get snaps out wide, on an island. There, ball-tracking is also critical, since so many of those throws are predicated on the QB playing to the tight end’s size advantage.
Who had this trait: Antonio Gates (Undrafted, 2003 draft)
Who didn’t: Maxx Williams (Round 2, 2015 draft)
Blocking Tight End
Most important trait: Contact balance (in other words, the ability to land blocks on the move)
One would think that drive-blocking prowess would be the most important, especially with tight ends so often facing defensive ends in the running game. But offensive coaches design plays with the understanding that even the best blocking tight ends can’t consistently beat defensive linemen one-on-one. So, many designs aim to give the tight end double-team help (in which case, he’ll at some point work off that double team and up to the second level, where he’ll then have to land a block off movement) or they treat the tight end like an H-back, and have him relocate before delivering a block. (Outside zone running teams love to flow the zone blocks one way and have the tight end cross the formation the other way, taking the backside defensive end.)
Who has this trait: Tyler Higbee (Round 4, 2016 draft)
Who doesn’t: Eric Ebron (Round 1, 2014 draft)
Most Important Trait: Knee-bend ability
Winning in the trenches is all about leverage. On run-blocks, the adage “low man wins” always proves true. In pass protection, especially on the edges, a pass rusher will inherently be lower, but an O-lineman can offset that with crafty technique… as long as he has strong, flexible knees to offset enough of the leverage difference. Those strong, flexible knees also help counter the speed difference, giving offensive linemen a fighter’s chance against pass rushers who usually weigh 40-50 pounds less than them. But more important than countering the speed rush is handling the bull rush. On the surface, a bull rush appears to be about strength. But a defensive lineman with a 40-50-pound weight disadvantage doesn’t go through a blocker by strong-manning him; he goes through a blocker by using his leverage to get the blocker off balance, and a blocker’s balance ties back to those knees. The NFL is a passing league, and a bull rush is the most immediate way a defender gets to the quarterback. An offensive linemen must have the flexible knees to stop it.
Who has this trait: Tyron Smith (Round 1, 2011 draft)
Who doesn’t: Ereck Flowers (Round 1, 2015 draft)
Most important trait: Edge-bending ability
It starts with flexibility in the region of the body where most humans are least flexible: from the bottom of the knee to the top of the hip. Flexibility there allows a pass-rushing end to get low and dip around the corner. (Von Miller is one of history’s greatest examples.)
A caveat: a player can be a great defensive end without having edge-bending ability, but he just can’t be a great outside pass rusher. Jadeveon Clowney is a perfect illustration of this. The middle of his body is quite stiff, which is why he almost never fires out of his stance and sharply turns the corner. But Clowney’s first step is so explosive, his hands so quick and violent, his leverage so sound and his contact strength so sudden that he wrecks plays in (many) other ways. That wreckage won’t translate to piles of sacks, however (the most sacks Clowney has ever had in a season is 9.5). And his pass-rushing prowess really didn’t emerge until the Texans started stunting and blitzing him inside.
Clowney is in a great situation; the Texans are in that quarter of NFL defensive schemes that don’t demand a great edge rusher. But for the other 3/4 of the league, evaluating a defensive end must begin with evaluating his edge-bending ability.
Who has this trait: Von Miller (Round 1, 2011 draft)
Who didn’t: Björn Werner (Round 1, 2013 draft)
Most important trait: Initial quickness
Few teams employ two-gap principles up front anymore, making “anchor ability” less significant for most defensive tackles. Even most of the “3-4” defenses employ one-gap (i.e. 4-3) principles. Winning in the trenches begins with penetration.
Who has this trait: Aaron Donald (Round 1, 2014 draft)
Who doesn’t: Mario Edwards (Round 2, 2015 draft)
Most important trait: Play recognition
Almost every offensive play is designed to manipulate a linebacker. Play-action, a rapidly rising staple in many schemes, is the most obvious illustration, but examples lie within every play—for example, the aim of most run plays is for the running back to beat the linebacker to a spot. The faster the linebacker identifies that spot, the better the defense. Pass plays aim to challenge and occupy linebackers with routes that open windows downfield. A linebacker who identifies this can eliminate and distort those windows.
Who has this trait: Luke Kuechly (Round 1, 2012 draft)
Who doesn’t: Darron Lee (Round 1, 2016 draft)
Most important trait: Man-to-man coverage ability
If a player doesn’t have it, he’s a liability in most third-down coverages, forcing the safety to help the player and prompting a costly trickle-down of limitations on a defense’s scheme. Even in zone coverage, man-to-man ability is often required. The most common zone coverage, by far, is Cover 3, where there’s one safety in centerfield and another safety creeping down into the box. Cornerbacks in Cover 3 are responsible for the furthest outside receiver, and the technique a corner employs in running this receiver amounts to a variation of man-to-man.
Who has this trait: Jalen Ramsey (Round 1, 2016 draft)
Who doesn’t: Dee Milliner (Round 1, 2013 draft)
Most important trait: Open-field tackling
Though defenses are getting more creative in how they use safeties (hence safeties’ rising value in free agency last week), the position’s main purpose still resides in its name: safety. He’s the safety blanket for the defense. A free safety is the last line of defense before paydirt, and a strong safety is usually who the offense doesn’t have enough blockers to account for. Few things make a defensive coach more uncomfortable than a safety who can’t be trusted to tackle in space.
Who has this trait: Earl Thomas (Round 1, 2010 draft)
Who didn’t: Matt Elam (Round 1, 2013 draft)
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