Enough with the constant search for NFL talent. Gil Brandt is going to try something different: building the perfect player at five key positions by combining the traits of some of the top players in the league today. The series continues with the perfect running back below.
The perfect running back would have ...
... the power-running ability of Jeremy Hill.
Our perfect runner will have the strength, aggressiveness, size, legs and determination to always pick up the first down (and more) in those crucial third-and-1 situations, even when the play isn't blocked correctly. And muscle isn't everything; you can be strong, but if you don't have the competitiveness to keep churning and driving, you're going to have a tough time as a power runner. Great power runners have the body lean and explosion to find a way through and fight for yardage, even if the hole isn't there. A yen for contact helps.
It seemed in recent years like the power back had been almost forgotten in the NFL. We don't draft power backs like we used to, when guys like Paul Hornung, Jim Taylor, Larry Csonka and Emmitt Smith were running over defenders. But the power runner can still play an important role. You can bet the Patriots would've loved to have a power back on the roster in last season's AFC title game loss to Denver, when quarterback Tom Brady led the team in rushing with 13 yards. Jonathan Stewart helped lead Carolina to the Super Bowl as the lead back in the NFL's second-ranked rushing attack. Marshawn Lynch was the motor behind the Seahawks' offense for years. And, of course, there's Hill, a strong back who can really move the pile. He was a huge factor as a rookie in 2014 and recovered from a less-than-stellar start to 2015 with a solid second half. It's clear Cincinnati has faith in him.
Classic examples: Jim Taylor and Emmitt Smith.
... the vision of Devonta Freeman.
Talk to Bill Parcells, and he'll tell you this is the most important characteristic for success as a running back. A player with good vision is able to make correct, decisive choices based on the defense he's facing; if the hole he's supposed to run through is clogged, a runner with great vision will find the hole that's open and hit that instead. He'll also be able to spot the open areas of the field once he's gotten past the line. Vision can't be taught or coached; it's something you're born with.
Freeman is a stout runner who racked up 709 yards (at a clip of 4.7 per carry) in his first eight games last season, helping the Falcons to a 6-2 start. He also scored nine touchdowns in his first six games last year -- and you can't do that without vision.
Classic examples: Curtis Martin, Marshall Faulk and LaDainian Tomlinson.
... the quickness of Darren Sproles.
This category is crucial. Quickness can make up for a lack of speed, but if you aren't in at least the 75th percentile when it comes to quickness, you're not going to be a great player. You want a running back who will show the kind of burst and acceleration that leads to impossible-looking runs; he should move smoothly and be able to change direction while running at full speed. Sproles -- at 5-foot-6 and 190 pounds -- continues to use his quickness to great effect with the Eagles. In his 11-year career, he's earned two Pro Bowl nods and established the single-season record for all-purpose yards (2,696 in 2011).
Classic example: Tony Dorsett.
... the consistency of Adrian Peterson.
Our running back has to bring it for multiple carries on a week-in, week-out basis. Frankly, there are only a select few who can do that at a championship level.
Peterson will -- like anyone -- have some games with lesser production, but he brings the same level of effort to every touch. There's no other way he could put up 97.3 rushing yards per game -- fourth-best all-time among players with 1,000 or more career carries -- or nearly 1,300 yards per season over his nine-year career. His consistency was a big part of why he was able to push the Vikings to the playoffs last season with a league-best 1,485 yards, despite working with a patchwork offensive line. And it's been a part of his game going back to his days at Oklahoma; I remember watching him face Texas at the Cotton Bowl when the temperature had to be something like 110 degrees on the field -- which is especially hot for a running back -- and he ran like it was nothing.
Classic examples: Ottis Anderson, Jerome Bettis.
... the elusiveness of LeSean McCoy.
This is the kind of guy who can make a guy miss even when the defender is right in his face, almost like a magician, largely by changing direction. We used to say an elusive runner has some trout in him, in that he can zig-zag and run with a loosey-goosey, hard-to-track style. One defensive coach I talked to said he made his linebackers prepare to face McCoy by doing a drill that involved them keeping their arms behind their backs; this was, in his words, meant to help them refrain from "taking the cheese" -- that is, biting on the first move made by the Bills back.
Classic example: Barry Sanders.
... the versatility of Le'Veon Bell.
A complete back -- one who can catch the ball and pass protect in addition to running well -- creates very tough matchup problems for opposing defenses. A back like that can play all three downs rather than being subbed out in passing situations. It can be tough to find backs who can pass protect, because you don't see ton of it at the college level. But when he's healthy, Bell (whose 2015 season was cut short in November by a torn MCL) excels as a complete back, not least because he is very good at blocking the blitzer and adjusting to pick up defensive linemen who come free. And, as evidenced by his 16-game output in 2014, the Steelers back can catch passes (83 receptions for 854 yards) and run the ball (290 carries for 1,361 yards) with the best of them.
Classic examples: Paul Hornung, William Andrews.
... the ability to get square of Matt Forte.
This is about maintaining momentum upfield even after making that first contact with a defender. Picture a back making contact with the defender's arms at sort of a side angle before squaring up and advancing forward. Forte displayed a knack for squaring up throughout his eight-year career in Chicago; little wonder that he takes a yearly average of 1,075 rushing yards into his first season with the Jets.
Classic example: O.J. Simpson.