By Brent Foshee, Fanteractive Scouting Contributor
Finally aware of, and forced to address, the long term consequences of concussions and a with a mandate from owners to make the game safer - and protect star players, the NFL has become a scoring league in the last decade. Quarterbacks have always, and will always be, valued due to the unique importance and responsibilities of the position in team sports but wide receivers and tight ends have, in recent years, seen their value increase dramatically as the league’s teams move away from the more physical, slower, and ultimately less appealing styles of football. Running backs are still prized as they will touch the ball more than anyone except the quarterback on any given weekend. This new direction, along with an ever increasing diversity in formations, makes it more difficult to scout offensive players. There are still some fundamental physical traits and skills that all teams look at before deciding whether or not a player is a good fit in their system.
3 Basics - Quarterbacks
Footwork is extremely important. Many times accuracy issues can be solved - and are solved by NFL quarterback coaches - by simply improving footwork.
Arm Strength is important. NFL offenses run deeper crosses and deeper outs than college teams, and they run them more frequently. If a quarterback can’t get the ball there with some zip the coaches will have to plan around that.
Ability to Improvise, calmly. People call this intangibles usually, or hustle, or vision but it really is a player’s innate ability to understand a play call, trust the play call, and buy himself time for his teammates to get open when things go south. And in the NFL things frequently go south.
Quarterbacks - If a quarterback can set himself quickly then he has a better chance of not only seeing the entire field but delivering a better thrown ball. Watch to see which quarterbacks consistently set up in the pocket on drop backs. Bill Walsh called footwork the single most determining factor in a quarterback’s ability to succeed in the NFL. Why argue with Bill Walsh? A number of great college quarterbacks don’t have the ability to put enough velocity behind their throws in order to consistently beat NFL defenders. Too much air? Interception. Thrown too early? Interception. Underthrown? Interception. While some teams can work around these limitations through play calling it certainly downgrades the quarterback during the drafting process and makes it easier for opposing coaches to game plan. Quarterback’s tend to be over 6’2” but Drew Brees and Russell Wilson have sort of changed that. If a guy can get himself set, read his key defenders and throw the ball accurately and with velocity then his size is not that big of a deal. The league is full of quarterbacks that can do all but one of them. They are holding clipboards and balls for the kicker to kick. The best quarterbacks do all three. Finally, quarterbacks do need to have the ability to remain calm and the ability to command respect from their teammates. They also need to know when to do either one. Their ability to lead the team through on field adversity hinges on the team’s ability to trust them unconditionally. Several scouts I know have a “Head cases need not apply” mentality when it comes to quarterbacks.
3 Basics - Wide Receivers
Route Running - Receivers are coached to run their routes the same every time. If a guy isn’t doing that I always wonder if he’s coachable.
Hands (and knowing how to use them) - If you are a receiver the ball should never hit your body. THE BALL SHOULD NEVER HIT YOUR BODY! Good receivers use their arms. Bad receivers - or lazy receivers - let the ball hit their bodies.
Athleticism - Be it speed, quickness, or leaping ability receivers need to excel at something in order to get open in the NFL.
Wide Receiver - Receivers come in all shapes and sizes. Teams prefer tall and fast players that can pluck the ball out of the air at it’s highest point, beat defenders downfield, and outrun defensive backs when they get the ball. While more are entering the league every year those receivers are few and far between. Shorter receivers can find success by playing in the slot and using quickness to beat defenders and find holes in the defense. Possession receivers need to have the ability to get open through perfect routes or natural size and MUST have good hands. Dropped passes by a possession receiver are not tolerated. Hand size is a very important indicator of a player’s ability to catch the ball consistently. NFL quarterbacks will throw with high velocity frequently and small handed receivers have a harder time catching those balls.
3- Basics Tight Ends
Blocking ability - All tight ends have to block down on defensive ends and linebackers. They don’t have to be great but they do have to hold the point.
Athleticism - If a tight end is a freakish athlete he’ll get a look. Even if he hasn’t played a ton of football - see Antonio Gates.
Consistency - Tight Ends are frequently outlet receivers. Occasionally they are primary receivers. Tight Ends have to catch the ball consistently in both difficult and mundane situations.
Tight Ends - In today’s NFL a great tight end offers the offense a fulcrum around which they can attack a defense. Many are too large to be covered by safeties and too fast to be covered by linebackers. Therefore they can be used to clear our large areas of space for other receivers OR they become prime targets based on a one on one matchup. First and foremost tight ends have to be able to quickly possess the football. You want a guy that reaches out for the ball and quickly brings it under his control...because he’s probably about to get hit…..hard. Tight ends need to be able to move linebackers and smaller turn defensive ends in the running game. Good blocking technique involves getting a body on a body and maintaining the contact. The best tight ends have a knack for using their size to create space and then outrunning the defenders when they get the ball. This isn’t something that can be coached but it should be scouted. If a guy constantly knocks his defender to the ground and avoids the next closest tackler then he’s understands how to operate in the open field. Finally the tight end needs to have good rapport with his teammates. He is sometimes asked to be a member of the offensive line and sometimes asked to be a member of the receiving corps. He needs to be able to move between the two and work seamlessly with both groups.
3- Basics Running Backs
Burst - Running backs need to be able to accelerate through the hole in order to maximize yardage.
Finishing ability - Finishing a run with physicality wears down defenses and extends runs. It also sets up longer runs later in games.
Protection - Good running backs protect the ball.
Running Backs - Although their use has declined in recent years their importance has not. A physical running game is still desired by most coaches. Running backs need to be physical contact runners, or they need to be the best open space athlete on the field. Regardless of the system they play in all running backs need to have the ability to accelerate through a hole quickly. Holes in the NFL are not large, nor do they stay open long. Having the ability to anticipate, cut, and explode through a hole is a necessity for a good back. How a running back carries a football tells you a lot about their style and coachability. It is also the best indicator I know of as to whether or not a back is likely to fumble the ball frequently. Keeping the ball in tight, and putting it their immediately upon receiving it, are good indicators to look for. Straight line speed is important since backs will hit the open field on occasion. Having the ability to out run defenders to the goal line is definitely a positive. How backs translate to the passing game is also important. The better pass catching backs become more attractive to teams due to their ability to fill in on third downs. One of the largest adjustments for an NFL running back to make is in pass protection. Demonstrating an affinity for that will enhance a player’s draft stock over similarly skilled players. Consistency is another trait for backs. The ability to get maximum yardage, even a yard or two speaks volumes about a player’s potential. This also relates to the backs overall vision.