Finding the next stud running back

Updated: August 28, 2014, 10:57 AM ET
By Christopher Harris | ESPN.com

In advance of NFL training camps, we asked Christopher Harris to write an overview of film-watching. He and Field Yates recorded a Fantasy Underground podcast on the topic, and we think it bears elaboration here. Chris and Field are at the vanguard of advocating film-watching as an essential tool of fantasy evaluation, and in this series of articles, Chris will offer an overview of what he looks for on film.

Part 1 of 5: How to find the next stud running back

I can't tell much about a running back from his top-line stats, such as yards and touchdowns. I need to see him play. But what do I look for?

My goal with this piece is to give you an evaluation tool kit so that when you watch new rushers (or old rushers in new roles), you'll have an objective way to come to your own conclusions, ones that don't get blinded by the box score. Nobody is claiming that this is rocket science, but I find it helps to have a concrete checklist when I watch RB tape:

1. Defenders take weird angles: We all want RBs whose speed translates to game action, but how do we know when that's happening? Yes, if a guy outruns everyone and never gets touched, that's a good hint he's fast; then again, some long runs are the result of a defensive breakdown, and it only looks like the back is a burner. So I also take note when defenders consistently take bad angles trying to make a tackle on a RB.

For instance, one thing that impressed me about Doug Martin in the early games of his rookie season was how frequently linebackers and defensive backs thought they had Martin lined up, only to make a glancing blow.

One of the reasons I bit on David Wilson is I thought he had that same ability, though his health and fumbling have been problematic. Andre Ellington showed a ton of this on tape last year, too.

2. Defenders look silly in the hole: I hear the term "short-area burst" a lot, but how do you know whether you're seeing it?

When defenders get into the hole, only to whiff or get partial contact on a RB, we all know it's a legit sign of short-area burst. If a RB consistently creates such reactions, it's a good bet that he's got above-average feet and knows where he wants to go. Something that gets lost in LeSean McCoy's crazy raw talent is how decisive he is pressing the hole; for as quickly as he can change direction, you don't see him jump-stop very often. In most cases, the halting jump-step is a great RB's enemy.

It's also illustrative to see a defender in good tackling position in the hole who winds up bouncing backward after contact with a RB. That's another manifestation of short-area burst: power. I especially love seeing a (relatively) smaller back winning such collisions. Martin was awesome at this in '12, which is one of the reasons he got compared to similarly sized Ray Rice so frequently.

3. First contact doesn't bring a RB down: Backs who consistently beat first contact can later become that most valuable of fantasy assets: the goal-line back. I like to see repeated cases of powering through contact in all situations. Alfred Morris and Rashad Jennings made their early cases as fantasy stars this way, and it's why I continue to be intrigued by Chris Ivory.

This is also one reason to be interested in Toby Gerhart. Gerhart has established himself as a legit power back who in his career has made up for poor line play to create something from nothing. He'll need to continue that trend in Jacksonville, where blocking has been suspect.

4. Open-field quickness: Nearly any pro RB can appear quick on any single play. They're NFL athletes. They're the best of the best. What we want to find are the guys whose consistent quickness can't be ignored.

Shorter and/or lighter backs are likely to become fantasy stars only if they're impossibly quick, as in, you can't miss it. The reason I didn't fall for Bobby Rainey last year was I watched his tape. Rainey had nice acceleration and long-distance speed, but even in his breakout Week 11, he didn't accomplish much in traffic. If a smaller RB doesn't instantly remind you of a darting Jamaal Charles or Giovani Bernard in the open field, be skeptical of the "elite quickness" that game announcers claim he has.

Quickness in bigger backs can be harder to identify, but it is much-prized. Adrian Peterson is a monster, obviously, but if you could watch every one his carries from the knees down, you'd be astonished how quickly he can change direction. Darren McFadden has tempted scouts for years because of his quickness at 6-foot-1 and 220-plus pounds. And Zac Stacy channeled his inner Frank Gore as a rookie; nobody will ever mistake Stacy for Charles, but he regularly got to defenses' second level and made linebackers miss through sheer single-cut elusiveness.

Coming next: How to tell when great RB box score production is a lie

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