Replace Edgerrin James. It is presumably the Colts' No. 1 priority heading into the NFL draft April 29-30. It's also a lot easier said than done. Why? Because of what Edge did for Indy in "pass pro" (short for pass protection). Among the game's elite tailbacks, James is the best blocker.
Former teammate Reggie Wayne has called him the best blocker on the Colts, period. "He picked up cornerbacks, linebackers, defensive linemen -- whoever came, he protected [quarterback] Peyton [Manning]," Wayne said. "Remember he came in as a rookie and hit the ground running, he picked things up so quickly. To me he was one of a kind."
As if it weren't enough trying to find a successor to a four-time 1,500-yard rusher, the Colts, if they are to continue protecting Manning so well, also must find someone who can give them close to what James did in the blocking department. Two words for that: good luck.
Forget James' high standard. Pass blocking, an often overlooked but far from undervalued aspect of an NFL tailback's job, is a rare skill among backs entering the league.
"They're horrible at it," new Rams coach Scott Linehan said at the recent league meeting. "Average at best."
And even as veterans, some backs never excel in this area. Pro Football Hall of Famer Steve Young suffered a concussion against the Cardinals in 1999 after being sacked by Aeneas Williams on a play in which tailback Lawrence Phillips missed his assignment. Young never took another snap in the NFL.
A lot of it isn't the fault of the running backs. NFL personnel people offer several reasons why most of the tailbacks who make it to the NFL don't have a clue as to how to "pass pro" and why all of them can stand to improve at it:
• They're not asked to do it much at the collegiate level. These kids are all "the man" for their teams, so they're not made to feel like they have to learn how to block. Whereas in the NFL, not only is pass blocking essential to any aspirations of being an every-down back, you have to at least be functional at it or you might be out of a job. In college, "they're all feature backs," said one area scout. Most stud runners are used to being blocked for.
• With limited practice time, college programs can't afford to spend too much time teaching running backs the finer points of pass pro.
• Pass protection schemes generally aren't as complex at the collegiate level, nor are blitzes as exotic. The Patriots, for example, might show as many blitz packages in one game as some college defenses do all season. Speaking of New England, in its complex pass protection scheme, the role of the running back is especially key.
In many cases these young backs have been running with the football since grammar school, whereas proper pass protection techniques (how to distribute their weight, keep their balance, slide and "mirror" the rusher, stay squared and deliver the blow) have to be taught once they get to the pros. Scouts identify certain characteristics in college running backs and determine whether they can be any good in pass protection. Some of what scouts look for:
• The back has to be willing to block. Will he give an honest effort or just go through the motions? With some tailbacks, scouts wonder whether they have the desire to improve in this essential area. That's what they're saying about USC's LenDale White, whose work ethic is often questioned. He's said to be pretty good in pass pro when he wants to be. But does he?
• Is he a physical, tough runner? If so, then most of the time coaches can work with him as a blocker. If he won't stick his head in there, as they say, and take on rushers, it might be something of a lost cause. And for the player it could mean the difference between keeping a job or not.
• Intelligence. This is where football smarts in a running back really come into play. It helps to know who you're blocking. In the NFL that's half the battle. Another reason it's too much to ask a rookie to come in and replace James in Indianapolis is because he had seven seasons in the Colts' system. Seven seasons to learn the audibles and checks and all of Manning's hand signals. For a rookie to pick up where James left off in the offense is asking a lot.
• And, of course, size matters. Bigger, stronger guys always can avoid being completely overmatched in the NFL. That doesn't mean that smaller backs can't be good at it. A scout said of likely top overall pick Reggie Bush, "He's not stout [5-foot-10, 200 pounds] so he will be overmatched, but he's crafty -- he'll cut you -- and he'll hit you. It's one of his weaknesses. And he's still not bad at it."
Florida State's Leon Washington (5-7, 210) is another smaller guy who is scrappy enough and willing enough to step up and block in the passing game.
According to one scout assigned to crosscheck the running backs on his team's draft board, Minnesota's Laurence Maroney needs to put more effort into blocking but can be effective, especially at his size (5-11, 215), if he wants. In the scout's opinion, Memphis' DeAngelo Williams (5-8, 208) will have to make the transition from feature back in college to a third-down back in the pros depending on what system he lands in, meaning he'll have to take more of an interest in blocking.
When it comes to young running backs and pass protection, "A lot of it is attitude," he said. "You have to want to do it and get better at it. You have to want to hit somebody, and not everybody wants to hit somebody all the time."