Embracing Versatility at the Running Back Position
By Brandon Howard
Is your team in the market for a versatile playmaker at the Running Back position? Better yet, would your favorite NFL team be open minded enough to put the players listed below in position to be consistent contributors to their offense? While they might not be every down Running Backs, they are, or could very well become every down players, due to their versatility if utilized to capacity. If your favorite team needs to find a way to stay ahead of the chains and is missing a big play threat/matchup nightmare in order to do so, it would be in their best interest to take a look at any one of the following players.
Chris Thompson RB FSU 5’8” 186 Lbs.
While there are multiple injury concerns with Chris Thompson, it is very difficult to deny his talent when healthy. Thompson was on pace to surpass 1,000 yards rushing prior to sustaining a torn ACL against Miami. Thompson also had his junior season cut short, suffering a broken back against Wake Forest. With that said, he possesses the type of versatility that should interest many NFL teams. He has all the lateral agility in the world and also has incredibly rare explosiveness out of jump cuts. It takes a special player to utilize a jump cut and make defenders miss in small windows; Thompson has proven capable of this when healthy.
Where Thompson presents additional value is his ability as a receiver either out of the backfield or lined up as a Z Receiver to get mismatches on Safeties and Linebackers. Though he played just eight games this year, he was still able to haul in 21 passes for 248 yards. This is the type of player you can give about 8-10 carries a game and target about 5 times in the passing game. It is very important we stop labeling guys like this as Scat Backs or 3rd down Running Backs. I challenge offensive coordinators to get creative and utilize a guy like this to his strengths. Players like this are offensive weapons and need to be on the field more often than not, not on the sideline because they’re “too small”.
Sam McGuffie RB Rice 5’10” 198 Lbs.
This is the type of player that could potentially have a better NFL career than collegiate career. McGuffie has experience at the Running Back position as well as at WR as he accounted for 603 yards on 54 catches and 5 touchdowns in his senior year. McGuffie possesses game breaking athleticism and has continued to develop as a route runner. Though the Quarterback play at Rice was less than stellar, McGuffie proved to be very productive at the Receiver position. He has the type of skillset that would allow him to perform quite well in a hybrid Receiver/Running Back or Slot Back type of role.
Similar to Chris Thompson, McGuffie is another player who presents matchup problems for opposing defenses because of his versatility. This is the type of player that should be on the field quite regularly and should rotate between lining up in the backfield or at Receiver dependent upon run pass ratios presented. McGuffie’s experience at both positions should be looked upon as a positive when projecting him to the next level. A creative play caller should embrace his versatility and utilize his skillset to capacity, not relegate him to Skat Back duties.
Ronnie Wingo Jr RB Arkansas 6’2” 225 Lbs.
While Wingo presents a similar skillset to the previous players listed, he is different in the sense that his size/speed combo will enable him to take advantage of mismatches as an X or Z Receiver. At 6’2” 225 Lbs. he can gain separation from smaller defenders as a result of his height, and he’s a mismatch for Safeties and Linebackers due to his above average long speed as he has been timed at 4.38 in the 40-yard dash in the past. Due to Arkansas’ depth at the Running Back position, Wingo began to get a lot of work at the Receiver position. He appeared to be adjusting quite well through camp, but unfortunately any opportunity to consistently prove his versatility in game was compromised due to injuries throughout the season.
With that said, Wingo possesses a skillset very similar to that of Greg Little of the Cleveland Browns. My challenge to any team that may acquire Wingo is to not pigeonhole him the way the Browns have done with Little; embrace his versatility and utilize his entire skillset. It’s actually a good thing when a player can wear many hats. It is more difficult to game plan for a player like Wingo that can give you quality carries out of the backfield but yet remain on the field as a Receiver as well than it is to game plan for a “joker” Tight End. Wingo could have a very nice future in the NFL, but it all hinges on his ability to stay healthy, as well as him linking up with the right team to take advantage of his versatility.
Now that I have given you three very likely UDFA players that could in time play a fulltime Slot Back type of role, I submit to you, that there could and should very well be more Percy Harvin types in the NFL. It is my hope that play callers will become a bit more imaginative and incorporate some of the things many of these players did in college into their game plans. The concept of acquiring players and forcing them to fit a system is antiquated and should be revisited by any coach with hopes of winning consistently in the NFL.
The greatest coaches and talent evaluators understand what it means to utilize players to their strengths. The three players listed above can be every down players in the NFL if their future teams recognize all that they bring to the table. However I will not hold my breath especially when the NFL has yet to recognize how to best utilize a player as talented as Reggie Bush. While he’s widely considered a bust by many, he’s been anything but that in my eyes. You can have all the talent in the world, however unless a coach takes advantage of that player’s skill, it means absolutely nothing. A player like Reggie Bush should rarely ever come off the field. If he’s not in the backfield, he should be in the slot and vice versa.
There are more players in the NFL that should get a shot at a Percy Harvin like role and Browns Receiver Greg Little is one of them. Browns fans, would you believe it if I told you that Greg Little was good for 8-10 quality carries a game, which would be quite conducive to keeping Trent Richardson fresh? It’s been stunning to see the lack of imagination in play calling throughout the NFL and I’m calling for change. Fresh minds such as Kyle Shanahan, Chip Kelly and Jim Hardbaugh are what the NFL needs because they understand what it means to take advantage of their player’s skill/versatility. They also understand that versatility dictates to the opposition. Going forward, I ask my fellow coaches and talent evaluators, let’s not shun versatility; embrace it!