Sifting between stats and a player’s abilities and performance is always a fine line and becomes much more gray when talking about a position like running back.
Did the blocking generate a ton of free yards or did the running back execute a play wonderfully? How do we go about judging the production of a position so dependent on another position [group] in determining the credit on giving play?
To help begin to separate the difference between great blocking and great running, or both, first, we have to understand what the goal of the play is. The four most common runs (that in a rough estimate make up 85-90 percent of halfback runs) for the Kansas City Chiefs are: outside zone, inside zone, mid-zone and counter variations.
Understanding what the Chiefs are trying to do schematically is the first step in understanding the run game. The next step is understanding how each of these types of runs should play out from the running back’s perspective and comparing that to what the running back is doing in these situations.
Let’s look at the NFL’s rushing leader from 2017 and how he graded out last year:
Kareem Hunt: Running Back
6’1” | 205 lbs. | Exp: 1 Year
Vision and Patience
Most commonly seen as the biggest contributor to making a great running back is “vision,” or the ability to quickly and accurately read the blocks and defenders as the play unfolds. It also includes seeing what is about to happen when you, as the running back, make a move in one direction or another. It’s not just simply the ability to see an open running space, as those can be outside of the play design and unrealistic to ask of a player. To make the proper reads and to anticipate what is about to break next, a running back must also balance the ability to be patient and let the trenches play out while ready to accelerate at any given time.
In regard to vision, Kareem Hunt is quite competent and sees most things that you would expect a running back to see in terms of gaps opening up. He had the help of a very friendly offensive system for making these reads but ultimately fared well, especially for a rookie.
Love the incorporation of the middle zone by KC and Hunt runs it well. The reads end up easy for him but he makes them quickly and gets back inside his second read by the end of his cut. The quick press doesn’t allow LBs to flow to the gap before he does. pic.twitter.com/wJTZ8eZbRP— Matt Lane (@ChiefinCarolina) June 5, 2018
The hole Hunt ends up running through on this play is pretty large and not difficult to see, so it’s easy to gloss over Hunt’s role on this play. That said, we have to recognize what he was able to do.
Hunt makes the proper read to bend back inside the defensive tackle and does so quickly, which is the important part. By the time Hunt hits his aiming point, he plants one foot in the ground and explodes upfield off of the center’s hip. Many of the run plays that resulted in success for the Chiefs were similar to this play in that the running lane was very open if the proper reads were made.
As Hunt reads this play he takes the “bang” back inside his 2nd read but should have “bounced” the ball outside after seeing Kelce pin the 1st read inside. Looks like the DE is in good pos. but has to see Kelce and flatten to bounce outside. Hunt often takes the single when there pic.twitter.com/lczxFnCrw6— Matt Lane (@ChiefinCarolina) June 9, 2018
This play shows where Hunt is still learning as a running back in the NFL. He is willing to smash the ball into the traffic and take the couple yards when they are there but this also comes at a cost of missing a potential big play.
From time to time, Hunt can make the technically correct read that results in a short gain, but if he showed better anticipation, he could have altered his path and pulled out some extra yards. The biggest area this shows up the most in is when Hunt has to cut inside on zone runs—he doesn’t always flow behind all the defenders in pursuit that have overcommitted to the play side of the run.
Hunt on an inside zone here, would have preferred to see a bit more patience from him when pressing LoS. When things get cluttered, he is a bit quick to just drive forward rather than give blockers time to work off their hips. Ends up missing a holeoff Sherman’s outside hip pic.twitter.com/S4jy09VkGa— Matt Lane (@ChiefinCarolina) June 7, 2018
The bigger issue that Hunt faces in this category is playing too much in the “now” rather than remaining patient and anticipating how the blocks will play out. He is quick to react and explode into the hole as soon as he sees it when it would be better off letting the blocks fully run their course.
This particular issue shows up the most often on power runs, counter runs and inside zone in which the blocks often take a little longer to develop.
Raw Score: 65 (Average Starter)
Whether a “juke” in the open field, a quick cut through a hole or a jump cut across a gap, lateral agility allows a running back to get to places on the field in the quickest way possible.
Hunt may not be the most athletically gifted running back in the NFL, but he showcases the ability to cut on a dime without having to flip his hips. The ability to change the gap he is aligned with behind the line of scrimmage (LoS) is where Hunt excels at the most in terms of lateral agility.
Not the elite athlete as some other recent RBs coming into the NFL, but Hunt has plenty of athleticism to make all the plays. IZ and the playside A gap is shut down instantly, in 1 lateral cut Hunt makes it to the playside C gap and gets upfield off the 1st foot to land. pic.twitter.com/H5NrLY7XiJ— Matt Lane (@ChiefinCarolina) June 9, 2018
Equally important to the ability to explode laterally is being able to change directions again after the initial cut and get upfield.
Something Hunt shows the ability to do is planting out of the lateral cut to get north and south. It’s two separate direction changes in succession that make him so dangerous as a runner when it pertains to his lateral agility. Hunt also shows above-average range in his jump cuts, covering up to two running gaps with a single cut.
The area that Hunt struggles with a bit in terms of lateral agility is having loose, fluid hips, specifically in the open field. He has the capability to make small, subtle cuts in the open field but often when working at full speed he needs to gear down to make these moves.
Raw Score: 74.75 (Above Average Starter)
Balance for a running back is arguably the most important physical trait due solely to the fact that running backs play near a large group of players who are constantly trying to get their hands on them. The ability to stay on their feet while pushed, shoved and pulled is a must to survive in the NFL. However, that’s not where the ability to play balanced ends.
There is also an element of body control— an ability to continue moving, while remaining upright, in awkward positions whether bent over, at an angle, or simply landing after a hop/hurdle. To round out the trifecta that we are looking for in balance, there is balance through contact, which is obviously part balance and part power.
For most of you who watch Kareem Hunt, this is an easy one to score so we won’t spend too much time here other than to ogle our fond memories of him bouncing off countless defenders.
He has an uncanny knack for absorbing hits and remaining on his feet and continuing to push forward. It takes a concentrated effort to bring Hunt down and half-effort tackles and arm swings simply won’t do the job.
Great run by Hunt showing a quick lateral jump cut to get by the crashing Safety before getting upfield through the hole. Lowers his center of gravity and absorbs the hit while keeping his balance and continuing forward. Uses all of the available field space to maximize the gain pic.twitter.com/1hw6V871fW— Matt Lane (@ChiefinCarolina) June 10, 2018
There are countless examples of Hunt staying on his feet through contact but let’s focus on this play to note one of the big reasons for it: his body control.
Coming off the jump cut in the backfield, Hunt is able to redirect his momentum forward, recognize the upcoming collision and lower his shoulder into the tackle. That’s all grade-A work, but the next part is what makes him special.
Hunt has angled his body so that the would-be tackler slides off his back hip. While doing so, Hunt had his lead leg picked up at the time of contact, but still landed on it clean as the force of the defender pushed him in a different direction.
These subtle moves ensured he was still balanced after the contact and in a position to carry the play on for a much larger gain.
Raw Score: 87.75 (All-Pro)
Passing Down Ability
The combination of receiving and blocking for a running back are becoming vastly more important in the NFL today. Beyond just the ability to catch the ball, being able to align as a wide receiver and run a variety of routes at various levels has become the norm for third-down running backs and the most complete backs in the NFL can do the same.
Hunt started the year off strong getting a few downfield routes from the running back position, connecting on one in the first game of the season.
Unfortunately, as the year went on, there were less and less opportunities like this and he was used almost exclusively as an outlet player while West and Akeem Hunt were given a wider route variety.
Speaking of Hunt's limited usage last year in passing situations, he showed good hands reaching out and plucking the ball away from his frame. Consistently opens up early to the QB too..Hope to see a more elaborate route tree in 2019 as a 2nd year player. pic.twitter.com/ezE9IOtPmV— Matt Lane (@ChiefinCarolina) June 9, 2018
It’s not as if Hunt struggled mightily catching the ball—in fact, his hands looked quite developed for a running back. Often reaching to meet the ball away from his body, opening up a throwing window for his quarterback early, and looking the ball all the way in.
The problem was his usage in the offense was limited to these kinds of plays, which don’t showcase and elaborate overall skill set as a wide receiver.
Kareem Hunt wasn’t as heavily featured last year in passing situations due to a predictability of his route tree and subpar pass pro. Not the easiest block in space but 1on1 with a S, gets his base off and tries to lunge. Hunt does consistently try in pass pro tho. pic.twitter.com/dGoJ6hI3QX— Matt Lane (@ChiefinCarolina) June 9, 2018
The major area in which Hunt struggled on passing downs was his ability to assist the team in pass protection.
He gives it his all most plays he’s in protection but he often leaks out early when he doesn’t recognize instant pressure and does so without even a chip. Other times, he finds his assignment but looks to engage while ducking his head or lunging. It’s not a huge concern, as this is a normal issue to show up with young running backs, but it is something holding Hunt’s full potential back.
Raw Score: 52 (Below Average Starter)
Accessory Skills and Traits
We talked the ability to explode laterally above, so now its partner in crime: acceleration, or straight line explosion. How quickly a player gets from standing still to top speed can often make the difference between a couple yards and a big gain.
Hunt isn’t an elite athlete and doesn’t possess fantastic top-end speed, but he is able to manipulate angles using the aforementioned body control and good acceleration. The area Hunt shines the most in this regard is his ability to accelerate at an angle rather than having to take the time to reset his hips before exploding forward.
On the surface this short TD by Hunt doesn’t look like much but the ability to win the corner is worth noting. The DB has the angle but Hunt’s burst pressed the LoS, the DB has to breakdown a few feet short of the SL. Hunt works laterally off contact w/ that space to finish. pic.twitter.com/TvTbVV0Y5d— Matt Lane (@ChiefinCarolina) June 5, 2018
A bonus of having solid acceleration is that it allows you to manipulate the field and defenders as you can change speeds and angles they are working effortlessly. Hunt is able to use good burst up the field to force the defender to take a more direct angle or risk being late to the goal line.
The decision to attack inside the pylon and having the explosion to press the issue made this play successful. He is consistently able to make quick decisions to alter angles like this even when working in the middle of the field and not inside the 5-yard line.
Raw Score: 78 (Pro Bowler)
Power, or the ability to break through tackles and run over would-be tacklers. Most people think of players like Marshawn Lynch or Adrian Peterson when talking about power as a running back, but there is more to it than simply being able to run someone over. The ability to maintain their speed through small amounts of contact is equally as important as the “truck stick” of a player. Hunt has this ability in spades; he is able to work through traffic without slowing down and having to reset his feet.
Another OZ run for Hunt with good initial aim point. Making his reads, knows he has to bam again. This time, with traffic, shows good patience setting up the block before semi-jump cutting back outside. Again finishing with balance through contact + some power. pic.twitter.com/9xBFFDhxVy— Matt Lane (@ChiefinCarolina) June 4, 2018
This is not to say that he is incapable of running someone over when they try to square up and take him on. He may not have a long list of YouTube highlights steamrolling various defenders, but you also won’t find many plays that a defender gets the better of an encounter with Hunt. Even more importantly, there are little to no examples of Hunt not picking up an extra yard or more when meeting a single defender.
Raw Score: 78 (Pro Bowler)
Open Field Ability
Open-field ability is referring to how the player moves and approaches the field and players in it once they are out of the traditional tackle box. Whether downfield or outside the hashes, the rules change a bit when the lanes are less defined and players are more free-flowing.
Hunt, as we’ve established, doesn’t have the elite athleticism that other elite open-field players offer, but he still finds a way to be very effective in these situations. Hunt accomplishes this by using other traits we’ve already talked about—specifically his balance and power.
Rarely is he getting pushed out of bounds or brought down at the first attempt of contact, and on top of that, even in the open field, he does a good job of giving defenders a small target area.
Hunt could still use work setting up his blockers downfield, as he has a tendency to outrun them and run the course of the play without seeking the help of his teammates. It goes back to the beginning of this article, when we talked about patience. It comes back into play in the open field.
Raw Score: 71.5 (Average Starter)
In this sense, run versatility refers to the ability to play in multiple different running schemes or designs. The Chiefs mostly asked Hunt to run behind zone blocking but worked in gap-man concepts from time to time. Hunt operates best in the outside zone designs that ask him to make a quick decision and explode north and south off a single cut, but he has found success in other designs as well.
The more patience required from Hunt, the more reliant he becomes on his blockers to win and generate the designed hole for him. Let’s look at two similar plays to pinpoint the difference:
Nice execution on the counter trey here by KC, gives Hunt a wide lane to run through. The subtle skip and body control to rotate his body allows Hunt to slide right through the contact. Would like to see Hunt sell the action a hair longer before cutting playside tho. pic.twitter.com/87ANoQrYWI— Matt Lane (@ChiefinCarolina) June 8, 2018
Another version of counter, this time with only a single pulling blocker which makes it even more important for Hunt to sell the run action. While Fulton coulda climbed quicker to catch the MLB, Hunt didn't sell the counter. pic.twitter.com/739CnqdSxa— Matt Lane (@ChiefinCarolina) June 9, 2018
There are some schematic differences between the two counter plays, but the sticking point is in the first play. The design generates a play in which the first defender to touch Hunt is playing catch up and does so three yards downfield and diving at his legs.
In the second play, the design doesn’t accomplish the same goal and instead leaves a defender sitting in the hole at the LoS. The defending linebacker made a great play, so there wasn’t anything Hunt could do, but had Hunt slow-played the counter a hair longer, he may have given his offensive lineman enough time to climb to the second level.
Hunt will consistently be able to run behind any scheme but may not be able to maximize off of them at this point in his career.
Raw Score: 78 (Pro Bowler)
Bonus Points: 2 Points
Hunt received two bonus points for playing with tenacity and seeking contact as well as working hard and showing progress throughout the year.
Overall Score: 74.91
Grade: Above Average Starter
Quick Outlook Going Into 2018:
At this point, I imagine some are upset with the final grade of Hunt but it’s largely due to scoring lower in two areas that young running backs often struggle with.
I fully expect Hunt to improve as a receiver and as a pass blocker. With his patience and vision as he gains NFL experience, he’ll begin to elevate his game to the next level.
While the production may not match last year with a larger stable of capable running backs, Hunt should have an improved overall sophomore year, showcasing broader traits and abilities.
PSS Grading Scale
|84.51+||All Pro Caliber|
|78 - 84.5||Pro Bowl Caliber|
|71.63 - 77.99||Above Average Starter|
|65 - 71.62||Average Starter|
|58.63 - 64.99||Below Average Starter|
|52 - 58.62||Rotational Player|
|45.63 - 51.99||Good Back-Up|
|39 - 45.62||Back-Up/Special Teams|
|32.63 - 38.99||Depth Player|
|26 - 32.62||Practice Squad|
|19.5 - 25.99||Camp Player|