Scout's notebook: Running backs

(Field Yates, a former Chiefs scouting assistant under general manager Scott Pioli, continues a month-long series offering insight into how teams scout for players at each position.)

POSITION: Running Back

OVERVIEW: The role of running backs can be difficult to encapsulate for a number of reasons. For starters, the NFL has grown into a passing league, with teams such as the Patriots, Saints and Packers putting up prolific offensive figures without a dominant running back. Additionally, some executives are hesitant to invest in a running back due to concerns over the ability of a player who takes hundreds of hits a season to stay healthy over time.

In the case of the Patriots, recent seasons have involved a running back by committee approach, including 2011 during which no player surpassed 181 carries for the regular-season.

Nonetheless, a running back can be a clock-controlling, first-down achieving weapon with the right tools and line in front of him.

DESIRED TRAITS: Running backs can have innumerable responsibilities within an offensive system, and some teams choose to split these duties based on their players’ abilities (i.e. BenJarvus Green-Ellis was more of a between-the-tackles runner, while Danny Woodhead served as New England’s hurry-up offense, change of pace back in 2011).

No matter the role, however, a running back must be reliable. Most specifically, he must be able to hold onto the football. In 2011, fumbling kept Stevan Ridley (perhaps the Patriots most talented back on the roster) off the field down the stretch. Green-Ellis, who has never fumbled, meanwhile, played a prominent role despite not breaking free for more than 18 yards on a single carry last season.

Athletically, running backs can be measured in terms of speed, quickness, agility and a number of other traits. Their athleticism often ties into the style of running that they adopt, and how elusive they are. Drills like those seen at the Combine are used to measure baseline athletic ability, but running backs – like all players – must be functionally athletic, as in, capable to translate their athleticism on the field.

From a style standpoint, it’s important to identify how a running back chooses to operate: is he a power runner? A slasher? A dancer? Does he run better between the tackles or beyond them?

Beyond what a runner does on the ground, he also factors into the passing game. Traits considered include catching ability, route-running ability – can you align him as a receiver, or is he just a catch from the backfield guy? – willingness to block, strength to pass protect, and intelligence to both understand protection schemes and recognize pressure.

SPECIAL TEAMS ANGLE: While it’s uncommon to see elite running backs work on special teams units, the Patriots have received production from the backs regularly in the kicking game, including in 2011. The primary question asked is whether a running back is more of a returner-type or a core special teams player. Danny Woodhead offers unique value as a player who has both returned and covered kicks.

PATRIOTS TAKE: A number of players have an opportunity to step into larger roles in 2012, with Ridley and fellow second-year man Shane Vereen as candidates to carry the ball often. Beyond them, Woodhead still figures into the mix, as well as veteran free agent pick-up Joseph Addai, whose game has long featured versatility. Undrafted free agent Brandon Bolden is a player to keep an eye on as well. While the Patriots don’t feature a bona fide star from the backfield, the team is well stocked with players that can contribute in a number of phases. Given the makeup of the offense in recent years, a continued reliance on a number of different backs would come as no surprise in 2012.