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Rob Rang
Draft Guru

Rob Rang

Senior Analyst for NFLDraftScout.com and CBSSports.com

Specialization is the future... and not just at running back

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It literally used to be a characteristic NFL scouts would look for in a college running back: Does the player have the required size and toughness to be a "bell-cow?"

Now, with the rapid decline of superstars Shaun Alexander, Rudi Johnson and perhaps LaDainian Tomlinson, teams are more and more often electing to pair a big, bruising back for short yardage work with a speedier, better hands option for the rest of the field.

Fantasy football players
may shudder at the thought, but rotating backs makes sense for both the team and for the players.

For the team, spreading out the carries keeps both (or more) players hungry and likely, healthier. The offensive line, because they're used to blocking for both backs, get used to their style of running. Furthermore, if one of the players gets hurt, it is easier to find a quick, smallish back or big bruiser via trade or street free agency than to replace a franchise back. It also spreads out the money for the salary cap over two players rather than one.

While it may anger the individual backs by limiting their touches and contract potential, in the long term, rotating backs keeps them fresher longer and likely will prolong their NFL careers.

Many of the most intriguing senior running back prospects I'm currently scouting for the 2010 NFL Draft (only a scant 8 months away!) are going to be specialists. From the 5-11, 195 Chris Johnson-like CJ Spiller (Clemson) to the 6-2, 240 pound LenDale White-like LaGarrette Blount (Oregon), scouts are re-thinking the old requirement that highly drafted backs must be bell-cows and instead looking for parts of the rotation.

The specialization of running backs, much like how Major League Baseball has made the bullpen an area of specialists (long relief, set-up, closer, etc.), is certain to continue at other positions. It has already happened at wide receiver, where many teams prefer to match up a tall, physical receiver (possession) with a speedier big play outlet. We're beginning to see some of the savvier NFL teams now tinkering with multiple tight ends -- a blocking specialist and another receiver hybrid as a match-up nightmare.

By Rob Rang  |  August 17, 2009; 11:49 AM ET  | Category:  Coaching , Fantasy Football , Running Backs Save & Share:  Send E-mail   Facebook   Twitter   Digg   Yahoo Buzz   Del.icio.us   StumbleUpon   Technorati  
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This sounds right.

These days we even see some experimentation at the QB position in Miami with Pat White; and with the Eagles and Vick.

It's worth remembering too the time share that Pittsburgh had with O'Donnell and Cordell Stewart.

The game is always evolving; and teams are always trying to create mismatches, and limit the impact of injuries.

Ever since the introduction of two-platoon football; the game has been pushing into greater and greater specialization.

I'd argue though that what's different aren't the time shares in themselves, but their wide-spread acceptance.

The West Coast offense has become the standard these days -- but it dates back to at least the late 1970s.

Many of the things that you describe -- the specialization at TE and the mix of receivers -- were at work in the development of the West Coast offense and "Air Coryell" at San Diego.

Coryell's disciple, Joe Gibbs, had the dedicated blocking TE and a receiving TE (Didier and Warren) -- the receiving corp was a mix of a large possession receivers (Art Monk); and fast scat receivers who could stretch the field (Gary Clark, Ricky Sanders).

In much the same way the RB time share isn't new -- what's new is how wide-spread its become (e.g. in the 1980s the Browns had the mix of Earnest Byner and Kevin Mack; other famous time-shares include Czonk/Mercury Morris for Miami in '72; and Harris/Rocky Bleier '76 Steelers).

The game will always evolve, but there is also a bit of ebb and flow. Ironically, one of the arguments against time-shares -- especially on offense -- also has to do with creating mismatches (the same argument in its favor).

e.g. it's not hard to see how a team could attack an opponents defensive rotation by sticking with a core group and moving to a no-huddle. We see Peyton Manning doing this frequently.

The move towards specialization on offense is in part a response to what defenses are doing. The move to a no-huddle is one way to counter defensive substitutions. The no huddle might be a way of saying: "Our mix of 20-24 players may not be as good as your mix of 20-24 on defense, but if we match up our best 11 against your best 11; we're going to beat you." It'll be worth watching to see if the no-huddle serves as a potential counter to defensive specialization.

Posted by: JPRS | August 18, 2009 11:53 AM

The Texans are hoping Chris Brown at 6' 3" 235 can do the down and dirty work inside the red zone to spell the primary back Steve Slaton who had trouble around the goal line. Hopefully Brown can stay healthy.

Posted by: kitzdakat | August 18, 2009 1:10 PM

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