What NFL teams look for in a player
From The War Room
PHOENIX (CNN/SI) -- NFL teams today have become very sophisticated in their evaluation of talent. They have strict guidelines in terms of height, weight and speed and also specific skills required for each position.
Below is a look at some of the qualities organizations look for when they are selecting a player, whether through the draft or free agency.
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Quarterback -- Most people think that size is a huge factor in grading an NFL QB, but it may be becoming less. Joe Montana, Ty Detmer, Jake Plummer are all guys that don't fit the measurables. What is becoming more important is the intelligence and intangible factors. The QB must have a great feel for the game, excellent peripheral vision and an innate sense of the offensive philosophy. They must have at least adequate arm strength and show some zip on the ball, with the deep out pattern being the best measurement of arm strength. If the QB can deliver this ball on a "rope" and without an arc, then his arm strength is probably adequate.
Today's QB must have leadership qualities and the ability to play under pressure. An NFL team will often mirror the personality of its QB. Although they are hard to find, the big and physical QB with a strong arm is still the ultimate prize, and if he has some mobility and athletic ability it is a bonus. Many QB are misevaluated coming out of college because scouts tend to grade production rather than ability.
Fullback -- There are two types of running backs in today's game. One is the big, physical, one-dimensional type blocker; he is obviously more attractive to teams that run a power game or have a franchise back. The problem with this type of FB is that he limits the offensive diversification. If he can't run or catch, defenses will know that when he's in the game it's for run purposes. This type of player forces an offense to be more predictable.
The second type of FB (and probably more popular) is the undersized FB that has versatility. He can catch, has some running skills and knows how to position block. He is not always a real physical player but teams can't key on him in any particular area. For example, Larry Centers is a FB for the Arizona Cardinals, but he rarely runs with the ball or blocks. Instead, he catches almost 100 passes a year. For years, the San Francisco 49ers made their living with FBs like Tom Rathman -- tough guys but also very productive in the passing game. This type of FB is almost like an oversized RB in terms of skills, but they are hard to find coming out of college.
Running back -- A position that may be the most misevaluated in the NFL. As already mentioned, scouts tend to grade players coming out of college on production instead of ability and that's why there are so many mistakes. A 1,000-yard rusher on the college level doesn't guarantee success in the NFL.
Qualities such as quickness through the hole, run vision, pick and slide, good balance and change of direction are all very important. Speed is nice, but quickness is great. There are a lot of great RBs in the NFL that lack great 40 speed but have exceptional quickness. Today's NFL RB must be versatile and have run skills but must also catch the ball out of the backfield and have some ability as a blocker.
They take a physical pounding and the career expectancy for a RB is only 4-5 years. For every Emmitt Smith there are 100 RBs that are out of the league after four years. Ability to make tacklers miss and eliminate a lot of head-on collisions will lengthen a career.
The nickel RB is also becoming a very popular position to draft or acquire in free agency. The qualities necessary for this position are great receiving skills and the ability to cause mismatches in coverages. Players like Dave Meggett, Glen Milburn, Brian Mitchell and Amp Lee are examples of how productive nickel RBs can be. It also helps if they have some skills as a return specialist. A good nickel-back that can play in passing situations really enhances an offense's versatility.
Wide receiver -- Every team would like to have WRs with speed, but there are not enough of them out there. If a player doesn't have great speed, then he must have great quickness. The ability to separate from the DB is critical in the NFL. There have been a lot of WRs that have had speed but can't separate, and a lot of possession guys that can't run, but have good quickness and can separate.
Wideouts in today's game must also be physical enough to get off the jam and catch in traffic. As surprising as it may seem, good hands and the ability to snatch the ball are sometimes underrated when scouts look at WRs. If you can't catch the ball consistently, you can't play.
Size is also more critical in today's game; big WRs cause great matchup problems for CBs, especially in the red zone. The days of the run-and-shoot type "smurf" WRs are long gone.
In nickel packages that feature three WRs, at least one needs to be a speed guy that will stretch a defense, while the inside WR needs to be physical and must have the ability to separate, get open and make the first down. These guys must be tough but also smart enough to adjust routes and read defenses on the move.
Many of the game's great WRs, guys like Jerry Rice, have "functional speed", which means they don't clock great in the 40, but they play fast enough to get the job done.
Tight end -- Everybody is looking for the complete TE. There aren't very many of them out there.
The ideal guy at this position is a good athlete who can stretch a defense and create mismatches. Much like the FB position, if the TE is one-dimensional it forces the offense to be more predictable and teams will respond accordingly.
Young players like Ricky Dudley and Tony Gonzales and veterans like Troy Drayton and Shannon Sharpe are all examples of guys that can go deep and force teams into mismatches and make defenses account for them. You would also hope this guy is at least an adequate blocker position-type blocker.
Most NFL teams carry three TEs on the roster and usually one of the backups is a big blocking type that can help in short yardage and goal-line situations. If you can get all these qualities in one guy, then you may have a future Pro Bowler.
Offensive tackle -- The OL may be the most complex position to fill because all five positions require different skills.
There are some subtle differences between the qualifications of a LOT and a ROT. The LOT has to be the best athlete on the OL. He usually lines up on the weak side with no help from the TE and is blocking the defense's best pass rusher, who is usually smaller and quicker. Most of the time he is also protecting the QB's blind side and he must have range and feet to protect his QB. He should also be an adequate run blocker, but most LOTs are more finesse rather than explosive power players.
The ROT is usually a little more physical because he is more involved in the run game. Most teams are right handed and tend to run over the ROT. He doesn't have to be quite as gifted as a pass protector because in many cases he has a TE lined up next to him. One of the mis-evaluations that happens to an ROT is that people assume that he must be a physical guy and doesn't necessarily have to have great feet and quickness. But TEs can go in motion or switch to the other side, which makes the ROT on an "island" protecting the outside. He still needs to have strength and size because the DE that he is playing over is a little more physical than the one on the other side. One of the most common mistakes made drafting or acquiring FA ROTs is not paying enough attention to the athletic ability and feet.
Offensive guard -- There are philosophical issues that affect this position. Years ago, many NFL offenses acquired OGs to trap, pull and block angles (teams like the Pittsburgh Steelers and San Francisco 49ers). Many were also part of a "West Coast offense" philosophy that features short passes with three-step drops that don't require a physical pass blocker.
In recent years, most teams have gone to a 4-3 defense that is anchored by two massive DTs that line up over the OGs. These are usually 300-pound power guys that are also explosive and quick and are often good penetrators. As a result, the OG position has undergone changes.
To match up physically, teams now look for a bigger and stronger OG that can anchor at the line of scrimmage, and they may be forced to give up some of the pulling and trapping qualities they would like. However, the OG must have enough quickness to cut off the DTs and still be able to angle block and short set on pass protection.
One of the big misconceptions on the OL is the philosophy that if a guy is big, but a bad athlete, he can just move in and play OG. There are a lot of big stiff guys playing, but teams are looking for a size guy with some athletic ability. As an example of the new "big OG trend" in the NFL, the San Francisco 49ers made their living for years with undersized, quick and smart OGs. In recent years their OL began to get overpowered and they took a beating. As a result, they are transforming into a bigger and more physical presence at OG. Their acquisition of massive ROG Kevin Gogan of the Raiders is a perfect example of this new trend.
Center -- Next to the LOT, OC may be the most important position on the OL to fill. With most teams playing 4-3 defenses, in many cases today's OC is uncovered at the line of scrimmage. Much of the time they must be able to reach the LB and block in space. They have to have feet and be proficient in angle blocks and have the range to help out in pass protection. In some cases, they may even have to pick up an outside pass rusher.
However, there is another factor that must be considered, as much as teams are looking for an "athletic" position type OC. If they do not have enough strength and bulk to anchor at the point of attack, defenses will find them and put a big DT on the nose. This can create a mismatch and totally disrupt the run game. So, while athletic ability and feet are very important, size and strength cannot be ignored. The other quality that is important in an OC is intelligence and football instincts. In many cases, they make the OL calls and have to react quickly, in terms of anticipation and recognition.
Defensive end -- The qualities in a DE vary with the type of defense being played and what a team is asking that player to do.
With a 4-3 defense, you're looking for DEs that can rush the QB. The RDE should be the best pass rusher and he must have speed and explosion off the corner and should be a "sack artist." He should have great range and chase ability and at least be adequate against the run, though that is not what he is being paid to do. If he isn't at least adequate against the run, the opposing offense will find him and run right at him. Many young players coming into the league that lack great size and strength are becoming successful contributors as RDEs either on a full-time basis or as nickel rushers.
The LDE in a 4-3 defense still has to have some pass-rush ability, but is also a little more powerful. He must be able to stop the run (most teams are right-handed) and he must be able to jam the TE at the line of scrimmage. He is not quite the athlete that the RDE is, but he is a little more powerful.
In 3-4 defenses, the DEs are more physical and are asked to play the run more than the pass. In this defense, the primary pass rush comes from the OLBs -- the DEs are asked to stuff the run and keep the blockers occupied. These players are usually tough guys with size and some athletic ability but not necessarily proficient pass rushers.
Defensive tackle -- This position has evolved over the years.
With 25 teams playing a 4-3 defense, today's game usually features a massive DT who lines up over the OG and is asked to stuff the run. In a perfect world, you would like one of these two DTs to be a "two-gap" run stuffer and the other one to be a quick inside penetrator.
Quickness is very important at this position and many DTs are very successful pass rushers because they play one-gap techniques and can put inside pressure on the QB. DTs must be tough enough to mix it up inside and stack and control the line of scrimmage. Quickness and explosion are the keys here. A one-gap penetrating-type DT is a very high priced commodity in today's NFL.
In the 3-4 defense, the DT becomes a NT and usually lines up over the center. The qualities are the same but he is usually a two-gap run stuffer that can "jam" the inside and free the ILB to make a lot of plays.
Outside linebacker -- In 4-3 defenses, the OLBs must be good athletes who can play in space. They have considerable cover responsibilities and should be able to drop into zones and also cover RBs out of the backfield. They must have good hips and flexibility and must have speed and range to chase down plays. Most do not spend a lot of time rushing the QB but if they have that skill, it is a bonus. They must also be solid open-field tacklers and have the ability to get off blocks and flow to the play.
In the 3-4 defense, the OLBs become the primary pass rushers. They have very little pass cover responsibility and usually are "upfield" guys who beat the OLs with their quickness and rush much of the time. One of the reasons that some teams have started switching to 3-4 defenses is the fact that the college game seems to be producing an abundance of undersized pass rushers that fit the 3-4 role perfectly.
Middle linebacker -- This guy is usually the captain of the defense and must have great leadership qualities, along with intelligence and instincts. He has to be a "tackle-to-tackle" run stuffer and also have the ability to get off blocks and make the play at the line of scrimmage.
Many MLBs are not great athletes but are tough, smart, short-range guys. In today's game, the typical MLB will only play on first and second down before the defensive team inserts a nickel package, which features five or six DBs and only one or two athletic LBs. Very few MLBs stay in on pass situations, but they are the guys that the defensive players rally around.
Cornerback -- This has become a very tough position to fill in the NFL, with the increasing number of big WRs.
The one quality that the cornerback must have is speed. He must be able to run and go deep in matchups with WRs. However, it is just as important to have the ability to peddle and turn in pass coverage situations.
Many corners with great speed lose a lot of time in their transition as they turn to run with the WR, and that's how the WR separates. A good corner must have great hips and flexibility and also show a quick burst and explosion to the ball. A good CB also possesses good ball skills. He knows how to read routes, read the QB and get a great jump on the ball. This type of player is on the top of the interception charts.
He must be somewhat physical and at least adequate at coming up and tackling. However, if forced to make a choice, the cover skills will always be more important to NFL coaches than tackling ability.
Size is becoming more of a factor, especially in the red zone, because big WRs will take advantage of a short corner and outjump him at the goal line. If teams can find a cornerback with the cover skills required, plus size, he will be a high draft pick. Guys like Shawn Springs and Michael Westbrook, both high first-round picks in 1997, are perfect examples.
Another quality that is very important for a CB is confidence, an
almost cocky attitude. No matter how good he is, he will be beaten on occasion and everyone in the stadium is going to see it. He must have the ability to bounce back from adversity and stay competitive. There have been many good corners in the NFL that never played up to their potential because they spent too much time worrying about the last play.
Safety -- This position also has changed over the years as new schemes and trends have evolved.
Several years ago, teams drafted or acquired big physical safeties that would intimidate receivers over the middle. They were especially effective in the run game. These guys were almost like having another LB on the field.
With the advent of the run-and-shoot and three wideout sets, this type of safety presents matchup problems in passing situations. As a result, the qualities of a safety have come full circle and now teams are looking for more athletic, "range" type guys.
They still must be able to hit and come up against the run, but their ability to hit and tackle in the open field is very important.
Many guys can create a collision that looks good to the fans, but if they can't break down in the open field and make a key tackle, they will hurt a defense. These players must have range and at least have enough cover ability to match up on the slot receiver if the nickel package isn't on the field.
Many teams play with two safeties and don't distinguish any difference between strong safety and free safety. However, for the teams that do, they probably would like a little more physical type of player at strong safety. He must be a run stopper with the ability to at least cover the TE, while the free safety is more of a centerfielder-type with good instincts who also can make the secondary calls and put everybody in position.
This is a difficult position to fill in the NFL. Many teams who can't find these type of players will simply load up on cornerbacks and play more nickel coverages. But that makes them more vulnerable to the run.
Punter -- The qualities at this position are obvious. Teams are looking for a guy that has a strong leg, can get good hang time and also get good direction on his punts. The ability to put the ball where he wants to can sometimes compensate for lack of distance.
A punter also needs to be fairly athletic and have the ability to handle a bad snap, and hopefully be some type of a threat to run or throw out of punt formation. In many cases he will also serve as the holder on field goals and point-afters.
Get-off time is very important for a punter and most teams would prefer a two-step guy with a quick release. A slow, three-step guy will get too many punts blocked and will be out of the league in a hurry.
Placekicker -- The best quality that a placekicker can have is consistency. This guy must be mentally tough -- a game's outcome may ride on his leg. He has to be able to adjust to all kinds of weather conditions.
Leg strength is great for kickoffs, but a lot of veteran kickers play late into their 30s because of their consistency and experience, even though their leg strength and distance may be in decline. Coaches can many times find another guy to handle kickoff duties (in many cases it could be the punter) and they will sacrifice long-range field goals for accuracy inside the 40.
Because of the mental pressure, you don't see a lot of young kickers in the league. Sometimes they bounce around four or five years and go to several NFL camps before they get their shot. NFL coaches are usually hesitant to put a game's outcome in the hands of a young, inexperienced placekicker.
Return specialists -- These are positions that teams hope they can fill with roster players such as WRs, RBs or corners. It is becoming increasingly popular to draft a guy to do both and be a fill-in for another position. NFL coaches do not like to use starting players on special teams.
The qualities for a punt returner and a kickoff returner are somewhat unique. A PR must have excellent hands and must concentrate on the ball and must have the ability to avoid tackles and weave his way through traffic. Many good PRs don't have great speed but instead possess great quickness and instincts and know how to avoid blocks.
On the other hand, a kickoff returner is usually a little bit bigger more physical guy (possibly a RB) and his skills may be more straight line and speed oriented. He is expected to catch the ball on the goal line and run north and south. A good KOR is not a "dancer". He is a guy that attacks the defensive cover team. Speed is very important at this position and a good one will find the crease and try to go all the way untouched.
Special teams -- Many NFL teams put major emphasis on backup players that can contribute on cover teams. Most NFL coaches don't like to use starting players on special teams. As a result, many late round draft picks are partially selected on this potential to contribute on special teams while they are leaving their regular position.
The usual qualities of a special teams player are speed, athletic ability and semi-crazed attitude. Good special teamers run and cover on tackles at full speed, with little regard for their body -- they love contact and collision and take a lot of pride in their contributions. Many NFL players with marginal position skills have stayed in the league for several years based on their special-team ability. Young players that are on backup must contribute on special teams if they want to stay on the roster.