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2017 NFL Draft: Christian McCaffrey, Dalvin Cook And The Question Of Blocking By Running Backs

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Today on BRB we discuss just how much a RB's ability to block should affect their overall evaluation.

NCAA Football: Stanford at California Kelley L Cox-USA TODAY Sports

Blocking in football is a weird thing to quantify. It's the most selfless act one could possible commit on the football field (apart from the turnover). It is the deliberate sacrifice of one's own body for the good of the team. The act of blocking, however, requires an individual for whom the block is made. This is where players like Dalvin Cook and Christian McCaffrey become interesting in terms of draft evaluation.

Here are two quick excerpts from Lance Zierlein's scouting reports on NFL.com about Cook and McCaffrey:

Cook:

Won't square-up on blitzers and may not be reliable enough as blocker to play on third downs.

McCaffrey:

Inconsistent squaring up blitzers in pass pro and ducks his head into contact.

Both of these excerpts are taken from the ''Weaknesses'' section of each scouting report. The interesting point of these perceived weaknesses to me is just how important blocking really is for running backs and in particular, how much value blocking should have within the evaluation of the player as a whole.

The consistent trope within the scouting community is that a running back is extraordinarily valuable when he can be a three-down back. In other words, capable of being a runner on those first two downs and being able to be a weapon in the passing game on passing downs, either as a receiver or as a blocker

The nature of both Cook and McCaffrey's game is that they are weapons in the passing game. As Brett illustrated a few weeks ago, Cook is a special kind of back when it comes to working out of the backfield. McCaffrey is much the same. He's a shifty operator with smooth hands who can and will outpace most NFL linebackers out of the backfield. The question that needs to be asked is why it would ever be important for these two backs to block.

I want to add an important caveat here. I don't think blocking as a whole is an inconsequential skill, or that all RBs who cannot do it should get a free pass in terms of evaluations. What I’m saying is that the emphasis and importance of blocking for running backs needs to be re-evaluated in congruence with a more pass-happy NFL.

As Blogging the Boys touched on when discussing the importance of blocking for running backs in the NFL, the issue is largely a contextual one:

How much importance you place on the pass blocking of your running back is probably more a philosophical question. Do you prefer a back who is a great runner and who will gobble up the yards on the ground, or do you prefer your halfbacks to me more versatile, multidimensional players who can add value on every single snap?

It's a system-to-system concern largely based on the offensive coordinator’s schematic versatility, but I think that's a contradiction when discussing running backs as a whole. Running backs are meant to give versatility within the passing game purely because of the nature of the coverage that they draw. Instead of asking for, say, the third-best defensive back to match up against your third-best wide receiver, you are typically matching two players with similar physical attributes against each other. With a RB, however, the typical match-up is against a MLB who might be twenty to thirty pounds (or more) heavier than the RB he is covering. This kind of mismatch is what offensive coordinators look for weeks before games. Why would you eliminate that potential by asking a running back to block? Furthermore, why would you ask perhaps the most dominant ball carrier in your offense to do anything other than carry the ball?

I think the role of a running back within an NFL offense is going to be an interesting question going forward. Just how much value should be put into a running back’s ability to block? My evaluations will always center around the player’s skill in the role he’ll most likely play, not the one that someone might put them in. Any critique against a player isn't a critique of the player’s ability; rather, it’s a mark against the offensive coordinator who is incorrectly using that player.

Do you think blocking is something a prospect should be knocked for even if he should never be used as a blocker? Do you think blocking will always maintain some kind of eminence within the scouting community when it comes to individual evaluation of certain running backs?