Let me make one thing perfectly clear: All football players have skill sets. There are certain positions that are blessed with more athletic skill set than others and in turn align at what are generally called skill positions (running backs, receivers, corners and return specialists).
Let me tell you a quick story. I was hired in Carolina by two men that I considered my mentors and they helped shape my career along with several others – Bill Polian and Pro Football Hall of Famer Mike McCormack. Polian was the general manager and McCormack was the president of the Carolina Panthers. At my first meeting as an area scout, we were gathered in Charlotte, North Carolina, for a pro scouting meeting (college scouts were assigned five NFL teams during preseason each year and given the responsibility of writing reports on bubble veterans, all college draft picks and those players that caught our eye).
Before Polian started giving us our scouting assignments and the type of players we should target that fit our philosophy, this young scout chimed in to ask a question. Should I just concentrate on the skill players, the running backs, receivers, corners? McCormack, an offensive lineman that has a bronze bust in football heaven, slowly stood up and for the next 32 minutes (I remember it like it was yesterday), proceeded to give this scout a verbal tongue lashing. That day I learned that offensive linemen are skill players, too!
In the Rams’ situation, there are two positions of skilled players that are battling for playing time and opportunities. While Pro Bowler Steven Jackson is cemented as the starter, the battle is for the No. 2 running back spot. Currently competing are newly acquired unrestricted free agents Cadillac Williams and Jerious Norwood and second-year Ram Keith Toston.
Williams, a thick-framed running back, was penciled in quickly at the No. 2 spot. Against the Colts, he ran hard with quickness out of his stance to press the line of scrimmage and showed vision to open space and build up acceleration. He caught the ball well. He also is a veteran ball carrier with spotty playing time due to his injury history. He is not the runner he was at Auburn, or in his rookie year at Tampa Bay, but this War Eagle is well qualified to be the backup to Jackson and showed last Saturday he still has some gas in the tank. He is a very good pass blocker with balance, coil and strike finish. Will be limited on special teams, not because of toughness, but because coaches fear injury.
Norwood, with a sleek greyhound frame, is built for speed. He flashed his ability against the Colts, with good burst to the second level (linebackers), vision and speed to defy angles, forcing defenders to chase him. He is a better player in space than he is running between the tackles. He is less than a year post-operative from surgery on his right knee last September. Despite some production last Saturday, the knee is not 100 percent and neither is his confidence when making sharp cuts. Once healthy, Norwood has freaky speed with the ability to fly by defenders with stick and go with exceptional burst and acceleration, as a runner and receiver. Heis a willing blocker with collision and toughness. Has kickoff return skills once healthy and will need to contribute as a core special teams player.
Toston, who saw action in a few games in 2010 as the third-string running back, finds the odds stacked against him, but somebody forgot to tell him that. A slashing downhill runner with no wasted motion, explosive collision pad level and hill knee pump, and always finishes falling forward for the tough yards. Good pass blocker with awareness of blitz, toughness and collision finish. A core special teams player last year and will continue to do that again this year. One thing a running back must have is durability as a runner and competitiveness and toughness on teams.
When it comes down to finalizing the 53-man roster, it becomes a numbers game with players and the more you can contribute, the better your chances of making the team become. With both Williams and Norwood having missed significant time due to injury history, the durable Toston will continue to quietly push for playing time and a spot on the 2011 roster. The battle between these three skill players will be interesting to watch over the last three preseason games.
Do the Rams keep four running backs and one fullback? If not, where will the axe fall? Which skill player in the backfield will be left on the outside looking in? There is still a lot of football to play before crucial decisions have to be made.