Assessing young running backs

Assessing three of the NFL's best young running backs: Julius Jones , Kevin Jones and Willis McGahee.

Updated: December 9, 2004, 3:19 PM ET
By Merril Hoge | ESPN Insider
If a runner is going to be special in this league, there are some things he needs. He must have the ability to make things happen when the running lane isn't there. That comes down to agility and the ability to explode laterally as well as vertically. It's one of the reasons why the 40-yard dash is the most overrated assessment of a back in football. A back has to make a lateral move and use some power before straight-ahead speed can be applied.

That's why I believe straight-ahead speed isn't the first thing to look for in a running back. Don't get me wrong, if a back has speed on top of agility and lateral explosiveness, then a team has an extremely special back.

A running back also has to be able to get his team out of a jam and get the extra yards to move the chains. He's must get his team something when nothing is there and take advantage of the rushing lane. That's how I assess running backs.

Former NFL fullback Merril Hoge is an analyst for a wide variety of NFL programs on television and ESPN Radio. An eight-year NFL veteran, Hoge spent 1987-93 with the Pittsburgh Steelers and joined ESPN in 1996.