When it comes to the transition from college football to the NFL, many evaluators claim that running backs have the easiest transition to make. Running backs can rely more on their natural skills (particularly their instincts), vision, and agility than other positions.
There isn't much deciphering to be done by running backs unless they are blocking.
Blocking is one of the most complicated aspects of going from college to the pros for running backs. It's why most young running backs don't spend much time on the field on third down, instead standing on the sideline as veterans eat into their snaps. It's tough to watch, and it's even tougher for them to pick up their assigned defender when they are actually on the field.
What has made it difficult is the evolution of defenses. More and more teams are operating in some form of a three man front, whether it's a base 3-4 or a nickel package such as 3-3-5. Post-snap becomes more and more difficult due to the constant movement of defenders in zone blitzes. Zone blitzes, or what are commonly referred to as “fire zones” in coaching circles, consist of five rushers and six coverage droppers, all of which are coming from various directions. It's why rookie and second-year running backs have so many issues early, even those who appeared to be good at pass pro in college.
In college, it's a different game. Running backs are usually assigned a linebacker and are told to block him. It's part of the B.O.B. (back on backer) blocking scheme; this is when you see a running back pick up a linebacker coming off the edge. It is simple read-and-react on their part.
In the pros, however, it becomes much more complicated. They have to understand which rushers are coming and which are dropping. Identifying rushers is difficult when there are defenses like the Pittsburgh Steelers who show pressure in one gap, then drop the defender in coverage and send another defender from a completely different side. That forces the running back to patiently but quickly slide across the formation, form a strong base and then be willing and tough enough to block the defender.
Willingness, leverage, and toughness are the three keys to finding a quality blocker at running back. Many confuse size for being a necessary trait, but that's not always true.
Sure, there are good blockers who are large and strong, but there are some that are considered small are also good. One of the best blockers in recent time has been Kevin Faulk, formerly of the New England Patriots. Faulk was a very good blocker despite measuring 5'8" and weighing 202 pounds. He was smart, willing, tough, and played with proper pad level that enabled him to gain a leverage advantage.
From the 2013 draft, Arizona Cardinals' fifth-round selection Stepfan Taylor could be a player who ends up becoming a solid blocker despite only being 5'9", although he's 214 pounds. Taylor has the above traits to be a solid blocker, as general manager Steve Keim vaguely indicated following the draft.
"Not a burner with tremendous top-end speed but a guy who runs with balance, strength and fits Bruce's offense very well with his ability to protect in pass-pro situations,” Keim said (emphasis added).
Taylor's physical traits will be important in Cardinals head coach Bruce Arians' scheme, a vertical passing game that forces the running back to block for an extended period of time. Taylor will have to understand his playbook and identify which rushers are coming, though.
Like any other running back, it's going to be a tough task for him, much tougher than using his natural skills to run the ball.