On Jan. 1, 2007, the Boise State Broncos upset the mighty Adrian-Peterson-led-Oklahoma Sooners in the Fiesta Bowl. The game ended with running back Ian Johnson’s game-clinching two-point conversion in overtime on a Statue of Liberty play, and after the game, during a live interview with FOX Sports’s Chris Myers, Johnson got down on one knee and proposed to cheerleader Chrissy Popadics. She said yes, and Johnson, a sudden celebrity, forever captured Boise’s heart.
A few weeks later at the 2009 NFL combine, Johnson ran a running back-best 4.46 40-yard dash, but he ultimately went undrafted. He toiled in obscurity on Viking, Cardinal, Niner and Dolphin practice squads from 2009-11, and then joined the rest of us in civilian life. All the while, Boiseans lamented that the NFL wasn’t “giving Johnson a chance,” and many were convinced it was because he was just a small fish from a small city.
Really, it was because Johnson couldn’t move left and right. As his 40-yard time dictated, Johnson’s straight-line speed was great, but his lateral movement was stiff. For an NFL running back, a player’s most important trait is the ability to move laterally—especially within confined areas, it’s how he makes defenders miss and set up blocks. Lateral agility is rarely talked about because it can be hard to spot unless it’s on a Barry Sanders or Le’Veon Bell type highlight play. And, unlike straight-line speed (which is borderline irrelevant) lateral agility is difficult to measure nicely, making it nearly impossible for the masses to tweet and talk about.
It’s astonishing how often those traits are overlooked in the pre-draft process. A smart evaluator addresses these traits first when examining a prospect, because any player who lacks that trait will, to one degree or another, have limited upside. It’s crucial that an evaluator understand this—many draft busts are players whose team didn’t recognize, or honor, the repercussions of him lacking that trait.
With draft season upon us, these skills should be the starting points for discussions on all players. And almost any player who lacks his position’s most important trait should not be considered as a potential first-round pick.