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Analyzing Dexter McCluster, running back

When the Titans made Dexter McCluster their first signing of free agency this offseason, I noted he had played both wide receiver and running back in the NFL, and noted Whisenhunt’s challenge was to make him a more effective player than he had been. Since then, the Titans have indicated McCluster will at least start off playing more running back than wide receiver. To get a better idea as to what to expect from McCluster as a running back, I went back and watched all of his carries in 2011, the only season of his four in the NFL he saw extensive work as a receiver of handoffs.

John Glennon had a useful Tennessean story that covered a lot of the basics. The first key point was that McCluster was not a feature back by any stretch of the imagination. He had 114 carries spread out over 16 games, generally ranging from 4-9 carries. Watching him, the Chiefs seemed to use him sporadically. He would get carries on three consecutive plays (and not because the Chiefs were running any an up-tempo offense, they just did), then not see the ball again for a quarter or more. There was presumably some sort of reasoning behind the apparent madness, but given some of what I saw from Todd Haley, I wondered sometimes.

Second point, McCluster was primarily a sub package back. Glennon noted 84 of his 114 carries came with three or four wide receivers on the field. As you would expect, opposing teams were primarily in sub package personnel when McCluster did run the ball.

Related, and unsurprisingly given the personnel situation, his runs were, by and large, not from the package of plays Matt Bowen described as the base NFL run game. Instead, he ran draws, inside handoffs from the shotgun, end arounds, and wide delays, plus more typical outside zone/stretch plays and a smatter of traditional between the tackles runs.

Third (or fourth) point, McCluster was not a player who saw a lot of use in the red zone. Glennon noted only five of his 45 catches came inside the 20. The same was true of his runs-only 8 of the 114 came inside the opposing 20. Further, he only had two carries in goal-to-go situations all year, both on third-and-long. The unsurprising result of all that was he only had one rushing touchdown all season, a 21-yard carry that came on what looked like an outside zone run that he cut back and found no contain man on. (For a Titans example of a similar play, see CJ’s TD against the Rams Cortland Finnegan misplayed).

McCluster the Back
Those initial and mostly broad-scale points out of the way, what did I see from McCluster as a back? As the listing of the runs I commonly saw would indicate, McCluster was primarily a perimeter runner who did his work outside the tackles and on the edges of the defense. He was generally the only back in the backfield, and was less effective when the Chiefs had multiple players in the backfield.

The best comparison I could make is watching him reminded me of watching the less exasperating version of Chris Johnson. Like CJ, he has good speed and likes to rely on it a lot (though I did not see CJ’s long speed in the couple opportunities he would have had to display it). Like CJ, he did not often run with great physicality and rarely defeated players with physical power. Then again, McCluster is listed at only 5’8″, 170 pounds, so that’s not the sort of thing you would expect from him. Like CJ, I did not see great vision-the CJ who cutback into worse situations was not quite evident, though McCluster did manage to cutback into his offensive lineman’s butt (no good screenshot, but it was Week 7 against the Raiders, 3Q 5:19). He showed a better feel for the rhythm of run plays than CJ did, though there were still a couple plays where I wondered if he hurried it too much.

One thing I wonder about his how well he’ll use his lateral agility. That was one thing in particular that made CJ so effectively early in his career he hasn’t used as much the last couple years. I’m not thinking of the big dramatic jump cuts so much as the minor lateral quickness. This was evident on some of the draws and wide delay runs, when the offensive tackle (often LT Brandon Albert) shoved the defensive end into a wide rush and then went to pick up the linebacker (generally). McCluster on those plays had to avoid the defensive ends rush, which sometimes required him to make a move in tight spaces or stay inside and then go outside. He did a nice job of this sometimes (e.g., Week 1 against the Bills, 4Q 4:32; Week 12 against the Steelers, 2Q 6:16), and it’s something I think he will need to continue to do to be successful. It’s also key in open space; just ask Mario Haggan about the hesitation move McCluster put on him (Week 17 against the Broncos, 2Q 6:49).

Why did McCluster become a wide receiver?
After 2011, the Chiefs moved McCluster to wide receiver. The obvious question after this is, why did the Chiefs make that call, and was it the right one? First, the presence of Jamaal Charles (who missed almost all of 2011 with a torn ACL) certainly had a lot to do with it. Charles is at least as fast as McCluster and a much better between the tackles runner. Anybody who has McCluster and Charles on their team and doesn’t give handoffs Charles much, much more often (as much as he can safely be used) is an idiot.

Second, just stylistically, McCluster is not a great complement to Charles. Charles can run the same runs McCluster can, and do them better. While I did not particularly value either as a back, both Peyton Hillis and Shaun Draughn (KC’s RB2 and RB3 by carries in 2012) were different types of runners.

Third, McCluster has some NFL talents. The Chiefs were not overwhelmingly talented on offense, and getting another fast player out there was something that had a potential benefit to the team (even if McCluster is not a great wide receiver, something I may write about in more detail later in the offseason).

Conclusion-Type Things
Speaking personally, if you’re not good at running the base NFL run game, then I don’t want you as a running back in the NFL. I don’t think McCluster has the size or power to be an effective between the tackles runner in the NFL, even on modest 8 carry per game basis. While Todd Haley really did drive me nuts, I think he was generally corrected in his use of McCluster primarily on perimeter runs and his non-use of him on base runs.

Fortunately, I think Whisenhunt is looking for just that sort of gadget back, like he had in LaRod Stephens-Howling in Arizona. McCluster can be that sort of player. The broader question is what sort of value that player will have. I think it’s some in a limited, topical role, but that will depend on the structure of the offense Whisenhunt puts him in as much as McCluster’s overall ability as a player. Further, McCluster’s value in that role will depend on his pass blocking (if the Titans line him up in the backfield and ask him to pass block) and his receiving, neither of which I analyzed for this post. As I said when the Titans signed McCluster, we’ll see if Whisenhunt can make McCluster an effective player, even if he is “just” a gadget back.