The eternal march of an NFL season always includes the same tropes. One of those is the constant clamoring from fans for more rookie involvement. After Kene Nwangwu came off of IR for the hyperextended knee he suffered in the preseason, everyone wanted to see him do more than return kicks. Nwangwu did not get significant carries until last week’s loss to the Detroit Lions. What gives? As Chris Schad put it:
With a 4.32 second time in the 40-yard dash, Nwangwu has the look of a player who can do remarkable things with the ball in his hands … Zimmer would rather have him sit on the sideline while Alexander Mattison slams into the back of his offensive line and Dalvin Cook gets an unsustainable amount of carries.
Nwangwu’s physical ability is no doubt impressive. Despite that, Nwangwu didn’t get any significant game action from scrimmage. Not until Cook’s injury (and Ameer Abdullah‘s exit to Carolina) did Nwangwu get a chance to carry the rock. Zimmer cited pass protection as a major reason, but that rang hollow with fans. Now that an injury forced Zimmer’s hand, we were excited to see exactly what sort of car he was keeping in the garage. After all, if he can find kick return lanes, he can find running lanes, right?
Kick returns have a ton of space for the returner to set up and read his lanes. Don’t take my word for that. Take the word of the greatest kick returner of all time. Cordarrelle Patterson compared kick returns to punt returns, noting that punt returns require you to make players miss immediately, while kick returns let you get a head of steam first.
On kickoff returns you catch the ball and you have 15 yards of space to run and get your momentum going. You hit holes before they close. But on a punt you gotta catch it, make a guy miss, make another guy miss, make a punter miss, and then score. You make your own holes. It’s a lot.
Four years later, Patterson found his home reading faster lanes in Atlanta. Hopefully, Nwangwu doesn’t take that long to learn the position. Either way, the point remains: Good kick returners do not automatically make good running backs. The best to ever do it had to develop on a long arc between several teams and coaches.
Unlike Patterson, however, Nwangwu has some running back experience. It wasn’t a lot — he averaged less than three carries per game over his time at Iowa State (five per game in his senior year) — but it’s somewhere to start from. Still, on those carries, Nwangwu displayed concerning tendencies that dropped him out of the first two days of the draft. As The Athletic’s Dane Brugler wrote:
…eager to show off his speed, but needs to improve his patience and allow blocks to develop … plays in overdrive and his game lacks tempo … Nwangwu must develop his patience, block recognition and receiving skills to warrant a spot on offense.
Nwangwu only played nine snaps on Sunday, but even in that small sample, we caught a glimpse of what Brugler was talking about. Each problem Brugler mentioned — a lack of patience, poor block recognition, and receiving-game issues — showed themselves in plays that counted.
It’s pretty common for fast running backs to play a little impatiently. They could break anything open in high school and college with blazing speed. Defenders are fast enough to prevent that in the NFL, so you have to re-learn how to approach a running play. Here, Nwangwu’s overactive sense of urgency gets him in trouble.
Here, Nwangwu needs to understand the momentum of the defenders. The defensive end, Michael Brockers, is playing too far inside and not very far upfield. Despite that, Nwangwu bends his run further upfield, wrecking any chance he has to salvage a broken Adam Thielen block.
Routes have to be precise to the foot in the NFL, let alone the yard. Here, the Vikings run a concept that relies on Nwangwu and Jefferson running at the exact same depth and with lots of horizontal space between them. No defense would have two players covering the same flat, so someone would likely be open. But Nwangwu takes the route two full yards too deep, bringing a defender back into the equation.
In the NFL, development tends to follow a certain trajectory. First, players are slow to process and wrong a lot of the time. There’s a lot to learn from college to the NFL, and nobody, not even the best superstars, will have everything down on Day 1. Then, players start to find the right answers, but they still have to think slowly through it. They’ll start playing on instinct at a certain point, but those instincts are undeveloped. Fast, but wrong. The final stage develops those instincts. Once a player is fast and right, the athleticism their team drafted them for can finally be put to use.
Long-term, there’s nothing wrong with this. Kene Nwangwu was a developmental draft pick from the start. We shouldn’t expect him to get through that entire developmental arc within two months. But we also shouldn’t assume that the Vikings were keeping the curtain on a perfectly ready player for no discernible reason. The above examples each cost the Vikings a crucial down. Their hand was forced thanks to Cook’s injury. If Cook is back on Thursday night against the Pittsburgh Steelers, it’d be criminal to toss Nwangwu back out there just “to see what he has.” We’ve seen what he has. It needs to go back in the oven to bake a little more.