Alabama Crimson Tide running back Damien Harris

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2019 NFL Draft: Who are the new kids at RB

April 15, 2019 - 9:17 am



Except for a few teams like Dallas, the Giants, the Jets and the Rams, few organizations seem to be embracing the concept of having a "franchise" running back. Sure, a good portion have solid 1-2 punches, but that 25-30 carry type seem to be very rare in the age of the passing attack.


Since the two leagues merged to form a universal draft in 1967, there have been 181 tailbacks to hear their names called in the first round, an average of 3.55 per year during the last 51 drafts. The National Football League seems to have placed a bigger emphasis on the passing game in recent seasons, leading to a two-year drought (2013-14) where no running backs earned first round status. Unless a team in the 2019 draft covets Alabama's Josh Jacobs, this position will not hear a member called until the second day of this year's draft.

Prior to the two-year first round drought, the smallest amount of first round tailbacks in any draft year was 1984. That year, Buffalo used the 26th pick to take Greg Bell out of Notre Dame. He started 67 of the 80 games he appeared in over seven seasons, toting the ball 1,204 times for 4,959 yards and 51 touchdowns. A valuable receiver, he also scored seven times behind 157 tosses.

Being a first round tailback does not always spell success, though. Of the 189 first round ball carriers drafted since 1967, only 24 would gain 10,000 yards rushing before their careers concluded. Just nine of them would rush for least 100 touchdowns and only nine of them reached the 500-reception plateau.

Gone are the “glory years” when ball carriers were taken in bunches during that coveted first round. Since the merger, the 1971 draft class still “stands tall” among running back alumni, as seven of those runners went during the first round activities, led by Hall of Famer, John Riggins, as the Kansas product was taken by the New York Jets with the sixth overall choice. He would go on to rush for 11,352 yards and 104 touchdowns, along with scoring twelve times on 250 catches from 1971-85).

The 1982 and 1987 classes delivered seven first round running backs during each of those years. The tenth pick in the 1982 draft was used by Oakland to take Southern California’s Marcus Allen. The Hall of Famer piled up 12,243 yards on 3,022 carries that produced 123 touchdowns, in addition to collecting 587 passes for 5,411 yards and 21 scores before retiring after the 1997 schedule.

The 1987 class featured perhaps the “motley crew” of wasted draft choices. Alonzo Highsmith was the third overall pick, by Houston, but ran for just 1,190 yards and seven touchdowns in six seasons before heading to the scrap heap in 1992. Brent Fullwood, the fourth overall selection, by Green Bay, fared a little better, running into the end zone eighteen times behind 1,702 ground yards. The worst value pick was Terrence Flagler, as the Clemson product managed just 237 yards and two scores in five seasons after being named the 25th choice in that draft by San Francisco.

There have been quite a few misses more than hits during the first few years of the universal draft. From 1967-69, of the 197 running backs drafted, 117 never made it out of their first training camp, including the Baltimore Colts' 20th overall selection in the 1967 draft, Jim Detwiler. An All-Big Ten Conference player for the Michigan Wolverines from 1964 to 1966, this was the first year that the 20th overall selection in the National Football League Draft occurred in the first round because the American Football League (AFL) and NFL drafted together for the first time.

Detwiler was part of a class of six NFL draftees from Michigan that year (Mike Bass, Frank Nunley, John Rowser, Rick Volk, and Carl Ward). After he signed with the Colts in May 1967, receiving a $50,000 signing bonus, he played in a couple preseason games in 1967, but his knee was still hurting from his college days.

Detwiler would undergo surgery on the knee and missed the entire 1967 season. He failed to make the team in 1968, and his professional football career was over. He is the most recent first round NFL Draft choice to have never played a game in the professional ranks. Since the draft's inception, 23 first round running backs never played in the NFL, but most were drafted in the 1930s and 1940s, when several served in the military during World War II.

The most well-known first round running back to never suit up after he was selected was Syracuse's Ernie Davis, who was selected by both Buffalo (fourth overall pick in the AFL) and Washington (first choice in the NFL) in 1962, but he was diagnosed with leukemia that summer and died one year later.

Among the 189 first round running backs drafted since 1967, there were thirty of them who never even gained 1,000 yards during their careers. In fact, one never even got the opportunity to run with the pigskin, as the 22nd pick in the 1970 draft (St. Louis Cardinals), Larry Stegent from Texas A&M, had just one reception for 12 yards to show for his pro career. Two others failed to gain 100 yards as ball carriers – 1971 Minnesota 23rd overall pick, Leo Hayden (eight carries for 11 yards in eight games) and 1972 Dallas 23rd overall selection, Bill Thomas (13 tries for 36 yards in thirteen appearances).

Eighteen of those 189 first round running backs since 1967 have made it to the Hall of Fame. Emmitt Smith, a first round choice by Dallas in 1990, leads the first round ball carriers in career starts (219-of-226 games), but twenty of them never started at least ten games in the pros, including a trio that never enjoyed a moment with the first unit – Leo Hayden (1971 by Minnesota), David Overstreet (1981 by Miami) and John Avery (1998 by Miami).

The importance of being a first round choice was evident, as fourteen of those players were taken in the opening round. Two who went later in the draft, yet still have a place in Canton are former Buffalo Bills great, Thurman Thomas, the 40th pick in the 1988 draft who rushed 2,877 times for 12,074 yards and 65 touchdowns while pulling in 472 tosses for 4,458 yards and 23 scores. The other is a Bill Parcells favorite- Curtis Martin, a third round pick by New England who collected 14,101 yards and 90 touchdowns on 3,518 carries and 3,329 yards on 484 catches from 1995-2005.

Since the 1967 merger, first round running back talent have made their way to the likes of the Buffalo Bills, Minnesota Vikings, New Orleans Saints and Indianapolis/Baltimore Colts eight times. The San Diego Chargers have used nine first round picks on tailbacks since 1970, but the leader of the pack are the St. Louis/Los Angeles Rams, as that organization has selected a running back in the first round eleven times.

On the other end of the spectrum, both the Jacksonville Jaguars and Philadelphia Eagles have only used two choices each on first round running backs. The Washington Redskins have left that round void, with no first round ball carriers to speak of since the merger. Since the 1970 draft, the Redskins have utilized the second round just three times to fill needs at that spot, taking Richard Williams with the 56th overall choice in 1983, followed by Reggie Brooks (45th) in 1993 and Ladell Betts (56th) in 2002. Williams’ resume shows one carry for five yards for his career, with Brooks running for 1,726 yards through four years and Betts totaling 3,326 yards and 15 touchdowns in 111 contests.


The current “craze” in the National Football League is to utilize a “tailback-by-committee” approach. Gone are the days of franchise ball carriers, or at least, they border close to extinction. The main culprit to this lack of attention to this position on draft day is that more often than not, the team operates with a one-back offensive scheme.

With the fullback position going the way of the dinosaur, most teams have reverted to a two-tight end formation. Rather than having a squat fireplug at fullback to clear the rush lanes for the ball carrier, that tailback now how to rely on quickness and vision to create space to get into the second level.

The “glorified” tight ends that sometimes serve as a lead blocker can not get their pads down like the classic fullback. With the tailback then on an island trying to create running room, that athlete is subjected to a high amount of punishment, leading to regular visits to the trainer’s room and long hours soaking in the whirlpool.

Where every team used to covet a “franchise” running back, now, they prefer using multiple “fresh bodies” at the position. Those teams deemphasizing the ground game have also shifted their priorities on draft day, as the position has seen their rate of producing first round talent take a big drop in recent seasons.

The 1980s was this position’s “golden era” with 52 first round choices. The 1980, 1986 and 1988 drafts saw five ball carriers receive first round recognition in each of those years. Six more were taken in the 1981 draft and both the 1982 and 1987 draft classes produced seven first round selections at the position.


Ask any ball carrier and he will tell you the line he does not want to hear from his coaches is that the team has a "committee at running back," but sadly for most, this rings true. When I describe a franchise running back, it is one who hungers for the ball, providing his team with just the right ingredients - size, strength, speed, tossed in with elusiveness, instincts, balance, cutting ability and the "cherry on top" if he is a valid pass catcher.

In the AFC East, one fits that mold in new Jets starter, Le'Veon Bell, who is one of the most patient backs in waiting for his blocks to develop. New England's Sony Michel brings that instant burst to the field, but durability is not one of his main assets, as he proved in college and during his short NFL career, so far.

In the AFC North, James Conner replaced Bell without much of a dropoff, but he's also had his fair share of doctors visits. Nick Chubb fits the mold for Cleveland, but the team brought in Kareem Hunt, as the former Bulldog has had a history of knee issues that kept him out of Round One in 2018. You see flashes that Leonard Fournette and Derrick Henry can develop into franchise types, but the Jaguars ball carrier has a lot of growing up to do and Henry leaves a lot of passed balls slipping through his fingers.

The NFC East features two franchise standards in Zeke Elliot and Saquon Barkley, along with a former featured back in Washington's Adrian Peterson. The NFC North has a lot of average runners in the committee mold. In the NFC South, Christian McCaffrey and Alvin Kamara are featured a lot, but also have to split time, so their teams don't wear them down.

The Rams are holding their breath that Todd Gurley's arthritic knee holds up, but you saw how reliant they were when he went down last year, lucking out with cast-off C.J. Anderson before letting him walk to Detroit, where he will again have to serve in a role playing role. Outside of this group, there are capable ball carriers in the league, just not any more of those "I gotta have one" types.


Prior to veteran free agency, the New York Jets, Kansas City, Oakland, Tampa Bay and Houston looked like the teams perched to make major moves to improve their running corps. The Rams and Vikings were also examining the available talent, as both have talented runners in Todd Gurley and Dalvin Cook, but injury issues have both organizations well advised to see additional help.

Buffalo and Philadelphia also have mediocre backs, but seem comfortable patching the tires or purchasing retreads rather than going to the tire store for new sets of wheels. Atlanta and New Orleans saw two solid producers walk, as Tevin Coleman was deemed replaceable by the Falcons, so he bolted for San Francisco on a two-year deal.

Mark Ingram received a three-year contract from Baltimore, but that breaks up the best 1-2 punch in the game, as Alvin Kamara will now have to split time with Latavius Murray, who goes to the back with over fourteen million of Saints ducats the next four years after leaving the Vikings backfield.

This off-season, forty-four veteran running backs were declared free agents. Nineteen of them signed new contracts, but just seven received at least two-year deals. Le'Veon Bell, who sat out last season after a dispute with the Steelers, inked a four-year deal worth 52.5 million, including 27MM in guarantees, but outside of Murray leaving Minnesota for New Orleans, no other back received a four-year deal.

Ingram was able to get three years, but that total of fifteen million seems pretty light, considering his production. Yet, it smacks you in the face with the thought that teams just don't value running backs, especially veterans, falling back on the thought that most ball carriers only have four good seasons before they end up in the trash heap.

Only four of the nineteen to get new deals returned to their 2018 clubs, showing that most took the "best to move on" approach with their former clubs. Of the nineteen to sign, just Adrian Peterson (34), Frank Gore (36) and Kenjon Bonner (30) will have at least thirty candles on their next birthday cakes.


Sweet Home Alabama might be the song playing early among the running backs available in the draft, as Josh Jacobs - the backup, and Damien Harris - the starter, are both expected to be selected when the first three running backs come off the draft board. Jacobs has the potential to be the only first round pick, but he may have lost a potential suitor when the Eagles traded for the Bears Jordan Howard.

The Raiders could be a potential fit for the Crimson Tide runner, as they own picks #24 and #27. They did snatch up Jets cast-off Isaiah Cromwell and re-signed Jalen Richards. If they do opt to go younger at tailback, there are doubts that former Raiders ball carriers Marshawn Lynch and Doug Martin will have spots on the roster. Both remain unsigned.

Jacobs is an excellent downhill runner who combines his size and power to be a dangerous open field threat, as he has very nimble feet and outstanding quickness past the second level opponents. He shows superb agility and balance with his pick-&-slide and the change of direction and hip flexibility to easily redirect to the cutback lanes. He displays impressive acceleration into the second level and unlike most big backs, do not label him as a one-cut runner, as he is quite capable of eluding or running through tackles.

The Crimson Tide ball carrier has very good leg drive and initial burst for his position. He shows good vision ability and does a nice job of sliding through the hole. He is a strong runner that can break arm tackles. He also demonstrates he can break free for a big gain, as he easily generates that explosive second gear/home run speed to make big plays with the ball in his hands. The only knock on him is if he can develop better-than-average receiving skills.

Jacobs' running mate, Damien Harris, is more in the Mark Ingram style that Alabama running backs usually feature. The Crimson Tide starter is not exceptionally fast or strong and has adequate shoulder definition, but compensates with good balance, body control and loose hips. He has a quick short area burst and good footwork, doing a nice job of shifting his weight and staying low in his pads to slip through traffic into the second level.

He generates good body lean, moves and fakes to con the defender and is very effective using his outstanding change of direction agility. In isolated coverage, he will generally win the foot race vs. second level defenders. He has swivel hips, rather than veer and weave, doing a nice job of picking and sliding trying to find daylight.

As a long-time scouting analyst, I like the all-around backs - ones that can bounce outside, gain good yardage between tackles and also be a weapon for the passing game. Such is Iowa State's David Montgomery, who I liken to another Iowa college player with the same first name - former Northern Iowa and current Arizona Cardinals star, David Johnson.

Montgomery possesses a fine blend of power and size to carry the brunt of the rushing load. He may lack explosive speed, but he is quick out of his stance, building acceleration nicely to get past the line of scrimmage. He is not the type of back that will try to elude the defender in the open, but has the raw power to easily break arm tackles. He makes sharp cuts and shows good vision for the cutback lanes and has the lower body strength to move the pile.

The thing you see on film is the way he consistently bounces off tackles, thanks to his thick upper body frame and thrust off the snap. He keeps his feet on the move and has a decent burst to clear trash. His balance and foot quickness, along with loose hips, lets him consistently redirect on the move.

As a scouting analyst, I also do not care for sticking draft round labels on guys. Thus my next quartet of ball carriers will not be the normal ones you will see on draft sites. The draft is to stock teams. I'm here to tell you who will star for those organizations. Temple University features one of these runners in Ryquell Armstead, who runs with sheer violence that quickly had him becoming one of our staff's favorites. To us, he reminds me of a certain Oakland Raider still unsigned - Marshawn Lynch.

Armstead has a solid build with good upper body muscle definition, big bubble, thick thighs and high calves. He has broad shoulders, good chest thickness and a frame that can carry another ten pounds of bulk with no loss in quickness. He possesses very good timed speed, building his acceleration quickly coming out of his stance. He is an explosive runner around the corner, but he also shows very good patience waiting for blocks to develop.

Armstead can generate a second gear to separate in the open and has the nimble feet needed to make precise lateral cuts. His loose hips and change of direction agility makes him very elusive avoiding traffic. He has nice feet and above average balance in his initial burst, doing a nice job of “getting skinny” to pick his way through tight creases. He keeps his feet after contact and has the pick-&-slide agility to elude when running in-line. He runs with a normal stride, but is very crisp redirecting on the move.

If your team is looking for a LeSean McCoy type, Texas A&M's Trayveon Williams might fit the bill. The electrifying Aggie might be short in stature, but he displays game-breaking quickness and the ability to consistently make defenders miss in space. He has natural hands and good receiving skills and has been an impact player for a pro team, thanks to his acceleration, burst and excellent vision.

Williams has outstanding body control and hip swivel, evident when he plants his foot and cuts in an instant. He does need to show more patience as a runner (will out-run his protection), but he has that stop-&-go action that leaves defenders grabbing at air. The tailback knows he is not going to beat a defender with brute strength. Still, he has great run instincts and vision to see and scan the field. He is more of a finesse-type rather than a power runner, even though he can break tackles consistently.

After serving as Saquon Barkley's "wing man," Penn State's Miles Sanders has been making a big rise on most team draft boards. He is more quicker than he is fast, but shows very good explosion and burst coming out of his stance. He attacks the holes with good pad level and forward body lean. He has that ease-of-movement agility to change direction and locate the cutback lanes without having to throttle down.

Sanders shows crisp plant and drive agility to get to his top speed in an instant and shows good up field cutting ability. He runs with good strength and uses his lower body well in order to break tackles consistently to get into the next level. He is a shifty runner with the ability to juke defenders and is very quick to accelerate past second level defenders. He runs with a normal stride, good balance and above average flexibility.

You have to love those physical guys that prefer running through a defender rather than eluding them. Such is the way that Kentucky's Bennie Snell Jr. plays the game. You know knocking defenders on their rumps is in his DNA. His father, Benjamin, was a running back at Ohio Northern and was drafted by the Baltimore Ravens in 1998.

What New York City kid in the late 1960s could forget Benny Jr.'s uncle, Matt Snell, who teamed with Emerson Boozer to play a big part when the New York Jets upset the Baltimore Colts in Super Bowl III (30 rushes, 121 yards). Even at 224 pounds, Snell has a sudden initial burst with good stop-&-go action, as he is quick to redirect, maintaining balance and accelerates out of his breaks in an instant. He shows good vision and change of direction agility moving around in the backfield.

Snell just seems better served lowering his pads, squaring his shoulders and trying to power through tackles, rather than try to dance around them. He shows good anticipation in the second level, as he is quick to find the seam to break through for long runs. His foot quickness is evident on his straight-line runs, as he is very good at getting to top speed in a hurry. He is a quick study on the football field, picking his spots well, when he sees a crease in the defensive coverage. He is an instinctive runner with the vision and intelligence to avoid when turning the corner, but he much rather put a dent in a defender's helmet than play patty-cake with them.

One of the biggest risers on the draft charts is Darrell Henderson from Memphis. Don't go by the 40-yard clock, this kid has exceptional quickness. He shows good flexibility slipping through traffic and when extending for passes. He has very good strength for a player his size, evident by his success advancing the ball in tight areas last year (57 positive carries inside the red zone). He runs with an explosive stride and shows that instant acceleration once he clears the line of scrimmage.

Henderson also displays above average body control to readily adjust on the move, showing savvy avoidance skills. He runs with good balance and agility to generate the burst needed to get to his top end speed. He also accelerates well out of his breaks as a receiver and has potential as a kickoff returner. He is very fluid moving through trash and has the low center of gravity and body control that remind some of former Tampa Bay tailback Carnell Williams in his prime.

The biggest puzzle coming out of the NFL Scouting Combine was the disappointing performance by Florida Atlantic's Devin Singletary. Touted as blessed with blazing speed, his 4.66 40-yard dash clocking tells me that blazing speed is no longer in the equation. Sure, you have a bunch of analysts calling him "field fast," but that's like me saying I'm on the cover of GQ by simply standing on the cover!

Singletary is an undersized player, but he has a thick chest, broad shoulders, muscular arms, good bubble, thick thighs and knotted calves. Still, there is not much more room on his frame for additional growth. He is a good athlete with the quick feet to jump-cut & changes direction with ease. He has very good balance through the holes and a very quick burst into the second level. He’s more quick than a runner with blazing speed.

The FAU talent has good acceleration and burst to get through the hole and into the second level. He lacks blazing speed, but accelerates quickly. While he may not win many foot races in the open, he has the wiggle and hip swerve to set up his moves and separate. It is his balance which enables him to keep his feet when he takes hard hits. Despite his size, he has enough strength and leg drive to get positive yards after initial contact. He has the vision needed to see the crease and a very good feel for threats. He has that quick change of direction and patience to use his blockers.

Now if you talk to my staff, they actually think that Singletary's wing man is the better value as a Day Three steal, especially with the kickoff success that Kerrith Whyte has had (81 runbacks for 2,115 yards and two touchdowns; 26.1 avg). Always a bridesmaid at FAU, the junior might lack the ideal size a team might look for in a featured back, but looks are deceiving, as he has a compact, muscular frame with good chest thickness, tight waist and hips, tapered thighs and calves, strong hands, minimal body fat (4%) and a washboard abdomen, bringing back memories of former Cardinals great, Stump Mitchell (built for speed and power).

White is a masterful kickoff returner, as he is the only player in school history to return two kicks 100 yards for touchdowns. Don’t regard him as strictly a returner, though. He catches the ball with good confidence and with his speed and quickness, the possibility of him becoming an elite returner at the next level is evident. He shows outstanding elusiveness and vision in the open and runs with toughness and speed to take kicks back the entire distance.

Most of the other ball carriers in this draft class look like Day Three types, but Oklahoma State's Justice Hill and oft-injured Stanford speedster Bryce Love could be taken later in Round Three, as the Rams think Love is a perfect change of pace back that is missing from their roster. Hill also has blazing speed and Pittsburgh is looking for a third-down option behind between-the-tackles starter James Conner.

Despite a bad performance running in Indianapolis, Georgia's Elijah Holyfield still has a nice band of supporters in the scouting industry. The Bulldog is a strong, power-oriented runner with adequate timed speed, but has soft hands and good urgency protecting the ball. He displays just average hip flexibility and change of direction agility, but can generate a good burst coming out of his stance. He looks more comfortable running between the tackles, as he appears stiff with his lateral movements.

Holyfield shows no hesitation moving off the snap. He attacks the holes at a very good pad level and has excellent vision finding the crease. He will occasionally take a false step, but it does not affect his timing at the mesh point. Though he might come in third in a race with a pregnant woman, he plays with deceptive long acceleration.

He has enough burst and power to get through hole and can elude defenders past the line with his short burst. Where he excels is that he can take a big hit and maintain his feet, doing a nice job of falling forward. He looks much better making the straight-line power run rather than moving laterally, but he has enough body control to stay low in his pads turning the corner.

Early Day Three types should see teams snatching up Dexter Williams-Notre Dame, Mike Weber-Ohio State, Oklahoma's Rodney Anderson and Washington State's James Williams. Later in the final two rounds, Miami's Travis Homer, Michigan's Karan Higdon, Washington's Myles Gaskin, Nebraska speedster Devine Ozigbo, Appalachian State's Jalin Moore and Utah State's Darwin Thompson should all here their names called.

Snubbed by the NFL Scouting Combine, scouts vision Ozigbo as a one-year wonder, as he did not have anything of note until last season. Still, he is a power-oriented runner with good forward body lean and excellent quickness. He has the upper body strength and leg drive to break tackles, but while he shows an explosive first step attacking the holes, he lacks patience waiting for his blocks to develop.

He has good acceleration in the open and the balance to stay up throughout his stride. He also has the lateral quickness to bounce off tackles, but must stay low in his pads to prevent defenders from pushing him back through the rush lanes. Even though, he runs with good body control and has a functional second gear to pull away from level-two defenders.


Okay children, it is time for my Dave-Te super sleeper special- Maryland Terrapins' Ty Johnson. In college football's modern era, Johnson's average touchdown distance of 39.35 yards as a ball carrier (seventeen touchdowns for 669 yards) is the NCAA career-record at all levels. His total touchdowns average distance of 44.71 yards (21 touchdowns for 939 yards; 17 rushing, two receiving, two kickoffs) is also the NCAA's all-time record.

Johnson's average of 7.57 yards per rushing attempt ranks (minimum 250 attempts) ranks seventh in FBS annals. Darrell Henderson of Memphis holds the top spot with an 8.23-yard average (431 carries for 3,545 yards; 2016-18). In college football's modern era (minimum 100 attempts), Johnson holds the fifth spot with an average gain of 9.13 yards in 2016. The leader is Chuck Weatherspoon, as the Houston talent averaged 9.63 yards on 119 chances for 1,146 yards in 1989.

Few teams in the collegiate or professional ranks have such an explosive and versatile weapon as the Terrapins boast with Johnson. Last season, he proved to be a dangerous kickoff returner, which adds to his already impressive resume. He shows good athletic agility and vision, doing a nice job of planting and driving to reach the cutback lanes, demonstrating excellent lateral movement and explosion.

What separates Johnson from most backs in this draft class is that he has a superb vertical burst, staying low in his pads while showing crisp hip snap with his lateral change of direction. He is patient enough to allow blocks to setup, whether carrying or returning the ball. He's also a smart football player with good field and classroom intelligence and is effective at picking up the blitz and stunt. He shows good peripheral vision to locate even the smallest of creases and is sudden running through the holes.

Johnson knows the offense well and is capable of playing either as a receiver or halfback at the next level. He has excellent work habits and is the type that approaches practices much like a game (all business on the field). He is more of a leader by example type than a rah-rah one, but he is good at mentoring the younger players. Despite his size, this tailback is a tough inside runner with the leg drive and power to get physical with defenders in attempts to break tackles. He is very decisive in his moves and has a good feel for the cutback lanes.

The thing you immediately notice on game film is that Johnson has that second gear and explosion needed to accelerate vertically off cuts. He runs behind his pads with good instincts, doing a nice job of driving and spinning to get extra yards after initial contact, as he has more than enough speed and quickness to reach the corner. He demonstrates good vision with quick plant and drive agility when redirecting and sets up the defender well with his stop-&-go action.