Running back may be a devalued position in the NFL, but it’s still critical in the fantasy world. Not only could this year’s bumper crop of backs snap a two-year string of drafts without a first-round runner, there is depth galore; given the right situations, a half-dozen or more could make fantasy noise this year. Here’s a quick pre-draft look at the top end of the 2015 running back class, with selected quotes from both the “Pros” and “Cons” sections of the player profiles in the USA Today Sports 2015 NFL Draft Preview.
MELVIN GORDON, RB, WISCONSIN – 6-1, 215
Gordon’s ability to transition from über-productive Wisconsin runner to NFL success is thrown into question by the Badger backs who have come (and failed) before him, but Gordon is a different runner than Montee Ball, James White, et. al. He has elite balance and acceleration, burst through the hole, and the ability to make cuts in the open field without slowing down. Gordon carried that explosiveness over a high volume of carries as well. He has limited experience in the passing game and some questions about ball security, but with time there’s no reason he can’t become an effective three-down back in the NFL.
NFL Comparisons: The low end for Gordon projects to be a Reggie Bush or C.J. Spiller type of speed back; the upper end has him rounding out his game more like a Robert Smith, DeMarco Murray, or potentially even Jamaal Charles.
From the USA Today Sports NFL Draft Preview: “Explosive back with the vision to find a hole and the speed to break away once he hits it. Needs to improve ball security.”
TODD GURLEY, RB, GEORGIA – 6-1, 222
If not for the ACL injury that prematurely ended his final college season, Gurley would be the unquestioned top back in this class. As it stands he may still go off the board first at his position; he’s that mouth-watering a prospect. Gurley is built for the NFL, with elite size, speed and agility—a throwback do-everything back widely considered the best RB prospect to come out of college since Adrian Peterson. He runs low and had, has outstanding ball security, and due to the injury comes to the NFL with relatively low mileage. His surgically repaired recently got a medical thumbs-up at the Combine re-check; final question answered?
NFL Comparisons: Reminiscent of Willis McGahee or Jamal Lewis, both of whom overcame significant knee injuries to star in the NFL. Has also drawn some Marshawn Lynch comparisons, as well as to old-school Corey Dillon or, more recently, Eddie Lacy.
From the USA Today Sports NFL Draft Preview: “Elite blend of size, speed, and agility. Coming off a torn ACL.”
JAY AJAYI, RB, BOISE STATE – 6-0, 221
If not the most complete running back in this year’s draft class, Ajayi is at least the most versatile; he is the first FBS back ever to tally 1,800 rushing yards and 500 receiving yards in the same year. Born in England, Ajayi grew up playing soccer which explains his deft footwork. Ajayi is nimble for a big back and displays power and outstanding balance to extend his runs. Ball security is definitely an issue for Ajayi, in part because he often carries the ball in the wrong hand—though some of his fumbles can be attributed to fighting for extra yardage as well. Ajayi also gets dinged by scouts for too much east-west running. However, with rare athleticism for a big back and the demonstrated ability to be effective as a receiver, Ajayi has the potential to transition into a successful three-down back at the NFL level.
NFL Comparisons: The popular comparison for any back with size is Marshawn Lynch, but Ajayi might be more of an Edgerrin James type or a super-sized Ray Rice.
From the USA Today Sports NFL Draft Preview: “A one-cut runner who does not lose speed or momentum upon his cut. Attempts to bounce outside too frequently.”
AMEER ABDULLAH, RB, NEBRASKA – 5-9, 205
Abdullah is an explosive back who can change directions with ease. He’s not a special athlete with jaw-dropping speed or prototypical NFL running back size, but he has an array of moves and abilities that allows him to succeed. Abdullah has excellent vision and a natural feel for finding the hole, and despite his lack of size he’s a strong runner who finishes plays. He’s also a good receiver, though his stature will make it difficult for him in pass protection. The lack of size also likely relegates him to a committee role at the NFL level, though he could defy the odds as a Tiki Barber-type of undersized feature back. Not unlike Tiki, Abdullah also has issues with ball security that need to be addressed before an NFL team trusts him with consistent touches.
NFL Comparisons: Abdullah’s size, or lack thereof, throws him into the Andre Ellington/Giovani Bernard realm of playmaking backs best served with limited touches. Abdullah’s game has also drawn comparisons to Joique Bell as well as old-school backs like Joe Cribbs and the aforementioned Tiki Barber.
From the USA Today Sports NFL Draft Preview: “Athletic and explosive runner with good initial quickness and run instincts. Undersized for the position.”
T.J. YELDON, RB, ALABAMA – 6-1, 226
Perhaps the most divisive prospect in this year’s running back class, Yeldon has all the physical tools to be an NFL star. He certainly looked that way when he burst onto the scene as a freshman at Alabama, but he hasn’t really improved since then. Yeldon shared carries throughout his college career, which begs the question: is he just a committee back or can he handle a full feature back workload? The positives include rare movement skills for his size, outstanding burst, excellent vision between the tackles and an ideal frame for the running back position. However, detractors note that Yeldon’s upright running style won’t allow him to hold up to a full feature back workload, he lacks elite speed, and he has major ball security issues.
NFL Comparisons: Is Yeldon a ‘Bama back who flourishes with more carries, like Mark Ingram or Eddie Lacy? Or is he merely Trent Richardson with a lower price tag? Physically Yeldon compares to Larry Johnson, but there is no evidence he can hold up to such a workload; of course, neither could LJ.
From the USA Today Sports NFL Draft Preview: “Has all the size, athleticism, and physical tools to be a feature back at the NFL level. Has had major fumbling issues and needs to work on ball security.”
TEVIN COLEMAN, RB, INDIANA – 5-11, 206
A pure home-run hitter, Coleman tallied eight touchdown runs of 64 yards or longer during his college career. He is a violent runner, refusing to go down on contact—and once he’s in the open field his burst makes him extremely difficult to catch. Coleman has good vision and the ability to make one cut and go north and south. He’s also a good receiver and a willing blocker in pass protection, though as with most backs that area of his game requires refinement. Scouts are also concerned that his never-quit attitude and upright running style—not to mention 500-plus college touches—may lead to durability concerns.
NFL Comparisons: The stylistic comparison is Darren McFadden, another home-run back who has been hit-or-miss at the NFL level—replete with injury concerns.
From the USA Today Sports NFL Draft Preview: “Ideal size and speed for the position. Does not have the late wiggle to miss contact from defenders, takes a lot of hits.”
DUKE JOHNSON, RB, MIAMI (FL) – 5-9, 207
Johnson is an explosive, creative runner with rare agility and elite burst and acceleration. He’s elusive, consistently making would-be tacklers miss and strong enough to run through arm tackles especially when he’s used his speed to set up the defender with a poor angle. He’s also a good receiver and a willing and capable pass protector, the kind of player with the skill set to be a three-down back from Day One. However, Johnson may be best served as a committee member as he is not nearly as successful a runner between the tackles, with a propensity for dancing and looking for the home run instead of getting north-south. Johnson also has durability concerns; he battled injuries each of his past two collegiate seasons and isn’t built for heavy NFL use.
NFL Comparisons: There’s a lot of C.J. Spiller in Johnson’s game: an explosive yet fragile runner who’s ineffective inside but a big play waiting to happen if used properly. Johnson has also drawn comparisons to Justin Forsett, who had a bit more success as a three-down back but still needed some bigger backfield mates to share the workload.
From the USA Today Sports NFL Draft Preview: “Added weight and speed prior to 2014 and it paid huge dividends. May not have the frame to take a lot of hits in the NFL.”
DAVID COBB, RB, MINNESOTA – 5-11, 239
Cobb was overshadowed in the Big 10 by the likes of Melvin Gordon and Ameer Abdullah, and he’s overshadowed in the strong 2015 class of running backs because he lacks one singular special trait. What Cobb does bring to the table is the build of a workhorse back, good vision, a low pad level, and a north-south running style that moves the pile and picks up the tough yards. Cobb also possesses good hands and is capable in pass protection, traits he demonstrated during a solid Senior Bowl run. Cobb won’t wow anyone with his speed or moves, and he’s not a dynamic playmaker. But he has all the tools necessary to be a solid NFL contributor for a long time—and in the right situation, the skills to turn a high volume of touches into fantasy success.
NFL Comparisons: Cobb’s size and skill set compares to Stevan Ridley, who also required the proper situation to be an NFL success. His high-end upside would be something akin to Eddie Lacy, but it will take the absolute perfect situation for him to reach that level of productivity.
From the USA Today Sports NFL Draft Preview: “Physical downhill north/south runner who presses the hole and breaks through to the second level. Lacks long breakaway speed and a top-tier tool set.”
DAVID JOHNSON, RB, NORTHERN IOWA – 6-1, 224
A small-school stud who flashed at both the Senior Bowl and the NFL Scouting Combine—where he ranked in the top four running backs in five different drills—Johnson is looking to follow the lead of fellow FCS backs Terrance West and Jerrick McKinnon. He has a mouth-watering size/speed combo, with good vision and awareness and the ability to get yards after contact. But where Johnson truly stands out is catching the football—not surprising, since he was a wide receiver in high school. In fact, Johnson’s career pass-catching stats match those of Sammie Coates and Devin Funchess, two highly regarded receivers in this draft class. Some scouts see Johnson as an H-back, as concerns about his high pad level and lack of ability to create more than is blocked may limit his upside as a running back. Still, if Johnson can make the competition-level transition from UNI to the NFL he has all the tools to be a successful three-down back.
NFL Comparisons: Johnson’s closest NFL comparison might be DeMarco Murray, who was widely regarded as the top pass-catching back in his class but who developed into a standout feature back as well. If that’s overly optimistic, imagine a Mikel Leshoure type without the off-the-field baggage.
From the USA Today Sports NFL Draft Preview: “Natural feel with the ball in his hands, runs with good awareness and vision. Elite ball skills as a receiver. Lacks the lower body thickness to take the amount of hits he will surely encounter with his height and running style.”
MIKE DAVIS, RB, SOUTH CAROLINA – 5-9, 217
Davis is a powerful north-south runner with a low center of gravity, productive between the tackles with good vision, instincts, and balance. He also has a natural feel for cutback lanes and an ability to see holes before they develop. However, Davis lacks top-end speed and has limited athletic upside. He has also been dinged up the past couple of seasons and conditioning was reportedly an issue last year as his productivity dropped off from his sophomore campaign. He’s likely destined to be the “thunder” portion of a committee backfield, though he does have decent receiving skills so it’s not as if he’s a third-down liability.
NFL Comparisons: Davis is built like Maurice Jones-Drew but lacks the top-end speed; he’s more of an Alfred Morris type, with better receiving skills.
From the USA Today Sports NFL Draft Preview: “Savvy runner. Good vision and cutback ability. Doesn’t have the extra gear after his initial acceleration.”