For the first time in three years a running back went off the board in the first round—two, in fact, left the green room before Day One was half over. But that was just the tip of the iceberg, as 22 backs were drafted from a deep and talented class.
Todd Gurley and Melvin Gordon, the two 2015 first-rounders, will receive plenty of fantasy love this August. But with more teams taking a committee approach, several other backs could play their way into significant touches sooner rather than later. Here is an overview of the fantasy prospects for this year’s rookie running back class.
MELVIN GORDON, CHARGERS 1.15 (WISCONSIN)
Taken five picks after Gurley, Gordon moves immediately to the top of a San Diego depth chart that lost Ryan Mathews to free agency. With Danny Woodhead still on the roster Gordon won’t have to do much in the passing game until he’s ready, but if he amalgamates most of the 319 carries Brendan Oliver, Ryan Mathews and Donald Brown cobbled together last year he’ll easily sprint into fantasy relevance as potentially the top fantasy rookie this season.
TODD GURLEY, RAMS 1.10 (GEORGIA)
St. Louis snapped a streak of two straight drafts without a first-round running back by selecting Todd Gurley 10th overall. The only red flag on his standout resume is a torn ACL that prematurely ended his college career last November. If Gurley is able to hit the ground running this August, he’s sure to be rewarded by a coach that hasn’t been afraid to load up his rookie runners. A conservative estimate for a healthy Gurley puts him easily in the mid-teens among running backs—and if he’s well enough to push incumbent Tre Mason to change-of-pace duty early in the season he has fantasy RB1 potential.
JAY AJAYI, DOLPHINS 5.13 (BOISE STATE)
Ajayi was considered one of the most complete and versatile backs in this class, but concerns about the future of his knees dropped him into the fifth round. If the knee is sound he could bump aside Lamar Miller to take over significant touches in the Miami backfield, but dynasty owners should take heed that NFL doctors didn’t see fit to clear him as anything more than a risky Day Three pick.
AMEER ABDULLAH, LIONS 2.22 (NEBRASKA)
A second-round selection, Abdullah replaces what the Lions lost with Reggie Bush’s departure—speed in the open field. But Abdullah was more than just a scatback in college, and he could very well carve into Joique Bell’s feature-back touches as well. Even though the Lions remain pass-heavy, if Bell falters fellow rookie Zach Zenner could join Abdullah in covering the Detroit ground game.
T.J. YELDON, JAGUARS 2.4 (ALABAMA)
The Jaguars spent a second-round pick on Yeldon, who flashed potential as a committee back at Alabama even though his productivity peaked during his freshman year. He has all the physical tools to be an NFL feature back, and if he proves up to the workload he’ll get every opportunity to bump aside incumbent Denard Robinson. At minimum he offers the Jags a complementary option to Robinson, replacing what they thought they were getting with last season’s free agent bust Toby Gerhart.
TEVIN COLEMAN, FALCONS 3.9 (INDIANA)
Atlanta adds third-round pick Coleman to the battle to replace Steven Jackson’s carries. And while Coleman did play—and succeed—in a zone scheme at Indiana, it remains to be seen if he demonstrates the patience necessary to excel in Kyle Shanahan’s system. Many scout reports compared Coleman to Darren McFadden, but he also has similarities to Clinton Portis—a back who put up some monster numbers in this scheme. Worst-case Coleman gives Atlanta a better version of home-run hitter Antone Smith; best-case, he uses his big-play ability to hit the seams in the zone and keep racking up long touchdown runs.
DUKE JOHNSON, BROWNS 3.13 (MIAMI)
The Browns already have a crowded backfield with Isaiah Crowell and Terrence West, but with no passing game to speak of they used the third round to add the versatile Johnson to the mix. Johnson is more explosive than either of Cleveland’s incumbents, and it wouldn’t surprise if they settled on either West or Crowell as their between-the-tackles back while asking Johnson to provide the outsize zip. Cleveland should run the ball enough to make both ends of their committee fantasy-relevant, but the Browns played the proverbial hot hand last year so stopping the roulette wheel on the right Cleveland back each week might prove tricky.
DAVID COBB, TITANS 5.2 (MINNESOTA)
Second-rounder Bishop Sankey wasn’t the answer last season. He may get another look as Tennessee’s lead back, but if not Cobb could step in and take over the workload. Cobb doesn’t have a standout, make-you-say-“wow” trait, but he was productive in college and has the versatility to be an every-down back at the NFL level. Hey, the Titans gave Shonn Greene significant touches last season; Cobb is at minimum a younger, rich man’s version of Greene. Don’t forget, however, that running quarterback Marcus Mariota looms to vulture goal line looks.
DAVID JOHNSON, CARDINALS 3.22 (NORTHERN IOWA)
After failing to swing a trade for Adrian Peterson, Arizona used its third-round pick on Johnson, an intriguing complement to Andre Ellington. While Johnson is significantly bigger than Ellington he’s by no means a bruiser; in fact, he’s a former wideout with skills more like DeMarco Murray or Matt Forte in the passing game. Don’t be surprised if Bruce Arians schemes a way to get both backs on the field as receivers—and don’t be surprised if Johnson ends up to be more than just a caddy to the smallish and oft-injured Ellington.
MIKE DAVIS, 49ERS 4.27 (SOUTH CAROLINA)
The Niners drafted Carlos Hyde in the second round last season anticipating that one day Frank Gore wouldn’t be around. However, Hyde was underwhelming in limited work as a rookie so he’s no lock to move directly into the feature back role. Reggie Bush also looms in San Francisco, but the fourth-rounder Davis could wind up carving out a piece of what is expected to be a high-volume 49ers ground game.
CAMERON ARTIS-PAYNE, PANTHERS 5.38 (AUBURN)
There isn’t much depth behind oft-injured Jonathan Stewart, so even though Payne was a fifth-round afterthought all it would take would be another turned ankle or balky knee for Stewart to turn him into a feature back. Artis-Payne was productive at Auburn and at minimum offers a complement to keep Stewart’s workload from overwhelming him.
BUCK ALLEN, RAVENS 4.26 (USC)
Allen is a far more prototypical Baltimore back than incumbent Justin Forsett, big enough to move piles yet quick enough to provide the same zip that Forsett brings to the table. Look for Allen to supplant sluggish Lorenzo Taliaferro as the change-of-pace guy to keep Forsett’s carry total down; if he performs well in that role he could very well be the heir to the 30-year-old Forsett sooner rather than later.
JOSH ROBINSON, COLTS 6.29 (MISSISSIPPI STATE)
Ageless Frank Gore may never break down… but if it does happen in his first pro season outside of San Francisco, Robinson could be the guy to fill his shoes. Robinson brings a better resume to the table than Dan Herron, who was thrust into the role of Indy’s feature back last season, so he’s a guy to target as a late handcuff to Gore or potential dynasty stash. Because Gore has to retire eventually… doesn’t he?
JEREMY LANGFORD, BEARS 4.7 (MICHIGAN STATE)
Fourth-round pick Langford is more of a between-the-tackles guy than Matt Forte, but with John Fox now calling the shots there could be enough carries to make even the complementary guy fantasy-relevant. And of course there’s the possibility that Forte, in a contract year, might wind up holding out and opening up even more touches for another back.