Saturday, April 4, 2015

2015 NFL Draft Prospectus: Running Backs

Running Back is a position that has been highly devalued in the pro game. Since the NFL has gone on to pass happy spread offenses, RB has simply been taken down a notch, and this season, we could see a draft in which a RB is not even taken in the first round. That is both a slam on the talent level available, but is also a slam on how far the position has fallen in the scheme of things. If you want a direct comparison, in 2015, RBs are the new TEs.

Top Ten
1. Melvin Gordon, Wisconsin
2. Todd Gurley, Georgia
3. Ameer Abdullah, Nebraska
4. Jay Ajayi, Boise State
5. Duke Johnson, Miami
6. Tevin Coleman, Indiana
7. TJ Yeldon, Alabama
8. Jeremy Langford, Michigan State
9. Mike Davis, South Carolina
10. David Cobb, Minnesota

Most Likely to Surprise
Jay Ajayi, Boise State

Most Likely to Flop
Todd Gurley, Georgia

Best Small School Prospect
Davod Johnson, Northern Iowa

Melvin Gordon
6-1, 207
4.52 40 Time
Overview: The second back in a row that busted the 2000 yard barrier in FBS football. Gordon rushed for over 2500 yards, and seemed like nobody could tackle him at times. He emerged from an annual tradition of Wisconsin using a tandem of backs, and became a serious leader in a deep group of Badger backs during the 2014 season. Gordon should be, by far, the first back picked in this draft.
Pros: Gordon is a solid between the tackles runner who picks out holes brilliantly, and gets through them with a solid burst. He runs with a low center of gravity, and is great with his hands while carrying the ball. He plays smart, follows blocks, and knows when to make his breaks. He breaks tackles easily, and runs through sloppy tackle technique, and even drives through the good hits.
Cons: While Gordon has great burst, he lacks top shelf speed, and underwhelmed while running his 40 at the combine. When you see him on the field, you can't help but wonder how he drives through hits, being that he just looks small. If Gordon ends up on a team with a less than ideal line, you have to consider that he may become an easy target, as he doesn't often create his own lanes. He doesn't fit every offense, but could fit a few quite well, like Dallas.
Final Thoughts: Ten to fifteen years ago, Gordon would have been a consensus top ten pick, but the game has changed so much, and RBs don't go like they used to. Gordon needs to go to a traditional run offense where he can get 25 carries per game, and that is rare these days. I'm not saying that Gordon cannot cut it on the next level, because I believe he can, but I am saying that he needs to find that right spot to land in to have the most of his abilities made use of.
Projection: 2nd Round

Todd Gurley
6-1, 226
4.52 40 Time
Overview: Gurley is an enigma for me. He has the talent to be a top shelf back, but he has been injured and has lost chunks of time. He was the best back in the nation halfway through the season, and then got popped for taking pay for autographs. He then came back from that suspension, and then blew his ACL. This kind of thing is always a bad deal for me, because Gurley knew he was leaving UGA after the season, and didn't have the character to hang in there for another season when he would obviously be paid well for his services. He has the skills, but does he have the maturity and lack of selfishness enough to succeed? Can the knee hold up?
Pros: When healthy, Gurley is an all purpose type back that looked all-world before his suspension, and had he stayed on the field, could have rivaled Gordon for the top spot on this list. It is his raw ability that keeps him second. He can catch the ball out of the backfield, and shows great promise as a third down option. He runs hard, follows block, and breaks like a pro already. He has solid size, and looks like a beast physically. He can break it outside, and also punches through between the tackles. He looks the part.
Cons: Gurley has had problems staying on the field for two years now. He injured his ankle in 2013, and the knee injury came after a suspension in 2014, and he was lucky to get back after the suspension. Injuries are one thing, but for a guy who was supposedly driven to succeed and hit the NFL running, he seemed slow to get back. The suspension for taking money really bothers me, because it makes him look like he lacks discipline. That takes all the physical skills that he has, the raw talent, and flushes it for me.
Final Thoughts: Gurley has all of the tools to succeed, and knows how to play this game. When he is on his A game, he is one of the better backs I have seen in twenty years. That being said, Gurley lacks conviction, and the injuries have been problematic. In reality, I should have dropped him some in my projections, but I know that the NFL is full of suckers, and some sucker is going to fall for this act. Just hope it's not your team that does.
Projection: 2nd round

Ameer Abdullah
5-8, 198
4.48 40 Time
Overview: Abdullah was a game changing back for Nebraska during his career with the Huskers, and closed out his career with over 1600 yards in 2014, and he single handedly saved the Huskers from what would have been a devastating loss at home against FCS McNeese State. When Abdullah kicks his game into overdrive, there were few backs in college that could keep up with him. Only the legendary Mike Rozier finished with more yards than Abdullah did.
Pros: Excellent field of vision, and is explosive in the open field. Runs like the wind, and once he's in the open, you can forget about chasing him. He is excellent with his hands, and plays receiver out of the backfield with the best of them. Can move in motion and line up in the slot if necessary, and can take advantage of mismatches. Runs with authority between the tackles, and has amazing after burn cutting outside. Loves to take hits, and lowers the pads to run through lazy tackles. He is elusive in tight spaces, and runs with a solid level of gravity.
Cons: The major knock on Abdullah is his lack of great size, but he certainly does not look like a scat back. His lack of build, however, is a concern, and he could be susceptible to injury if hit too many times. Due to his lack of size, he seems like a back that would see his carries limited per game. He doesn't block well in the passing game, and is basically not useful picking up the blitz at all.
Final thoughts: If Abdullah had Todd Gurley's size, he'd be a top five pick. He is that good at what he is able to do, and his size really is his only major flaw. The blitz issue can be coached up, but his size limits his ability to be a great pass blocker. If he lands in the right situation, he could be a bargain pick, because he has the heart to work through his shortcomings and succeed. His teammates will probably love the guy.
Projection: Late second round

Jay Ajayi
Boise State
6-0, 216
4.54 40 Time
Overview: Ajayi really came on at Boise State the last two seasons after a less than stellar start to his career. He lost his first season due to an injury and an arrest for theft, and then blew his knee. He came back buried on the depth chart his second season, and then earned his way as a starter in his junior season. He really became a prospect midway through the 2013 season, and continued to progress in 2014, and may now be one of the more intriguing prospects in this draft.
Pros: Ajayi has molded himself into a crafty runner, and has worked hard to learn how to control his feet in the run game. He is a solid cutter, and knows how to read a defense pre snap. He knows where the holes will develop, and follows instinctively. He runs low, and absorbs hits. He runs through tackles, and teams usually have to gang up to tackle him. He is an excellent pass catcher, and can move out in motion.
Cons: While he runs hard, and sometimes is tough to bring down, he doesn't run that way consistently always. He will spend too much time running east and west, rather than being decisive and punching it north and south. His speed is lacking amongst elite runners, and lacks break away speed. He also has some issues with fumbles, and can get the dropsies on occasion.
Final thoughts: Ajayi has some serious flaws, but somehow, when you look at what he can do, one has to be intrigued. He had a big season in 2014, and was solid the year before. He seems to have overcome his need for a five fingered discount, and has built his character since his freshman season, so that issue seems quite distant. I think, that with the right coaching, he can overcome his flaws and become a very good starting back. His flaws will drop him in the draft, but with the right attitude, and the right coaching, Ajayi could overcome and be the best of this group. The one bad draw is that you cannot coach speed.
Projection: 3rd round

Duke Johnson
5-9, 206
4.42 40 Time
Overview: Johnson is an interesting back who may have been better off in a stronger program. I have to wonder that if was in the SEC, or Florida State, how great he could have been. Johnson is a frustrating guy in the way that while he displays some serious skill at tines, he has shown a lack of consistency.
Pros: Speed, speed, and more speed. Johnson is one of the fastest guys in this draft, and can run like a rocket. He has amazing burst in the open field, and really burns off of the corner. He has great cut ability, and follows blocks with flourish. Elusive, and makes himself small in space. Can catch the ball with skill out of the backfield.
Cons: Johnson lacks ideal size, and is a bit short. He also has a major injury history, and even when he started a game healthy, he failed to finish in several of those games. He has had a myriad of injuries, and that is a serious concern when considering drafting him. He will never be  an every down back in the NFL, and may be limited to a 3rd down role. Being undersized, he cannot be depended upon in the pass blocking game, so if you have him in on 3rd down, you had better use him as a target.
Final thoughts: Johnson is a frustrating back who has some skills, but seemed limited by a lack of size, and by his frail nature. Johnson seems to lack a certain drive, and doesn't play hurt at all. His limitations are just too many for me to get enticed by his top flight speed. I'd stay way on draft day.
Projection: 4th Round

Tevin Coleman
6-0, 210
4.59 40 Time
Overview: Coleman was another 2000 yard rusher in 2014, and was the lone bright spot on an Indiana offense that really did little else than run the ball well. He ran for 2036 yards, the only season of his three at IU where he ran for over a thousand yards. Coleman may be a bit of a one hit wonder, but spent that hit by garnering All-Big Ten honors.
Pros: Strong point of contact runner, who plows his own holes at the line. Runs hard and aggressive, and takes extra yards buy always making sure to fall forward. Always uses his legs to stride forward. He has some skill as a pass catcher. One of his solid skills is what others lack this year, and he is a solid pass blocker who picks up blitzes.
Cons: While he can break free and score on long runs, he hardly has top shelf speed. He also has a tendency to run too upright, and leaves him open to too many hits. He's not overly big, and looks a bit small, which could be an issue. He doesn't run with abandon, and lacks secondary moves. He also has fumble tendencies that could prove to be a major problem.
Final thoughts: Coleman is not a top flight prospect for me, and seems like a one hit wonder. He was never able to do what he did in other season but his last. If he had better production over a longer time frame, I would be a fan, however, he lacks overall career production that makes me believe what he did last season was sustainable, and so I see major flop potential here.
Projection: 4th round

TJ Yeldon
6-2, 221
4.46 40 Time
Overview: Yeldon has the ability to make it on the next level, but there are inconsistencies that make him a huge risk at this point, and it is not certain that he will ever perform to his expectations. Yeldon had fumble issues at Alabama, and the Tide has had a recent history of busts coming from this position.
Pros: Speed is a plus with Yeldon, and he uses that speed with a power combo on occasion. Can elude arm tackles and hit the open field in a hurry. If he gets loose, you are not going to catch him. He has solid size and build, and cuts with ease. Will hit the hole quickly at times.
Cons: Is not a creator when the holes don't open for him, and will wait all day for someone else to make something happen for him. H eruns upright, and that creates issues for fumbles, which he does too often. Despite his size, he is not an adept pass blocker, and will get run over. He is not a great between the tackles runner, and despite his size, prefers to play finesse rather than power football.
Final thoughts: Yeldon is maddening in that on paper, he looks like all pro material, but in reality, he doesn't measure up. Between his lack of between the tackle skills, and his turnover capacity, he just has bust written all over him on the next level.
Projection: 5th round

Other of Interest

Jeremy Langford, Michigan State
Langford is a speedy, hard working, underrated back who could be the steal of the class. Nobody in this group has worked as hard as Langford to overcome his lacking areas of play, and he has blossomed with each passing season. Langford has the edge to run power, but also has the finesse to bounce out. HIs drawback is that he lacks ideal size, but so did Le'Veon Bell when he went to the Steelers, and look at how well he does. One of my favorite, more underrated athletes in this draft.

Mike Davis, South Carolina
A dinged up, undersized effort lacking back, Davis has never lived up to his billing, and quite frankly mailed it in for most of 2014 in a disappointing overall season for the Gamecocks. Davis was expected to be a center piece, but spent more time nursing nagging injuries than performing to a large degree. He may be drafted, but I would not be surprised to see him not be.

David Cobb, Minnesota
Cobb gets a look simply because this is a weak draft. He is not a special athlete, and certainly lacks top end athleticism. He may be a backup or special teams guy, however he will have to work much harder than most to crack a roster. I don't see it, personally.


Buck Allen, USC: Not a special back, and not a guy who can go full time.
David Johnson, Northern Iowa: Lacks speed, but had a nice FCS career. Pounder up the gut.
Josh Robinson, Mississippi State: Resume is a little bit short, with only one quality season.
Michael Dyer, Louisville: Character issues, injuries derailed him long ago.
Karlos Williams, Florida State: Speed/size combo checks out, overall effort does not.
Zach Zenner, South Dakota State: Three straight 2000 yard seasons in FCS.
Cameron Artis-Payne, Auburn: Could be a rotation back, but not a front line guy.
Kevin Parks, Virginia: Would have been better coming out last year. Dipped as a senior.
John Crockett, North Dakota State: Three big seasons, three titles for Bison.
Jahwan Edwards, Ball State: A bit hard to overlook due to production. Could get an invite.
Tyler Varga, Yale: Had a big senior year, but that is it. Could get a camp invite.
Thomas Rawls, Central Michigan: Came out of nowhere in 2014. Could earn a look.

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