As the case in most years, the 2014 draft class was filled with backs who produced right away as rookies. Jeremy Hill quickly established himself as a special talent for the Bengals and should be their lead back for years to come. Tre Mason didn’t get a ton of work to start the year, but when the Rams gave him the starting role he shined. Other backs such as Jerick McKinnon, Terrence West, Isaiah Crowell and Carlos Hyde (who is expected to have a big 2015) all had their moments as well.
This group of running backs might be the most talented group to enter the league since the 2008 draft. In that draft, five backs were first round selections and backs who either were or are still very productive such as Matt Forte, Ray Rice and Jamaal Charles were selected in rounds two and three. At this time in the NFL a maximum of two of these backs are projected to go in the first round. That doesn’t mean they can’t be extremely productive however. With the wear and tear of position, the draft is where smart teams find their backs rather than shopping in free agency. With this class in particular, there will be plenty of value to be had.
1. Todd Gurley, Georgia: So far, the running backs labeled the “best running back prospect since Adrian Peterson” haven’t exactly lived up to the hype. Darren McFadden showed flashes early in his career, but nagging injuries have taken their toll. Then the struggles of Trent Richardson (yes, that same Trent Richardson) have been well documented. Despite not going through any workouts due to rehabbing a torn ACL, Gurley looks to buck that trend.
At 6’1” 222 pounds, Gurley has a very rare combination of speed and power. In many cases at Georgia, he got past attempted arm tackles with ease, and if he gets to the outside has the ability to take it all the way for six. Gurley isn’t the type of runner who shies away from contact either. On various occasions, he will fight for extra yardage rather than stepping out of bounds.
At this point, the main concern with Gurley (and any back in his situation) is if he can get back to his pre-injury form. There is a chance that the rare speed for a back his size may not come all the way back. Granted, with modern medicine the way it is Gurley has as good a chance as anyone. When discussing him, some have also said vision or lack of it could hurt Gurley at the next level. Despite the negatives, Gurley figures to be a first round pick despite the injury and if he returns to full health has all the physical gifts to be a top back at the next level.
2. Melvin Gordon, Wisconsin: One of the most productive backs in college football history, Gordon figures to go as high as the first round in the upcoming draft. When everything falls into place, you can clearly see why he is regarded by some as being a better prospect than Gurley. Gordon displays very impressive burst and can hit his top speed rather quickly. Most impressively, he can also cut and elude defenders without really having to lose any speed.
One thing Gordon will need to work on at the next level will be running between the tackles. While this was something he displayed some ability of, Gordon was most effective in the open field and due to that, would tend to bounce more runs outside than he might have needed to. Despite that, the positives in Gordon’s game and that he started to grow as a receiver, could make him an exciting player to watch for years to come.
3. Jay Ajayi, Boise State: In a deep class for running backs, not everyone is as high on Ajayi as I am, but to me his ability to be a three down back sets him apart. At 6’0” 221 pounds, Ajayi has the frame to handle 20 to 25 touches a game and also showed some impressive skills as a receiver while at Boise State. With a soccer background, it isn’t surprising that Ajayi has very quick feet and can incorporate his footwork into his running style. He can use his size to be more of a physical runner, but also can show burst in the open field when given the chance.
Despite the promising skills, there is some risk to Ajayi. The ever so frequent workload question comes into play here as last year Ajayi had 398 touches good for almost 30 a game. Fumbling also was a bit of an issue, but that is something that can be fixed at the next level. While every team will have their preferences, Ajayi should still go somewhere in the second to third round and could end up being a huge value for whoever selects him.
4. Duke Johnson, Miami (FL): What would you have said 10 years ago if told that someone from the “U” would leave as the school’s career rushing leader and not be a sure thing to be among the first five backs taken? That’s a possibility with Johnson, and I really can’t see why it is the case. Some say it’s because his size, but that shouldn’t make that much of a difference. Sure, Johnson isn’t the tallest back, but at the combine his weight checked in almost identically to what LeSean McCoy is listed as. There’s a difference between being small and short. In this instance, Johnson is just short.
Johnson runs with patience and can burst through holes with the ability to make some reads that not every back can. The low center of gravity Johnson has also helps him as some defenders can’t even see him coming from behind the line.
At times, Johnson can let his strengths get the best of him. By this I mean that instead of taking an initial hole given to him, he in some instances waits to see if anything better will open up. Some teams could also have medical concerns regarding Johnson as he played through injuries all this past year and a broken ankle ended his 2013 season. If he is given a chance with the right team (ideally a zone blocking scheme), Johnson has the chance to pay off in a huge way.
5. Ameer Abdullah, Nebraska: The draft standing of players such as Abdullah and Johnson shows you how much the league has evolved over the years. If this were seven or eight years ago and you’re looking at two backs with their skillsets, both are first rounders. Now it looks like both guys will be picked at some point on day two.
Abdullah is similar in terms of skillset to Johnson as well, in that they’re smaller backs who may not be three down guys but can be very successful at the next level. Along with being able to hit his top speed quickly out of a hole, Abdullah also finishes his runs almost always falling forward. Throughout his career, he has also shown the ability that he could help out in the passing game or as a return man if needed at the next level.
Other than size, a flaw that has been commonly brought up about Abdullah was fumbling concerns. He lost 13 during his four years at Nebraska, but that is something that with coaching can be fixed. Don’t be surprised if he becomes the player that people have been wanting backs such as Giovani Bernard and Andre Ellington to be.
6. Tevin Coleman, Indiana: It says a lot about a player when even though you’re the focal point of an opposing defense they still can’t do anything to stop you. That was the case with Coleman at Indiana. With a violent running style and the speed to take any carry for six, he is certainly up there in terms of backs in this class who are fun to watch. However, those strengths of having the game breaking ability and the violent running style are two of the main reasons I have him here.
The player comparison I immediately saw when watching Coleman is one that comes up pretty frequently and that would be Darren McFadden. Like Coleman, McFadden was a ton of fun to watch, but at the next level his body hasn’t been able to hold up with that style of play. Patience as a runner is also something Coleman needs to work on. He constantly was trying to make game breaking plays, instead of just taking what’s given to him. If Coleman can learn to become more patient and pick his spots in terms of when to use his unique style, look out.
7. David Cobb, Minnesota: In a very deep class of running backs, Cobb is a forgotten man. He does nothing exceptional, but rather everything pretty well. That trait alone makes him a player who could be a very good value in late day two or early day three. He’s a bigger back, but has decent speed for his size and also runs with patience. Along with that, Cobb has also shown some receiving chops as well. A frequent comparison I’ve seen for Cobb that I think holds up is Stevan Ridley who has had some nice years of his own. If he falls into the right system, Cobb could be one of the better running back values in this class.
8. T.J. Yeldon, Alabama: At 6’1” 223 pounds, Yeldon definitely has the size of a feature back. Despite that, he appears to be one of the bigger enigmas among the backs in this class. Those who are high on him, really, really, like him while the others seem to think he could be a solid rotation back. Like so many other Alabama runners, Yeldon was most effective running out of the zone blocking scheme. There he was able to read holes quickly and show some ability in the open field.
The negative with Yeldon is he tends to run uptight and also fumbling. For his career, he fumbled 10 times in 576 carries. But as previously mentioned that can be improved with coaching. I’m in the middle on Yeldon compared to many. He should be a serviceable back but it doesn’t help that this is one of the more talented running back drafts in recent memory. Despite that, he should still be off the board in day two.
9. Mike Davis, South Carolina: After an eye-opening sophomore campaign, big things were expected from Davis in his junior year. Unfortunately, he didn’t replicate those numbers and it seems his stock has slid as a result. Davis is a compact back who showed the ability to catch out of the backfield in college and can run with both speed and power. In his sophomore year especially, he showed an ability to reel off long runs which many didn’t think was a skill in his arsenal.
Teams have probably already done their due diligence on why Davis fell off this past season. Based on recent South Carolina prospects Alshon Jeffery and Jadaveon Clowney, its possible conditioning could have been a factor. Regardless, it’s worth a chance at some point in day three to see if Davis can get back to his 2013 form.
10. David Johnson, Northern Iowa: There’s always at least one small school back every year and in this case it’s Johnson. At 6’1” 224 pounds, Johnson has ideal size and is also an impressive receiver out of the backfield. For that alone, it’s only inevitable that the draft community would let the Matt Forte comparisons start rolling. A fantastic combine where he was among the leaders among all backs in various drills has also helped his stock.
One thing that worries me about Johnson at the next level could be his high usage the past four years. Having a big role for Northern Iowa each year in that span, Johnson has racked up nearly 1,000 total touches. Heavy workloads like that have limited the NFL careers of backs varying in all sizes over the years. Johnson figures to be selected at some point during day two or early in day three.
2015 class grade: A