Note: With the Lions in need of a running back, we’ve been examining RBs from this year’s talented draft crop. We’ve studied Todd Gurley, Melvin Gordon, Tevin Coleman, Duke Johnson, Ameer Abdullah, Jay Ajayi, Jeremy Langford and David Cobb. Today, our film series spotlights Alabama’s T.J. Yeldon.
A version of this story was published by the Detroit Free Press.
T.J. Yeldon is another productive Alabama running back with a chance to make an impact on Sundays. Following in the footsteps of Mark Ingram, Trent Richardson and Eddie Lacy, Yeldon brings an intriguing set of traits to the field.
After sharing carries with Lacy en route to a national championship as a true freshman, Yeldon received the bulk of the workload the past two seasons. He posted solid numbers while playing in the most talented and physical conference in college football. Of all the talented runners in Crimson Tide history, Yeldon is the only back to surpass the 1,000-yard mark in each of his first two seasons.
Though Yeldon’s spider chart is rather pedestrian from an athletic standpoint, he has impressive agility, vision and patience.
Let’s go to the tape to dissect Yeldon’s skillset.
Yeldon rushed for 979 yards on 194 attempts (5.0 yards per carry) as a junior, 1,235 yards on 207 carries (6.0 YPC) in his sophomore season, and 1,108 yards on 175 rushes (6.3 YPC) as a true freshman. He scored 37 touchdowns on the ground over his three seasons on campus.
Vision, patience and footwork
In the NFL, the creases are small and close quickly. The elite runners are able to maneuver through the trash, get skinny though the hole and shoot into the second level of the defense. Yeldon does these things. He has adept footwork and as a short strider, takes successive small steps before accelerating through the hole. This allows him to maintain balance, stay patient and make sharp, quick cuts at the latest possible moment once he identifies a lane. He is slow to the hole and fast through it.
In the 2014 opener against West Virginia, watch how Yeldon uses his initial run up to the line to manipulate the cornerback. He doesn’t immediately burst through the hole, instead, he conceals his intended running lane by leaning to the outside. The corner thinks Yeldon is running outside and by the time Yeldon makes his cut off his right foot, the corner loses the angle and Yeldon busts into the secondary.
That’s Yeldon at his best, making a man miss and rumbling forward with defenders on his back.
Here, he maneuvers through the crowd, contorts his body to sliver through a tiny seam and shows his one-cut elusiveness in the open field.
Yeldon could have slammed into the line for no gain, but he didn’t panic, allowed blocks to develop and eventually found a small lane to squirt through, turning a blown up play into a chunk play.
Alabama mixed in zone and gap schemes and Yeldon succeeded in both. But he may be best suited for a zone run scheme because of his patience, one-cut ability and burst through the hole. He doesn’t dance in the backfield.
As seen in the plays above, Yeldon possesses clever footwork in space. He is able to juke defenders but isn’t a shake and bake runner. He’ll make one shimmy, plant and go.
This is his game-winning TD from his freshman season in a crucial game against Louisiana State. Some doubters question Yeldon’s speed, but on this play he beats the linebacker to the edge, then makes the safety look silly.
At 6-foot-1, 226 pounds (though on tape he looked roughly five pounds lighter), Yeldon is an upright runner and doesn’t play with a low pad level to knife underneath tacklers. This leads to below average leverage so he isn’t a pile driver. However, he consistently fights for extra yardage, runs with balance and bounces off hits, as seen in his first collegiate game against Michigan.
When Yeldon isn’t head on with a defender, he often runs through tackles and keeps his legs churning.
He excels in short yardage and goal line situations. According to ESPN’s K.C. Joyner, Yeldon scored seven TDs on nine rushes from at or inside the 2-yard line in 2014, and posted seven TDs on eight rushes in that scenario in 2013, a conversion rate of 82.3 percent. College rushers converted 59.3 percent of the time last year.
Yeldon is successful in these situations because he is decisive and runs hard, plowing forward to break the plane.
Yeldon has the skills to be a factor on third down. Although he tallied just 46 receptions in three seasons, he showed the ability to pluck the ball with his hands and looked comfortable as a receiver.
Yeldon has the size, weight and strength combination to be a productive pass protector and showed solid form and intriguing blocking skills. He is certainly willing to block and that is key. He gave great effort in helping to double-team and chip defenders.
NFL media’s Bucky Brooks said scouts have mentioned Le’Veon Bell when watching Yeldon. That’s a bit of a stretch in my opinion, as Bell possesses elite ankle and hip flexibility to make violent cuts and layer multiple moves, while Yeldon is in the mold of a one-cut back. Still, Bell is a big back with a complete skillset, and Yeldon holds similar potential to make an impact on every down.
Last season, Yeldon was able to rectify his propensity to fumble. As a sophomore, he put the ball on the ground five times on 227 touches, yet last season he fumbled just twice on 209 touches. He keeps the ball high and tight in traffic, but like most backs he lets his guard down in space. This is something to keep an eye on early in his career. He also dealt with nagging hamstring and ankle injuries in 2014, but was able to play through the pain, only missing one game.
Projected as a late second-to-third round selection, Yeldon has the tools to make an instant impact for an NFL team. Yes, Yeldon ran behind a very good offensive line in a system conducive to success, but he has the NFL traits you look for in a back. Some of these runners, most notably Tevin Coleman, played in spread systems, which loosened the defense, providing less bodies in the box and wide running lanes. That wasn’t the case with Yeldon at Alabama.
While he lacks breakaway speed, he has more than enough speed to gain the edge.
Yeldon wins with instincts, vision, agility, burst and toughness, all vital traits for successful runners at the NFL level. He is a polished, experienced player who you can plug in on third down immediately and have confidence he’ll hold his own.
Yeldon could be one of the best backs in the draft class and at some point in the third or even fourth round, would be tremendous value for a running back needy team like the Lions.
Credit to Draft Breakdown for the game footage. All GIFs were created by Marlowe Alter.