After studying this talented running back class for the past two months, I’ve decided to review my notes and combine all of my evaluations on the top RBs into one informative article. I will try to keep this concise yet detailed and informative.
*Note for every player profiled, I viewed at least three games–usually five or six–featuring every snap the player took in that game. For this exercise, I combed through my copious notes to provide the most significant observations of each player. For the RBs I studied for the Free Press, I’ve provided links to their “Film Review.”
A version of this article was published by the Detroit Free Press.
The Big, Complete Backs
Todd Gurley III, Georgia: 6-1, 222-pound Jr.
Gurley’s Film Study
He is the highest rated back on most draft analysts boards and for good reason. If he hadn’t suffered a season-ending ACL tear in November, he likely would be a no-brainer top 10 pick.
What I like: Gurley has no apparent weaknesses on the field. He runs with power and conviction, vision, patience, speed and contact balance. He’s a nightmare to tackle and often times left defenders hanging on for dear life. He presses (stretches) the hole, manipulates second level defenders and has some movement skills in the open field. He is excellent in the passing game as a receiver and has the size and strength to be an asset in pass protection.
What I don’t like: His durability is the major concern. Gurley’s violent running style leaves him susceptible to hits. Besides the ACL, he missed three games because of an ankle injury in 2013. Can he withstand the punishment of NFL defenders? Nowadays injuries are unfortunately too common and there is a dwindling number of prospects who enter the NFL with a completely clean bill of health. Guys repeatedly come back from ACLs and the like, which is encouraging.
T.J. Yeldon, Alabama: 6-1, 226-pound Jr.
Yeldon’s Film Study
Though Yeldon played at Alabama, he hasn’t been discussed as much as some of these other high profile backs.
I think he’s overlooked by some because of his solid yet unspectacular 2014 play. He didn’t post eye-popping numbers and dealt with nagging hamstring and ankle injuries for much of the season. But the momentum for Yeldon to be the third RB chosen seems to be building.
What I like: Yeldon consistently made NFL runs. Yeldon is slow to the hole and fast through it, and was an every down player for one of the best teams in the country during his three seasons. He has underrated quickness, using subtle moves in space to consistently make the defender miss. Plug him into an NFL game this September and he will make plays, just as he did as a true freshman on Alabama’s national championship team in 2012. You have to admire his toughness playing through injury, as he was available for every game except when he was rested late in the year against Western Carolina. He runs with power and decisiveness in goal line situations.
What I don’t like: As mentioned, Yeldon dealt with soft tissue injuries that are more likely to sprout up again at some point. His yards per carry average dipped from 6.0 in 2013, to a full yard less 5.0 in 2014. He is a bit of a high-cut runner and despite his size, doesn’t overpower many defenders. He lacks breakaway speed, but he has enough to make chunk plays. Played in an Alabama system that has produced a few underwhelming RBs in the NFL (Mark Ingram and Trent Richardson), though Yeldon’s former teammate Eddie Lacy has been a stud.
Jay Ajayi, Boise State: 6-0, 221-pound redshirt Jr.
Ajayi’s Film Study
Ajayi seemed to be the slight favorite as the third RB behind Gurley and Gordon, until his medicals came back. Ajayi tore his ACL in 2011 but hasn’t had an issue since.
What I like: Ajayi is another back with size who can help a team on any down. Venerable draft aficionado Matt Waldman wrote a feature on Ajayi, comparing his running style to a wild horse.
Ajayi has excellent balance, solid speed and impressive lateral quicks for a big back. His vision was hit and miss, though when he trusted his eyes he was dynamite. He is dangerous out of the backfield, producing 50 receptions last season.
What I don’t like: Can the knee hold up for the duration of Ajayi’s four-year rookie deal? He had an enormous workload at Boise State. Last season, he led the nation in carries (347) and offensive touches (397, Gordon was a distant second with 362). Ajayi took far too many trips to the corner store early in the season, which will not work in the NFL, especially with his average-to-above average speed.
However I noticed that he did take what the defense gave him as the season wore on. He doesn’t run with the power you would expect from a player his size. His awareness in pass protection is lacking, though again there was tangible improvement in this area, an encouraging sign.
The Home Run Backs
Melvin Gordon, Wisconsin: 6-1, 215-pound redshirt Jr.
Gordon’s Film Study
The Hesiman Trophy runner-up, Gordon had a historic 2014 season. He rushed for 2,587 yards — 41 yards short of Barry Sanders’ rushing record— 29 touchdowns and set the FBS single-game rushing mark with 408 yards (in three quarters) against Nebraska. His track background inspired an ESPN Sports Science profile.
What I like: Gordon led the nation in runs of 20, 30, 40 and 50 yards or more. He has breath-taking acceleration and is a slasher with some tackle-breaking ability. He is an excellent outside runner with his smooth acceleration skills and easy speed. He has nimble feet with some make you miss qualities. Despite being paired with the 12th best passing offense in the Big Ten, Gordon routinely produced results facing eight and nine man boxes.
What I don’t like: As a Wisconsin RB, Gordon must break the trend of Badger RBs not seeing their collegiate success translate to the NFL. The team has always had beefy, well-coached offensive lines to open cavernous running lanes for its ball carriers. However, Gordon has more speed and burst than the likes of Ron Dayne and Montee Ball. Since 1999, nine different Wisconsin backs have produced a 1,400-yard rushing season. Only Michael Bennett produced a 1,000-yard rushing season in the NFL. Gordon is different however. He averaged an astounding 7.8 yards per carry for his career; none of the others averaged more than 6.2 yards.
As an inside runner, he was tentative at times and slowed his feet if the line of scrimmage was muddied with no obvious hole.
There is a fine line between being patient and hesitant or indecisive, but Gordon’s footwork and burst allows him to be more patient scouring for creases. I thought he showed tremendous patience and footwork between the tackles in the bowl win against Auburn. Gordon racked up tons of chunk plays where he was untouched for 30 or 40 yds. This will not happen in the NFL. He also fumbled a concerning seven times last season and was little used as a receiver (22 career receptions).
Tevin Coleman, Indiana: 5-11, 206-pound Jr.
Coleman’s Film Study
Like Gordon, Coleman was a big play machine who was untouched on many of his big runs. Coleman has blazing speed and is the definition of a home run hitter. His average TD distance last season was an astounding 40.3 yards.
He is the most difficult, fascinating, polarizing evaluation because he played in a spread scheme where the defense was often stretched horizontally, allowing for less defenders near the line of scrimmage. Many of his runs came against light boxes, where he out-raced the defense.
What I like: Despite an anemic passing offense that ranked 122 (out of 128 teams) in the nation in yards per game, Coleman was the second-leading rusher in college football with 2,036 yards last season. That’s even more impressive when you learn he played through a broken toe for the second half of the year. Indiana’s offensive line doesn’t compare to Wisconsin’s and Coleman faced consistent penetration up the middle on many runs.
Coleman is a one-cut and go back who doesn’t dance behind the line of scrimmage. He was perfect for the Hoosiers spread scheme playing against lesser Big Ten athletes. On outside runs or runs in space, he showed press and cut principles to manipulate the defense. He’s lethal when his shoulders are square to the line and he has a crease because he simply out-ran the defense once in space. He has the special quality to negate pursuit angles and turn a 15-yarder into a 40 or 50-yard gain. Or 90-yard TD.
He has soft hands in the passing game though he wasn’t moved around. He is obviously dangerous if you can get him the ball on screens and he should be able to roast linebackers in coverage if he can learn a few subtle route-running techniques. He showed the willingness to help in pass protection.
What I don’t like: In the NFL, Coleman won’t even be the best athlete on his own team. Many of his big plays were out of the spread where there were few bodies to maneuver around. Here is a six-man box against Michigan State where Coleman runs untouched for 65 yards.
This is why you have to be careful about how you evaluate 60-yard runs in college football. Watch his performance against Iowa. On his first two long TD runs (against six-man boxes), he ran straight ahead and did not have to make any cuts. That won’t happen in the NFL.
As an inside runner, I didn’t see consistent savvy or skill. Perhaps that had to do with him not trusting his line, but often he slammed into the line or didn’t correctly read the helmet placement of the defenders and chose the wrong path. You don’t see him make many sharp jump cuts; he either ran straight or veered slightly left or right.
He wasn’t very patient on inside runs and did not often succeed when there was a lot of trash at the line of scrimmage. I have reservations that he can be consistent enough to run 10 times a game between the tackles. That’s where you run the football in the NFL.I am admittedly not as high on Coleman as others for those reasons. Coleman also has the odd habit of always carrying the ball in his left arm no matter where he is on the field. When he is on the right side of the field, he can not use a stiff arm because his inside arm is carrying the football.
The Quick, Agile Backs
Ameer Abdullah, Nebraska: 5-9, 205-pound Sr.
Abdullah’s Film Study
I am not bashful in my love for Abdullah. He is my favorite RB in this draft class. People question if he is merely Darren Sproles, a very productive change of pace back and receiver. I think Abdullah can be more.
What I like: Abdullah played in all 53 games during his collegiate career. He has the smarts and instincts to read the defense and found creases in Nebraska’s zone scheme. He exploits cutback lanes when defenses do not maintain backside gap assignments and is absolutely lethal in open space, displaying jaw-dropping agility and explosiveness out of his cuts. He has surprising pop in his pads for an undersized back, runs with a competitive edge and has an innate ability to contort and protect himself to avoid getting pummeled. He is dangerous out of the backfield as a receiver because linebackers can’t keep up with him.
Though he’s incredibly quick, he knows when to juke a defender and when to lower his pads and plow forward for positive yardage. He is not a dancer in the hole, but rather takes what the defense gives him, even if that is just two or three yards on a given play. He also brings special teams value as both a kick and punt returner. He posted a SPARQ score in the 97.4 percentile of NFL RBs. SPARQ is a formula that factors in each combine/pro day test along with the players’ weight in an attempt to quantify athleticism in a single number.
He can have a Justin Forsett impact, the 2014 version, as the lead back in a zone scheme. Abdullah has all the intangibles teams look for in a player. Said one AFC North scout, “He has the highest overall character grade I’ve ever given to a prospect, and includes both football character and off-the-field.”
What I don’t like: Abdullah is more quick than fast and doesn’t possess long speed. He isn’t going to power through NFL defenders. He has small hands which led to the worst career fumble rate among prospects (23 fumbles in four years), though he did improve in each season. 6 fumbles on 84 touches as a freshman (1 FUM per 14 touches), 8 fumbles on 283 touches in 2012 (1 FUM per 35.4 touch), 5 fumbles on 311 touches in 2013 (1 FUM per 62.2) 4 fumbles on 300 touches in 2014 ( 1 FUM per 75 touches). His small stature limits his upside in pass protection and he will initially struggle in that area, though he has the attitude and work ethic to at least be serviceable.
Duke Johnson, Miami (FL): 5-9, 207-pound Jr.
Johnson’s Film Study
I’ve liked Johnson for awhile now after seeing him live during his sophomore season. He smashed the school record for career all-purpose yards and is Miami’s all-time leading rusher, a major feat considering the list of talented runners who have come through the program. He’s another player who has the skills to be an effective zone runner.
What I like: Johnson is a play maker with plus vision, patience and lateral movement. He has good footwork and allows blocks to develop. He was highly successful in a pro style zone running scheme at Miami and is a real weapon in the passing game where he ran some intricate routes (38 receptions for 421 yards and 3 TDs last season).
What I don’t like: He’s doesn’t possess blazing speed or elite explosion. As I said in my film review, the concern is if Johnson can last as a foundation back carrying the ball 15-plus times per game. He’s had a history of migraines and dealt with injuries in each of the past two seasons. I think he’s more of a 10-12 touch player whom the defense must account for when he is on the field.
The Power Backs
Mike Davis, South Carolina: 5-9, 217-pound Jr.
Davis burst onto the SEC scene as a sophomore for Steve Spurrier’s team.
What I like: Davis is an intriguing player who runs with power and has some speed and burst. He reminds me a bit of Maurice Jones-Drew in that regard. He runs low to the ground, drops his pad level upon contact and earns the tough yards. He has some movement skills and soft hands as a receiver. Would work best in a power-running scheme, though he was used often on the edge in the option and showed adequate speed.
If he can get healthy and commit to playing at the correct weight, he has a chance to be a nice pickup especially if he is available on day three.
What I don’t like: His production really fell off down the stretch last year. His rib and hamstring injuries are a concern, as is his violent running style. Doesn’t explode out of breaks. Weight fluctuation is a concern. From ESPN’s Todd McShay: “Struggled quite a bit in 2014, and based on what I’ve heard and what I saw on tape, it had to do with him not staying in shape, which is definitely a red flag entering the draft.”
David Cobb, Minnesota: 5-11, 229-pound Sr.
Cobb’s Film Study
Cobb is a beefy, powerful, Big Ten runner. He posted eye-popping numbers for the Gophers despite being paired with a horrific passing attack that ranked 121 out of 128 FBS teams in yards per game.
What I like: Cobb is a bruiser with surprising one-cut laterally agility in space. He would fit best in a gap system where he can run downhill immediately and play off a designed hole. He has the body and strength to be a workhorse runner who will consistently pick up positive yardage.
What I don’t like: Cobb won’t break off many long runs because of his speed deficiencies. His burst through the hole is below average so there at times when defenders will close the crease before he is able to shoot through. At times he danced in the backfield and that will not work in the NFL especially because he doesn’t have speed. He is similar to Joique Bell and thus is likely lower on the Lions board.
Solid Size, Decent Speed Backs
Jeremy Langford, Michigan State: 6-0, 208-pound redshirt Sr.
Langford’s Film Study
Langford finished his career with 40 rushing scores, ranking second all-time in MSU history behind only Lorenzo White. He is a durable, workhorse back who became one of only three MSU RBs—along with Javon Ringer and T.J. Duckett—to record at least 1,300 yards rushing in back-to-back seasons.
What I like: Langford is an inside runner with very good patience and vision. He is light on his feet, has decent agility in tight quarters and is a competitor who consistently fights for every yard. He doesn’t wear down, but rather raises his game in the fourth quarter. He is arguably the best pass blocker in the class and has receiving skills having practiced at corner and receiver early in his career.
What I don’t like: Don’t be fooled by Langford’s surprising 4.42 40-time, he has merely solid in game speed. He’s not a big play back with just three career runs of 40-plus yards and only one longer than 45 yards. He lacks power as an inside runner and isn’t explosive out of his cuts (short area burst is lacking).
David Johnson, Northern Iowa: 6-1, 224-pound redshirt Sr.
A former receiver in high school, Johnson is one of the most notable Division I-AA (FCS) prospects.
What I like: He was durable, only missed one game in four seasons. He was second behind Abdullah with a SPARQ score in the 95 percentile of NFL RBs. Showed the vision and intelligence to press the hole and cut off of blocks. He is a mismatch in the passing game against linebackers. He torched Iowa in the 2014 opener for 203 yards on just five receptions, including this 70-yard touchdown after he shook the linebacker. He has good speed especially at his size (he ran a 4.5 40-time at the combine).
He can be utilized in all sorts of packages and line up anywhere within the formation. Natural hands and decent route runner. Had between 32 and 38 receptions in each of his four years with 13 TDs. Johnson also brings some return ability. As a senior, he returned 12 kicks for 438 yards (36.5-yard average) and this 98-yard TD vs. the FCS national runner-up Illinois State.
NFL Media lead draft analyst Mike Mayock broke down Johnson’s skillset on tape.
What I don’t like: Johnson is not particularly explosive in the short area. He can make 45-degree cuts, but when he is forced to stop and jump cut at 90-degrees he’s very stiff and has little burst out of his cuts. The other problem is he occasionally stops moving his feet and gears down for contact instead of embracing it. He doesn’t break enough tackles for his size, doesn’t run with the power you would expect. Johnson played in a spread scheme that often employed three and four receivers to spread the field. Had an enormous workload in college with 1,007 touches for his career. Looks like more of a receiver than a RB at times.
Javorius “Buck” Allen, Southern California: 6-0, 221-pound redshirt Jr.
What I like: Allen has decent burst through the hole and enough speed to finish the play. He showed good vision and was able to squeeze through small cracks. He’s an easy mover with good footwork and one-cut agility. He’s a factor in the passing game (41 catches for 458 yards last year) and was adequate as a pass blocker. Made plays on screens and a few wheel routes but wasn’t moved around the formation.
What I don’t like: Allen lacks physicality especially for a guy his size. He can be indecisive at times and isn’t very elusive or creative in the open field. He had a few focus drops in the games I watched.