2015 NFL draft positional rankings: Running back
The list of running backs headed to the 2015 draft is long on big names and talent. Is that a good thing or a bad thing for the prospects at that position hoping to be selected?
With several running backs available who are capable of helping early on, most teams may opt to wait on the position until the second and third days of the draft, focusing on positions where the talent pool runs a little shallower. This phenomenon would not be a new one—it's happened frequently at receiver—but it could leave a bevy of backs lingering until the middle and late rounds.
The dominoes begin to fall whenever Todd Gurley and Melvin Gordon are taken. That pair leads our list of the top 10 running backs available in the 2015 draft.
1. Todd Gurley, Georgia: The Gurley conversation has centered on his knee, and rightfully so. Playing a position with a short expected NFL shelf life, Gurley will turn pro mere months removed from a major injury. Surely, teams took notice of Marcus Lattimore's recent retirement, three years after his own devastating knee injury. (A key date for Gurley comes later this month during medical rechecks in Indianapolis, where Gurley declined an exam from combine doctors.)
Here's the thing, though: When healthy, Gurley could be as explosive and dominant as any college player in recent memory. There were a few games during his Georgia career—Doug Farrar recently tweeted his amazement over his performance against Clemson's stout defense—where Gurley was downright unstoppable. Playing at 6'1" and somewhere between 220 and 230 pounds, Gurley can plow through tackles but also has the speed to turn the corner and go the distance.
Projection: Mid- to late first round
2. Melvin Gordon, Wisconsin: How incredible was Gordon last season? He fell just 41 yards short of Barry Sanders's single-season NCAA rushing record (2,628 yards); he would have shattered that mark had Western Illinois not held Gordon, who was dealing with a nagging hip ailment, to 38 yards during an early-September matchup.
Nevertheless, Gordon's 2014 performance was mesmerizing. Those numbers will mean nothing once his rookie season gets underway, of course, but the way in which Gordon made it to 2,500-plus yards still does. Behind Wisconsin's burly offensive line, Gordon showed patience in following his blocks and backed it with the speed to fire through a defense. What he did for the Badgers will not be repeatable as a pro (his 408 yards on 25 carries against Nebraska was a feat only college football could produce), but he still should be a Rookie of the Year favorite.
Projection: Late first round to early second round
3. Ameer Abdullah, Nebraska: A do-everything back who can step in and help as a ballcarrier (1,611 yards rushing last season), receiver (12.2 yards per catch) and return man (averaged 26.1 yards per kick return in his career), Abdullah plays bigger than his 5'9" frame and faster than his 4.6-second 40 at the combine. He also runs more like the aforementioned Sanders, showing shiftiness in the open field and the vision to cut back against the grain. If the Nebraska product can cut down on his fumbles, he will be able to handle a significant workload at the NFL level.
Projection: Mid- to late second round
4. Jay Ajayi, Boise State: Ajayi is an increasingly popular pick among analysts as the third-best running back in this draft, behind Gurley and Gordon. It's easy to envision him as a three-down back on an NFL team due both to his solid frame (6'0", 221 pounds) and his comfort level in all aspects of an offense. Ajayi accumulated a whopping 397 touches last season—a number that could be a positive or negative, depending on which team you ask. Fifty of those touches came on receptions for a total of 535 yards and four touchdowns. There's also little need for a short-yardage back if Ajayi's around, as his 28 rushing touchdowns last season proved.
Projection: Mid- to late second round
5. Duke Johnson, Miami: Johnson can plant and go with the best of them, consistently displaying the big-play ability that NFL teams crave. Those featuring zone-blocking schemes will be particularly interested thanks to Johnson's decisive one-cut style. The rub here is that Johnson may project better within a committee than set up as a full-time No. 1 back—he cannot yet be trusted as a pass blocker and may struggle to grind for yards between the tackles. Even so, his wait on draft weekend should not be all that long.
Projection: Early third round
6. David Cobb, Minnesota: Given Cobb's running style and where he might land in the draft, there may not be a better overall value at this position. A 4.81-second 40 at the combine took a little shine off the apple here, but no one was going to mistake Cobb for a breakaway back anyway. Instead, he is the type of reliable, durable, downhill runner set up to help a team out of the gate. Cobb can start as a goal-line threat and work his way up to 20-plus touches per game.
Projection: Late third round
7. T.J. Yeldon, Alabama: Again, we're talking about a running back probably best suited to share the load. Yeldon did just that en route to 1,108 yards rushing in 2012, with Eddie Lacy ahead of him on the Crimson Tide depth chart. All told, Yeldon compiled 3,322 yards rushing and 37 touchdowns over three seasons at Alabama. His size (6'1", 226) is what the NFL is looking for, but Yeldon is not a power back, instead doing his best work with his vision and quick feet.
Projection: Third round
8. Tevin Coleman, Indiana: A 2,000-yard rusher himself last season, Coleman might be the prime example of how difficult it is to predict how far this group will fall after Gurley and Gordon. As early as, say, the second round, a team could fall in love with Coleman's physical style and penchant for turning short gains into game-changing plays. The league also might decide Coleman doesn't have the NFL-caliber instincts several other backs feature, leaving the Indiana product available on the draft's third day. Ask five different people for their expectations of Coleman's rookie season and it's quite possible you'll get five very different answers.
Projection: Early fourth round
9. David Johnson, Northern Iowa: Johnson excelled all week at a competitive Senior Bowl, then capped it off by totaling 141 yards in the game (82 on kick returns). At 6'1" and 224 pounds, with 4.5 40 speed, Johnson combines durability and athleticism into a package that could catapult him up a draft board or two. If he starts using that 224-pound build to become more of a hammer, both as a runner and in pass protection, it would not be a stretch to see him leading an NFL running game within the next couple of seasons.
Projection: Early to mid-fourth round
10. Jeremy Langford, Michigan State: A position-leading 4.42 40-yard dash at the combine confirmed that Langford has an NFL future as a dangerous receiver out of the backfield if nothing else. He actually played wide receiver and cornerback at Michigan State prior to his move to running back. Langford must get into space to be effective—odds are he will not be overly successful as a rookie between the tackles unless he lands behind a crushing offensive line—but he make things happen once he's there. A team could trust him on all downs and lean on him in passing situations.
Projection: Fifth round