2015 NFL Draft Position Review: Running Backs

Charlie lays out an overview at the top players from each position for the 2015 NFL Draft. For further information, check out our in-depth analysis of 2015 NFL Draft Prospects by Position.

By Charlie Campbell.
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This page was last updated April 3, 2015. Follow me @walterfootball for updates.

Position Review: Running Backs

Running Back Class
Early-round talent: A
Mid-round: A
Late-round: A-
Overall grade: A

2015 prospects vs 2014
Todd Gurley > Bishop Sankey
Melvin Gordon > Jeremy Hill
Jay Ajayi > Carlos Hyde
Ameer Abdullah > Charles Sims
Tevin Coleman > Tre Mason
Duke Johnson > Terrence West
T.J. Yeldon > Devonta Freeman
Mike Davis = Andre Williams

This year’s draft class features a great group of running backs, and this crop is much better than the last two years’ classes that didn’t produce a first-round pick. I think the 2015 NFL Draft’s running back class could end up being a legendary group and could be on a par with the banner group of wide receivers from the 2014 NFL Draft. I honestly think there are 7-10 backs who have Pro Bowl potential with the top-shelf talent being players who could be franchise-type backs. In my opinion if he stays healthy, I think Todd Gurley could have a Hall of Fame career while Melvin Gordon will be in the Hall of Very Good.

If you were to mix the classes, the 2015 group absolutley dominates the 2014 group, and last year wasn’t even a bad year for running backs as there were some good prospects on the second day of the NFL draft. The top three prospects are Gurley, Gordon and Ajayi. Sankey, Hill and Hyde are about equal as prospects to Abdullah, Coleman, Johnson and Yeldon. All of those backs are second-round talents. Davis and Williams are about equal as late third-round or early fourth-round picks.

That being said, the 2015 class has great depth. There are a number of third-day backs who I think could turn into good pros. That group includes USC’s Buck Allen, Minnesota’s David Cobb, Michigan State’s Jeremy Langford, Auburn’s Cameron Artis-Payne, Louisville’s Dominique Brown and North Dakota State’s John Crockett. There are even talented players who will go undrafted. I think the 2015 class also has a real steal on Day 2 or 3 in Northern Iowa’s David Johnson. I think he could be this year’s Alfred Morris, Zac Stacy or Tre Mason.

Safest Pick: Melvin Gordon, Wisconsin
If Gurley were healthy, he would be this pick, hands down, but with his ACL injury and ankle in 2013, I have to go with Gordon. The Kenosha, Wisconsin product possesses a complete skill set for the NFL. Gordon has a serious burst with the ability to break any carry for a long gain or touchdown. The 6-foot-1, 215 pounder also is strong enough to handle a big workload and showed an improved ability to pick up yards after contact as a junior. Gordon has excellent cutting ability, vision, patience and balance. He also has the ability to become a very good receiver and blocker in the NFL. Gordon looks like a very safe pick to become a good NFL running back and Pro Bowl selection.

Previous Picks:
2014: Carlos Hyde
2013: Eddie Lacy

Biggest Bust Potential: Mike Davis, South Carolina
Prior to the 2014 season, there was a lot of excitement with scouts about Davis, but that fizzled out during his final season for the Gamecocks. Davis (5-9, 217) is a physical runner with some receiving ability, but sources say that he grades out as a No. 2 back in the NFL. Davis has a tendency to get dinged up and missed a lot of playing time as a junior. That could only get worse in the NFL with bigger, faster and more physical defenders. Davis has a well-rounded skill set, but he isn’t especially great at one category. Davis could get overdrafted and pushed into a starting role. That might lead to Davis being a bust.

Previous Picks:
2014: Lache Seastrunk
2013: Montee Ball

Running Back Rankings by Attributes

Natural Running Ability:
NFL prototype: Adrian Peterson, Vikings
  1. Todd Gurley
  2. Melvin Gordon
  3. Jay Ajayi
  4. Tevin Coleman
  5. Ameer Abdullah
  6. Duke Johnson
  7. T.Y. Yeldon
  8. Mike Davis

Recap: There are still a number of coaches in the NFL who want an old-school approach of a running-based offense. Plus, a lot of passing-led offenses want a back who can wear down defenses in the second half. All of these 2015 backs are good runners.

Gurley is a rare, amazing runner, who is easily at the top of the list. Sources with NFL teams have said that Gurley is the best back to enter the NFL since Adrian Peterson. Throughout his college career, Gurley was utterly dominant and demonstrated a great combination of speed and power. He can run over defenders and break off long runs with a threat to score on almost any carry. Before his injury, Gurley was drawing comparisons to Herschel Walker and Bo Jackson. Gurley’s vision, feet, burst and balance are phenomenal.

As stated above, Gordon has excellent speed with the ability to rip off yards in chunks. He has cutting ability, vision, patience and balance.

Ajayi has a superb skill set with power, speed, phenomenal balance, vision and versatility. He weaves his way through the defense with the ability to run downhill or on the perimeter.

Abdullah, Johnson and Coleman are speed backs who can rip off long runs when they break into the open field. They all also have enough skills to run between the tackles, but they shouldn’t be backs who spend their entire careers pounding the ball in the box against eight-man fronts.

Yeldon and Davis are tough runners who can pick up yards after contact. The reason they’re ranked lower is because Yeldon got heavy enoguh to hurt his speed as a sophomore and junior. That problem could be accentuated against faster NFL defenses. Davis isn’t as effective when he’s banged up. That happened in college and could be an even bigger hurdle at the next level.

Pass Receiving:
NFL prototype: Le’Veon Bell, Steelers
  1. Jay Ajayi
  2. Duke Johnson
  3. Ameer Abdullah
  4. Mike Davis
  5. Todd Gurley
  6. Melvin Gordon
  7. Tevin Coleman
  8. T.Y. Yeldon

Recap: The passing-driven NFL has many offensive coordinators emphasizing a running back’s ability to help the aerial offense over running ability. Coaches want backs who have good hands, run good routes and can rack up yards as outlet receivers. Ajayi is the best receiving back in this group, while Northern Iowa’s David Johnson might be the best pass-catching back in the 2015 NFL Draft.

Ajayi hauled in 45 passes for 536 yards with four touchdowns through the air in 2014. He runs good routes and is extremely difficult for linebackers or safeties to cover. Ajayi should be a nice weapon as a third-down back in the passing game in the NFL.

Johnson and Abdullah are smaller, quicker backs who are similar to Bengals back Gio Bernard. Johnson (38-421-3) is a fast back whp is a threat to break off long receptions. He runs wheel routes well and has soft hands. Abdullah (22-269-3) is a nice check-down back who picks up good yards after catching outlet passes.

Davis’ receiving ability is one of his best traits. He is very dangerous as a screen back who follows his blocks and runs through tacklers. In back-to-back seasons, Davis had 34 receptions with over 350 yards through the air. If Davis isn’t the primary back, he should be a good third-down back in the NFL.

Gurley only had 12 receptions for 57 yards last year, but that doesn’t tell the whole story. He had 30 receptions for 344 yards and five touchdowns as a sophomore. Gurley has the ability to be a good receiver in the NFL, and he is extremely fast to be a scoring threat.

Gordon, Coleman and Yeldon all had some contributions as a receiver, but their offenses didn’t throw the ball much to running backs. All three have the ability to function as receivers in an NFL-passing game.

Pass Blocking:
NFL prototype: Ahmad Bradshaw, Free Agent
  1. T.Y. Yeldon
  2. Jay Ajayi
  3. Melvin Gordon
  4. Ameer Abdullah
  5. Duke Johnson
  6. Mike Davis
  7. Todd Gurley
  8. Tevin Coleman

Recap: This is huge for offensive coordinators. If a running back can’t pass protect, he is going to have a hard time seeing the field in the NFL. If the defenses know that a running back isn’t trusted to protect the quarterback, it is an immediate tip about what the play is going to be. Coaches want multiple backs with pass-protection skills. The importance of blitz pickup and pass blocking is increasing every year for running backs. The college game has caught on to this, and the 2015 group of running backs is well prepared.

Yeldon is my favorite of these backs in blocking for the quarterback. He takes on linebackers and was reliable at protecting Blake Sims. Lane Kiffin counted on Yeldon in pass protection last year and that was great for Yeldon’s NFL preparation, although it cut down on his receiving opportunities. Yeldon is smart about which blitzers to pick up and is very good at nullifying their rushes.

Just a hair behind is Ajayi. He is built well and does a nice job of reading the defense. Ajayi could end up being a superb back for the passing game in the NFL.

Gordon has potential in pass protection. There are times when he dishes out some good blocks, but he still needs some development with diagnosis. That is the case with every college back. Abdullah, Johnson and Davis all are solid.

Gurley and Coleman showed some potential as blockers last year. Each will get better as they gain experience. Gurley wasn’t required to block much at Georgia.

Yards After Contact:
NFL prototype: Marshawn Lynch, Seahawks
  1. Todd Gurley
  2. Jay Ajayi
  3. T.Y. Yeldon
  4. Melvin Gordon
  5. Mike Davis
  6. Tevin Coleman
  7. Duke Johnson
  8. Ameer Abdullah

Recap: For running backs to be consistently successful in the NFL, they have to have the ability to get yards after contact. Breaking tackles is critical to moving the chains and setting up good down and distance. Gurley is the No. 1 back. It usually takes multiple defenders to bring him down, and he’s constantly bouncing off or running through defenders to pick up more yards on the ground. There are times where Gurley punishes defenders.

Ajayi and Yeldon are similar. They power through arm tackles with ease, and there were plenty of plays that they took defenders for a ride as they churned ahead for more yards.

Gordon really improved his yards after contact as a junior. His legs didn’t go dead on contact, and he churned ahead for more yards. Gordon ran through arm tackles and finished his runs well. Coleman is similar as he is a speed back who has size and can get yards after contact.

While Davis isn’t huge, he is a physical back who finishes his runs well. He does a good job of fighting for extra yards and falling forward. Davis is compactly built and defenders can have a hard time of getting a hold of him.

Johnson and Abdullah aren’t bad about yards after contact despite being smaller backs. They showed an improved ability to do that in 2014. They won’t be power backs in the NFL, but they’ll be able to fight for some extra yards.

Zone-Blocking Runner:
NFL prototype: Arian Foster, Texans
  1. Todd Gurley
  2. T.Y. Yeldon
  3. Melvin Gordon
  4. Jay Ajayi
  5. Tevin Coleman
  6. Mike Davis
  7. Ameer Abdullah
  8. Duke Johnson

Recap: The zone-blocking scheme calls for backs to have quickness and physicality. They need the ability to follow the moving wall, use vision and anticipation to see the hole opening and make one cut to run downhill. It is a different type of running compared to a set, designed play.

Gurley is a great fit for a zone scheme. He is tremendous to make one cut and explode down the field. Gurley follows his blocks well, and once he accelerates, he flies through the defense. In a zone scheme, Gurley could be tremendous.

Yeldon is an excellent zone runner as Alabama did a lot of zone blocking during his time with the Crimson Tide. He flows with the line and powers his way downhill with the quick feet to hit the cutback lanes. In the NFL, Yeldon would be better as a zone runner than in a man scheme.

Gordon has a lot the attributes to execute in zone. He can be a one-cut downhill runner who has patience and vision. Ajayi, Coleman and Davis have enough speed and athleticism to be good fits in a zone scheme.

Abdullah and Johnson are shifty backs and aren’t so much the one-cut downhill types. They could get by in a zone scheme, but they would be better off in a man-blocking scheme.

Power-Man Runner:
NFL prototype: DeMarco Murray, Eagles
  1. Melvin Gordon
  2. Todd Gurley
  3. Jay Ajayi
  4. Ameer Abdullah
  5. Duke Johnson
  6. Tevin Coleman
  7. Mike Davis
  8. T.Y. Yeldon

Recap: Wisconsin featured Gordon as its lead runner between the tackles, and he did an excellent job as a junior. Gordon should be good at executing an NFL power-man scheme almost immediately.

Gurley and Ajayi both ran well behind good offensive lines. While both are bigger backs, they are still shifty to help their blockers and make their own holes. They also have the size to run through a free defender.

When Coleman is running well he looks like a very nice fit in a man scheme. Coleman can dodge and weave his way through traffic.

Davis and Yeldon are more one-cut downhill runners. They could function in a man scheme, but would be best in zone schemes.

NFL prototype: LeSean McCoy, Bills
  1. Todd Gurley
  2. Melvin Gordon
  3. Ameer Abdullah
  4. Duke Johnson
  5. Jay Ajayi
  6. Tevin Coleman
  7. T.Y. Yeldon
  8. Mike Davis

Recap: Gurley and Gordon are basically tied as the most elusive runners in this draft class. They juke defenders, spin away, cut around them and use speed to run by them. Defenders really struggle to get a firm grasp on them.

Abdullah and Johnson have elusiveness in the open field. Both can dodge tacklers and juke linebackers in ugly fashion. Abdullah had a knack for seeming to be stopped, but slipping away for more yards. They just aren’t as explosive as the top two.

Ajayi is a strong runner who can weave through defenders in the open field. As a runner, he has a lot of balance with some moves and cutting.

Coleman has some elusiveness. He can cut quickly to get behind defenders. Yeldon is a smooth runner who weaves through defenders and seems to glide down field. Yeldon and Davis are more of downhill runners. They use their strength to be elusive and not let tacklers get control of they.

Breakaway Speed:
NFL prototype: Jamaal Charles, Chiefs
  1. Todd Gurley
  2. Melvin Gordon
  3. Duke Johnson
  4. Tevin Coleman
  5. Jay Ajayi
  6. Ameer Abdullah
  7. T.Y. Yeldon
  8. Mike Davis

Recap: Gurley is No. 1. At Georgia, he showed the ability to break off long touchdown runs and also was a threat to return kicks for touchdowns. There were many plays that Gurley produced long runs by dodging a defender in the second level and exploding down the field. He is extremely fast despite being a big back.

Gordon showed that he has rare speed. Despite adding about 10-15 pounds of muscle, Gordon maintained his big-play ability, and at one point during his final season, he was tied for the FBS record in career average in yards per carry with stellar mark of 8.26 yards per carry. You don’t have that without a serious burst. Gordon is a threat to score and can break off a long run on any carry.

Johnson has the speed to break off long runs, and he showed that throughout his career. Johnson ripped off big plays for Miami in 2014 even after getting stronger, and was a special teams weapon early in his career.

Even though Coleman and Ajayi have size, when they break downfield, they are touch to catch. Both had some long runs where they ran away from defenders when they broke into the open field.

Abdullah didn’t run all that well at the Combine, but he’s faster in the games. Yeldon had some dangerous speed as a freshman, but that was diminished the last two years after he gained weight. Davis has a burst to hit the hole, but he is a back who will be caught from behind in the NFL.

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