The running back is in a weird place in today’s NFL.
In an age where fantasy football informs a lot of the casual fan’s perspective on the NFL, the running back was king, every office worker/college kid/parent rushing to their laptops and hoping that they’d grab one of the stud tailbacks in the league: Adrian Peterson, Lesean McCoy, Ray Rice, Arian Foster, Maurice Jones-Drew, Chris Johnson.
But the league is changing. The bellcow back is becoming a dying breed, as more and more teams shift towards a rotation of running backs. This is utilized not just so that every running back stays fresh, but because the position has become more specialized: this guy’s the power back, this guy’s the flashy speed, this guy’s the backfield receiver.
A lot of people will point to the 49ers and Seahawks last year as the two best teams in the NFL who also happened to use big, high-carry backs in Frank Gore and Marshawn Lynch. But they’re the exception, not the rule, as the other Super Bowl winners in the last five years all used committees (Green Bay, Baltimore, New York, New Orleans).
This mindset has spread to the draft, where we’ve now gone two straight years without a running back taken in the first round, and, this year, one wasn’t taken in the top 50 (broken by Bishop Sankey at 54, which is ludicrous value). The other reason teams are scared of drafting a running back early?
Trent Richardson. Basically drafted in the 1st round twice (once at 3 by the Cleveland Browns and then traded to Indianapolis for a 1st round pick this past season), Richardson was one of the most promising running back prospects in recent years. But his first two seasons have been nothing short of a disappointment. Either way you look at it, as he’s just plain not good or that there have been a bunch of struggles that have nothing to with his talent (terrible offensive line play, his confidence clearly wilting in the face of expectations), it’s hard to justify any team taking a running back in the 1st round, let alone in the Top 5.
But wouldn’t you know it, just when this movement in football philosophy is becoming more and more prevalent, here comes a draft class ready to test its limits.
Because this draft class is stacked at running back. Stacked.
Below you’ll find a quick primer of which running backs to watch in college football this season, all of whom will be eligible to enter the draft. I’m not saying all of these backs are first-round talents, but they’re all players who’ll test teams’ desire not to pick high on a running back (if I had to guess, I’d say 2 or 3 get taken in the first round).
Here we go.
The Beast: Todd Gurley, Georgia
2013 Stats (10 games): 165 att., 989 yards (6.0 ypa), 10 TD; 37 rec., 441 yds, 6 TD
Todd Gurley is pretty much the one player draft experts are holding onto as reasons the feature back won’t disappear altogether. The dude is a freak of nature. There aren’t many players in football who have his combination of size and speed, and he can either burst by you or burst into you, and hurt you very badly in the process. When healthy, he’s the most complete and dangerous running back in the country.
The downside? Well, that “when healthy” has been an issue, as an ankle injury robbed Gurley of time mid-season. Also his main comp has been Trent Richardson so, you know, there’s that. But with Aaron Murray gone, look for the Georgia Bulldogs to lean on their star junior, and for him to impress.
The Bowling Ball – Mike Davis, South Carolina
2013 Stats: 203 att., 1,183 yds (5.8 ypa), 11 TD; 34 rec., 352 yds,
Mike Davis is another complete back, but his calling card is his ability to punish defenders. Weighing in at 215, despite not being very tall, Davis has unbelievably strong legs, a low center of gravity, and pushes piles and gets the tough yards constantly. He’s also a surprisingly good receiver out of the backfield, and may be used more there with the absences of Connor Shaw and Bruce Ellington. His physical style of play has led to him getting banged up a lot last year, so this season could both sink or boost his stock immensely depending on his health.
The Blur: Melvin Gordon, Wisconsin
Year: Junior (RS)
2013 Stats: 206 att., 1,609 yds (7.8 ypa), 12 TD, 1 rec. 10 yds
You see those stats? Those stats are unbelievable. They’re insane. Yes, Wisconsin runs the ball constantly, yes he had a pretty good O-line in front of him, but numbers don’t lie, and neither does Gordon’s tape. Gordon is a big play threat every time he touches the ball, with top-end speed and burst. He’s a fluid runner with good agility, and he’s seen comps to Jamaal Charles and Reggie Bush.
Guess what he doesn’t do that those two do? Gordon has been an absolute non-factor in passing game, with only one 2013 catch and limited use as a pass protector. If he doesn’t show improvement there this year, it might scare some teams off. But he’s a Top 50 talent, no question about it.
The Senior: Ameer Abdullah, Nebraska
2013 Stats: 281 att., 1,690 yds (6.0 ypa), 9 TD; 26 rec. 232 yds, 2 TD
Ameer Abdullah is my favorite running back in this draft class. He could’ve gone last year, and reportedly was given a high draft grade, but decided to finish for his degree.
Very few college running backs have Abdullah’s combination of consistency, production, and leadership, showing it last year with a new QB. Abdullah is plenty fast, and he’s surprisingly powerful for his size, but he has elite agility. Look at that video, look at how he changes direction and moves in space. He may not be as flashy as some of his classmates, but he’ll make an impact early in his NFL career. The big stumbling block is his ball security (cue Pats fans panic attack), with 20 fumbles in three seasons, but he’s reportedly working to improve his hold on the ball in the offseason, and he’s determined enough to fix the problem.
The Bama Back: TJ Yeldon, Alabama
2013 Stats: 207 att., 1,235 yds (6.0 ypa), 14 TD; 20 rec., 183 yds
There’s always one. TJ Yeldon will hope to be the next big Alabama running back taken early in the draft, following in the footsteps of Eddie Lacy, Trent Richardson, and Mark Ingram (he’ll hope for the success of the former). Yeldon isn’t the same bruiser as any of those three, he’s an uber-fluid, long runner. Typical of a Nick Saban player, he has elite vision, is patient to find running holes, and has a good speed/power combo.
There are a few concerns. He’s an upright runner, which is a problem for such a big player, and he’s had his fair share of fumbles. He’s also never had to be a workhorse, and won’t have to be this year with Derrick Henry, Kenyan Drake, and Bo Scarbrough all spotting him in spots. However, his upside is undeniable, and he’s got the talent to be a Top 100 pick.
The Weirdo: Karlos Williams, Florida State
2013 Stats: 91 att., 730 yds (8.0 ypa), 11 TD; 8 rec., 63 yds
I have absolutely no idea what to make of Karlos Williams. He’s a tremendous athlete, he has great potential, and he projects to a great size/speed combo. But there are a whole lotta question marks.
The senior was a member of the secondary for his first two seasons, but was never able to break through. He shifted over to running back early in the 2013 season, and looked undeniably electric, even if he’s still learning the position at a high level. This season will do a lot to prove that there’s some continuous substance behind the buzz. With Devonta Freeman and James Wilder Jr. gone, along with some other key offensive players, this’ll be a big year for Williams. But he could very well prove that he’s a can’t-miss prospect.
The Home-Run Hitter: Duke Johnson, Miami
2013 Stats: 145 att., 920 yds (6.3 ypa), 6 TD; 4 rec., 77 yds
920 yards and 6 TD is impressive for any college player’s season. For half a season? Those are insane numbers. Such is the case for Miami’s offensive weapon, Duke Johnson.
Johnson has fantastic quickness and footwork, but also added a newfound power element to his game last season, in which he led the ACC with 3.3 yards after contact per rush. The problem is consistency and durability. A broken ankle robbed Johnson of what could’ve been a truly tremendous season, and that, coupled with a timeshare in his freshman year with Mike James, means this year is crucial to give teams a good look at what a full year can look like for Johnson. But with the ball in his hands, there are very few offensive players as dangerous as Johnson, and he’ll be hoping to put a full season into elbowing his way into the Heisman conversation and an early-round draft slot.
Of course, this is barely scratching the surface of one of the best running back classes in recent memory. Others include Rutgers’ Paul James, Texas’ Malcolm Brown, Oregon’s Byron Marshall, USC’s Buck Allen, Michigan St.’s Jeremy Langford, Indiana’s Tevin Coleman, Auburn’s Corey Grant, Boise State’s Jay Ajayi, Georgia’s Keith Marshall, and Baylor’s Shock Linwood. This year could be a huge year for college running backs, and leading to a big showing in the 2015 NFL draft.
But what do you think? Which player would you want to see on your team? Did I miss anyone (I’m sure I did)? Let me know below!
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(And a quick Patriots-centered note, because I’m a Patriots writer, and this is what I panic about. Stevan Ridley and Shane Vereen are both free agents this year, and no one’s going to mistake James White for a long-term starter in the NFL. So don’t be surprised if Belichick zigs when everyone else zags and takes a running back early in the 2015 draft. The obvious prizes are Gurley, Davis, and Gordon, but don’t be surprised if either Abdullah and Johnson get picked to be part of a rotation, or Belichick once again goes to the Nick Saban well to grab Yeldon.)