The last time a running back was selected in the first round was in 2012 when the Cleveland Browns drafted Trent Richardson. There have been a total of 39 running backs selected in the first round since 2000. This year's class of running backs is the deepest and possibly the most talented position group in the draft. While we might only have one of them drafted in the first round, there will be a large run on them in the second and third rounds.
While the running back position is often talked about as being de-valued, I believe that it still maintains the same value as it once did. The success of an NFL franchise is built on a bedrock of a strong running attack. The Indianapolis Colts are a perfect example of a team that has an open hole at the tailback position. A talented starting quarterback led the Colts to the AFC Championship game, but the lack of a rushing attack finally caught up with them. A strong running game, complimented by a multi-dimensional passing attack, is what all NFL offenses strive to achieve.
In addition to their evaluation and statistical breakdown, each running back will also include a running back rating grade. This is similar to a QB rating formula in that it encompasses rushing, receiving, fumbles, touchdowns, and total yards into the equation to help statistically evaluate every tailback.
Below are the rankings of the running backs in the 2015 NFL Draft class. This class offers a wide variety of different runners and players who can fit into multiple schemes and offenses in the NFL.
1) Melvin Gordon (Wisconsin): Gordon finished last season as the NCAA leader in rushing yards. He is efficient with his moves in the open field and does little dancing in the backfield; he just picks his hole and almost effortlessly glides right through it. A rare combination of power and speed at 6'1” and 215 lbs, Gordon is almost never caught from behind or tackled on the initial contact.
In one of the most impressive performances from a college football player, Gordon set the NCAA single-game rushing record when he rushed for 408 yards on 25 carries against Nebraska earlier this season.
Gordon is an electric offensive weapon each time he touches the ball. With a career average of 7.8 YPC and only 631 career carries, he will be viewed as a dynamic runner who has little wear and tear on his body. His YPC average is the highest amongst all draft eligible running backs in this year's class. He runs with great balance and a pad level that allows him to pick up the crucial yards after contact.
A big play threat each time he touches the ball, Gordon had a total of 59 career runs of 20 yards or longer, this is the highest total of any running back in this year's class. One of the more impressive stats for Gordon is that 29 percent of his carries resulted in a first down or touchdown for his career.
A strong and powerful rusher, Gordon is able to run through traffic and pick up key additional yards. On third and short (1-3 yards) for his career, Gordon had a 57 percent conversion rate. Last season he averaged 4.3 yards-after-contact. Against Nebraska in his NCAA historic performance, he had a total of 151 yards after contact, an average of 6.0 YPC.
There are two areas of concern that Gordon will need to work on as he continues his development process with the first being his ability to become a pass catcher out of the backfield. He only has 23 receptions for 251 yards throughout his career at Wisconsin. While he has shown flashes of being a reliable target, he will need to consistently prove to coaches that he can be a three down back in the NFL.
The second area of concern is ball security. Gordon had 12 career fumbles, giving him a fumble rate of 1.8 percent. This is the 9th highest fumble rate of all the running backs in this year's class.
Gordon had the highest running back grade in this year's draft class at 105.53. For comparison sake, Jamaal Charles had the closest grade to this for running back over the past ten of seasons. Draft Grade: First Rounder
2) Todd Gurley (Georgia): Built with prototypical size and speed, Gurley plays with an aggressive, physical style that is rarely seen amongst today's college tailbacks. While he doesn't possess the same knee-high running style of Earl Campbell, his desire to run over or through defenders is reminiscent of the former Houston Oiler.
Running with such balance allows Gurley to plow through defenders, showcasing the strength to stiff-arm would-be tacklers and pick up large chunks of yards. Rarely does he go down on initial contact; Gurley is constantly fighting for extra yards.
In 30 career games, Gurley rushed for 3,285 yards on 510 carries, a 6.4 YPC average, 36 TD, and 150 first downs. In addition to being a power back, he was also an accomplished receiver, finishing with 65 receptions for 615 yards and six receiving TD's.
It's unlikely that he will see a lot of action as a returner in the NFL, but if called upon, Gurley has shown to be successful at returning kicks with two kickoffs returned for touchdowns in college and an average of 38.4 return yard average.
Even with a bruising, physical style of play, Gurley displayed excellent ball security; he only had three fumbles and a fumble rate of .5 percent. Gurley is tied for the lowest fumble rate with Texas' Malcolm Brown for all draft eligible running backs.
Injuries have hampered Gurley's development throughout his career; he has battled ankle, thigh and most recently a torn ACL injury. Teams are wary of his ability to stay healthy and rightly so. He might not be back to being full health until the 2016 season, but this won't stop teams from taking him in the first round and giving him a season to rest and rehab.
One of the more consistent runners in terms of his production by halves, Gurley averaged 6.3 YPC in the first half of games, and 6.5 YPC in the second half of games throughout his career. The ability to maintain a high level of statistical performance throughout a game is what makes him such an intriguing prospect.
With the second highest grade in this year's draft class, Gurley has a running back rating of 92.32. From a statistical and scouting standpoint, he compares to Le'Veon Bell. Draft Grade: First Rounder
Tevin Coleman (Indiana): The other two running backs rated higher than Coleman have received the national recognition for their level of play the past couple of years. Playing in the same conference with past, current, and future NFL prospects such as Melvin Gordon (Wisconsin), Ezekiel Elliot (Ohio State), Ameer Abdullah (Nebraska), Carlos Hyde (Ohio State), Le'Veon Bell (Michigan State), and Jeremy Langford (Michigan State), Coleman was often overshadowed and didn't gain the notoriety he deserved. While some of these players might have stolen a few headlines away from Coleman, make no mistake, he is a ferocious runner who is capable of being a top tier running back in the NFL.
He was second in the nation, only behind Melvin Gordon in rushing yards last season with 2,036, an average of 7.5 YPC and 15 TD. In 33 career games, he had 3,206 rushing yards on 451 carries, a 7.1 YPC average, and 28 TD. He also added in 54 receptions for 405 yards.
Some might label Coleman a one year wonder since this past season was his first year breaking the 1,000 yard barrier for rushing yards in a single season. In 2013 he “only” amassed 958 rushing yards, doing so on 131 carries with an average of 7.3 YPC.
Coleman's consistent ability to average over 7.3 YPC these past two seasons proves that he has always had the talent; he just finally got his opportunity to showcase his skill set on a full time basis in 2014.
Inconsistent line play and a lack of additional weapons on offense allowed defenses to overload the box and attack Indiana's rushing attack. Coleman doesn't go down on first contact, he stays low and powers through would-be tacklers on a consistent basis. He won't shake and bake an opponent, choosing to run through a defender as opposed to around them.
Coleman's size and strength allow him to stay strong throughout the entire game. For his career, he averaged 6.1 YPC in the first half of games; in the second half he averaged 8.2 YPC. This is an increase of 2.1 YPC by half and is the largest difference of all the draft eligible running backs. The old line scouting rings true in that he gets stronger the later in a game. His power running style also shows up in short yardage situation. On third and short (3 yards or less), he had a conversion rate of 71 percent, the third highest in this year's class.
Ball security is an issue with Coleman; he had seven fumbles giving him a fumble rate of 1.3 percent. Scouts are also a bit wary of his ability to be a consistent blocker in pass protection. He was responsible for a couple of quarterback hits and pressures this past season. He will need to work on his refining his technique and taking on defenders.
Coleman scored a running back rating score of 81.58. His consistent play and ability to be a threat on short yardage situations will make him very useful in his rookie season. He compares statistically and scouting wise to former Green Bay Packers' running back Ahman Green. Draft Grade: Second Rounder
4) Jay Ajayi (Boise State): Last season Ajayi finished in the top 10 in almost every major rushing category. At 6'0” and 221 pounds, he has a perfect combination of size and speed with the ability to break through arm tacklers and the quickness to gain separation in open space.
He had a highly productive career at Boise State; in just 38 games Ajayi recorded 3,796 rushing yards on 678 carries, with a 5.6 YPC average, and 50 TD's. He also added in 73 receptions for 771 yards and five receiving TD's.
One of the strengths of Ajayi's game is his ability to fight through tacklers and pick up additional yards where other backs can't. In 2014 he averaged 3.1 yards-after-contact per carry for the season. He has great balance and refuses to go down on initial contact. This physical running style shows up in short yardage situations. For his career on third and short (3 yards or less), Ajayi had a first down conversion rate of 71 percent. This was the second highest conversion rate amongst running backs in this year's draft class.
A consistent runner throughout the game, Ajayi doesn't wear down. For his career, he averaged 5.3 yards per carry in the first half of games and 6.0 yards per carry in the second half. In fact, in this draft class, only Tevin Coleman with 7.8 and Todd Gurley at 7.0 had a higher fourth quarter yards per carry average than Ajayi (6.6).
Fighting through tackles and refusing to be taken down did have their effects; Ajayi had a career total of 12 fumbles, giving him a 1.6 percent fumble rate. He had seven fumbles this past season and scouts will be looking over his game film to see why he put the ball on the ground more than any of the previous two seasons combined.
Ajayi scored a running back grade of 71.28. His ability to dominate during the past three seasons and be a possible workhorse tailback in the NFL will make him one of the top running backs selected in the NFL Draft. From a statistical standpoint, he compares to Darren McFadden. Draft Grade: Second Rounder
5) Duke Johnson (Miami): Surrounded by a young, inexperienced roster on offense this past season, tailback Duke Johnson carried the entire offense on his shoulders. He started all 13 games this past season, coming back from an ankle injury that cut short his 2013 season. At 5'9” and 207 pounds, he isn't the biggest back in the world but he has the speed and quickness to make sure you don't get a square shot on him.
A compact runner, Johnson can take on tacklers and has the low center of gravity to stay upright and keeps his legs turning. For his career, he produced 3,519 rushing yards on 526 carries, a 6.7 YPC average and 26 TD's. He had the third most 20 yards or more rushes of any running back in this year's draft. An accomplished pass catcher, Johnson added 69 receptions for 719 yards and four touchdowns to his resume.
Johnson is a dynamic returner; he averaged 31.4 yards per kickoff return for his career to go along with two kickoffs returned for touchdowns. He is a skilled and intelligent runner who displays excellent vision and is perfectly suited for a zone blocking scheme as he sees the cutback lanes and quickly gets upfield. Johnson lets his blockers do the work and with one quick step, he is able to hit the hole and get into the second level.
The one concern on Johnson is his ability to stay strong throughout a game. For his career he averaged 7.2 YPC in the first half, but dropped down to 6.0 YPC in the second half. A 1.2 YPC drop was one of the biggest of all the running backs in this year's draft class.
Ball security wasn't an issue for Johnson; he had a total of seven fumbles, giving him a fumble rate of 1.1 percent. Even though he is smaller in stature, he displayed the strength and technique to avoid letting the ball get loose.
A quality pass catcher out of the backfield, Johnson will be weapon on third down and in the screen game in the NFL. Showing a willingness to block, he will need to work on his cut blocking ability; he didn't always get the job done and get his man on the ground. With his speed and quickness, Johnson is a matchup nightmare in the pass game if he lines up across from a linebacker. With just a few quick steps, he can get open and up the field.
Johnson is a successful short yardage back; he had a 69 percent conversion rate on third and short for his career. This is higher than Gurley, Gordon, and T.J. Yeldon. He is an all-around successful back who will provide an instant spark plug to almost any offense. Johnson will excel on special teams and will be a critical player on third down during his first year. Johnson had a running back rating of 81.85, one of the top rated running backs in this year's draft class. He might end up being one of the steals of this year's entire tailback class. Draft Grade: Third Rounder
This year's running back class was a difficult one to rank. Below is just a quick list of the next five guys that barely missed the top of my draft board.
6) Karlos Williams (Florida State): A big bruising tailback at 6'1” and 230 pounds, he only had 241 carries, 1,419 yards and 22 TD's for his career. Williams is a quality pass catcher who catches the ball with his hands and not with his body. He had five fumbles, giving him a fumble rate of 1.6 percent. With a punishing running style, Williams averaged 4.8 YPC in the first half and 6.5 YPC in the second half, an increase of 1.7 YPC. Williams had the highest third and short conversion rate at 76 percent, highest of any running back in this draft. Running back rating of 73.95. Draft Grade: Fourth Rounder
7) Ameer Abdullah (Nebraska): Coming to Nebraska as a two-star recruit, Abdullah finished his career as one of the top running backs in Nebraska history. At 5'9” and 205 pounds, Abdullah might not be the biggest runner, but he can shake a defender right out of his shoes. With over 4,500 career rushing yards, an average of 5.6 YPC, and 39 TD's, he dominated some of the nation's top defenses over the past few seasons. He is an all-around talented back who can be a factor on special teams and in the passing game. With 24 career fumbles, he had a fumble rate of 2.5 percent, second highest in this draft class. Draft Grade: Fourth Rounder
8) T.J. Yeldon (Alabama): Yeldon doesn't have the fanfare of a Trent Richardson or Eddie Lacy. He battled through some injuries this past season which hurt his production and playing time. As a power runner, he averaged 5.5 YPC in the first half and 6.1 YPC in the second half of games throughout his career. Yeldon punished defenses and ripped through arm tacklers late into games. Ball security can be an issue; he had 10 career fumbles, a 1.6 percent fumble rate. He finished with a running back score of 69.24. Draft Grade: Fifth Rounder
9) David Johnson (Northern Iowa) A small school prospect who has rushed for over a thousand yards each of the past three seasons. Johnson is a prolific pass catcher who leads all running backs in this draft class with 141 receptions for 1,734 receiving yards and 14 touchdowns. At 6'1” and 224 pounds, he displayed excellent pass protection ability. Johnson dominated his level of competition and when faced against FBS level competition, he produced at a high level. Johnson finished with a running back rating of 83.52 Draft Grade: Fifth Rounder
10) Mike Davis (South Carolina): For Mike Davis, his first two seasons at South Carolina were a success. His production dropped significantly in 2014; his YPC dropped close to a full yard from 2013 to 2014. He played with bruised ribs for most of the season, proving his toughness as he battled through and was still a focal point of the Gamecocks' offense. He struggled with ball security early on in his career, but he improved upon it this past season. Davis had seven career fumbles, a 1.3 percent fumble rate. With 70 career receptions, Davis does a good job in setting up his blockers in the screen-game. If Davis can return to his old form, someone will be getting a steal in the mid-to-late rounds on a player of his caliber. Davis had a running back rating of 60.37: Draft Grade: Fifth Rounder
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