Friday, March 06, 2015

2015 NFL Draft: Running Backs

I'll come right out and lay my cards on the table; I'm not a huge fan of teams using high picks on running backs.

I'm very much in the camp that says that the performance of running backs is strongly influenced by the success of their offensive line. If the line can make a hole then the back has a much better chance of gaining good yards. If the line can't create anything then even the best backs are typically going nowhere. And when you consider that even many backs taken later in the draft have shown they too can put up good yardage behind a decent line (observe the Patriots string of no name running backs) then I'm very adverse to the idea of using a high pick on a running back.

Not all backs are created equal though. So what am I looking for in a good running back? I'm interested in four things primarily;

1) ability to see or anticipate holes in the line,
2) the willingness to press these holes and potentially take a hit in order to gain solid yards for the team,
3) the speed and elusiveness of the back in the open field,
4) pass blocking and pass catching,

The first and second are pretty much tied together. There are some running backs who either can't see holes develop in the line or even if they can, they refuse to go through them and risk getting rocked by a linebacker. If you look at the Raiders back Darren McFadden for example, he often misses gaping holes in the Raiders line, either because he can't see them or because he refuses to press up into them, instead trying to use his speed to beat the linebackers to the edge. This is one of the main reasons that he can be quite boom and bust.

Point three is where running backs really come into their own. Once they're past the line it's all down to the back. It's his speed vs the defender, his ability to dodge tackles vs their ability to make them, and it's here that I think running backs can really distinguish themselves from the competition. Everybody can imagine the last time they saw Marshawn Lynch busting out a big run, shaking off tackles and driving his way down the field.

Point four is another area where backs can make money for themselves and put daylight between them and the competition. A running back who has utility in both the passing and the running game is significantly more versatile and valuable than one who can only run. It's not a deal breaker if they can't contribute in this aspect, but it does hurt their stock, or at least it should.

Lastly, and as always, the list here is simply ordered the way it is because that's how the list I'm working from is ordered. It doesn't represent my opinions about the players, for which you'll have to read the individual feedback. So let's get started.

Todd Gurley, Georgia
Have to say, Gurley is quite a remarkable player. He has a rare combination of speed and strength which makes this young guy tough to tackle. You can see in the way that he shrugs people off and bounces off tackles that a lot of that strength is in the lower body and that's a really good thing.

Let's deal with some of the problems first. His pass blocking is not great. He's far too keen to dive at the legs and try to cut people when a guy of his size and strength should be able to at least get in the defenders face and cause them more problems than he does. His pass route running is not great and he's not really a major passing threat.

More worrying is the fact he suffered a serious knee injury, so there's a huge question mark over his future. How will he recover from this? When he returns, will he still have that same speed, strength and cutting ability? It's the sort of gamble that NFL teams are unlikely to want to stake a high round pick on.

If it hadn't been for that then there's a chance Gurley would have been a first round pick because that's how good he is. He sniffs out the holes and is more than happy to put his head down and go for it between the tackles. He consistently takes runs that should be stopped for a short gain and drives through defenders to get first downs. It's great stuff.

If he can comeback from the injury and perform to the previous level then Gurley has a great future ahead of him. But with that knee problem I think he slips to the second, maybe even the third round. I don't think I would be able to convince myself to part with more than a third because of that injury uncertainty. I wish him the best and I hope he gets back to full strength because he'll be a lot of fun to watch.

Melvin Gordon, Wisconsin
In order to figure out whether you would draft Gordon you need to ask yourself one simple question; can I live with his boom and bust nature?

I for one would get quite annoyed with it. What I mean by this is that Gordon has fantastic speed and agility once he's out in the open field, but he's not strong enough to pound his way between the tackles on a consistent basis. To get the best out of him you either have to let him run to the outside or carve a hole up the middle so wide you could drive a bus through it.

On some plays you'll get big runs, potentially all the way down the field for a touchdown. His speed is up there with most receivers and corners, so he certainly has the ability to blaze away even in the NFL. But he's not much use as a short yardage back and he's not much use in the passing game either. He's a two down back who will make a bunch of highlight reels but can't really be counted on when the chips are down to get you the tough yards you need.

I personally don't like backs like that. I prefer guys who can chip away a little more consistently at the defense, even when the offensive line isn't playing that great. Gordon will probably work best in a multi-faceted offense that doesn't rely too much on him to grind out results.

Tevin Coleman, Indiana
I have to say that I really like Coleman.

Given that his offensive line wasn't always the greatest and struggled to open up rushing lanes against the top teams, Coleman put up some very good numbers. I love that fact that he sees the hole opening and just sticks his head down and goes for it, lighting the afterburners and throwing caution to the wind (yet still protecting the football, if not his own health). The result is that he is consistently able to acquire yardage in modest, hard fought for chunks. And then every now and again he'll break open a big one.

And boy when he breaks open, he breaks open! He's not the fastest guy in the world, but he has superb balance and agility. He seems to just shift his weight slightly and effortlessly curve a path through a sea of tacklers, like an F1 race car picking its way through a chicane at high speed. He has a subtle technique in the open field where he takes a little speed off, causing defenders to adjust their angle and line him up, before suddenly bursting off into the distance again. I love that about Coleman, because it tells me this is a guy who is dedicated to his craft and always seeking out ways to gain an extra edge.

He's not really a threat in the passing game and though a willing blocker, his pass blocking certainly needs some work. His height and build make it unlikely that he'll ever become a reliable pass blocker, but he could learn to become a bit more of an obstacle than he is now. For that reason he might lose value as being a two down back, but that's a hell of a two down back! I'm really impressed. Would I part with more than a third rounder though? Meh, I dunno, but that's because I'm just so averse to the idea of using high picks on running backs. Maybe, depending on what was left out there.

That aside, I think Coleman will be a superb back in the NFL and will win a lot of fans with his running style, even if his career may not be the longest.

Jay Ajayi, Boise State
Certainly a highlight reel guy at times! Ajayi makes some crazy runs, bouncing and spinning off people in all directions, jumping tackles and all sorts. It's really fun to watch. He has decent speed though he's probably not going to race away from many people in the NFL. He's tough to bring down, not least because he just keeps fighting for every yard.

In the passing game he can catch pretty well, but he's not a highly developed route runner. This is actually a fairly consistent problem with a lot of guys coming out of spread offenses that are often asked only to catch screens and the odd flat route. His pass blocking is nothing to write home about either.

Overall though Ajayi is a good back. He has no problems putting his head down and running between the tackles. He's a pretty consistent gainer and just seems to have an uncanny knack for picking up yardage. Some people think he can be a three down guy but I'm not too sure about that. I think he's a two down runner personally, especially when you take into account his film against some of the better opponents that Boise faced. I think a third rounder is probably good value for Ajayi and I think we'll be hearing that name (and mastering the pronunciation) a lot of the next few years.

Ameer Abdullah, Nebraska
Ameer has drawn high praise for being a great "character" guy, as well as scoring highly in a lot of drills at the combine with the exception of the 40 yards dash. But then it should be no surprise that a 5'9" guy did well in all the drills except the 40 yard dash, because generally 5'9" guys tend to be very agile, balanced and have a high power to weight ratio, but a shorter stride length.

Now, here's the problem I have with Abdullah; against weaker opponents he was superb, but in the two games that I watched against decent opposition Abdullah was nowhere to be seen. Obviously the offensive line takes some blame for that, as they struggled tremendously to create holes and keep their running back (and quarterback) clean, but Abdullah had some chances to slip through some gaps or maybe out run the defense to the sideline and he just couldn't. He lacked the speed to beat people to the edge and the strength to break arm tackles.

For that reason I'd have to pass on Abdullah. Maybe he was just unfortunate in those two games and in a more evenly balanced NFL game he'll perform better, but I expect prospects to thrive in the toughest contests, not sink to the bottom. If it's the case that he needs a good O-line to be able to do anything then it's arguable that a free agent running back would be just as useful, perhaps one that can actually pass block for instance.

Duke Johnson, Miami
His name sounds like he should be a stuntman, like a human cannonball or something. And you know what, he plays like a human cannonball.

He's just so quick in those first 5-10 yards. He has an amazing burst of speed. Played mostly in a zone scheme, which is what the bulk of NFL teams play now, and he absolutely killed it. Not the strongest guy, not going to be breaking tackles all up and down the field like a Marshawn Lynch, but fully prepared to stick his head down and just throw himself into the defense at top speed. It's brilliant.

In the passing game there's a hit and miss element. The miss element is his pass protection, which is virtually non-existent. The hit element is his route running and catching. He's so quick out of the backfield he'll be a match up nightmare for linebackers and safeties, and I don't think I saw him drop a single pass that came his way, including one where he had to lay out to get it.

For that reasons Johnson has a dual appeal. He can ruin people in the running game and he can ruin them in the passing game. He may not be able to stay healthy through a 16 game season due to his size, and given the speed at which he runs I question whether he'll be healthy enough to get a second contract down the line, but in the immediate future I think Johnson will be an exciting and productive running back.

T.J. Yeldon, Alabama
This is the one I've been anticipating the second most on this list (I'll tell you when we get to the first) and frankly I'm surprised how low down he is on the list I'm working from.

I know everyone is a little wary of Alabama running backs after the Trent Richardson debacle, but I think Eddie Lacey has helped to repair that damage. And I think Yeldon will too. He's not a lightning fast runner by any means, but I actually think that's one of Yeldon's great advantages. Often with slower running backs you'll find they have an enforced sense of patience when it comes to waiting for blocks to be made and for holes to open (enforced because they simply lack the requisite acceleration to get to the line too early).

In Yeldon's case that lack of elite level acceleration allows him to pick his way through the defense using his excellent balance and a great eye for the opening. He's still pretty quick, don't get me wrong, but it's his cutting ability that will see him through as opposed to speed. I don't see Yeldon as a home run hitter so to speak, but I do seem him as that kind of guy that can go out there and consistently turn out first downs for you.

What's appealing about Yeldon in addition to his running ability is the fact that for the first time on this list we have someone who can actually pass block! Hooray! Now he's not going to be threatening the jobs of any offensive linemen anytime soon, but at least he's prepared to put himself in harms way, square up to the rusher (even defensive linemen at times) and do what he has to do to get the job done. I really like that. I always find it admirable when someone puts a lot of effort into something that they clearly don't like doing.

For those reasons I think Yeldon will be a starting running back and I think critically he can be a three down guy. His route running would need a bit of work, but that's something I think he can work on and develop. He's probably not going to be much of a highlight reel guy and maybe not the talk of the town, but I think he'll be an effective, solid running back who I'd be happy to part with a third rounder for.

Mike Davis, South Carolina
Can't say I was hugely impressed by Davis to be honest. A lot of the running backs on this list so far have had different traits, being strong in one area and weak another. Davis was weak in most.

He's 5'9", so you expect a guy with great burst, balance and agility. But he's 217 pounds, so the speed isn't there. So you say alright, you're 5'9" and you weigh almost 220, so maybe he's like a strong little fighter who's tough to bring down? Err, nope. Not that either. To cap it all off he can't block, he's very limited in the passing game and he has a tendency to run into trouble.

To give him credit, he keeps pounding away even when that O-line isn't making much room up front and through shear force of carries he did rack up a lot of 100 yard games. Occasionally he'll break off a nice run. But you just get the feeling that there are a lot of backs who could run faster and a lot who could fight harder between the tackles. I'd pass on Davis to be honest.

David Cobb, Minnesota
Like Davis I can't say as I was hugely impressed by Cobb. He's not bad, he's just nothing to write home about either. Not really that quick, not really that strong, not that tough to bring down, no remarkable cutting ability. I look at Cobb and ask myself "what does he bring to the table that an undrafted back couldn't?". And I can't give myself a satisfactory answer.

Cameron Artis-Payne, Auburn
Same again. Artis-Payne is a decent back who can get some ok yardage, but he's not exactly ripping runs off left, right and center, and nor is he pounding his way through the defense in his very own version of "beast mode. He's just about average. There's nothing about him that says "draft me now or you'll miss out!"

David Johnson, Northern Iowa
Everyone is talking about Johnson as a "sleeper" and a "diamond in the rough". This astounding insight would of course have nothing to do with his combine performance where he posted great numbers in all the various drills. And I've always questioned how you can be a sleeper when everyone is talking about you? Would that not be the very opposite of what a sleeper is?

Regardless, I'm actually not that ecstatic about Johnson. While he may have set the combine alight, those numbers would beg the question why he didn't set the field alight, not least while playing against such footballing royalty as Southern Illinois? He did look good coming out of the backfield when matched up one on one with a linebacker in the open field. But then most running backs do, especially when those linebackers are less than premium athletes.

The problem with Johnson was everything else. You'd expect a guy with his measurables to be an absolute beast. What I saw was anything but. Down on first contact, lacked the speed in the open field to keep ahead of the defenders, lacked any kind of move or outstanding cutting ability to slip past defenders. He was just a bit boring. So despite the crazy good combine, I'd past.

Karlos Williams, Florida State
Actually pretty good, which is refreshing. I was starting to despair.

Doesn't look like much, doesn't do anything especially fancy or highlight worthy, but very effective. You're talking about a guy who is 6'1", weighs 230 pounds and clocked a 4.48 sec 40 time at the combine. He can run and he can hit people. It's actually quite fun (if you're weird like me) to watch him slow down just a little in order to set defenders up. He has patience up the middle and is not afraid to put his head down and drive through for some hard yards.

If you want a diamond in the rough, a sleeper, this might be it. I don't think he was really outstanding in college and for me I think he's a later round guy, someone that you perhaps take a chance on depending on what else is on the board. But you can see the basic skills and quality is there. There are questions about his character and his motivation to play football, but if he can get it going he has quite a high ceiling I think.

Javorius Allen, USC
Some nice runs from Allen. And that's about it.

Sometimes you put on a game and a player performs well without really jumping out and grabbing your attention. Allen is one of them. He's not a bad back. Like I say, he made some nice runs. But... I guess the term I would use is forgettable. He's forgettable. Couple of weeks from now I'll remember a lot of these players off the top of my head. When Allen gets picked I know I'll have to look his name up.

That's normally a red flag for me. Why don't I remember you? Why did you not stand out more? Normally it's because a player was ok but nothing special and that's what Allen feels like. He feels like one of those backs that's dime a dozen, that you could pick up in free agency for a minimum salary and get the same production.

Jeremy Langford, Michigan State
Not bad. Ran pretty fast in the 40 at the combine so we know he can shift in a straight line when he needs to. I felt he did a reasonable job of picking his way through traffic, the problem is he's not especially strong and he's not hugely agile either. If you can make some holes for him he'll run, but I don't see him as a back that's going to create much for himself.

Matt Jones, Florida
You have to feel sorry for Jones running behind that O-line and with some of that play calling. It wasn't pretty. Jones struggled on though and did ok. Of particular are his pass protection skills. He was able to stand up and take on a variety of outside rushers, delaying them enough for his quarterback to get the pass off. He was prepared to cut defensive linemen when needed, and his recognition and pickup of blitzes was good.

As a running back he seemed a little average to me, which might just be a product of playing for the team that he did. I think he's worth considering for a team that plans to use a committee system at running back because of that versatility when it comes to pass protection. I don't think he can carry the burden of being a feature back, but if he was still available late then I'd consider the merits of drafting him as part of a rotation.

Josh Robinson, Mississippi State
Ran poorly at the combine and you can see that lack of speed on the field. Everytime he breaks out into the open you can see his little 5'8" legs struggling to get that 217 pound frame moving and a lot of the time he gets chased down from behind.

However, spot the key element of that previous sentence? Got it yet? "Everytime he breaks out into the open...". Yeah, sure, he's not a huge burner and he's not going to run away from people in the NFL. But he will get through the initial pile on a consistent basis and starting clocking up first downs with alarming regularity.

This is the old Maurice Jones-Drew argument all over again. "He's too short and slow so he can't be a consistent home run hitting running back". Well no he may not be, but he's still a good running back dumbass. More amusingly I actually saw this written about him; "Vision is average to below average". That is the single dumbest thing I've seen written about any draft prospect so far this year, though given that we're only at the running backs I suspect there is more to come.

And it is an unbelievably dumb thing to write about Robinson because pretty much the exact opposite is true. He has a phenomenal sense of vision and anticipation. He sees holes that I needed slow mo to catch. I think where people are getting caught out is because we're all looking for holes that a speedy running back would press. He's looking for holes that fit his style; a low center of gravity, exceptional balance guy with a real knack for fighting through tackles and sudden changes of direction.

Watching Robinson was at times like watching a master class in keeping the chains moving. He's another one of these prospects that gets me annoyed because the scouting and analysis communities discard him purely because his 40 time is slow, while ignoring how incredibly valuable his skill set is and how much damage he was clearly able to do to teams on a consistent basis.

He may not be a huge runner in terms of explosive plays but I suspect Robinson will eat up the yardage in the NFL and gain himself a reputation as dependable, reliable running back who can carry the load and give teams more than a few nightmares with his weaving, floating runs right up the middle. I'd go so far as to say that I think Robinson is worth a second rounder.

Malcolm Brown, Texas
Not particularly a stand out back, but he has some speed and I saw him go through a few arm tackles. He's a bottom end/free agent type with perhaps a better than average chance of making a team as a practice squad player if not on a full roster.

Jalston Fowler, Alabama
Remember earlier I said that Fowler's team mate Yeldon was my second most anticipated running back on this list? Well, Fowler is number one.

Yes, a fullback is the dude I was most keen to sit down and assess. That's because I've been keeping an eye on Fowler for a while and because I'm big on fullbacks. But what's great about Fowler is not so much his blocking, which is still good, but his ability to run with the ball as a back himself. That sounds dumb because he's a 254 pound back who took nearly 5 seconds to cover 40 yards. He's not going to be smashing any yardage records in the NFL I suspect.

But again Fowler is another one of those guys whose weight and lack of speed is almost an advantage. It prevents him from racing away like a bullet so he has a lot of patience to find the hole. He certainly has the size to drive through arm tackles. But that somewhat plodding pace also helps him to pick his way through traffic. It allows him to cut side to side in spaces that other running backs probably wouldn't be able to.

It's crazy. It's like watching a miracle unfold before your eyes as he goes plowing into the line and you think he's just going to disappear under a pile of bodies, and yet somehow he comes out on the other side, side stepping tackles like a character in a Disney movie as he rumbles inexorably onwards for a first down. It's a joy to watch, I wish him the absolute best in the NFL, and I have to say I personally would use maybe a fifth rounder on him (no need to go higher because it seems like he'll be a late round/undrafted guy), depending on what else was out there. I think the fact that he plays fullback but is also viable as a runner himself, and he can pass protect, that makes him a true three down back, with special teams value as well I suspect. That kind of value can be rare in the NFL and I think he'll be a success at the next level.


And that's it for the running backs. Next up is wide receivers. And as always if you enjoyed reading this then please feel free to share it.

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