May 172014
 
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Todd Gurley, Georgia Bulldogs (November 23, 2013)

Todd Gurley – © USA TODAY Sports Images

Early New York Giants 2015 NFL Draft Preview: Running Backs

by BigBlueInteractive.com Contributor Will Allen/Peterson

A few things to start this off…

  • These are not rankings because ranking prospects this far out from the 2015 Draft would be pointless.
  • This article is strictly about draft-eligible RBs.
  • It’s premature for me to allege that next year’s RB class will be the best in a decade. People were talking about how strong the 2014 QB crop would be, but then Oregon QB Marcus Mariota stayed in school, several others saw their stock decline dramatically, and a position that was initially projected to be a major strength in its draft class didn’t come anywhere close to living up to expectations. That being said, the potential is there for the 2015 RB class to be absolutely stacked.

Now let’s get started…

A high ankle sprain suffered against LSU in late September hampered Georgia’s Todd Gurley (6’1”, 232 pounds) throughout his sophomore season, forcing him to miss three games and deleteriously affecting his level of play when he pushed through the pain. Head coach Mark Richt publicly acknowledged that Gurley was not yet 100 percent healthy at the start of spring practices. But reports surfaced in the following weeks that he was completed healed by late March and looked like his old self in the spring game.

Gurley is a violent runner with the power to explode through would-be tacklers and methodically wear down defenses as the game progresses. But what makes him a unique talent is his ability to see the hole, make a decisive cut, and accelerate through the opening with a sudden burst for a back of his size. It would also be unfair to classify his speed as deceptive because he ran 10.7 in the 100m coming out of high school and has shown breakaway speed on numerous occasions in each of the last two years.

To go along with his combination of speed and power, Gurley also flashes a great stiff arm, tremendous balance after absorbing contact to bounce off defenders, underrated agility, and a ton of value as a pass receiver out of the backfield.

The ultimate wild card in next year’s running back class will be Florida State’s Karlos Williams (6’1”, 219 pounds), a freak athlete with tremendous physical tools and unlimited potential who began the 2013 season as a safety before switching to offense in early September.

Williams, the No. 4 overall recruit in the nation in 2011 according to 247 Sports’ composite rankings, struggled to earn playing time in a loaded secondary and failed to live up to the lofty expectations that surrounded him when some compared him to Sean Taylor coming out of high school. However, Williams finally embraced the position switch and went on to have a very productive season in a supporting role as a complimentary back.

With a rare blend of size, power, speed, quick feet, and a lethal jump cut, Williams has as much potential as any running back in the country. Williams will likely be the lead back in a multi-headed attack that will also feature five-star freshman Dalvin Cook and sophomore Ryan Green.

Before he suffered a torn ACL in his right knee last October against Tennessee, Georgia’s Keith Marshall (5’11”, 219 pounds) wasn’t getting enough recognition as one of the best running backs in all of college football. Largely overshadowed by his more heralded running mate, Todd Gurley, Marshall was the lightning to Gurley’s thunder in Georgia’s backfield.

Marshall, an explosive home run hitter who was known for his sudden explosiveness through the hole and breakaway speed in the open field, bulked up to 219 pounds and was running with more power and physicality that added another dimension to his game. The season-ending injury robbed Marshall of an opportunity to seize an expanded workload with Gurley sidelined due to an ankle injury that hampered him throughout the year.

Although Marshall is reportedly ahead of schedule in his recovery, Georgia has not ruled out the possibility of redshirting him for the 2014 season and having him return in 2015 with two years of eligibility remaining. The Bulldogs’ backfield would still be loaded with Gurley, sophomore J.J. Green, and heralded five-star freshmen Nick Chubb and Sony Michel forming an outstanding rotation of backs. But Marshall is a terrific talent to monitor no matter when he returns to action.

A total package runner with a dynamic blend of power and speed, South Carolina’s Mike Davis (5’9”, 216 pounds) has a very strong lower half, runs behind his pads, and flashes relentless leg drive on contact to push the pile and pick up additional yardage. Davis is as tough and competitive as any back in the country, as evidenced by the way he consistently finishes his runs with authority.

Most known for his physical running style, Davis is a deceptively well-rounded back with impressive balance, burst out of his cuts, elusiveness to make defenders miss in space with quick feet, and the ability to break off explosive plays on the ground. He also showed natural hands out of the backfield as a sophomore and should continue to be featured heavily as a pass receiver.

Although Davis runs with a low center of gravity and is often the one delivering punishment in collisions with defenders, nagging shoulder, rib, and ankle injuries had a noticeable effect on him physically down the stretch of his first full season as the Gamecocks’ workhorse back.

Having bulked up this offseason, Davis says he’s fully healthy and ready to continue handling a sizable workload, though he should be complemented nicely by promising redshirt freshman David Williams.

Wisconsin’s Melvin Gordon (6’1”, 207 pounds) would have easily been the top-rated running back prospect in the 2014 class had he chosen to declare for the draft following his redshirt sophomore season. But Gordon opted to stay in school to continue to develop and chase a Heisman Trophy, despite the fact that the 2014 running back class was considered weak and next year’s has the potential to be the best in years.

A natural slasher whose running style is eerily reminiscent of Jamaal Charles’, Gordon is a very fluid runner and natural home run hitter with impressive burst and top-end speed. The biggest question mark surrounding Gordon is that he is completely unproven as a pass receiver, as he has just three receptions to this point in his college career.

While his decision to stay in school meant that he’ll be competing with several other premier talents as opposed to being the consensus top-rated running back – which he would have been had he declared for the 2014 NFL Draft – Gordon will almost certainly be an early-round selection as long as he avoids injury.

The next running back from the Crimson Tide’s pipeline to the NFL who’s set to attract early-round attention is Alabama’s T.J. Yeldon (6’2”, 218 pounds), a three-down contributor with a gliding style of running who has great vision and a natural feel for the position.

The lead back in what promises to be the deepest and most talented stable of runners in the entire country, Yeldon displays patience when running between the tackles and has great feet for such a big-bodied back. Not only does he possess enough elusiveness to make defenders miss in space on occasion, but he has also become a physical runner who fights for yards after contact. While Yeldon has proven to be a workhorse with dynamic qualities, he also runs very upright and has had serious ball security issues.

Yeldon will be complemented in Alabama’s backfield by a sophomore standout who’s workload should steadily increase as the season progresses (Derrick Henry), an explosive change of pace back with great top-end speed who has also been in the coaching staff’s doghouse for fumbling issues (Kenyan Drake), and a five-star freshman who faces an uphill battle to earn immediate playing time (Bo Scarbrough).

Next year’s draft has the potential to be loaded with productive high-profile running backs from power conferences, many of whom who were once highly recruited and have been in the national spotlight ever since. But Boise State’s Jay Ajayi (6’0”, 215 pounds) is an exception to that rule who has a chance to enter the conversation as one of the premier draft-eligible backs in the country this year.

Ajayi has tremendous acceleration, impressive balance, and quick feet for a 215-pound back. He’s a powerful, physical runner who accumulates yards after contact and also flashes an effective spin move. With former Boise State coach Chris Petersen taking over at Washington, it’s expected that the Broncos will be implementing a new offensive philosophy predicated on more of a power run game.

While he must clean up ball security issues that put him in the doghouse at times during his redshirt sophomore season, Ajayi is expected to be a workhorse and the focal point of Boise State’s offense this season.

A quick, shifty ball carrier who runs with deceptive power for a back his size, Nebraska’s Ameer Abdullah (5’9″, 195 pounds) opted to stay in school for his senior season in order to earn his degree before heading to the next level. Abdullah, who led the Big 10 in rushing yards last season, seemed to get stronger as games progressed last year.

A multi-dimensional back who flashed potential as a receiver out of the backfield, Abdullah is a player who should be featured more predominantly in the passing game in 2014. He runs with a low center of gravity and doesn’t go down easily, displaying powerful leg drive to accumulate yards after contact as well as elusiveness in space to make defenders miss.

Abdullah’s lateral agility and acceleration out of his jump cuts are very impressive. But the most glaring weakness in his game is ball security, as he has fumbled 20 times in his first three seasons at Nebraska.

A multidimensional weapon who has changed his style of running over the past couple years is Miami’s Duke Johnson (5’9”, 206 pounds), who’s still recovering from surgery to repair a broken right ankle he suffered last November. Johnson arrived at Miami as a 180-pound scatback who was heavily reliant on speed and quickness, but he’s bulked up to 206 pounds over the past two offseasons and become a different type of runner.

While the added weight has clearly taken away a bit of Johnson’s top-end speed, he flashes a powerful stiff arm and fights for yards after contact as well as anyone in the ACC. Johnson led the conference with an average of 3.3 yards after contact per rush before his season ended prematurely due to injury.

Johnson, who suffers from migraines, must answer questions about his durability and ball security this season. Not only did he play through a nagging foot injury as a freshman when he was in a timeshare with current Bucs RB Mike James, but he was also unable to finish games against South Florida and North Carolina last season. Johnson also had issues protecting the football, as he coughed up the rock twice inside the opposing five-yard line against South Florida and fumbled again a week later against Georgia Tech.

There is no question, however, that Johnson is an invaluable cog of the Hurricanes’ offense and that he’s primed for a big year if he’s able to stay healthy. The arrival of prized recruit Joseph Yearby and hopeful emergence of Gus Edwards (ran 4.54 at 232 pounds during spring workouts in late April) could help to keep Johnson’s workload manageable throughout the season.

Indiana’s Tevin Coleman (6’1”, 210 pounds), who was unable to play in the final three games of the 2013 season due to an ankle injury, is one of the most intriguing and underrated draft-eligible running backs in the country. Guys like Coleman, Melvin Gordon, and Ameer Abdullah are currently breaking the mold and shattering the stereotype of Big 10 running backs from years past that lacked top-end speed and home run ability.

If Coleman manages to stay healthy, there’s a legitimate chance that he could join the two aforementioned runners as well as Jeremy Langford as one of the premier backs in the conference. Coleman, who has said he expects to be more involved in the passing game this season after flashing potential as a receiver out of the backfield last year, is a dangerous space player with impressive burst and outstanding top-end speed.

Coleman is currently ranked by CBS Sports as the 31st-best running back among those eligible to declare in 2016. I believe he’s a much, much better prospect than that ranking indicates.

A fourth-string running back until the midseason firing of then-head coach Lane Kiffin, USC’s Javorius Allen (6’1”, 215 pounds) exploded onto the scene when given an opportunity to crack the lineup as a result of injuries to other backs and a recommendation to interim replacement Ed Orgeron from RB coach Tommie Robinson.

Tre Madden suffered a hamstring injury against Arizona in mid-October, causing him to play sparingly down the stretch. And Justin Davis went down for the season with an ankle injury against Notre Dame a week later. While Silas Redd initially became the primary ball carrier in their absence, he also missed time with a knee ailment and was unable to reclaim the starting job when he returned to action against UCLA.

Allen capitalized on the opportunity by becoming a big-play machine in the month of November, surpassing the 120-yard rushing mark in four out of five games and scoring 11 total touchdowns during that span.

A one-cut downhill runner with good speed for his size who was utilized effectively as a pass receiver on screens a year ago, Allen should continue to receive plenty of carries despite improved depth at the position. It’s worth noting that Allen is an older prospect who turns 23 in August.

Texas A&M’s Trey Williams (5’8”, 195 pounds) is an extremely dynamic talent who jumped off the screen every time I watched the Aggies play a year ago. Williams has tremendous feet, excels at making people miss, and flashes an impressive burst as well as top-end speed. His elusiveness and home run ability serve him well on special teams, as he was one of the most dangerous kick returners in the nation as a redshirt freshman.

Former starting running back Ben Malena was the one A&M’s coaching staff trusted the most in pass protection, which is why he saw the most playing time among a group of more talented backs that included Williams, Brandon Williams, and Tra Carson. Now that Malena has graduated, Williams is in line for a much-expanded role. Watch for him to be one of the most exciting skill players to watch in the SEC.

A pair of talented senior running backs in line for expanded workloads should have ample opportunity to audition for the next level in the nation’s most prolific rushing offense. Auburn’s Corey Grant (5’11”, 205 pounds), who originally signed with Alabama back in 2010 before transferring after his freshman season, possesses blazing speed and has shown the ability to turn the corner with ease as an outside runner. But Auburn coach Gus Malzahn has also cited his improvement at running in between the tackles, which projects as a major factor behind the expectation that he’ll be able to handle double-digit carries per game in a timeshare of sorts.

Auburn’s Cameron Artis-Payne (5’11”, 210 pounds), a three-star JUCO transfer who was an effective change of pace back in a limited role last season, will likely do much of the heavy lifting as an inside runner. Artis-Payne, whose running style should complement Grant’s nicely, has quick feet in the hole and sets up his blocks effectively before sprinting to daylight. Running backs coach Tim Horton has said that there is no clear favorite at the moment to fill the void left by Tre Mason. But Grant and Artis-Payne, who split reps with the first-team offense throughout spring practice, are both expected to earn significant roles in the Auburn backfield. However, five-star freshman Roc Thomas may threaten for early playing time.

When Lache Seastrunk and Glasco Martin were sidelined due to injury, Baylor’s Shock Linwood (5’8”, 200 pounds) proved in two consecutive games that their ground attack wouldn’t skip a beat when the aforementioned backs left the program at the end of the season. Linwood – who posted consecutive 180+ yard outings on the ground against Oklahoma and Texas Tech, respectively, in mid-late November – displayed the potential that he could develop into one of the best backs in the Big 12 as early as this season.

A quicker-than-fast back with a compact build who runs with great balance and a low center of gravity, Linwood is expected to be the primary ball carrier as part of a three-headed attack in Baylor’s backfield. But he’ll have to fend off redshirt freshman Johnny Jefferson, a phenomenal athlete who had a monster spring.

Others to watch…

Oregon RB Byron Marshall (5’10”, 201 pounds) – Faded down the stretch before suffering an ankle injury against Arizona in late November. But Marshall and sophomore Thomas Tyner, both of whom have also been getting reps at wide receiver this spring, should form one of the top 1-2 punches in the country.

Michigan State’s Jeremy Langford (6’0”, 205 pounds) – A model of consistency for the Spartans as a sophomore, Langford surpassed the 100-yard mark on the ground in eight consecutive games to close the regular season. He is a tough, rugged runner who excels at generating yards after contact and possesses underrated speed, though he was more of a chain mover than a home run threat last season.

Texas A&M’s Tra Carson (6’0”, 230 pounds) – The thunder back in the Aggies’ running back rotation, Carson is in line for a much-expanded workload and has reportedly earned the coaching staff’s trust in pass protection more than the others competing for playing time.

Texas A&M’s Brandon Williams (6’0”, 200 pounds) – The Oklahoma transfer saw limited playing time a year ago and was slowed this spring by a minor injury. But he brings an added dimension to the Aggies’ backfield and has a tremendous amount of potential if the light finally comes on.

Alabama’s Kenyan Drake (6’1”, 201 pounds) – Severe ball security issues and the team’s remarkable depth at the position could jeopardize his ability to earn consistent playing time. But Drake, who’s built like a wide receiver, is a nice potential complement to Yeldon and Henry because of his burst, agility, and home run ability.

Washington’s Dwayne Washington (6’2”, 221 pounds) – The possible successor to Bishop Sankey in the Huskies’ backfield, Washington overcame early-season fumbling problems to show flashes late in his redshirt freshman campaign. Shaq Thompson, an elite linebacker prospect who may play on both sides of the ball this season, could also see snaps at running back for Washington.

Texas’ Malcolm Brown (6’0”, 225 pounds) – The former five-star recruit overcame injury setbacks from earlier in his career to be a workhorse in the Longhorns’ offense once Johnathan Gray suffered a torn right Achilles’ tendon against West Virginia in early November. Brown is a between-the-tackles banger who runs with power and finishes consistently.

Louisville’s Michael Dyer (5’9”, 215 pounds) – A once-heralded talent who has run out of second chances because of past off-the-field incidents involving guns and marijuana, Dyer will have to work his way up the depth chart after recovering from a sports hernia injury for which he underwent surgery in December. Dyer still has plenty of ability and potential, but he turns 24 in October and must prove that his baggage is in the past.

Oklahoma State’s Tyreek Hill (5’9”, 185 pounds) – Head coach Mike Gundy says the explosive JUCO transfer is “at a different level, speed-wise, than anybody I’ve ever coached.” Hill, who generated rave reviews this spring, is expected to be a movable chess piece who will receive touches from multiple spots along the formation, including running back.

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