Sep 302014
 
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Todd Gurley, Georgia Bulldogs (September 27, 2014)

Todd Gurley – © USA TODAY Sports Images

New York Giants 2015 NFL Draft: Quarter-Point Thoughts

By Colin Lindsay (Great Blue North Draft Report)

What have we learned so far… Truth is we may not have actually learned a whole lot through the New York Giants first four games of the year. We did learn that the weeks after wins are a whole lot more fun than the weeks after losses.  We also learned that if the Giants are plus multiple turnovers (Houston, Washington) they probably win, but if they are a net minus multiple turnovers (Detroit, Arizona) they most likely lose.  Now the test for the Giants will be can win their share of games where there is no real difference in the turnovers.

And it is going to be a test because there are no gimmies over the next 7-8 weeks on the Giants’ schedule. However, with a offense that appears to be getting into sync – although they’d probably still like to see a few more big plays – and a defense that has guys who can rush the passer and other guys that can cover – although they’ll likely be having to paper over weaknesses at both linebacker and safety – the Giants figure to be reasonably competitive the rest of the way, again assuming they don’t end up -2 or more too many weeks in turnovers. At the same time, they may have just a few too many deficiencies (see above), not to mention the SOS difficulty, to win more than 9-10 games.

As such we are kind of thinking the Giants currently look like a team that will end up with a mid-round pick at the 2015 NFL Draft – say somewhere between 14 and 18 – although that’s why they actually play the games. We also note the qualifiers that (a) team needs can change quite literally from week to week, and (b) that the ultimate quality of the upcoming draft is still to be determined based on a number of factors including how many underclassmen opt to turn pro this winter. However, the draft is a process and to paraphrase “we are where we are!”

For starters, it certainly appears that much of the doom and gloom about Eli, the TEs and the offensive line – not that some of it wasn’t warranted at the time – may have been somewhat overblown hysteria. Certainly, the emergence of Larry Donnell as a legitimate receiving threat – for the record, he’s on pace to catch over 100 passes this season – has arguably been the best storyline for the Giants so far this season. If nothing else, should the emergence of Donnell continue the rest of the season, it will almost certainly take TE off the board for the Giants early at the 2015 Draft, although it is still possible the team could address the position in later rounds this coming May.

There is something of a similar story along the offensive line. Indeed, heading into the season it appeared that the Giants #1 priority heading into the 2015 off-season would be to figure out to do at LT with incumbent starter Will Beatty continuing to struggle through the pre-season. However, after a somewhat rocky start in the season opener against Detroit, Beatty has been pitching shutouts. And breaking down the game tape suggests that there are indeed some things Beatty appears to be doing differently of late. For starters, Beatty appears to be getting off the snap much more crisply that he did last year and in the pre-season. In particular, Beatty had been tending to just stand up off the snap before moving toward his assignment, whereas this year he‘s coming off the snap much lower and more assertively toward the point of attack. Beatty also appears to be taking somewhat better angles in the pocket. In the past, for example, Beatty has tended to drift out toward the DE when the latter takes a wide route, which in effect shortened the distance the DE had to go to get around him; this year, though, Beatty has been staying tighter to the pocket and has been letting the DE come to him. It also appears that Beatty has simply been battling harder his year. Against Washington, for example, he had his knees buckled on 2-3 occasions, but he still managed to throw his body between the rusher and the QB and disrupt the rush.

At the same time, though, Beatty still displays some really labored footwork, especially when back-peddling. Indeed, Beatty’s feet look like a couple of pistons when he’s moving in reverse; in particular, there’s just way too much up and down movement in his footwork which tends to limit his lateral range. And because he lifts his feet so far off the ground when back-peddling, Beatty struggles to maintain his balance when he has to absorb contact from a defensive linemen when one of his feet is off the ground. Meanwhile, anyone who wants to see how its supposed to be done only needs to look down the line at RT Justin Pugh who has a smooth, easy slide step and really does kind of glide around the pocket without a whole lot of wasted motion.

What it all may mean is that OT may not be quite the priority at the 2015 draft that it appeared to be at the start of the season. While he’s far from the most polished guy at the position, Beatty likely won’t be going anywhere – at least in the short term – this off-season, and even if the Giants did decide that #65 wasn’t worth the cap figure, it appears that Pugh is likely the LT in waiting. That doesn’t mean the Giants won’t address the position at the 2015 draft, it just may mean that it may be more a RT/depth type player rather than a pure LT with a premium pick. And that may be a good thing because the 2015 OT draft class hasn’t developed as well had been expected. Its still likely that the top LT prospects like Ogbuehi, Scherff and Peat will be off the board by the middle of the opening round, but there is something of a drop-off to the next level. And that may have the Giants looking at RT prospects like Corey Robinson of South Carolina, Oklahoma‘s Tyrus Thompson or Ty Sambrailo of Colorado State in the 3rd or 4th rounds. (And for anyone actually checking out Robinson, #50 next to him is A.J. Cann, arguably the best OG prospect in this year’s draft, who’d bring a little of that old Chris Snee intensity to the unit were he still there in the second round, although that’s probably a longshot.)

In fact, assuming that the Giants pick somewhere toward the middle of this year’s opening round, its not clear that there will necessarily be a great match between their needs and the talent available. Of course, the one thing about the draft is that its hardly static and a whole bunch can and likely will change between now and May. Right now, though, it also looks like there won’t be any mid-first round locks at DE to fill the Giants other big need for a quality edge rusher to pair with Jason Pierre-Paul. Again the elite DE prospects like Leonard Williams and Randy Gregory look like they will be long gone by the time the Giants get on the clock, and while the second tier group has some talent including guys like Mario Edwards of Florida State, Florida’s Dante Fowler or Shilique Calhoun of Michigan State there are no locks at the position outside the top 2-3 guys and the team might be just as well served looking at one of several underrated emerging prospects at the position rising like BYU junior or Alvin Dupree of Kentucky.

Of course, its almost impossible to project what other general goals a team like the Giants might have entering an off-season that is still months away. However, it would not be a surprise at all here if the Giants head into 2015 looking to upgrade both the speed and athleticism in the back seven, especially at WLB and at safety, on defense, as well as continue to add impact players on offense. Unfortunately, for a team like the Giants, it does not look like 2015 is going to be a very good year at all at either safety or linebacker. Alabama’s Landen Collins is a potential top ten pick at safety, but he’s another player likely to be off the board when the Giants make their opening round pick and there is a real drop-off at the position after that, although a team could get lucky  in the 3rd round with someone like Derron Smith of Fresno State, Ole Miss’ Cody Prewitt, Kurt Drummond of Michigan State or Syracuse junior Durrell Eskridge. Meanwhile, there’s a better than even chance no LB will be chosen at all in this year’s opening round, although Washington WLB Shaq Thompson and Miami ILB Denzel Perryman look to be good value in the middle of the second round.

On the other hand, the 2015 Draft looks like it will be very deep at the offensive skill positions. Indeed, WR is quietly emerging as the deepest position in this year’s draft. And while the Giants did select Odell Beckham with their #1 pick this past May, they are hardly set at the position behind Beckham and Cruz. In fact, if there is a player who could be described as a perfect fit for the Giants’ offensive scheme it could very well be Stanford WR Ty Montgomery, a bigger (6-1, 215), faster version of what the Giants had hoped they’d get in Jerrel Jernigan. For the record, Montgomery has already scored receiving, rushing and return TDs this fall, after catching 61 passes in 2013 when he also was #2 in the country in KO returns with an average of over 30 yards per pop. Like last ear, though, the 2015 draft looks like it will be rich with receivers such that teams should be able to get players who can contribute right through the second day and into the 4th round.

Meanwhile, the $64K question for the Giants at the 2015 draft just might be whether they pull the trigger if Georgia RB Todd Gurley were still available when they make their opening round pick. For those that don’t follow college football, Gurley is being described as the best player in all of college football this fall with AP type ability (as a football player not a parent!). Its possible, however, that he slips out of the top 10 because of the position he plays. You’d have to figure, though, that while Rashad Jennings has been solid enough this year, new OC Ben McAdoo would just love to get his hands on a big back like Gurley who can break tackles in the open field and really put pressure on opposing defenses to really have to think about devoting extra resources to stopping the Giants running game, in the process hopefully opening things up even more for the passing attack. And while ending up with a stud like Gurley is probably still something of a longshot, we’d still expect the Giants to look to add another back with a premium pick next year from a draft that like the situation at WR. is exceptionally deep at the position.

Aug 282014
 
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Brandon Scherff, Iowa State Hawkeyes (January 1, 2014)

Brandon Scherff – © USA TODAY Sports Images

Early New York Giants 2015 NFL Draft Preview

By Colin Lindsay (Great Blue North Draft Report)

The college football season kicks off this weekend, and while it is way to soon – like by about 5-6 months – for people to start saying ’this is THE guy I want for the Giants in 2015,’ it is never too early to start watching the top prospects for the upcoming draft. And while there is still much sorting out to be done before next spring‘s draft, the early signs are that the strengths of the 2015 draft could match up reasonably well with the primary needs the Giants are likely to be trying to fill this coming off-season.

Offensive Line

For starters, it certainly appears that it could be yet another banner at OT, which could be good news for the Giants if LT Will Beatty continues to struggle this fall and the Giants feel they need to go in another direction at the position. Indeed, there are as many as 4-5 potential top-10 left tackles, including Cedric Ogbuehi of Texas A&M, Cameron Erving of Florida State, Iowa’s Brandon Scherff and La’el Collins of LSU. All four had expected to enter the 2014 draft where each was projected to be at least a first-round prospect, but they ultimately opted to return to class for one more year. Ogbuehi, for example, is a better overall athlete than former teammate Jake Matthews, the 6th player picked this past May, while the Hawkeyes’ Scherff is a little ragged around the edges, but he’s a huge guy with freakish strength and athleticism. Meanwhile LSU’s Collins is a rugged run blocker who could ultimately play inside at the next level, but he also has the long arms, light feet and surprising agility of a prototype left tackle. FSU’s Erving, who has played only one year at LT after converting from DT, may have the most upside of the bunch. In the end, though, the top OT prospect this year may end up being Stanford junior Andrus Peat, who hasn’t received as much national ink to date, but who has remarkable size and strength, along with excellent agility and a nasty disposition.

The bad news part of the OT story for the Giants, if in fact they head into the 2015 draft in search of an elite pass-blocker OT to pair with Justin Pugh, is that all the best ones could come off the board early and there is something of a drop-off to the next level at the position. However, there are several second-tier OTs this year who will be worth a look on the second day including 6-7, 350-pound Corey Robinson of South Carolina, along with Sean Hickey of Syracuse, Cincinnati’s Eric Lefeld, Daryl Williams and Tyrus Thompson of Oklahoma, Rob Havenstein of Wisconsin, Oregon’s Jake Fisher and unheralded Ty Sambrailo of Colorado State, who could just be the best prospect in the country nobody has heard of! And the depth at OT this year could be augmented if any of a small army of good, solid, although not yet elite, junior OT prospects enter the draft, including Spencer Drango of Baylor, D.J. Humpries of Florida, Le’Raven Clark of Texas Tech, Brandon Shell of South Carolina, Donovan Smith of Penn State, Miami’s Ereck Flowers, Jason Spriggs of Indiana, Taylor Decker of Ohio State, Tyler Marz of Wisconsin and Georgia’s John Theus.

Needless to say, the Giants also still have issues at OG, although they are probably less likely to use an early pick on the position than say at OT. Which is probably just as well as it does not look like there will be many, if any, OGs who are locks to be opening round picks next spring anyway, although Tre Jackson of Florida State and South Carolina’s A.J. Cann could be close. Jackson is a wide-body road-grader who is a dominating drive blocker with some short-area quickness, but isn‘t necessarily a great athlete, while Cann isn’t as big or physical, but is a better athlete and more polished technician. Meanwhile, there are some solid later second-day candidates at the position including Jackson’s FSU teammate Josue Matias and Alabama’s Arie Kouandjio, the brother of Cyrus Kouandjio who was considered to be a near-elite OT prospect last year, before a balky knee bumped him into the second round where he was selected by Buffalo. That second-day second-tier group could also get a boost if junior OGs Vadal Alexander of LSU and/or Landen Turner of North Carolina opt to enter the 2015 draft. However, even without much input from the underclassmen, there is some impressive depth at OG including the Miami’s Jon Feliciano, former teammate Malcolm Bunche who‘ll line up with UCLA this fall, 345-pound Quinton Spain of West Virginia, underrated Laken Tomlinson of Duke, John Miller of Louisville and Notre Dame’s Christian Lombard among others. Bottom line is that there could be potentially useful options at OG come next April/May well into the third day of the draft.

Defensive End

The Giants could also very well head to the 2015 draft looking to upgrade at DE if (1) Jason Pierre-Paul does not have a bounce back year this fall and/or (2) nobody really emerges to replace Justin Tuck on the other side. And like the situation at OT, defensive end looks like it will be one of the real strengths at the upcoming draft, although a lot will be depend on how many of this year’s top underclassmen ultimately opt to turn pro this winter. There are, for example, at least three junior DEs – Shilique Calhoun of Michigan State, Southern Cal’s Leonard Williams and Randy Gregory of Nebraska – with the top 5-10 potential, although they are very different players. USC’s Williams, for example, at 6-5, 295, is built more like a DT – and could ultimately play there in the NFL – but for now looks like a prototype 5-technique 3-4 DE in the J.J. Watt mold. The Huskers’ Gregory is a long, lean edge rusher who needs to add some bulk to better play the run – and at 6-6 has the frame to do so – but who has freakish athleticism and may have the most upside of the trio. Meanwhile, Calhoun won’t blow away anyone with his measurables, but he’s strong, quick, and relentless coming off the edge.

There is also some really intriguing potential depth at DE in this year’s draft class. Florida State’s Mario Edwards, for example, could ultimately challenge USC’s Williams for the top-grade among 5-technique DEs, while juniors Dante Fowler of Florida and Ohio State’s Noah Spence and Trey Flowers of Arkansas are solid second-day types. So is 6-8 Baylor junior Shawn Oakman, the former Penn State transfer who is still learning the game, but who has a really unique size/speed combination. However, no DE is likely to draw as much attention through the pre-draft process as former TCU redshirt sophomore DeVonte Fields, who won’t play at all this fall. Fields looked all of the part of an emerging pass-rushing star as a true freshman two years, but played little last fall because of a foot injury and then got suspended this year when he allegedly threatened an ex-girlfriend. Meanwhile, other solid DEs to watch include James Rouse of Marshall, Ray Drew of Georgia, Jermauria Rasco of LSU and Nate Orchard of Utah, while other juniors that could have an early impact at the upcoming draft include Danielle Hunter of LSU, Charles Tapper of Oklahoma, Eli Harold of Virginia, BYU‘s Bronson Kaufusi and Missouri’s Shane Ray.

Tight End

It is hard to imagine that the Giants won’t want to do something at TE this coming off season. (In fact its hard to imagine that the Giants wouldn’t really like to do something at the position this week!) Unfortunately, however, it doesn’t appear that 2015 will be a banner year at the position. Florida State’s Nick O’Leary, for example, is currently the only tight end even remotely close to carrying a first-round grade and even he’s no lock to be taken all that early. O’Leary, the grandson of legendary golfer Jack Nicklaus, is something of a throwback type in that he’s a willing blocker with nice hands and that 6th sense to get open. But he isn’t all that big at around 6-3, 240, and he lacks the explosive speed and athleticism to be a true field-stretching receiving threat. Plus, there are going to be health concerns after O’Leary was involved in a second serious motorcycle accident this past spring. Meanwhile, Ben Koyack of Notre Dame and Ohio State’s Jeff Heuerman are both solid two-way TE prospects with prototype size and decent athleticism, although neither has been all that consistently productive to date in their college careers. Moreover, neither brings the skill set that the Giants are now looking for at the position. And there is another drop-off to the next level of TEs which includes pass-receiving specialists like Rutgers junior Tyler Kraft, unheralded Wes Saxton of South Alabama, Rory Anderson of South Carolina, MyCole Pruitt of FCS Southern Illinois, Clive Walford of Miami and Gerald Christian of Louisville. E.J. Bibbs of Iowa State and USC’s Randall Telfer are the next best two-way type TEs.

Quarterback

For the record, the other real strong position at the 2015 draft will be QB with as many another 4-5 possible top-10 candidates including juniors Marcus Mariota of Oregon, Brett Hundley of UCLA, and Stanford’s Kevin Hogan leading the way, along with Florida State redshirt sophomore Jameis Winston, the 2013 Heisman Trophy winner, and senior Bryce Petty of Baylor. Let’s hope the Giants aren’t interested as it would mean Eli had another bad year, but throw 27 picks again and all best just might be off. Just saying …

The Rest

Meanwhile, other positions that appear that they could be relatively strong in 2015 include running back with Todd Gurley of Georgia, Wisconsin’s Mel Gordon and T.J. Yeldon of Alabama leading the way. Safety could also be something of a strength with a deep class headed by juniors Landen Collins of Alabama and LSU’s Jalen Mills, as well as underrated Derron Smith of Fresno State. There is also some real talent at outside linebacker, although many of the top guys there including Vic Beasley of Clemson and rising star Benardrick McKinney of Mississippi State are more 3-4 edge rushers. Juniors Shaq Thompson of Washington and Oklahoma‘s Eric Striker, though, do have more than a little Ryan Shazier-type speed and explosion. There should also be a relatively strong middle linebacker group, although the top guys – including Denzel Perryman of Miami, UCLA‘s Eric Kendricks, Ramik Wilson of Georgia and A.J. Johnson of Tennessee – all look more like second-day types.

On the other hand, it may be a down year at wide receiver, cornerback and defensive tackle, although there will certainly be some good players at those positions this year. The top wide receivers, for example, should include juniors Amari Cooper of Alabama, Nelson Agholor of USC, Jaelen Strong of Arizona State and Maryland’s Stefon Diggs, along with seniors Rashad Greene of Florida State, Davante Parker of Louisville (if healthy), Antwan Goodley of Baylor and Stanford’s Ty Montgomery. Meanwhile, Oregon’s Ifo Ekpre-Olomu is a potential top-10 cornerback, although he’s not overly long at just 5-9, while Florida State junior P.J. Williams also has mid-to-late first round potential. At the same time, Michael Bennett of Ohio State, appears to be the consensus #1 defensive tackle prospect this year, although he’s still not considered to be more of an early-to-mid second round prospect as he is somewhat undersized at barely 290 pounds and has limited upside. Indeed, if any defensive tackles are likely to have an opening round breakthrough this coming spring, it may come from one or more of a solid second-tier group at the position including rising juniors Ellis McCarthy of UCLA (an imposing 6-5 330-pound specimen), Arik Armstead of Oregon (who at 6-8 is also physically imposing), Rice’s Christian Covington, and Malcolm Brown of Texas, along with seniors Carl Davis of Iowa, 335-pound Washington, NT Danny Shelton and underrated Tyeler Davison of Fresno State. As of now, though, each of these guys rates as more a second or third rounder. If there is a positive angle to the 2015 DT picture, though, its that it is a pretty deep class, such that there could very well be some potentially useful prospects at the position well into the third day of selections.

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.