Tennessee Titans running back Bishop Sankey was the first back taken in the 2014 NFL Draft. He was the 54th overall pick in the second round, the latest for a first running back in the history of the event.
This year’s draft features two backs that can go in the first round, Melvin Gordon and Todd Gurley. Both players are objects of conversation, but there are many talented backs in this class. Here is a breakdown of the top 10 running backs entering the 2015 NFL Draft.
10. Jay Ajayi, 6-0/221, Boise State
Summary: Ian Johnson (2004-08) and Doug Martin (2007-11) paved the way for Jay Ajayi at Boise State. Ajayi helped the Broncos’ accomplish 12 wins in 2014, including a 38-30 victory over Arizona in the Vizio Fiesta Bowl.
He totaled 1,823 rushing yards with 28 touchdowns on 5.3 yards per carry last season. Ajayi became the first FBS player in history to record 1,800+ rushing yards and 500+ receiving yards in a single season. He caught 50 passes for 535 yards and four scores in 2014. Ajayi’s career at Boise State ended with 3,796 rushing yards and 55 total touchdowns (50 rushing, 5 receiving).
Ajayi has strength in both his upper and lower body. He’s explosive on cuts in the hole, and his lateral movements make him difficult to tackle. Ajayi runs well behind his pads and displays patience in the backfield. He has solid hands as a pass catcher and shows toughness after taking hits.
Ball security is one of few concerns for Ajayi. He has 12 career fumbles, seven lost. Ajayi is a strong runner, but lacks consistency on breaking tackles inside. He shies away from contact at times, which causes him to lose yards. Ajayi has some character issues on his record, including an arrest for stealing sweatpants from a Wal-Mart near campus (misdemeanor) in October 2011.
Jay Ajayi, NFL combine numbers: 40-yard dash (4.57), bench press (19 reps), vertical jump (39.0 inches), broad jump (10’1”), 3-cone drill (7.10), 20-yard shuttle (4.10) and 60-yard shuttle (11.10)
9. Mike Davis, 5-9/217, South Carolina
Summary: 2014 saw South Carolina finish at 7-6, but Mike Davis neared 1,000 yards rushing. He put in 982 yards and nine touchdowns on 4.9 yards per carry. Davis caught a crucial touchdown pass from Dylan Thompson in South Carolina’s 24-21 victory over Miami in the Duck Commander Independence Bowl.
He showed capable hands as a receiver, posting 32 catches for 368 yards and two touchdowns last season. Davis’s tenure as a Gamecock ends with 2,440 yards and 22 touchdowns.
Davis has the combination of size, speed and power to be successful as an NFL running back. He accelerates well in the hole and tends to generate yards in chunks. His lower body drive allows for exceptional lateral movements. Davis also has the patience to allow block to set up.
Injuries, ball security and pass protection are areas of weakness for Davis. He battled nagging injuries in 2013 and 2014. Davis turned the ball over in critical moments against Central Florida and Missouri in 2013. He lost two fumbles last season against South Alabama.
Davis struggles to secure blocks in pass protection. He tends to drop his shoulder to perform a cut-block, rather than locking up defensive linemen or linebackers face up.
Mike Davis, NFL combine numbers: 40-yard dash (4.61), bench press (17 reps), vertical jump (34.0 inches), broad jump (9’8”), 3-cone drill (7.00), 20-yard shuttle (4.18) and 60-yard shuttle (11.65)
8. Cameron Artis-Payne, 5-10/212, Auburn
Summary: Gus Malzahn’s no-huddle, spread offense attack worked well at Auburn for Cameron Artis-Payne. He was an important piece of Auburn’s run game in 2013. Artis-Payne totaled 610 rushing yards and six touchdowns on 6.7 yards per carry. The Tigers were first nationally in rushing in 2013, averaging 328.3 per game. Artis-Payne capped off his senior season with 1,608 yards, good for tops in the Southeastern Conference. He accounted for 13 touchdowns.
Artis-Payne is a physical ball carrier that runs low to the ground. He doesn’t shy away from contact, finishing strong with each attempt. Artis-Payne stays well-conditioned and is a durable running back. He was one of six FBS backs to eclipse 300 carries in 2014.
Speed and receiving skills are areas of concern for Artis-Payne. He doesn’t have elite speed and lacks the ability to switch gears. His 17 receptions at Auburn were a product of him not having to catch the ball much in the flat. He has small hands (8.5 inches), but dropped some catchable passes.
Cameron Artis-Payne, NFL combine numbers: 40-yard dash (4.53), vertical jump (36.5 inches), broad jump (9’10”) and 3-cone drill (7.13)
7. Jeremy Langford, 6-0/208, Michigan State
Summary: Jeremy Langford continues a solid tradition of Michigan State running backs entering the NFL Draft, following T.J. Duckett, Javon Ringer and Le’Veon Bell.
He carried the Spartans’ to 10 wins in the 2014 regular season. Langford torched Baylor’s defense for 162 yards and three touchdowns on 27 carries in the Good Year Cotton Bowl Classic. He ended last season with 1,522 yards and 22 touchdowns on 5.5 yards per carry.
Langford runs low to the ground, displaying solid pad level. He has vision, balance and power and a runner. His lower leg strength is impressive. Langford gets stronger as games progress. He, unlike most young running backs, excels in pass protection. Langford is also deadly in the screen game.
He’s not very shifty, and struggles with patience in the hole. Langford tends to run into his own offensive linemen, resulting in a halt of production on plays. He has speed, but needs to work on being consistent in shifting gears.
Jeremy Langford, NFL combine numbers: 40-yard dash (4.42), vertical jump (34.5 inches), broad jump (9’10”), 3-cone drill (7.22) and 20-yard shuttle (4.32)
6. Tevin Coleman, 5-11/206, Indiana
Summary: Tevin Coleman looks to be the fourth Big 10 Conference running back taken early in the draft, following Melvin Gordon, Ameer Abdullah and Jeremy Langford. Penn State was the lone team to hold Coleman under 100 rushing yards in 2014 (71).
He ended last season with 2,036 yards and 15 touchdowns on 7.5 yards per carry at Indiana. Coleman was productive as a receiver in his tenure. He caught 54 passes for 383 yards.
He’s a tough, hard-nosed runner, despite his narrow frame. Coleman’s top-end speed is exceptional, and he displays vision in changing directions. Coleman excels in catching passes in space. His pass protection skills are very promising.
Coleman doesn’t a lot of patience as a runner. He tends to chop his feet when he is indecisive. Pad level is another issue for Coleman. His upright running style makes him an easy target for tacklers. Ball security is a huge problem, but Coleman did have four fumbles in 2014.
Tevin Coleman, NFL combine numbers: Bench Press (22 reps)
5. T.J. Yeldon, 6-1/226, Alabama
Summary: T.J. Yeldon will be the fifth Alabama running back entering the NFL Draft under Nick Saban. He totaled 1,000+ yards as a freshman and sophomore. Yeldon collected 979 yards rushing and 11 touchdowns in 2014, despite battling injuries. His career at Tuscaloosa ends with 3,322 yards and 37 touchdowns (third most in Alabama history).
Yeldon was an important member of two Southeastern Conference titles (2012, 2014) and a national championship (2012 season) at Alabama. He was dependable target out of the backfield, totaling 46 catches for 494 yards and two touchdowns.
Yeldon’s tall, lean frame gives him deceptive speed and quickness. He works well in space and has good balance. His lateral cuts are crisp, and he displays sound breakaway speed.
Yeldon’s upright running style triggered fumbling issues. He needs to hold the ball tighter and run lower to the ground. Pass protection is a working progress for Yeldon. He’s patient as a runner, but sometimes too patient. Yeldon has to become more decisive in the hole.
T.J. Yeldon, NFL combine numbers: 40-yard dash (4.61), bench press (22 reps), vertical jump (36.0 inches), broad jump (9’9”), 3-cone drill (7.19) and 20-yard shuttle (4.22)
4. Duke Johnson, 5-9/207, Miami (FL)
Summary: Duke Johnson took a lot of pressure off Miami’s quarterback Brad Kaaya last season. He recorded 1,652 yards and 10 touchdowns on 6.8 yards per carry in 2014. Johnson’s averaged over six yards per carry in all three seasons at Miami. He showed soft hands as a pass catcher last season, accounting for 421 yards and three scores on 38 receptions.
His career ends with 3,519 rushing yards and 26 touchdowns. Johnson’s acceleration is stellar. He changes speeds well and is light on his feet. His athleticism is deadly on wheel routes.
Johnson lacks the size to be an every down back. He struggles at times in between the tackles. Johnson is a willing block, but his technique in pass protection is spotty.
Duke Johnson, NFL combine numbers: 40-yard dash (4.54), vertical jump (33.5 inches) and broad jump (10’1”)
3. Ameer Abdullah, 5-9/205, Nebraska
Summary: Ameer Abdullah carried the Big Ten Conference on his shoulders for much of the 2014 college football season. Like his counterpart Melvin Gordon, Abdullah was the heartbeat of Nebraska’s offense. He put in 1,611 rushing yards and 19 touchdowns last season.
Abdullah guided the Cornhuskers’ to 9 wins in 2014. His career at Lincoln, Neb., ended with 4,588 yards and 39 touchdowns. He was a solid receiver, totaling 82 catches for 690 yards and seven touchdowns.
Abdullah is much tougher than he looks. He is able to control his momentum, during acceleration on runs. Abdullah is very elusive in the open field and is a quick thinker.
He lacks the muscle build to be effective in pass protection. Abdullah struggles at timing blitzes. Ball security was an issue for him in 2014.
Ameer Abdullah, NFL combine numbers: 40-yard dash (4.57), bench press (19 reps), vertical jump (39.0 inches), broad jump (10’1”), 3-cone drill (7.10), 20-yard shuttle (4.10) and 60-yard shuttle (11.10)
2. Todd Gurley, 6-1/222, Georgia
Summary: Todd Gurley was the second coming of Herschel Walker for most Georgia fans in his tenure. He burst onto the scene as a freshman in 2012, recording 1,385 yards and 17 touchdowns. Gurley battled ankle and knee injuries as a sophomore and junior, yet managed to total 900+ rushing yards. He chimed in with 911 yards and nine scores on 7.4 yards per carry in 2014.
Gurley has all the physical tools to be special at the next level. He has a muscular frame to go alongside speed, vision, power and balance. Gurley lowers his pads well and accelerates when he sees daylight. He has soft hands as a receiver, and is a potent pass protector.
Injuries are the lone issue with Gurley. He missed three games in 2013 (ankle) and suffered an ACL injury in November 2014. Gurley’s taken a physical beating in his three years in the SEC.
Todd Gurley, NFL combine numbers: Bench press (17 reps)
1. Melvin Gordon, 6-1/215, Wisconsin
Summary: Melvin Gordon was a one-man show for Wisconsin in 2014. Western Illinois and Ohio State stand as the lone two teams that held Gordon under 100 yards rushing.
He averaged 7.5 yards per carry, netting 2,587 yards and 29 touchdowns last season. Gordon carried the Badgers’ to a Big Ten Conference title game, and delivered it a 34-31 victory over Auburn in the Outback Bowl. He totaled 251 yards and three touchdowns on 7.4 yards per carry.
Gordon’s ends his tenure at Wisconsin, accounting for 4,915 yards and 45 touchdowns. He was the recipient of the 2014 Doak Walker Award (nation’s best running back). Gordon finished second in the 2014 Heisman Trophy voting, behind Oregon’s quarterback Marcus Mariota.
He has an advanced skill set, yet specializes in balance and acceleration. Gordon is a patient runner that can break arm tackles. His balance allows him to bounce off contact without losing momentum.
Gordon isn’t an elite athlete. He’s unproven as a pass catcher, despite having four touchdown receptions at Wisconsin.
Melvin Gordon, NFL combine numbers: 40-yard dash (4.52), bench press (19 reps), vertical jump (35.0 inches), broad jump (10’6”), 3-cone drill (7.04), 20-yard shuttle (4.07) and 60-yard shuttle (11.00)