An Early Look at the Top Running Backs in the 2015 NFL Draft
For the second year in a row, a running back wasn’t selected in the first round of the NFL draft.
With the amount of talent eligible for the 2015 NFL draft, that streak has a strong chance to be broken.
The following is an in-depth look at the top running back prospects in the nation before the 2014 college football season begins.
Players are ranked according to the impact that I think they will make in the NFL based off of a variety of things including skill set and projection at the next level. This list is all but guaranteed to change by the time next April rolls around.
All analysis is based off of 2013 film made available on Draftbreakdown.com.
Todd Gurley, Junior, Georgia
When it comes to running back prospects, there might not be a featured back in the 2015 class with more potential than Georgia’s Todd Gurley.
Gurley, who has been a starter since his freshman season, is a powerful, yet agile back who has the prototypical size for a workhorse back at the next level (6’1”, 232 pounds.)
Paired with running mate Keith Marshall, Gurley is going to be a huge contributor on a Georgia offense that is going to use a heavy dose of the run.
Gurley’s biggest strength is his ability to run between the tackles.
His pad level gets a little high at times, but his balance and control while maneuvering through the offensive line is by far the best of any back in the class (or last year’s class, for that matter).
Gurley hits the hole in a hurry and constantly keeps his legs moving, allowing him to overpower defenders and pick up extra yards like on this run.
On the play, which is a designed rush through the right A-gap, the Georgia offensive line opens up a running lane that is about three yards wide with about 10 yards of open field in front of him.
Gurley hits the hole quickly and, with Auburn’s free safety quickly closing in to make a stop, Gurley swiftly (and seemingly effortlessly) changes his direction and continues the run upfield.
Once Auburn defensive back Jermaine Whitehead attempts to wrap him up short of the first-down marker, Gurley continues to keep his legs moving, carrying Whitehead for five yards, all while gaining a first down.
For a big back, Gurley is surprisingly agile. For an example, take a look at this run against Florida.
With no visible running lane on the left side of the line (where the play is designed to be run), Gurley quickly spots a hole in the right B-gap and uses a quick change of direction for a big gain.
As impressive as he is on the ground, Gurley’s impact isn’t limited to just the running game.
Last season, he proved to be a reliable weapon through the air—especially on third downs, especially here against Florida.
On the play, Gurley does a quick slant to the middle of the field, beating Dante Fowler (who was blitzing and failed to recognize Gurley was running a route and not blocking) to the inside and taking off for a 73-yard touchdown.
Also, he has shown the ability to pick up key blocks, like here against Auburn.
Through 20 collegiate games, Gurley already has 387 carries under his belt. And, assuming he stays healthy and Georgia makes a bowl game, he will have another 200 attempts by the time he receives the opportunity to declare for the NFL draft.
There is no doubt he has the ability to be a successful featured back at the next level, but in today’s NFL, running backs have a very short lifespan–especially guys with this much mileage on their legs before they even play a professional snap.
He missed three games last season after appearing in all 13 games as a freshman. It wasn’t due to a serious injury, but his health will be something to watch.
He doesn’t really have any glaring weaknesses in his game, but it would be nice to see his vision improve and for him to keep his pad level a little lower at times.
Gurley is the ideal NFL running back. His combination of size, strength, speed, ability to run between the tackles and contributions in the passing game make him the best running back prospect that this draft has to offer.
With another productive and healthy season, look for Gurley to be the player who ends the two-year drought of running backs taken on Day 1 of the NFL draft, and he could become one of the best at his position in the NFL.
Karlos Williams, Senior, Florida State
Next on the list is Karlos Williams, who converted from the safety position after the first game of the 2013 season.
Williams’ placement on this list is based largely off of his potential.
He was already productive in a deep backfield last season, racking up 730 yards and 11 touchdowns on 91 carries, averaging eight yards per carry.
With Devonta Freeman’s departure for the NFL and a full offseason to learn the nuances of the position, Williams has the potential to not just solidify himself as one of the best running backs in college football, but also as one of the top running back prospects in the 2015 class.
Williams isn’t going to run a 4.2 40 anytime in the future, but he does have good speed in the open field and is extremely quick laterally.
For a player with limited experience at running back, he also has good vision and hits holes quickly.
Once he works to the second level, Williams can be a nightmare for opposing defenses.
He not only has the ability to make guys miss, but there are also plays like this, where he lowers his shoulder and completely derails a defender with aspirations of bringing him down.
There are also plays like this against Idaho, where he literally runs through three defenders before being brought down.
After playing just 12 career games on the offensive side of the ball, Williams is far from a polished product.
He has a tendency to get stood up while hitting the A- or B–gaps, and he stops moving his feet, completely halting his progress.
Another big thing that he will need to improve on in 2014 is his impact in the passing game.
He has shown the ability to make plays on swing routes, but there were multiple times on film where he would drop a pass where he had a lot of open field in front of him.
Also, he needs to improve his blocking technique and blitz pickup.
If Williams can build on an impressive 2013 season, he could give Gurley a run for his money as the top running back in the 2015 class.
His athleticism, size (6’1”, 223 pounds [he has the frame to add more weight]) and strength make him an ideal model of what an every-down back looks like at the next level.
Melvin Gordon, Redshirt Junior, Wisconsin
Melvin Gordon is the next in a long line of productive running backs at Wisconsin to draw attention from NFL teams.
As a redshirt sophomore, Gordon finished second in the Big Ten in rushing yards with 1,609 and tied for fourth in rushing touchdowns (12).
With the departure of James White, Gordon will have a chance at seeing even more carries in 2014 with the possibility of topping his 206-carry amount from last season.
Gordon is an explosive athlete with game-breaking speed and agility in the open field, but that’s not the only thing that makes him an attractive NFL prospect.
For his size (6’1”, 203 pounds) and speedy running style, Gordon packs a powerful punch.
When he isn’t making guys miss, he is usually driving through them, like on this run against Illinois (which might be my favorite play I’ve seen from Gordon).
Gordon, following his lead-blocking fullback, hits the left B-gap smoothly. When he gets to the second level, Gordon lowers his pads and drives through the Illinois defensive back. After initial contact, Gordon carries him for another 10 yards before being brought down by two other defenders.
Also, on his runs between the tackles (which aren’t called very frequently), Gordon is very patient, letting holes in the line develop before bursting through to the second level.
With Gordon, one of the main concerns about his game is how he can contribute in passing situations.
Last season, he had just one reception, down from his two in 2012.
On film, he hasn’t shown the ability to be a very fluid route-runner. He has unreliable hands and, in passing situations with a running back in the formation, Wisconsin utilized White, not Gordon, a majority of the time.
Going along with his struggles as a receiving threat, he also struggles to pick up blocks, oftentimes whiffing on incoming defenders.
Gordon is a speedy back with a tough running style whose skill set will fit best with a spread-oriented offense due to his ability to make plays out of the shotgun formation.
He has the upside to be a featured back, but he really needs to improve in the passing game.
Mike Davis, Junior, South Carolina
Mike Davis took advantage of his first season as a starter, rushing for 1,183 yards and 11 touchdowns on 203 carries, all of which were team highs.
In addition, Davis hauled in 34 receptions, which was the second-highest mark on the team.
With a new quarterback under center for the Gamecocks, look for Davis to get plenty of opportunities to shine in 2014.
When it comes to speed, it is tough to find another running back in this year’s class who is as fast as Davis.
Once he bursts into the open field, it is very hard to track him down.
Plays like this are what make him so dangerous (and a big reason why he is the fourth-ranked back on this preseason list).
On the play, South Carolina loads the left side of the formation (strong side in this situation) and Davis runs a swing route.
After the snap, the slot and outside receivers run an “F” route, dragging the defensive backs away from the flats, where a slow-reacting Georgia linebacker (Ramik Wilson) should be in coverage.
As soon as Shaw hits Davis, he takes off for a 30-yard gain.
South Carolina’s offense is a spread scheme that utilizes the shotgun on nearly every play. Due to this, Davis doesn’t have a lot of experience running in a pro-like scheme.
Although he has fantastic straight-line speed, Davis doesn’t posses elite lateral quickness. Once he is at the second level, he relies mostly on his speed to evade defenders.
Also, he needs to improve his blocking technique. There were times (see: vs. Georgia and Mississippi State) where Davis would be looking to make an attempt to throw a block at a pass-rusher, but he would completely whiff.
Although he has three inches on him, Davis could make a Darren Sproles-like impact for the team that drafts him. His ability to contribute in the receiving game and get up to speed quickly makes him a big-play threat every time he touches the ball.
He could be a key contributor on third downs and can even line up in the slot.
Davis likely won’t be a featured back, but he will be a key piece of a rotation once he hits the NFL.
Ameer Abdullah, Senior, Nebraska
Next on the list is Ameer Abdullah, who was one of the most productive running backs in the Big Ten last season.
He led the conference is rushing yards with 1,690, and Abdullah found the end zone on the ground nine times, which ranked just outside of the top five in the conference.
Like Gordon and Davis, Abdullah has game-breaking speed once he turns the corner.
He is very agile, cutting through defenders effortlessly at the second level.
He has good vision at the second level and has a good sense of where defenders are in the open field.
Abdullah’s biggest strength is his ability to contribute in the passing game.
He is a smooth route-runner and has reliable hands. And, as an added bonus, he has experience lining up in the slot. His skill set and ability to lineup all over the field make him a prime candidate to be an OW (offensive weapon) at the next level.
Nebraska doesn’t run a lot of designed run plays between the tackles, but when they do, Abdullah runs very balanced and with a good pad level (thanks to his 5’9” height.)
At 5’9”, 195 pounds, Abdullah doesn’t have the size to be an every-down back at the next level. When taking on a defender in open space one-on-one, Abdullah doesn’t have the power to drive through arm tackles. A big reason for this could be attributed to his frame.
Against Southern Mississippi, Abdullah really struggled to get anything established running between the tackles. In that game, there were times where Abdullah would dance around the backfield looking for a hole to open up, only to be brought down for a loss.
When it comes to Abdullah, he looks like he would best fit as a third-down running back due to his quickness and contributions in the receiving game.
Also, don’t rule out a position switch to the slot. He has prior experience in the position and he has the ideal size and skill set for the position.
Others to Watch
T.J. Yeldon, Alabama
Extremely productive player through his first two seasons. Has a lot of upside and will need to continue to work on keeping his pad level low. Could work his way into the top of the prospect list with another big season.
Jay Ajayi, Redshirt Junior, Boise State
Polished back who has good speed and isn’t afraid to take on defenders in the open field. Questionable upside.
Duke Johnson, Junior, Miami (Fla.)
Speedster who will need to stay healthy after missing the last five games of 2013 with an ankle injury. He has shown the ability to make big plays outside and in the passing game. There are reports, per The Associated press, via ESPN.com, that he added "15 or so" pounds while recovering from his ankle injury, which could help him improve as an interior rusher.
Keith Marshall, Junior, Georgia
Forms one of the best backfield tandems in the nation alongside Todd Gurley. Long shot to enter the draft after this season but could be one of the top running back prospects in the 2016 class.
Malcolm Brown, Senior, Texas
Former 5-star recruit who could reinvent himself under new head coach Charlie Strong.
Tevin Coleman, Junior, Indiana
Solid all-around back who is due for a big season with the departure of IU’s top three receiving threats.
Byron Marshall, Junior, Oregon
Possess good speed and is a physical runner. Another big season could elevate his stock.
Jeremy Langford, Redshirt Senior, Michigan State
Another productive tailback out of East Lansing who could be in for his best season in 2014 after rushing for 1,422 yards and 18 touchdowns last year.
Michael Dyer, Redshirt Senior, Louisville
A lot of questions about his character, but he showed first-round talent while at Auburn. Could be in for a big year with the coaching change and departure of Teddy Bridgewater.