College Football's Top 10 RBs and Their NFL Counterparts
A solid group of running backs return to college football in 2014—so solid, in fact, that I had trouble narrowing this list down to a top 10. At least five and as many as 10 other players could have easily cracked the ranking.
The 10 players who did make the cut, however, stood out for a number of reasons. Most have proved they can dominate over at least one full season and oftentimes two or three. The others—while maybe not as qualified on paper—have looked so dominant in a smaller sample size that it was difficult to keep them off this list.
Here is an NFL comparison for the 10 running backs I decided, based on what I have seen, would be the scariest to have to defend in 2014. They don't have to be draft-eligible prospects, necessarily, even though nine of the included players are. They just have to be players that will keep opposing defensive coordinators awake at night.
Chime in below, and let me know (a) whom else you would have included—again, there were five to 10 other players who easily could have made this list—and (b) whom you would compare them to.
10. Karlos Williams, Florida State
NFL Comparison: DeMarco Murray
The sample size on Karlos Williams is small.
He's only carried the ball 91 times since switching from defensive back to running back in 2013, and even though he looked phenomenal on those attempts, almost all of them came during garbage time.
Still, you could tell from the way Williams ran—along with his bluest of blue-chip pedigree—that he is capable of becoming a good one.
He's not the fastest running back in college football, but with long legs and a distinguished track background, you can bet that he's close to the top. He's not the most powerful running back in college football, but at 6'1", 219 pounds with a defender's inclination and temperament, you can bet that he'll come down and hit you.
In short, Williams projects as a complete running back—a guy who can do a little bit of everything without one manifest strength. That makes him a good analog for DeMarco Murray of the Dallas Cowboys, who checks in at about the same size (6'0", 219 lbs) and scored a solid B-rating in all three physical categories on the B/R NFL 1000.
With increased reps at the position, Williams should climb up this list.
9. Jay Ajayi, Boise State
NFL Comparison: Eddie Lacy
Jay Ajayi is a powerful, vicious runner between the tackles.
He plays in the Mountain West, of course, but even SEC and Big Ten defenders would have trouble bringing the 6'0", 216-pounder down.
(You've officially been put on notice, Ole Miss.)
But it's not just the power that makes Ajayi resemble Eddie Lacy, the former Alabama standout who was the NFL Rookie of the Year in 2013. It's also the vision. Aware that they lack top-end speed, Ajayi and Lacy know the importance of finding and hitting every hole. It is a chip on their cognitive shoulder, and it allows both backs to be efficient.
Maybe there's something to this mid-game pickle juice thing, after all.
8. Tevin Coleman, Indiana
NFL Comparison: Ryan Mathews
He did miss the last three games of the season, but when he was on the field, Indiana's Tevin Coleman was the most explosive running back in the country in 2013—and it wasn't even all that close.
Highlight yards are a metric that measure how a running back does in the open field, once he breaks away from the initial surge of the offensive line (explained in further depth here). Coleman led the nation in highlights yards per opportunity by a considerable margin last season, as explained by Bill Connelly of Football Study Hall:
Of the 199 FBS players with at least 100 carries in 2013, only seven averaged 8.0 highlight yards per opportunity or greater. Boston College's Andre Williams and Missouri's Henry Josey averaged 8.0, Maryland's C.J. Brown and Ohio State's Braxton Miller averaged 8.4, West Virginia's Dreamius Smith and UL-Lafayette's Elijah McGuire averaged 8.6 ... and Tevin Coleman averaged 12.0. His average was 40 percent better than the second best. He had 14 carries of at least 20 yards (only 12 players had more), and he had eight of at least 40 (most in the country). He is unlit dynamite every play he's on the field
Even Michigan State—by some accounts the best defense in the country last season—was not immune to Coleman's ways, allowing him to dart up the middle untouched for a 64-yard touchdown in East Lansing. That was the only play of 60-plus yards it allowed all season.
Coleman's speed does not jump off tape, but his ability to find holes and take them the distance does. San Diego Chargers running back Ryan Mathews is much the same way, which is why he scored a surprising 23 of 25 in the speed category on the B/R NFL 1000.
Don't let either of these guys have room in space.
7. Derrick Henry, Alabama
NFL Comparison: Eddie George (circa 1999)
Eddie George had a fantastic career. He won a Heisman Trophy, was selected with the 14th pick of a NFL draft, rushed for more than 10,000 yards as a pro and is enshrined in the College Football Hall of Fame
And yet, this still feels like a conservative comparison.
The truth is that we have never seen a running back like Derrick Henry—or at least like a fully-realized version of him. He is somewhere between a smaller, faster Brandon Jacobs and a bigger, slower Adrian Peterson. Neither of those things sounds like fun to have to tackle.
George seems like a fair middle ground between those two running backs, especially with regard to size. He played at 6'3", 235 pounds; Henry is listed at 6'3", 238 pounds. Neither player was, is or ever will be a burner with straight-line speed, but because of the head of steam they pick up, they can still rip off long downhill runs.
6. Duke Johnson, Miami
NFL Comparison: Giovani Bernard
The ACC is a breeding ground for smaller, shiftier running backs.
During his breakout freshman season in 2012, Duke Johnson had 1,168 yards from scrimmage on 166 touches and 892 kick-return yards, but he was relegated to the AP All-ACC second team behind a pair of upperclassman running backs—Giovani Bernard (UNC) and Andre Ellington (Clemson)—who played a similar style…only better.
In truth, Johnson could have been compared to either of those backs on this list. Both enjoyed fine rookie seasons, and they both do a lot of the same things—create big plays out of nothing, break tackles in open space, et cetera—that have made Johnson so successful.
We'll go with Bernard as a compliment to Johnson; out of he and Ellington, Gio showed a little bit more of a spark in the NFL, especially with his lateral agility and his prevalence in the Bengals' passing game.
Johnson could have the same type of impact when he declares.
5. Ameer Abdullah, Nebraska
NFL Comparison: Doug Martin
Because he only weighs 195 pounds, which is less than many of the running backs who play his style of football, Ameer Abdullah was initially one of the hardest players to find an NFL comparison for.
Assuming he packs on a little weight when he enters the league, however, former first-round pick Doug Martin seems an apt choice.
Martin stands 5'9", just like Abdullah, and there's nothing he doesn't do well. He took a step back as a receiver in 2013, but a lot of that can be attributed to the unstable quarterback situation and the coaching mess with Greg Schiano in Tampa Bay. As a rookie in 2012, Martin caught 49 passes for 472 yards and a touchdown.
Abdullah is similarly gifted catching passes out of the backfield, and although he doesn't have the same type of power as Martin, he showed on the first touchdown of his 225-yard, two-touchdown effort against Illinois in 2013 that he's capable of running through linemen.
"He's a very powerful kid," noted running backs coach Ron Brown, per Jon Nyatawa of the Omaha World-Herald. "He doesn't go down easy."
And he won't at the next level either.
4. Mike Davis, South Carolina
NFL Comparison: Maurice Jones-Drew (circa 2009)
In the past, I have compared Mike Davis to Baltimore Ravens running back Ray Rice—a comparison I still think fits. Sort of.
The more I think about it, though, the more Maurice Jones-Drew (in his prime) sticks out as the more similar running back. Rice can move the pile with his compact build and low center of gravity, but he was never a true bowling bowl quite the way Jones-Drew was.
Davis, on the other hand, is. Bleacher Report's Michael Felder gave Davis a 20 out of 20 in the power section of his CFB 250, ranking him last year's No. 4 overall tailback.
"The kid is built for power with his short frame and thick core," Felder explained. "His violent running style welcomes contact, and with his solid balance, he is able to pinball off would-be tacklers and continue to drive his legs, pushing piles and finding daylight."
Davis (5'9") has a couple of inches on Jones-Drew (5'7"), but for all intents and purposes, they fall into the same category of shorter, stockier, sturdier running backs with enough speed to make long runs and good receiving skills out of the backfield.
3. T.J. Yeldon, Alabama
NFL Comparison: Matt Forte
Let's start with the obvious—the size.
T.J. Yeldon is 6'2", 218 pounds. Matt Forte is also 6'2", 218 pounds. They play at the same exact listed height and weight.
But it's more than just the frame that makes Yeldon and Forte one of the easiest calls on this list. Both excel with lateral movement and deceptive speed—the type often created by taller backs with longer legs. Yeldon gets more credit for his quickness than Forte does, but Bleacher Report's Matt Miller gave Forte a solid 22 out of 25 in the speed category on the B/R NFL 1000. That checks out as a solid B+.
Yeldon and Forte are also similar in that they do well catching passes out of the backfield. Good as they are running the football, one might even say that that is their most valuable quality as a tailback.
2. Melvin Gordon, Wisconsin
NFL Comparison: Chris Johnson (circa 2008)
Jamaal Charles is a popular comparison for Melvin Gordon, and while I agree that they have similar traits and running styles—and that Gordon might eventually reach that level—it is tough to reconcile their likeness when Charles is one of the best receiving backs in the NFL and Gordon has a grand total of three career receptions.
Part of that might have to do with scheme, as Gordon has all the physical tools to be a weapon out of the backfield but hasn't really been asked to contribute in the passing game. Still, catching passes is too big a part of Charles' game to compare the two without evidence.
Instead, Gordon projects more closely to an early-career Chris Johnson: a home run threat out of the backfield who can score every time he's handed the football. Even if Gordon doesn't have quite the same speed, he has the exact same one-cut-and-go ability.
Gordon (6'1") is a little bit taller than Johnson (5'11"), but they both run with a similar upright style and long, bounding strides. Josh Norris of Rotoworld compared the two backs last September, noting Gordon's "tall and angular" build (along with the obvious speed).
Better not miss that first tackle.
1. Todd Gurley, Georgia
NFL Comparison: Marshawn Lynch
The resemblance is a little uncanny.
From the flowing black dreadlocks to the deceptive downhill speed to the visceral on-field anger, Todd Gurley is Marshawn Lynch 2.0. But don't just take my word for it—a GIF can speak a thousand words.
Even Gurley's post-touchdown histrionics reek of "Beast Mode."
Some Georgia fans might be disappointed with this comparison, claiming that Gurley is too fast to be Lynch and that Adrian Peterson is a better analog. I get that line of thinking, but…no. Nobody is Adrian Peterson. At least not yet, anyway.
Plus, Lynch is faster than people care to realize. He's burly, which creates an optical illusion, but he ran a 4.46 in the 40-yard dash at the 2007 scouting combine and has proved through the years that he can run past NFL linebackers and safeties—or at least that he can when he needs to. He just prefers taking the direct route right through them.
That has always been Gurley's preference too.