The Biggest Offensive Playmakers of the 2015 NFL Draft

Ryan RiddleCorrespondent IApril 5, 2015

The Biggest Offensive Playmakers of the 2015 NFL Draft

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    There’s a lot more to scouting than just looking at college stats and pulling the trigger. However, history shows us that guys who are the biggest offensive playmakers in college have a much better chance at being productive in the NFL. They’re also more likely to be valued higher in the draft.  

    Sure, a player’s stats can sometimes be misleading and aided by a system or the talent around him, but completely ignoring a player’s production throughout his college career or considering it pointless information is far more damaging to the process than overvaluing it—at least based on my own experience.

    Perhaps this list can serve as a reference down the road to see how these players turn out when they transition to the NFL.

    So let’s jump right in and find out who are the biggest offensive playmakers in this draft class.  

Methodology

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    For the past four years I’ve been using a system I created to compare a player's college production at each position against his peers.

    The point was to figure out the type of impact these players have had for their teams in direct comparison with the other prospects at their position. This helps to fill in some of the holes left from watching three or four games of a prospect and provides a window into that prospect’s durability, consistency and playmaking instincts.

    To avoid overvaluing players with longer careers, I created a production-per-game score as well as a career production score. Both scores are then averaged together to give an overall score that equally blends both categories.

    This process rewards players who have established productive careers over time as well as those who only played briefly but left a substantial impact. The highest scores tend to favor prospects who put up decent scores in both categories.

    Each positional group is graded by a different weighted system.

    For the running backs, games played, points, yards from scrimmage, yards per carry, punt return, kick return and total return yards are all factored into the production score.

    Tight ends use games played, points, yards from scrimmage and yards per reception to formulate an overall score.

    Wide receivers use the same criteria as the tight ends, but punt return, kick return and total return yards are factored in as well.

    Quarterbacks are scored by using completion percentage, passing yards, yards per catch, TD/INT differential, passer rating, points scored, rushing yards, rushing average and adjusted QBR provided by ESPN.

    Players who grade high in this system are generally considered big-time playmakers in college, which is why it is the primary method for determining the players who make up this list.

    This system does not mean these players will have NFL success, although players who rank high in this system generally tend to do well, especially if they have a good athletic score to go with it.

    Note: Stats were acquired from Sports-Reference.com and ESPN.com.

Duke Johnson, RB, Miami

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    In a deep class of running backs, Duke Johnson is pushing to become one of the first taken.

    Like everyone in this list, he has built a reputation as a playmaker.

    Johnson was second among FBS running backs in this class with a career average of 6.8 yards per carry, which he managed to maintain both years he was featured in Miami’s offense. Holding such a high yards-per-attempt average while carrying the ball 242 times in 2014 means you have to be breaking loose with regularity, which he was.

    Johnson also returned kickoffs, averaging 33 yards per return and scoring two touchdowns as a freshman. Only one FBS RB in this draft averaged more yards per return—Todd Gurley, who led all RBs with a 38.4-yard average.

    The former Hurricane is undersized (5'9", 207 lbs) and not overly fast (4.54 40-yard dash). This will hurt his draft stock, but he does have the potential to be a decent starter in the NFL.

Justin Hardy, WR, ECU

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    When production per game and career production were averaged to get an overall grade, Justin Hardy ranked second among wideouts.

    He was not just a big-time playmaker for East Carolina, but he was also a consistent playmaker over the course of his 49 games. He leads all draft-eligible receivers in scoring (216) and yards from scrimmage (4,548) in this class.

    Beyond that, Hardy has the incredible honor of being the NCAA’s all-time leading receiver despite walking on at ECU.

    Solid routes and an ability to find the ball in the air helped him bring in 387 passes for 4,541 yards and 35 touchdowns at ECU, which broke the NCAA receptions record previously held by former Oklahoma receiver Ryan Broyles.

    Hardy (5’10”, 192 lbs) is not overly big or fast, but his production is hard to ignore. Quickness and sudden breaks in and out of his cuts are where Hardy wins. Factor in his reliable hands and you have a guy who can contribute on an NFL roster.

Maxx Williams, TE, Minnesota

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    Williams tops off the playmaking tight ends in this draft with some impressive numbers for a position group considered to be on the weaker side this year.

    At the combine, he measured in at 6’4” and 249 pounds. His physical tools are fairly average, which should hurt his overall draft value, but he did have a productive career while at Minnesota. In just 25 games he managed to finish fourth among draft-eligible FBS tight ends in yards from scrimmage (993) and third in points scored 78.

    Williams’ most impressive playmaking statistic was his ability to average 16.2 yards per reception throughout his career. That led all tight ends in this draft class.

    Most analysts project him to be the first tight end taken in the draft. NFL.com's draft analyst Lance Zierlein ranks Williams first overall at the position. However, nobody expects to see this position be represented in the first round.

Ameer Abdullah, RB, Nebraska

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    Nebraska’s big-hearted running back happens to be one of my favorite prospects in this year’s draft.

    Ameer Abdullah is not especially big or fast for an NFL running back, but he is 100 percent football player. At 5’9” 205 pounds, this prospect ranks as one of the most explosive players in the draft this year, as evidenced by his position-leading 42.5-inch vertical jump and 130-inch broad jump.

    Throughout his career, Abdullah amassed 5,278 yards from scrimmage, which was tops among FBS running backs in this class. This type of consistency proves not only that he has playmaking ability, but that he is durable for a guy his size.

    In addition being prolific generating yards from scrimmage, Abdullah was also an accomplished return man. In fact, he had more combined punt and kick return yards (1,908) than any other draft-eligible running back in 2015.   

    Abdullah lacks the ideal frame to be an every-down running back in the NFL, but we’re seeing more and more teams find creative ways to use guys like him in their offense. Look for him to make a strong contribution to his NFL team and continue his playmaking tendencies.

Jay Ajayi, RB, Boise State

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    Boise State running back Jay Ajayi belongs on this list. According to my production grades, he ranks third among FBS running backs in production per game. He finished third in his position with 4,567 yards from scrimmage and first with 330 points over just 38 games.

    In his final year he had an incredible 32 total touchdowns. He tied Melvin Gordon for the most points scored in the nation in 2014.

    In 2014 the running back amassed more than 2,000 total yards by displaying an impressive combination of rushing and receiving skills. He had 535 receiving yards.

    Ajayi has good size (6'0", 221 lbs) and speed for the NFL and will become one of the first five RBs taken in this draft.

Amari Cooper, WR, Alabama

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    Amari Cooper is perhaps the best wide receiver in the 2015 draft class. In addition to that honor, he also happens to be one of the class' most electrifying and consistent playmakers.

    According to Football Outsiders, which does a Playmaker Score metric, Cooper ranks atop the receiver class with a score of 95.4 percent.

    In my production metric, Cooper ranks third among the receivers overall, but he’s the top-ranked receiver not to generate any bonus points for kick or punt returns. The Crimson Tide wideout has excellent athletic measurables to go with a highly productive tenure at Alabama.  

    For his career, Cooper averaged 15.2 yards per reception while scoring 186 points in 40 games. He finished fourth among his positional group in yards from scrimmage with 3,514 yards.

    Cooper looks to be one of the safest players in this year’s draft, displaying excellent marks in every area of prospect evaluation. Expect him to have an early impact for whichever team is lucky enough to snag him.

Tyler Lockett, WR, Kansas State

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    When it comes to physical tools that make scouts drool, Lockett falls significantly short. He ranks on the low end of this receiver class in terms of measurables: He is 5'10", 182 pounds and has short arms (30 inches) and small hands (8.38 inches). However, when it comes to college production, Lockett is second-to-none in 2015.

    A return specialist and receiver, he has NFL potential in part because of his versatility and playmaking instincts, which have been bolstered by remarkable quickness.

    When combining his punt and kickoff return yards over his career, he ranks second among the receivers in this draft with 2,684 yards.

    He also finished second among the receivers in points scored with 212 points over 47 games at Kansas State and second in punt return average (15.3). His kickoff return average of 28.5 led his positional group.

    As a receiver, Lockett was explosive every time he touched the ball, averaging 14.9 yards per reception for his career.

    He should find a home in the NFL, but he’ll have to defy some serious odds to be more than just a situational weapon and special teams ace.

Todd Gurley, RB, Georgia

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    Todd Gurley’s style of play can be summed up in one word: explosive.

    He wins with an uncanny combination of speed, vision and power that could turn him into one of the best in the NFL at some point.

    The former Georgia running back had 510 career carries for 3,285 yards while averaging 6.4 yards per carry and scoring 42 times over a 30-game span. This was good enough to rank him atop all other RBs in this class in production per game.

    His biggest statistical year happened to come during his freshman year, his last full season for Georgia.

    It’s likely Gurley will need a year before fully recovering from the ACL injury that cut short his 2014 campaign. Most guys returning from such surgeries need time before they can trust their body again and make those powerful cuts.   

Melvin Gordon, RB, Wisconsin

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    All the evidence you need to know that Melvin Gordon is a playmaker is the 2,587 yards rushing he had in 2014 alone, which nearly broke the FBS record Barry Sanders set in 1988. He fell just 42 yards short. He also had 29 touchdowns while averaging 7.5 yards per carry.

    For his career, the numbers are also impressive when compared with his peers.  

    Of all the FBS running backs in this draft class, Gordon’s 5,143 career yards from scrimmage ranks second, as does his 294 points scored in 45 career games.

    He has a shot at being the first running back drafted in the first round since 2012.

Marcus Mariota, QB, Oregon

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    The Heisman-winning quarterback achieved the highest adjusted QBR in the nation (90.9) in 2014, per ESPN.com.

    Mariota’s claim to fame comes from his dual-threat abilities as both a runner and passer. His 6.6 yards per carry is the highest average of any FBS quarterback in this draft, as is his TD/INT differential of 105 touchdown passes to 14 interceptions.

    Few quarterbacks entering the NFL draft have the combination of accuracy and athleticism that Mariota has. During his three-year reign as the starter for the Ducks, Oregon’s offense ranked in the top five in the nation in yards per game each year.

    Mariota’s playmaking skills should translate well at the next level, but he will need time to learn how to function within an NFL system.

     

    Ryan Riddle is a former NFL player who writes for Bleacher Report.