Senior Bowl Running Backs Signal Position's Return to NFL Draft Spotlight

Mike Tanier@@miketanierNFL National Lead WriterJanuary 23, 2015

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MOBILE, Ala. — Running backs are becoming as rare in the first round of the NFL draft as punters in the first round of the NFL draft, or even as unicorns in the first round of the NFL draft.

No running backs were selected in the first rounds of the 2013 or 2014 drafts. Only seven were selected in the first rounds of the previous three drafts. Those runners have done much to salt the soil behind them, their careers a mixed bag of immediate disappointment (Jahvid Best), frustrating or disheartening injuries (Doug Martin, David Wilson, Jahvid Best) and moderate, intermittent success (Mark Ingram, Ryan Mathews, C.J. Spiller, Trent Richardson).

There are typically too many pretty good rushers, too few special ones and too many risks for a team to invest a precious first-rounder in the position. But this year's running back class may buck that trend. This NFL season was the year of the rookie wide receiver, but the next one is shaping up as the year of the rookie running back.

Two juniors—Wisconsin's Melvin Gordon and Georgia's Todd Gurley—are potential first-rounders. And the running back class here at the Senior Bowl is deep, with standout rushers generating a lot of buzz. "It's a versatile group," said North squad coach Ken Whisenhunt, being careful not to single anyone out, in the tradition of Senior Bowl coach interviews. "They're one of the best groups on our team."

Contenders like the Colts and Cardinals are desperate for running back help, with other upper-level teams like the Cowboys and Ravens likely to be in the market due to salary-cap problems that will keep them from retaining their best rushers. 

There are definitely a few second- and third-round running backs to choose from in Mobile. There may even be a first-rounder. It might even be a running back who entered the week as just another face in a very impressive crowd.

Loving the Power

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David Cobb will not hesitate to tell you about his favorite play in the playbook. "I like Power," he said.

"Power" is what it sounds like: Cobb lines up behind a fullback, then follows both his fullback and a looping guard to punch a hole through the middle of the line. "It's just a downhill hitting play, and that's just my strength," Cobb said. "I have pretty good patience and tempo. You get in sync with your guard and stick your foot and go upfield."

Power was a pretty common play at Minnesota, where Cobb rushed for 2,828 yards and 20 touchdowns in two seasons. Power is not as common as it once was in the shotgun-passing NFL, though it is making a comeback: Marshawn Lynch, Eddie Lacy, DeMarco Murray and other top rushers enjoyed their share of downhill hitting and foot-sticking this season.

Cobb, densely muscled at 5'11", 229 pounds, is a little bit of a throwback, right down to his choice of role models. "Growing up, I was just a big Eddie George fan," he said. "Eddie was a physical guy, a downhill runner, pretty good with his hands out of the backfield and protecting the quarterback."

Cobb might have been a first-round pick in George's day, when NFL teams still coveted 230-pounders who could run Power 20 times per game. He entered the Senior Bowl as a likely third- or fourth-rounder, though his stock is rising quickly.

Cobb has demonstrated quickness and vision to go along with his brute force. He has caught passes well and handles pass protection, striking pass-rushers in one-on-one drills with an audible, echoing pop.

It always comes back to pass protection for rookie running backs: 1,626 rushing yards as a senior mean nothing in a league where the quarterback drops to pass 40 times per game and counts on his last line of defense to prevent franchise-killing catastrophes. Cobb believes he is ahead of most collegiate running backs as a blocker. "The times that we did pass, we needed to pass," he said. "We needed to get our quarterback as much time as possible."

Every running back at the Senior Bowl wants to prove his versatility; this week's practices allow them to translate their games from collegiate schemes to a pro system. Talk to Cobb or any other running back, and he will probably stress versatility. "If you can only do one thing, there's another guy who can do two things," he said.

Cobb looked like a better version of Doug Martin during this week's practices. Martin demonstrated his three-down capability at the Senior Bowl three seasons ago and had a fine rookie year before rapidly grinding down due to injuries and overuse.

Given Martin's opportunity to slip into the end of the first round, Cobb would like to get the chance to demonstrate George's durability. "You want to be that complete package," he said, "so you never have to come off the field."

Strength and Discipline

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Ameer Abdullah is struggling. The Nebraska jitterbug is isolated against outside linebackers in pass-protection drills. Defender after defender knifes past him. It's an unfamiliar assignment, and Abdullah keeps whiffing in ways that could get a quarterback crushed.

Later in Wednesday's practice, Abdullah gets to do what he does best. He swivels his hips on one handoff, finds a cutback lane and bursts upfield. His line sets the left edge for him on another handoff, and he accelerates smoothly as he turns the corner for a big gain.

"Today was a little better," Abdullah said. "I'm still missing a few things up front in terms of holes and vision." He says coaches are working with him on his pad level, ball security and all the finer points of his position, pass protection included.

Abdullah does not look like a first-round pick when getting overwhelmed in pass protection. At 5'9" and just under 200 pounds, he is of limited value if he cannot stay on the field on third downs.

The Cornhuskers got the ball in his hands any way they could: runs, passes, returns and Wildcat-style plays. He rushed for over 1,100 yards in three straight seasons, scored 22 touchdowns as a senior and generated some Heisman buzz. But the one thing Nebraska rarely asked him to do was block, and it is haunting him in Senior Bowl practices.

Abdullah displayed the explosiveness, both in college and on the Mobile practice field, to be a late-first-round selection in the mold of the Giants' David Wilson. Wilson was the final pick in the first round of the 2012 draft and showed promise as an all-purpose playmaker before suffering a series of cataclysmic injuries.

There are teams drafting late in the first round that could use a changeup speedster to supplement their power runners and diversify their offenses. Imagine Abdullah as Aaron Rodgers' third-down back, or stepping into a Percy Harvin screen role while also giving Marshawn Lynch breathers, and you can see the potential. But the kid has got to be able to block.

"I'm improving," Abdullah said. "I know what I have to get better at, and I am really taking advantage of the time I have here to become the most complete player I can be."

Abdullah has more than quickness and vision going for him. Abdullah's dedication and character have drawn comparisons to Warrick Dunn, another compact running back who developed into an offensive focal point and locker room leader.

The ninth of nine children (all of his siblings have college degrees; Abdullah achieved his graduation requirements in December), the articulate, devout Abdullah is as likely to talk about the importance of education, the tenants of Islam ("Islam stands for one thing: being strong in your faith and being disciplined in your faith," he explained when a television reporter asked about his religion after practice) or the value of teamwork as about his own gifts as a running back.

"I pick up my teammates," Abdullah said when asked why he belongs in the NFL. "Everyone's a great individual player or they wouldn't be here. But it's the people who make you feel confident and help you get better that make the best teammates."

Explosiveness, versatility and dependability could still make Abdullah a (late) first-round pick. Size and blocking could hold him back. Abdullah, who grew up in Alabama and attended the Senior Bowl as a child, is working to eliminate the negatives.

"There are some people who would kill to be in the position I am in, to even have one interview," he said. "I'm blessed to have it. If you complain about this, there's always someone who has it worse."

Local Hero

Jan 21, 2015; Mobile, AL, USA; South squad running back Cameron Artis-Payne of Auburn (44) pulls in a pass during Senior Bowl practice at Ladd-Peebles Stadium. Mandatory Credit: John David Mercer-USA TODAY Sports
USA TODAY Sports

Cameron Artis-Payne is a difficult man to interview. Children and families mobbed him after Wednesday's practice. Only the hardest-hearted journalist can pepper a young man with questions while children ask him to autograph their Auburn helmets and the shirts on their backs, or while their parents pose the tykes for photographs and War Eagle whoops.

"You gotta enjoy things like that," Artis-Payne said when the rock star treatment finally subsided. "Ten, 12 years, and people may not even care who you are."

Artis-Payne may be a superstar in Alabama, but he will not be a first-round pick. He's more a symptom of the problem collegiate running backs now face: There are too many of them. Artis-Payne rushed for 1,608 yards and 13 touchdowns in a run-heavy offense last season. He rushed for 610 yards (6.7 yards per carry) in 2013 behind Tre Mason, who then had a successful rookie season for the Rams.

But the days when Auburn running backs Cadillac Williams and Ronnie Brown could each be among the top five players selected in the same draft, while just a decade ago, are now long gone. The college ranks are crowded with moderately gifted ball-carriers, NFL teams pass more than ever, and running backs, as a species, wear down quickly.

Why invest a high first-round pick in Gurley or Gordon when there may be a dozen Artis-Payne types hanging around in the third or fourth round?

Artis-Payne is not quite a prospect in the Cadillac or Brown mode. But like Mason, he's good: compact, durable and capable of quick jump-cuts. He has also displayed pretty good pass-catching ability during Senior Bowl practices after catching just 14 passes in two college seasons. "I never caught the ball because we never threw the ball," he joked.

Auburn coach Gus Malzahn, who stopped by Thursday's practices to see Artis-Payne and other former Tigers in action, vouched for Artis-Payne's ability to do more than run zones and options. "He's very good without the ball," Malzahn said. "He does the little things: the protection, the check-downs. He protects the ball well. And he is a very good inside-the-tackle rusher."

Artis-Payne made some waves in the days leading up to the Outback Bowl, claiming he would have rushed for 2,000 yards if he played in the Big Ten instead of the SEC. ("I'm going to just say I would've loved to play against Northwestern, Illinois and Purdue.") Artis-Payne backed up the boast by rushing for 126 yards and two touchdowns against Wisconsin.

Despite the bulletin-board material and a very different rushing style, Artis-Payne admires Lynch more than any other running back. "He's a versatile football player. He's a complete football player."

But does the fan-friendly, outspoken Artis-Payne admire everything about Lynch?

"Everything, besides the interviews," he joked.

Primed to Be Picks

There are other impressive rushers here at Senior Bowl week.

Northern Iowa's David Johnson is a 230-pounder with quick feet and pretty good receiving chops. Michigan State's Jeremy Langford looked solid before suffering some minor injuries midweek. And there are lots of great backs preparing for the combine around the nation: Indiana's Tevin Coleman, Alabama's T.J. Yeldon and many more.

None of the others will be drafted in the first round. But many runners in this year's class will find themselves muscling into committee backfields, supplanting veteran rushers, banging out 100-yard games and making an impact for contenders.

Rushers like Cobb, Abdullah and Artis-Payne may have to wait an extra night to hear their names called while Gurley and Gordon enjoy the first-round glory. But the draft is just a weekend. This draft class and this Senior Bowl roster are full of running backs who should have long, exciting, important careers.

Mike Tanier covers the NFL for Bleacher Report.