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Why Tevin Coleman Projects as NFL's Top Rookie RB, Rookie of the Year Candidate

Brent Sobleski@@brentsobleskiNFL AnalystMay 6, 2015

Indiana running back Tevin Coleman (6) runs during the first half of an NCAA college football game against Maryland Saturday, Sept. 27, 2014, in Bloomington, Ind. (AP Photo/Darron Cummings)
Darron Cummings/Associated Press

The most likely running back prospect from the 2015 NFL draft to produce at a high level early in his career isn't the St. Louis Rams' Todd Gurley or the San Diego Chargers' Melvin Gordon. 

After breaking the recent bias against first-round running backs, those early entrants to this year's draft are natural selections and maybe even favorites to win the NFL's Offensive Rookie of the Year after the upcoming season. 

Yet, it's a recent third-round pick who owns the highest ceiling after landing in the perfect situation.  

The Atlanta Falcons' Tevin Coleman couldn't have asked to be placed in a better environment or scheme to start his career. 

"I'm going to be the best rookie running back (from this class)," Coleman said in an interview with D.J. Shockley of AtlantaFalcons.com. "I'm coming out to be the starter, and I'm going to work like the starter." 

Coleman exploded during his junior campaign with 2,036 rushing yards and 15 touchdowns before he declared his intentions to enter the NFL draft. His overall production was amazing considering the fact he played the final seven games with a broken sesamoid bone in his right foot, according to Bleacher Report's Mike Tanier

No one can question Coleman's toughness after playing through a broken foot. Plus, he still produced at an elite level. His average yards per game actually increased by two yards after the injury, and he posted three 200-plus-yard games after the fact, including a 307-yard effort against the Rutgers Scarlet Knights and 228 yards against the eventual national champions, the Ohio State Buckeyes. 

Coleman also produced even when the conferences's top defenses game-planned around the running back's talent. The Big Ten's best couldn't completely stop him. Some of the teams couldn't even slow him down. 

As an NFL prospect, though, there was at least one major concern about his game beyond his injury history. 

"The biggest concern for teams about Coleman is the uncertainty about whether he can become a more patient runner and improve as a tackle-breaker," NFL.com's Lance Zierlein wrote. "Has the burst and top-end speed to be a game-changing running back for a team looking for a workhorse, but questions about his 'make you miss' talent could hurt his draft stock.

Due to this specific issue and generally being considered a high-cut runner at 5'11" and 206 pounds, Coleman is often compared to Darren McFadden

What do Coleman and McFadden have in common this year?

They will be playing in heavy zone-blocking schemes with previous histories of churning out prolific rushers. 

In Coleman's specific case, he'll be playing in the Falcons' new scheme under offensive coordinator Kyle Shahanan.

The Shanahan system became well-known over the past 20 years due to the success of Shanahan's father, Mike, and his disciple, Gary Kubiak. Kyle simply followed in his father's footsteps by utilizing the NFL's purest zone-blocking scheme. It relies heavily on the zone stretch as well as the inside zone with quarterback bootleg action and a major emphasis on play action, which is all set up by the team's running attack. 

In this particular system's history, stars were made out of average backs like Olandis Gary, Mike Anderson, Reuben Droughns and Alfred Morris

It also took talented backs like Terrell Davis, Clinton Portis and Arian Foster to another level. 

Over his last three seasons as a play-caller, Shanahan's rushing offenses finished first, fifth and 17th overall. 

Running Back Production in Kyle Shanahan Offenses
PlayerTeamYearRushing YardsYPCTDs
Steve SlatonTexans20081,2824.89
Slaton/MoatsTexans20098273.67
Torain/K. WilliamsRedskins20101,0024.47
Helu/RoysterRedskins20119684.72
Alfred MorrisRedskins20121,6134.813
Alfred MorrisRedskins20131,2754.67
Crowell/WestBrowns20141,2804.012
NFL.com

Whether it was a one-back or running-back-by-committee approach, the team's top ball-carriers produced at least 1,000 or more yards in five of his seven seasons at the helm of an offense. 

There is a possibility Coleman will share the starting role this season with Devonta Freeman, who was a fourth-round pick by the Falcons last year. The two are expected to enter training camp in an open competition to find out exactly who is lead-back material. 

But Coleman owns a slight edge on two fronts: familiarity and speed.

First, the Indiana product played in a prolific spread offense that took advantage of his abilities as a one-cut, downhill runner.

Shanahan's system, meanwhile, will ask Coleman to remain patient for holes to open. But once a seam opens, it's off to the races. 

Below is an example of a typical zone stretch that is the fundamental building block of Shanahan's offensive scheme: 

Browns zone stretch under Kyle Shanahan
Browns zone stretch under Kyle ShanahanCredit: NFL Game Rewind

During this particular play, the running back was asked to read his blocks and commit downhill once he assessed the best available option. Clearly, there are at least three holes Ben Tate could have chosen from during the play. It's initially designed to go outside the blocks made by the right tackle and tight end, but the veteran can turn it up into any available crease. 

Coleman is already comfortable with these concepts due to Indiana's heavy emphasis on zone-blocking principles.

When asked about how he fits into the Falcons' offensive scheme, the running back was very confident in how his game translates to the next level, via Fox Sports' Knox Bardeen: 

Knox Bardeen @knoxbardeen

Tevin Coleman on his running style: "I can run an inside zone, an outside zone, pass protection, catching the ball." #Falcons

Let's take a peek at Indiana's offense, which should look familiar: 

Tevin Coleman runs outside zone.
Tevin Coleman runs outside zone.Credit: DraftBreakdown.com

The above play was a traditional outside zone run. The biggest difference between this particular play and the previous example is Coleman initially aligned alongside the quarterback in a shotgun formation. Thus, his aiming points as a runner differ slightly compared to a true zone-stretch play. In fact, most of Indiana's offense was based out of the shotgun formation, and there will be a slight learning curve for Coleman. 

However, the overall concept is the same. 

Coleman's initial aiming point was outside the widest blocker, but he was granted the freedom to bend the run back if a seam appeared. Those options weren't needed since the left tackle did a splendid job driving the defensive end off the ball, which allowed Coleman to break a 14-yard run against the Buckeyes' athletic defense. 

The running back also showed toughness by slamming the ball into the teeth of the defense during inside zone runs. 

Against Ohio State, Coleman consistently made quick and hard cuts. The screen capture included below is a simple inside zone run: 

Tevin Coleman runs inside zone.
Tevin Coleman runs inside zone.Credit: DraftBreakdown.com

All of Indiana's offensive linemen stepped left after the snap and drove the defenders in that general direction. Coleman initially stepped left after receiving the handoff but immediately cut to his right when he saw a slight crease. While this particular play only gained a yard or two, it displayed Coleman's decisiveness as a downhill runner. 

A familiarity with the Falcons' running concepts will allow Coleman to transition to the professional ranks rather seamlessly. 

But other backs had the potential to produce in Shanahan's system. What makes Coleman special compared to anyone else the Falcons could have chosen in the draft?

Breakaway speed. 

Coleman even broke a 90-yard run against the Buckeyes' talented defense (see: below). 

Once the running back prospect was fully recovered from his football injury and worked out for NFL scouts on April 15, he blazed a 4.35-40-second 40-yard dash, according to the The Baltimore Sun's Aaron Wilson

The only back with that type of top-end speed to play in the Shanahan system was Portis, who rushed for 1,508 yards as a rookie during the 2002 season. 

It's a lofty comparison, but these two athletes were very similar in size and skill set coming into the NFL. Portis enjoyed plenty of early success during his first two seasons with the Broncos, and Coleman owns similar potential.

Development from a prospect into a legitimate NFL player isn't simply about raw natural ability. The situation in which a player is placed is vitally important for that prospect to mature and get the most out of his overall talent. 

The Falcons' third-round selection presents a perfect blend of overall talent and situation.

Coleman might not have been the first or second running back chosen in the draft, but he's the most likely to succeed and perform far beyond expectations. 

Brent Sobleski covers the NFL draft for Bleacher Report. Follow him on Twitter @brentsobleski.

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