Philadelphia, PA (SportsNetwork.com) – We’ve all noticed the trend: NFL teams
are more reliant on the passing game offensively than ever before, which makes
the running back position more of a commodity than a necessity.
That wasn’t always the case, though. Decades ago, the running game was the
most effective way to move the ball down the field. But with such athletic and
talented passers nowadays, it’s become commonplace for the majority of downs to
The devaluation of the running back position at the highest level was
epitomized in May, when the first running back taken in the NFL Draft –
Washington’s Bishop Sankey to Tennessee – was the lowest selection for a player
at the position in the history of the draft (54th overall pick – second round).
Sure, the talent at the position in the 2014 draft wasn’t the highest it has
ever been, which contributed to the historic free fall. But for some time now
in college football, a bounce-back has been brewing. And come April, when the
NFL Draft rolls around once again, we won’t see a repeat of the trend that
knocked running backs out of the first round of selections.
In fact, there are a handful of players at the college level who could all go
before Sankey’s 54th overall selection. Most drafts are known for especially
strong positions, even if they aren’t all-around deep. There’s always an
overtly talented position that NFL teams target.
For example, the 2012 draft was considered quarterback-heavy, evidenced by four
first-round selections at the position – Andrew Luck, Robert Griffin III, Ryan
Tannehill and Brandon Weeden – and five opening-day rookie starters – with
Russell Wilson joining the first-rounders.
Next year, that distinction will fall to the same position that made headlines
for the wrong reasons last May. The running back class of 2015 is so top-heavy
with talent, it should have NFL teams tripping over each other just to get a
shot at some of the future stars that will be born on draft night.
Rushers like Georgia’s Todd Gurley and Wisconsin’s Melvin Gordon are projected
already to be top-end talents who could tip the scales back in favor of a
strong running offense. CBS Sports’ 2015 NFL Draft projections currently list
nine college running backs who figure to be potential first- and second-round
selections. Of course, the landscape could change in the next six months, and
the heavy offseason testing period will either bring more names to light or
discourage teams from taking a high-round flier on one of these names.
But for a handful of backs, the 2014 season is only helping their stock as
their transition to the professional level beckons. Here are some of those
players who will make an impact on Sundays next season, assuming all
underclassmen become draft eligible (which is projected to be the case):
Todd Gurley, Georgia – Gurley will be reinstated to the Georgia lineup by the
time the Bulldogs take the field next against Florida. He was suspended for two
games due to NCAA infractions involving compensation for signing autographs.
That won’t hurt his draft stock in any possible way, as the 6-foot-1, 226-pound
back combines supreme athleticism with a bruising style. He contributes to the
kick return game and uses his open-field speed to blow by defenders. There’s
no question he’s a first-round talent. The question moving forward rather is,
how high will he go? Even after missing two games, he still has amassed 773
yards and eight touchdowns on the ground (a 154.6-yards-per-game average),
adding a kick return for a touchdown.
Melvin Gordon, Wisconsin – The junior from Wisconsin currently ranks second in
the country with 1,046 rushing yards, and has 13 touchdowns to go along with
his extreme number of yards and carries (132) through his six games. Gordon
and Gurley are easily the one-two favorites at the position, and should be the
top two running backs off the board – both potentially in the first round.
Gordon can transform an offense, and he has kept his Badgers, who average 343
rushing yards per game, relevant on the national stage.
Ameer Abdullah, Nebraska – Abdullah should be the first senior running back off
the board when draft time comes. The Alabama native is having a fantastic
season with the Cornhuskers, ranking second in the FBS with 14 rushing
touchdowns and third in the country with 1,024 rushing yards. He jumped back
into Heisman relevance after a strong performance against Northwestern, when he
carried the ball 23 times for 146 yards and four touchdowns. Listed at 5-9, 195
pounds, he’s smaller than both Gurley and Gordon, but he packs a serious punch.
T.J. Yeldon, Alabama – The junior from Alabama certainly wasn’t ready to come
out of college after his sophomore year, but his stock was admittedly higher
before this season. Through seven games, the extremely athletic Yeldon has
carried the ball 106 times for 566 yards and four touchdowns. Those aren’t the
numbers Alabama coaches and NFL scouts across the country were hoping for in
his junior season, but the raw talent is present in Yeldon in bunches. He’s big
(6-2, 215 pounds) but uses his excellent field vision to find a hole through
which he can burst. He’s very well-versed in the passing game out of the
backfield as well. With a current second-round grade, it’s obvious scouts
aren’t concerned about his down year.
Duke Johnson, Miami – Johnson has a second-round grade tagged to him, and he
could be well worth the pick if he lands with an NFL team that knows how to use
him. This season, Johnson has carried the ball 110 times for 787 yards (ranked
15th in the country) and six touchdowns, even in an offense with a low ceiling.
He’s on the smaller side (5-9, 206 pounds), but he has played well against
greater competition through seven games. He’s not on the same level as the
first four, but he’s part of a second tier of backs who could still have
immediate impacts with an NFL squad.
Some of those other names include South Carolina’s Mike Davis, Boise State’s
Jay Ajayi, Indiana’s Tevin Coleman, USC’s Javorius Allen and Michigan State’s
Jeremy Langford. These are running backs that, for the time being, are
projected to be at-worst third-round picks.
Some of college football’s other top names at the position aren’t eligible for
the draft next year – players like Pittsburgh’s James Conner, Western
Michigan’s Jarveon Franklin, Baylor’s Shock Linwood and San Diego State’s
Donnel Pumphrey. But they provide the NFL with more hope for the future of the
running back position.
Maybe the recent downward trend of running backs in the NFL has more to do with
the available talent than anything else. In the next few years, college
football should pump some new life into the running back spot at the next
level, rejuvenating a position on offense that has largely gone underutilized
in the grand scheme of things.