2015 NFL Draft Preview: RBs on the Fantasy Radar
As the April 30th NFL draft draws near, it’s time to take a look at the available prospects and their potential for fantasy impact in 2015. Every year, rookies come into the NFL with high dreams and expectations, but only a few make an impact in their rookie seasons, especially when it comes to the most common fantasy positions. This year, aside from the top two quarterbacks Marcus Mariota and Jameis Winston, there are no players at the signal caller position that appear ready to take the league by storm. Likewise, the tight end crop is extremely thin when it comes to impact fantasy players. However, this is one of the strongest groups of running backs and receivers in a long time, making these two positions the most notable for fantasy owners watching this year’s draft.
In this article, I’ll be breaking down the top running back prospects available in the draft. (I will be breaking down WRs next week.) The running back position is traditionally one of the easier positions for rookies to adapt from the college game to the NFL, but with the emergence of committee approaches in NFL backfields, it’s been awhile since there’s been an impact rookie easily identified in the draft. This year, we may finally get a running back selected in the first round, rather than waiting until day 2 like we have the last two years.
There are two elite backs on the board this year, both with tremendous talent, and both with different concerns. I’ll break the potential running back stars out into three groups for fantasy owners to note: Impact Players, who should be dynamite from day 1; Situational Players, who fantasy owners should pay attention to the schemes and roles they get drafted into; and Sleepers who have the potential to make an impact despite being projected as later round picks. Obviously, the situation and workload is going to be the biggest factor when considering how soon all of these players can make an impact, but generally speaking, the top two guys should be studs no matter where they end up.
Todd Gurley, Georgia – Gurley is coming off an injury plagued college career, and specifically coming off an ACL tear last season. He is a violent runner who missed time with ankle and hip injuries in previous years, and durability is the only question mark for this elite prospect. Gurley averaged over seven yards per carry before getting injured last year, and he has a rare combination of size, speed and vision that should make him one of the best in the league if he can stay on the field. Not only is he an exceptional runner, he also catches the ball well and should stay on the field at the next level during passing downs. Gurley should go in the first round next week, and may even go in the top 15 picks if a team falls in love with him, especially with recent reports that his rehab is going well, and that he’ll be ready for training camp. Gurley is an exceptional talent who should be considered a strong fantasy target regardless of where he ends up being drafted.
Melvin Gordon, Wisconsin – This hard-nosed badger runs with the vision and leverage of a Maurice Jones-Drew type of player, but he has more size to help withstand the inevitable pounding he’s likely to take at the next level. Gordon also has the speed to be a playmaker at the next level and finished his junior season with a thrashing of the Auburn defense. He had over 250 yards and three touchdowns, cementing his status as an elite running back prospect. Gordon’s only real knock is ball security, but an NFL coach should be able to teach him how to carry the rock so that it doesn’t get jarred loose as often. Gordon should go in the first round and is the kind of every-down back likely to get significant touches his rookie year, making him worth noting for all fantasy owners regardless of where he gets drafted.
Jay Ajayi, Boise State – Ajayi is a powerful runner who has enough speed to break off big runs when he gets into the secondary. His upright running style may get him in trouble from a durability standpoint in the long run, but for now he’s been able to stay healthy and productive for two seasons of full time work at Boise State. Ajayi isn’t getting the same press as Gordon and Gurley, but I’m sneaking him into my Impact Players section because he’s such a complete player. While he’ll likely go off the board on the second day of the draft, Ajayi is a very good runner with a nose for the end zone and the ability to be an instant starter. Separating Ajayi from the rest of the class is his ability to help out in the passing game. He’s already an accomplished blocker, and he caught 50 balls last season, proving he could make an immediate impact in PPR fantasy leagues as a rookie.
Ameer Abdullah, Nebraska – If people only watched the Senior Bowl, Ameer Abdullah would be considered a first round prospect. However, his tape shows he’s more of an explosive third down and situational back than he is a between the tackles runner. Abdullah has speed, though he’s more quick than fast, and he has excellent hands. He also sees the hole very well and can make defenders look silly in the open field. He’s undersized and will need to work on ball security and pass blocking if he’s going to get enough looks his rookie year to be productive, but in the right offense and with the right opportunities, Abdullah has the explosiveness and talent to make a fantasy impact.
T.J. Yeldon, Alabama – Yeldon is a large, upright runner with power and deceptive speed to make big plays. He was productive at Alabama and would normally be touted higher if the league still prioritized big and powerful backs. However, Yeldon may become a strictly two down or short yardage back, and he may find problems pushing the pile at the same rate he did in college. He’s not strictly a bull rusher, and he has quick feet that can help him make defenders miss, but generally speaking, he’ll get the amount of yards his linemen block for him, plus one as he falls forward. A team is likely going to grab him on the second day of the draft, and fantasy owners should take note if he winds up on a roster with open carries for the taking. He should be at least a solid, if not spectacular pro.
Duke Johnson, Miami – Miami has a nice history of putting out solid backs, and Johnson has as good a chance as any player on this list of carving a role in the NFL. That role may never be more than a situational player however, as Johnson is a speed demon who lacks the bulk to make an impact running the ball in between the tackles. Johnson can find the sideline and turn the corner though, and he uses an excellent cutback move and an elite burst to carve up opposing defenses. Johnson will help in the return game immediately, as he was an accomplished kick return last year at Miami, but fantasy owners should note where he lands and the situation he winds up in to see if he could make an impact as a speedy change-of-pace or third down back.
Tevin Coleman, Indiana – People are up and down on Coleman, the versatile and highly productive back out of Indiana who eclipsed 2,000 yards on the ground last season while carrying kickoff return duties as well. Coleman has good size and has a reputation for being very coachable, and his production in college is hard to dispute. He may have some ball security issues on the next level however, and he runs upright which is always a durability concern. He has suffered ankle injuries in his past and is coming off toe surgery in December which kept him from running at the combine. Coleman is overall a good prospect who could carve a niche as a playmaker in a tandem backfield, making him worth keeping an eye on if he winds up in a situation at the next level where he’ll get touches. He’ll likely go in the third round.
Mike Davis, South Carolina – Fluctuating between looking like a first round prospect and looking like an eventual role player, Davis' draft stock wasn't helped by the fact he was banged up most of last season. There were times however, when he made South Carolina fans forget about his predecessor Marcus Lattimore. Davis is a versatile playmaker who looks like a third down pass catching back, but runs like a between-the-tackles power back. He’s tough to bring down once he gets a head of steam going, and he has the patience and burst to take advantage of good blocking up front. While concerns about his injury plagued 2014 season are legit, and questions about his scheme fit will be evident, Davis has enough talent to make him an interesting prospect if he winds up in the right situation and gets an opportunity to show what he can do.
David Cobb, Minnesota – David Cobb thinks he’s more dynamic than he is, and he dances too much in the backfield. However, he had a strong showing at the Senior Bowl, showing his highly productive career at Minnesota wasn’t a fluke. Cobb leaves a bit to be desired as a prospect, but there is also a lot to like. He runs hard, finishes even harder and always keeps his legs moving. The right coaching staff might be able to take advantage of the best parts of Cobb’s game and turn him into a starting back in the NFL. Fantasy owners shouldn’t flock to Cobb, but if he lands in a situation where he can fight for a role, he has just enough sleeper potential to make him worth noting.
David Johnson, Northern Iowa – Johnson is a good player and a good runner who is quick to decide on the open hole, for better or worse. While Johnson may not wind up getting drafted until the third day of the draft, he has shown versatility and doesn’t shy away from contact. He finishes runs, and pushes to get that extra yard. Johnson is a sleeper because if he winds up in a one-cut scheme that can take advantage of his quick decision-making, he could wind up winning a starting job. Keep an eye out if he winds up with a team that runs a zone blocking scheme as he could be very productive in the right situation.
Buck Allen, USC – If a team is looking for a hard, decisive runner, with just enough burst to be a little dangerous, then this former Trojan workhorse may end up being a steal in the long run. Allen, much like David Johnson above, would do well in a zone blocking scheme to take advantage of his ability to cut and go. Strength could be an issue as he tries to finish runs, but ultimately, Allen looks like he should be able to carve himself a nice role at the next level. Fantasy owners should keep an eye on where he ends up, and if the system and opportunity fit, then Allen could become a workhorse at the next level as well.
Other Names to Note: Jeremy Langford, Michigan State; Terrence Magee, LSU; Matt Jones, Florida; Tyler Varga, Yale
Don’t forget to follow John Paulson as he updates the fantasy impact of drafted players on Days 1 and 2 of the draft, and stick around for Day 3 as I continue to update the back end players and clue you into potential steals.