CFF Overview: RB – Top of the Crop
As part of CFF’s free content we are going to be diving deep into each position group of draft eligible prospects and splitting them up into a few sections, best sorting them per their value in our eyes.
There’s no question that running backs have been devalued at the top of the draft of late, with the first players coming off the board at picks 37 and 54 the last two years, respectively. But that should end this year with two players separating themselves from the rest as being worthy of first-round picks.
Melvin Gordon, Wisconsin
Gordon enters the draft following one of the most productive seasons on the ground in the history of college football. It wasn’t solely because of the massive amount of touches he was given either, as Gordon averaged a draft class-best 7.6 yards per carry. While he certainly benefited from a good Wisconsin offensive line, his 3.6 average yards after contact did rank third in the draft class.
There were times where Gordon had some huge holes to run through in college and the point of attack is going to be much smaller in the NFL, but he has shown the ability to hit the hole quickly and get skinny though it when necessary. He is completely capable of being an inside runner and his patience and very good vision are what you want to see from a prospect. Gordon excels when he is able to get to the second level, where he can use his short-area quickness to make defenders miss and hit cutback lanes. He might lack elite top speed, but his burst through the hole and out of cuts is among the best and more than enough to still break off long runs at the next level.
While the top two backs are really 1a and 1b for us, Gordon holds the slight edge because he is a little more polished as runner and not coming off of a serious knee injury.
Signature Stat: Indicative of his big-play ability, Gordon had a FBS-high 40 carries of 15-plus yards that totaled 1469 yards. Gordon would have had ranked in the Top 10 for rushing yards in the draft class on those carries alone.
Todd Gurley, Georgia
Gurley is the top back on many people’s draft boards, and understandably so. He is a powerful and explosive runner who fights to finish runs and can create his own yardage. He forced an astounding 37 missed tackles on 117 rushes against Power 5 teams, and never less than six in any of those games. His 3.9 average yards after contact ranked second in the draft class.
His quickness and top speed are a rare combination with his size and are what makes him unique from other players in the draft. Gurley is powerful enough to run over and through multiple defenders yet can still break away from early anyone on the defense. He had at least a 40-yard run in each of his first four games last season.
Gurley still has the highest upside of any of the running backs, but the injuries coupled with his physicality are a concern. The recovery road following ACL injuries has come a long way over the years, but nothing is for sure. Will the knee be an issue going forward? Odds are that it probably won’t be, but it should still be at least a small concern and part of the equation when drafting Gurley.
Signature Stat: On average, Gurley forced a missed tackle once every 3.3 rush attempts, the best rate in the nation.
Ameer Abdullah, Nebraska
There is a gap after the first two running back prospects, but they are far from the only two that could make a significant impact early on. The lone senior on the list, Abdullah is one of the most elusive backs of the draft. He is extremely quick in and out of cuts and can make hard cuts without losing much speed. Abdullah would be best suited for a zone blocking scheme where he can utilize his vision and short-area quickness to his advantage. He has excellent lateral agility to make defenders miss and is also a threat as a receiver. He forced a missed tackle on average once out of every 4.3 offensive touches.
Although he’s one of the smaller players among the top prospects, he plays more powerful and physical than his size would suggest. We feel he is capable of becoming a three-down back, but he does need to improve in pass protection, particularly when taking on defenders up high and not cutting them.
Signature Stat: Abdullah forced a combined 66 missed tackles on rushes and receptions, third-most in the draft class.
Jay Ajayi, Boise State
Ajayi might not have received as much attention during the season as some of the other top running backs, but that doesn’t mean he is undeserving. On the ground, he gained the second-most yards after contact with 1165 and forced 51 missed tackles. Even though Ajayi isn’t overly powerful, he runs with decent power and can break arm tackles. He sees the field well and does a good job of getting back vertical immediately after cuts. One of his strengths is avoiding straight-on hits at the second level and secondary to help pick up yards after contact, if not forcing a missed tackle outright.
He isn’t the most powerful nor the fastest runner in the class, but he has proven to be very well rounded. His 535 receiving yards and 2,350 combined receiving and rushing yards both ranked second in the nation. In pass protection, he does catch defenders without attacking or delivering an initial blow, but with some more coaching we think he can be one of the better pass protectors of the group.
Ajayi is one of the few players who can be a three-down back from the start and make an impact as a rookie. He can fit well with any blocking scheme would be a reliable alternative for a team who either does not want to take a running back in the first round, or misses out on Gordon and Gurley.
Signature Stat: Ajayi’s 1.55 Yards per Route Run ranks fifth in the draft class even though his 346 routes run were at least 70 more than each of the players ahead of him.
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