2015 Pre-draft Rookie RB Rankings
On last week’s edition of the X’s and Y’s Podcast, John and I broke down the events of the Combine, highlighted a few rookies, and discussed early season dynasty strategies with DLF owner Eric Dickens. Since the show aired, I’ve broken virtual bread with many FF enthusiasts, aiming to become better acquainted with this year’s crop of rookie running backs. Sure everyone knows about Todd Guryley and Melvin Gordon, but what the lesser known players? In a class so deep with talent there must surely be some good value, right? I think there is… and I’m expecting quite a few surprises come April. Not knowing who will go where just yet, I’ve ranked my top 15 rookie RBs and highlighted three players who I think have legit *sleeper potential.
1) Melvin Gordon (Wisconsin) – The kid has flash. While I’m not one hundred percent sold on his ability to become a consistent playmaker, his raw talent is undeniable. Showing off his speed, Gordon ran an impressive 4.52 at the Combine a few weeks ago. Additionally excelling in the broad jump, 20 yard shuttle, and 60 yard shuttle workouts, Gordon impressed and is primed to be one of the first two RBs off the board come April. He’ll need to work on his pass protection and ball security skills if he wants to excel at the pro level, but he’s certainly working from a solid foundation.
2) Todd Gurley (Georgia) – When healthy, Gurley is all MAN. Having drawn comparisons to Marshawn Lynch, the former Dawg is a nearly perfect specimen. At 6’1″ and 226 pounds, Gurley is hard to take down, as evidenced by his stunning YAC stats. Powerful and determined, Gurley has sure mitts and also excels in pass protection. So why isn’t he ranked number one? Well, he tore his ACL in 2014 and there is some question that he may not be ready to suit-up come September. Not knowing if – or to what extent – the injury might affect his speed makes me less willing to take him at number one. For dynasty owners already stacked at the position, however, Gurley is a no-brainer at the top spot.
3) Jay Ajayi (Boise State) – The aesthetic manifestation of Oliva Newton-John’s “Let’s Get Physical,” Ajayi is one of my favorite backs in this year’s draft class. A former soccer player, he runs with grit and creativity. Factor in his ease as a pass-catcher along with a sweet wiggle, and Ajayi has workhorse written all over him. He did tear his ACL in 2011 and there are some concerns about the number of hits he’s taken, but assuming he continues to hold up as well as he did in college, Ajayi has a shot at backfield domination.
4) T.J. Yeldon (Alabama) – Yeldon may not be fast, but he is quick. A fluid runner with great patience and vision, Yeldon toys with, and often eludes defenders. His instincts and feel for the game make me less nervous about his upright running style, which invites injury. Already an accomplished pass protector and above-average pass-catcher, Yeldon is poised to make a splash sooner rather than later. He presents nice value to fantasy owners looking for top tier talent in a later round.
5) Ameer Abdullah (Nebraska) – Described as a “pinball,” at 5’9″ and 195 pounds Abdullah is a small and low to the ground burst of badassery that bounces off of defenders. Scouts rave about his character and dedication the game. Unfortunately, it’s assumed that his frame is maxed out and his size might not hold up at the pro-level. Given Abdullah’s prowess as a pass-catcher, he retains more value in PPR leagues. I worry, however, that he’ll end up being relegated to a change-of-pace or finesse role rather than existing as a workhorse in the NFL.
6) Duke Johnson (Miami) – Another potential PPR stud, Johnson has good hands and fast feet. He excels in a zone-scheme and shines in space. Lacking versatility and given his diminutive stature (5’9″ and 207 pounds), however, Johnson doesn’t project to be a lead back. Factor in durability concerns and sub-par pass protecting skills, Johnson has “committeeman” written all over him. Unless, of course, Spiller goes to Philly and Chan Gailey wants to create CJ2.0 in New York.
*7) David Cobb (Minnesota) – Well-rounded, tough, and hard driving are the characteristics most easily ascribed to Cobb. He won’t dazzle audiences with spin moves or make crowds cheer with his turbo speed… Instead, he’ll stay on his feet with astounding balance and tenacity. An economical runner, Cobb admittedly lacks flair and creativity. Yet that’s exactly why I love him. The absence of theatrics makes him easily overlooked and, therefore, increases his value. If drafted by the right team, this beefy back with a three-down skillset has the potential to be next year’s biggest surprise.
8) Tevin Coleman (Indiana) – Heading into the Combine, Coleman was expected to cruise past his peers, showing off an absurd amount of speed. Due to a foot injury, however, the Hoosier abstained from all workouts, save the bench press. While Coleman’s burst is other-worldy, his lack of vision and fluidity make him entirely too one-dimensional for my taste. Plus, his running style gives me pause. I simply don’t see Tevin’s career having longevity at the next level.
9) David Johnson (Northern Iowa) – A big man at 6’1″ and 224 pounds, Johnson is surprisingly fast. He owned the Combine, running the 40 in 4.5 seconds, jumping 41.5″ in the vert, and blasting through the three cone drill in a mere 6.82 seconds. While Johnson’s measurables are certainly elite they don’t translate to the gridiron. His running style lacks energy. Instead, it’s plodding and predictable. The Iowa native does have good hands, but doesn’t seem to possess the urgency of an NFL workhorse. Given his showing in Indy, however, I think it’s likely his ADP will be erroneously inflated.
*10) Cameron Artis-Payne (Auburn) – The heir apparent to Tre Mason, Artis-Payne ran hard for the Tigers, averaging 5.3 yards per carry for a total of 1,608 yards and 13 TDs. At 5’10” and 212 pounds, his aesthetic approximation is a fire plug on roller skates. Frankly, he reminds me Nintendo’s beloved plumber, Mario (children of the 90’s represent). He possesses real speed and has demonstrated the capability to “power up,” but he’s also rather stiff and doesn’t have much wiggle to his game. That said, I appreciate his patience and willingness to watch the play unfold, even though that sort of self-restraint doesn’t make for very click-worthy highlight reel. Most scouts project that he’ll be nothing more than NFL back-up, but I think in the right situation CAP’s rather simplistic technique could result in a bounty of production. I don’t foresee him starting in September, but he could be a fantastic value if injuries or other factors allow him to move up the depth chart.
11) Javorius Allen (USC) Allen is big (6’0″ and 221 pounds) and fast (ran a 4.53 second 40 at the Combine), but not terribly strong (as evidenced by his 11 reps at the bench press in Indy). While he can swivel his hips and cut with ease, his running style is upright and lacks urgency. I want to root for “Buck” because his nickname is awesome, but his instincts and lack of focus have me questioning his ability to succeed in the NFL.
12) Jeremy Langford (Michigan State) – The Spartan gave his draft stock a boost after putting up a 40 time of 4.42 seconds in Indy, out-sprinting the rest of the RB competition. As a former WR and CB, Langford can move and shows an aptitude for pass-blocking. However, he’s not terribly physical and just can’t seem to get nasty. His reluctance to take a hit and an inability to drive the pile will have to change if he wants to play with the big boys.
13) Mike Davis (South Carolina) – Replacing Marcus Lattimore in 2013, Davis was beastly. He plowed over defenders each and every Saturday while also showing a natural pass-catching ability. Unfortunately, 2014 was a different story. His numbers went down, his speed waned, and scouts questioned his commitment to conditioning. Whether it was due to a rib injury or a lack of focus, Davis missed an opportunity to erase all doubt at the Combine. His workouts were pedestrian and while he has demonstrated awesome juice and a sweet stiff arm in the past, his current status is regrettably “meh.”
*14) Zach Zenner (South Dakota State) – I love a small school standout. Zenner presents tremendous value for dynasty owners looking to take a flier near the fifth round of their drafts. At 5’11” and 223 pounds, the former jackrabbit is as swift as he is solid. A pre-med major, Zenner is also incredibly intelligent, demonstrating an admirable amount of vision and focus while on the field. He’s a grinder who can break tackles, throw a stiff arm, and stay upright after contact. His frame could use some bulk and his hips need loosening, but given Zenner’s work ethic, I think his game will continue to evolve. My major worry is that he gets shoehorned into playing fullback, which would obviously obliterate his fantasy potential.
15) Josh Robinson (Mississippi State) – Robinson reminds me of a pill bug with hands. At 5’8″ and 217 pounds, he’s a roly poly little thing who, once he gets going, can really pick up speed. He also tucks into himself when he gets hit, further driving home the Armadillidiidae comparison. Having drawn comparisons to Mike Tolbert, Robinson will likely be limited to a change-of-pace role in the pros. As an capable pass-catcher, he projects to have more week-to-week value in PPR leagues.