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NFL Draft Cheatsheet: RBs

by Raymond Summerlin
Updated On: October 4, 2018, 4:04 pm ET

NFL draft season is an exciting time filled with Draft Breakdown cut-ups, egocentric twitter wars and ridiculous anonymous “scout” quotes. There are very few things I love more.


Despite the glory that is draft season, it is difficult at times to wade through the oceans of scouting reports to find the pearls of useful fantasy information. To that end, I have created this NFL Draft Cheat Sheet to answer every important question about the running backs who will hear their named called during the draft.


Who is the best?


This is the deepest draft class in recent memory. There are at least seven running backs I can see as solid starters in the NFL, and there are a few more that have the potential to be big-time contributors. There is one player that is clearly head-and-shoulders above the rest, however, and that is Georgia RB Todd Gurley.


Gurley is a prototype with all the assets teams are looking for in a foundational running back. He is a big, powerful back that can wear down defenses and punish them in the fourth quarter. He effortlessly runs through arm tackles, consistently pushes the pile after contact and defensive backs legitimately look scared to tackle him in the open field. In addition to the power, Gurley has the quick feet and agility to defeat penetration in the backfield and the burst do destroy pursuit angles at the corner. If he gets into the open field, Gurley has the speed to take it all the way to the house.  


It is not all roses for Gurley. He is a high-cut runner that needs to be more consistent running behind his pads, and he can be impatient at times, running into the back of the line instead of waiting for his blocks to develop. There is also the injury history. He missed three games with an ankle injury in 2013 and tore his ACL last season. The injury history is not great, but the only real concern would be if the ACL injury saps some of his quickness or speed. ACL injuries are simply not the scares they were in the past, and his knee gives me zero pause.


Gurley is the best running back prospect since Adrian Peterson, and if not for the ACL tear which could delay the start of his career, he would be a consensus top-ten selection. I am usually against taking running backs with the top overall pick in Dynasty rookie drafts, but for Gurley I may make an exception. He is that good.


Wisconsin RB Melvin Gordon is the other name that occasionally gets put on top of the running back rankings. Gordon unquestionably has an interesting skill set that will likely prove successful in the NFL, but he is well behind Gurley in my eyes.


The most stunning asset Gordon possesses is his burst. When he decides to put his foot down and go, he hits hit top speed very quickly and has the juice to take it all the way to the house. The problem is Gordon can be hesitant at the line, especially on inside runs, and was tackled behind the line of scrimmage way too often. Those stuff plays could also be a function of power, which could at best be described as average. Gordon’s acceleration allows him to burst through arm tackles, but he will very rarely break a squared up tackle.


Gordon was a non-factor in the passing game until last season but did show some improvement in that area. He will never be a natural pass catcher who can be utilized down the field, but he has the skills in the open field to be very useful in the screen and short-passing game. He is also a willing if not skillful blocker who usually goes for the kill shot instead of squaring up his man, giving a punch and sustaining the block.


Like most backs, Gordon is not the finished product and will have a lot of work to do once he reaches the NFL, especially in the passing game. He does have some elite physical traits, and those should allow him to have a solid to very good NFL career. He is the second best running back in this draft but lags well behind Gurley.


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Who will contribute most as a fantasy player year one?


Landing spot is obviously the most important factor when answering this question, but prior to the draft my money is on Miami RB Duke Johnson.


Duke does a lot of things well, but one of the most impressive parts of his game is his ability as a receiver. His burst and movement skills allow him to create good separation on even intermediate routes, and Johnson has receiver’s hands and the ability to track the ball over the shoulder downfield. If he falls in the correct situation – hello Chan Gailey – he could make an instant impact in the receiving game.


Like Gordon, Johnson’s best trait as a runner is his acceleration. He goes from zero to oh my as quickly as anyone in this draft class, and matched with his decisive style that acceleration makes him a great fit for a one-cut running scheme. Despite his small stature, Johnson is a tough back that uses his burst and lateral agility to defeat angles and break tackles. If a defender gets him squared up, Johnson is going down, but he does a great job of avoiding that squared hit. He is not a pile mover by any stretch and will go down too easily at times, but he is at least functional between the tackles.  


The real question for Johnson’s long-term fantasy value will be how the coaching staff views him. He may be shoehorned into a C.J. Spiller or Gio Bernard role that would severely limit his upside. Johnson can be more than that, and he could be a good value at the top of the second round in Dynasty rookie drafts.


Who has the most upside?


Outside of the top two backs, the player with the most upside is Boise St. RB Jay Ajayi. An aggressive 6-foot, 221 pound runner with a great combination of size and speed, Ajayi is probably the most prototypical back in this class outside Todd Gurley.


The most impressive part of Ajayi’s game is his movement skills, which rival most of the smaller backs in this draft class. He has quick and light feet that allow him to change direction easily and link multiple moves together in the open field. Though he is not a powerful runner, Ajayi has elite balance and the ability to bounce off indirect hits and keep moving forward. An improving receiver out of the backfield, Ajayi was used much more in the passing game last season, and if he can improve his often lackadaisical pass protection style, he could be a three-down-type back.


Ajayi can be an impatient runner and does have a penchant for bouncing runs outside, but he had a couple runs in the bowl game against Arizona that showed nice inside vision and patience to let his blocks develop. He is also a bit lean in the lower body and tends to go down more easily than expected considering his size. Finally, he had serious ball security issues his senior year and will have to clean that area of his game up before he is trusted as a featured back in the NFL.


The biggest issue affecting Ajayi’s draft stock is not anything he does on the field. “Several executives” have “removed him from consideration or backed way off because of how their medical staff evaluated his knee.” Ajayi tore his ACL in 2011, and there appears to be some concern he could need microfracture surgery in the future. These reports could simply be the noise we always hear leading into the draft, but if Ajayi takes a big tumble, his medicals will likely be the culprit.


If his medicals check out, Ajayi has the profile of a foundational runner at the next level. Completely healthy he is probably the third-best back in this draft, and the shelf life for running backs is so small even two or three good years from Ajayi would be enough to return value if he begins to slip into the early second round of rookie drafts.



Who has the highest floor?


This draft has a lot of backs I expect to have good careers, but in the normal constructs of the “floor/ceiling” discussion, Alabama RB T.J. Yeldon and Minnesota RB David Cobb fit the bill as high-floor players.


Yeldon has the higher floor of the two. Despite his somewhat limited physical skills overall, Yeldon is able to create yards with his patient and refined running style. He does an excellent job setting up his blocks and has decent burst once he decides to put his foot in the ground and go. He also has great foot quickness that allows him to pick his way through traffic inside the tackles.


Despite those great traits, Yeldon is not a burner that will be able to threaten the corner at the next level, and despite his decent size he is not a player that will consistently break tackles or push the pile. Even so, Yeldon has the running instincts to be an above-average runner in the NFL, and I would be surprised if he did not have a long career.


Cobb is a bit riskier than Yeldon because I do not think Cobb knows what kind of back he wants to be. A big runner with middling speed but good burst and lateral agility for his size, Cobb seems much more likely to try to avoid players in the open field rather than using his size and power to create extra yards. It is not that Cobb is afraid of contact, and he does a good job of breaking first contact near the line of scrimmage. It is more he trusts his ability to make people miss in the open field, and as a result he plays much more like a small back than you would expect from an almost 230-pound player.


I saw similar things from Le’Veon Bell at Michigan State, and he eventually remedied the problem by losing a lot of weight, gaining a bit of burst and turning into a more explosive running back. I am not sure Cobb will take the same route, but there is at least a chance he could change his body and turn into a more explosive player. Even if he does not, Cobb has good enough physical traits and instincts as a runner to be a solid starter in the league. Add in his ability as a receiver, and there is a chance he can land a job as a three-down workhorse somewhere.


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Who is the most overrated?


Normally I hesitate at this question. Every player that is being considered in the NFL Draft has traits that make them interesting, and that makes this question one that I can get wrong in a big way. This year, though, I have no reservations saying Indiana RB Tevin Coleman is the most overrated running back in this class.


Coleman is a classic one-skill player. He is extremely fast in a straight line, and being extremely fast in a straight line allowed him to rack up a ton of huge runs in college. That was college, though, and the open spaces Coleman likes to run fast in are much harder to find in the NFL. Chris Johnson, one of the best big-play backs in recent memory, has only managed 19 runs of 40-plus yards his entire career to this point, and Johnson has much better quickness and change-of-direction skills than Coleman.


It is safe to say Coleman will not be ripping off 40-yard touchdown runs, which made up 27% of his collegiate yard production, on a regular basis in the NFL.  That means he will have to be a more consistent carry-to-carry runner to hold onto any type of workload. Since he struggles to create yards on his own, the only way he is more consistent in the pros is if he lands in a great line situation like Dallas. If he lands in a place with a middling to poor offensive line, he will struggle regardless of the workload.


UNI RB David Johnson is also being overrated by the draft community, but certainly not the extent of Coleman. Johnson does have some interesting traits. He is a very good receiver out of the backfield that creates mismatches against linebackers. He also has nice buildup speed and can be a load to bring down once he gets moving in the open field.


The problem is Johnson does not appear to have very good instincts as a runner and does not appear to be comfortable with contact. That is not a great combination in a running back. Likely better suited to an H-back role in the NFL, Johnson is unlikely to hold much fantasy value in the years to come.


Who is the most underrated?


Nebraska RB Ameer Abdullah is widely viewed as a top running back in this class, so having him in the underrated bin may seem a bit odd. The reason I place him here, though, is I feel he may be undervalued in fantasy circles.  At just 5’9, 205, some people view Abdullah as a perimeter player that will fill a niche role in the NFL, which would limit his fantasy value. There are two things to remember before making that assumption.


First, it is not necessarily a great thing for running backs to be tall. A lot of tall backs are unable to play with a low-enough pad level to avoid big hits and consistently deliver power. If given the choice, I would rather a running back that is 5’10 than one who is 6’2. Second, the idea of a “workhorse” back is an antiquated one. Only 13 backs averaged more than 15 carries a game last season, and only three had enough carries per game to hit 300 over a full slate. Even if running backs stayed healthy for a full season consistently, there would be very few 300-carry backs.


Abdullah’s weight is way more important than his height, and while 205 is not big by running back standards, on Abdullah’s frame it is not dramatically slight. More importantly, Abdullah is a tough and aggressive runner that fights for yards on inside runs. He is not a pile mover by any stretch, but much like Duke Johnson he is able to create yards after contact through agility, balance and pure effort. He fails to beat first contact enough to make his living inside the tackles, but it is not like he will never be asked to run inside.


The one aspect of the game Abdullah’s size will matter is as a pass blocker, and that is the real concern for him turning into a traditional “three-down” back. The reality is few of those exist anymore anyway, and an explosive 12-to-15 touches in a Gio Bernard-like role is valuable in fantasy. I could see Abdullah carving out that role early in his career. That said he is still behind Gurley, Gordon, Johnson, Ajayi, Yeldon and Cobb on my board.


Texas RB Malcolm Brown is a player much further down the list that is being undervalued. After coming to Texas as a highly-touted recruit, Brown struggled while the program crumbled around him under Mack Brown and could not find his footing in one year with Charlie Strong. After being so highly thought of coming out of high school, his underwhelming career has people sleeping on the talent.


Brown is not a dynamic runner that will wow anyone with speed, but that is not the only way to succeed. Brown is a tough, downhill runner that gains yards after contact and knows how to finish runs. He is not shifty, but he does have enough wiggle to avoid penetration, and he had enough burst to get the corner on designed outside runs in college.  


I see Brown as Stevan Ridley type who will be a much better in the NFL than in college. He could make a very similar impact to Ridley early in his career if he lands in a good situation, and he can be had for a song in Dynasty drafts. He will be a big-time target in my rookie drafts this summer.


What small school prospects have big potential?


This is not a great year for small-school running backs, but my favorite by far is South Dakota St. RB Zach Zenner. Zenner is a classic one-cut runner with good burst through the hole and decent long speed despite a poor showing at the combine. He will not make many people miss, but Zenner has the power and balance to run through arm tackles with ease. He is also a plus pass catcher and does good work in pass protection as well.


Zenner will need to find the right system, but in a primarily zone blocking scheme he could do serious damage. Depending on landing spot, he will be a great value in the later rounds of Dynasty drafts this summer.


A player getting a lot of buzz because of his huge production as a collegiate player is Azusa Pacific RB Terrell Watson, but I am not really on board. Standing 6’2, 240, Watson has decent speed and agility for a big man, and his potential as a power-speed hybrid is very interesting.


The problem is Watson was able to get away with a lot of things in college that simply will not fly in the pros. Playing against much smaller competition, it was not an issue Watson ran with terrible pad level, but he will not be able to break as many tackles and deliver his potential power as effectively against NFL defenders. Because he played against slower competition, Watson tends to bounce runs to the outside almost immediately instead of patiently waiting for his block to develop. He has decent speed for a big man, but he will struggle to get the corner consistently at the next level, and he certainly will not be able to defeat pursuit angles like he did in college.


Watson has an interesting physical profile and an excellent history of production on his side, but he will be a work in progress in the NFL. Keep an eye on him if he falls in a rookie draft, but I imagine the hype will be too high this draft season.


Bold Prediction


Duke Johnson is drafted by the Jets and leads the team in running back touches next season. That is right. I am calling both the player’s destination and workload. There is zero chance this works out.


If Johnson does end up in New York, there is a decent chance he could find himself in a C.J. Spiller-like role in Chan Gailey’s offense. He would thrive in that situation, and I would love the fit if it happens. I would also love Johnson’s fit in Detroit. To be honest, I may just love Duke. 

Raymond Summerlin
Raymond Summerlin is a football writer for Rotoworld.com. He can be found on Twitter at @RMSummerlin.