Positional draft analysis: Running backs

The Vikings could have a need at running back and the timing couldn’t be better. This year provides a very deep draft class at the position with intriguing options throughout each round. We review the top 10.

VIKINGS RUNNING BACKS – Adrian Peterson, Jerick McKinnon, Matt Asiata, Joe Banyard, Zach Line (FB), DuJuan Harris, Dominique Williams, Henry Josey.

VIKINGS POSITION NEED – Everything here hinges on whether the Vikings and Peterson can mend their fences. That is the $13 million question heading into 2015. If A.P. comes back, the Vikings will be a legitimate playoff contender. If he goes away, the Vikings have good running backs as a Plan B option, but it won’t be the same. Peterson has been as dominant a running back as the NFL has seen in the last decade. If he doesn’t come back, the void he leaves behind will be significant and the Vikings will have to take a committee approach that may include a Day 2 draft pick … or even a first-round pick if the Vikings trade back from their current spot at No. 11.

POSITION ANALYSIS – The last running back taken in the first round was Trent Richardson, whom Cleveland infamously selected with the third pick of the 2012 draft. Over the last two seasons, the NFL has set records for the latest a running back has come off the board. That is likely to end this year. Georgia’s Todd Gurley would have been a sure mid-first round selection barring a torn ACL. But between him and Wisconsin’s Melvin Gordon, there is the potential for two first-round picks coming at running back. But it won’t stop there. This is arguably the deepest running back class in the last five years. Day 2 has become the annual feeding frenzy at the position and this year the frenzy will be significant on the second day.

THE CREAM OF THE CROP
Melvin Gordon, Wisconsin, 6-0¾, 215 – A fourth-year junior who played in three games as a true freshman before redshirting…Finished his college career with 631 carries for 4,915 yards (a whopping 7.8-yard average) and 45 touchdowns and caught 22 passes for 228 yards and three TDs…Didn’t become a full-time starter until last year, as he rushed 343 times for 2,587 yards, caught 19 passes for 153 yards and scored an amazing 32 touchdowns…One of three Heisman Trophy finalists last year…Has extremely good balance and field vision…Accelerates to top speed very quickly and hard to stop in the open field…Is patient and waits for holes to develop and then hits them hard…Has surprising power and consistently finishes runs moving forward…Doesn’t have ideal bulk strength and has a high-cut build that likely won’t allow him to add much bulk…Played in a system that has consistently produced running backs that get drafted high but often disappoint at the next level…Very limited in the passing game and doesn’t have natural hands as a receiver…Needs a lot of work in his pass blocking…Ran a 4.52 40 at the Combine with 19 reps of 225 pounds, a 35-inch vertical jump and a 10-6 broad jump.
PROJECTION: A Jamaal Charles-type back who has the ability to break the long run at any time. He may break the drought of running backs not going in the first round because he’s good enough to warrant first-round selection.

Todd Gurley, Georgia, 6-0¾, 222 – Third-year junior…Started 28 of 32 career games, rushing 510 times for3,285 yards, caught 65 passes for 615 yards and scored 42 touchdowns, as well as returning two kickoffs for TDs…Missed four games in 2014 after it was found he took money to sign memorabilia…Suffered a torn left ACL in November and is still a long way from being 100 percent…A muscular specimen who is the prototype of the NFL power back…Squares his shoulders and rarely gets taken down by the first player who makes contact with him…Has very good speed for a north-south power runner…Is a dual threat as a receiver and rusher…Coming off a torn ACL will be a medical red flag for some teams…Runs too upright and opens himself up to big hits…Isn’t a polished pass blocker…Took a lot of punishment in the SEC and will have some durability concerns…Did not work out at the Combine while rehabbing his torn ACL.
PROJECTION: A Marshawn Lynch clone who was expected to be the top running back coming off the board and, if a team is convinced he is healing well, he still might be.

THE NEXT LEVEL
Ameer Abdullah, Nebraska, 5-8¾, 205 – Fourth-year senior…Three-year starter who had 771 carries for 4,438 yards, caught 72 passes for 679 yards and scored 43 touchdowns in that span…Finished second in career rushing yards at Nebraska, behind only Mike Rozier…Has very quick feet and can cut on a dime…Has great field vision and is patient hitting the hole and accelerates quickly when he plants his foot and bursts forward…Is a three-down back who is a strong receiver…Is undersized for an NFL back and might be devalued by some teams as a result of that…Has a history of fumbling…Not viewed as the type of back that can be an every-down featured back in the NFL…Ran a disappointing 4.6 40 at the Combine with 24 reps of 225 pounds (tied for third among running backs), a 42½-inch vertical jump and a 10-foot-10 broad jump.
PROJECTION: A player who reminds you of Ahmad Bradshaw, he may have to take the approach coaches have used with Bradshaw, playing him in a two-man platoon to get the most out of him. But that will likely mean he remains on the board well into Day 2 of the draft.

Jay Ajayi, Boise State, 5-11¾, 221 – Fourth-year junior…A two-year starter who rushed 598 times for 3,248 yards, caught 72 for 757 yards and scored 51 touchdowns in that span…Born in London and moved to the U.S. in 2000…Tore his ACL in 2011…Has good balance and field vision…Has explosive burst and can make jump cuts and get back to full speed quickly…Can take hits without being knocked backwards and typically gets the most out of every run…Bulked up in college and has effectively maxed out on how much more bulk he can add and isn’t an ideal between-the-tackles runner…Too quick to bounce runs outside and spends too much time running laterally…Has taken a pounding over the last two years, which will have some questioning his durability…Ran a 4.57 40 at the Combine with 19 reps, a 39-inch vertical jump and a 10-1 broad jump.
PROJECTION: A dynamic runner who can be a productive pro, but he will likely have to be part of a system that highlights his skills and doesn’t overuse him.

Tevin Coleman, Indiana, 5-11½, 206 – Third-year junior…Exploded in 2014, carrying 270 times for 2,036 (a 7.5-yard average), caught 25 passes for 141 yards and scored 15 touchdowns…First-team All-Big 10 in 2014, a finalist for the Doak Walker Award and received two first-place votes for the Heisman Trophy…An aggressive runner who keeps his shoulder square and runs through defenders…Is a long strider who gets to top speed quickly…Has the ability to change directions without losing speed…Has the type of body that can’t add much more bulk…Runs upright and leaves himself open for blowup hits, which could lead to durability concerns…Needs to improve his pass protection a lot…Did not run or jump at the Combine with a turf toe injury, but did 22 reps of 225 pounds.
PROJECTION: An underrated prospect, he does a lot of things well and could end up going higher than we have him projected.

Duke Johnson, Miami, 5-9¼, 207 – Third-year junior…Became a full-time starter last year, rushing 242 times for 1,652 yards, catching 38 passes for 421 yards and scored 13 touchdowns…Miami’s all-time leader in all-purpose yards…Had 14 100-yard games in 25 starts…Has top-end burst and acceleration through the hole…Is a patient runner who waits for holes to develop naturally and doesn’t force plays and run into his blockers…Has solid power, makes strong cuts and needs to be wrapped up to be brought down…Doesn’t have the size to be a three-down back and will struggle at times between the tackles in the NFL…Has some durability concerns because he has a pretty long list of injuries, including nagging in-game dings that happened often…Not a strong blocker or pass protector…Chose not lift at the Combine, but ran a 4.54 40 with a 33½-inch vertical jump and a 10-1 broad jump.
PROJECTION: Has big-play ability, but concerns about his size and strength will keep him on the draft board well into the second day of the draft.

THE BEST OF THE REST
T.J. Yeldon, Alabama, 6-1¼, 226 – Third-year junior…Finished his career with 576 carries for 3,32 yards, 46 receptions for 494 yards and 39 TDs…Has excellent burst and can get to top speed in a hurry…Sees cutback lanes and hits them with authority…Has good intangibles, the power to run inside, the speed to run outside and the skill to break the long run…His production went down his final two seasons after a tremendous freshman season…Is a big liability when it comes to fumbling and will have to do a lot of work on ball security…Will be tentative at times to stick his foot in the dirt and make decisive cuts behind the line and get trapped too often…Ran a 4.61 40 at the Combine with 22 reps of 225 pounds, a 36-inch vertical jump and a 9-9 broad jump.
PROJECTION: As a freshman, Yeldon looked like he was going to be the next big thing coming out of college, but with diminishing returns and the lack of NFL production by the last two featured backs from Bama (Mark Ingram and Trent Richardson), his stock won’t be as high as it seemed it would be two years ago. But he has the skills to be the “steal of the draft” if he regains his form of 2012.

Javoris “Buck” Allen, USC, 6-0½, 221 – Fourth-year junior…Didn’t become a full-time starter until 2014, when he rushed 276 times for 1,489 yards, caught 41 passes for 458 yards and scored 12 touchdowns…First-team All-Pac 12 in 2014…A muscular back with power and thighs like tree trunks…Has good burst into the hole and initiates contact with defenders…Played in an NFL style offense and makes his money between the tackles…Is high-cut and gives defenders a target to hit, which often leads to fumbles in the NFL…Doesn’t have great balance and struggles when asked to improvise…Doesn’t have sustained breakaway speed to take a run 80 yards for a score…Ran a 4.53 40 at the Combine with just 11 reps of 225 pounds, a 35½-inch vertical jump and a 10-1 broad jump.
PROJECTION: He has a lot of skills that translate to the NFL, but he will be a banger that doesn’t have the elite sustained speed, which will drop him to the end of the Day 2 of the draft.

David Cobb, Minnesota, 5-11, 229– Fourth-year senior…Two-year starter who had 551 carries for 2,826 yards, 33 receptions for 336 yards, and 20 touchdowns in that span…Has good size and looks like an NFL running back…Has great vision and earned a lot of yards after contact, doing so behind an offensive line that wasn’t nearly as strong as the players ranked ahead of him…Initiates contact and runs through tackles consistently…Doesn’t have elite burst or acceleration…A one-gear runner who struggles to get away from defenders once they get their hands on him…Can be sloppy in his blocking and pass protection duties…Suffered a quad strain at the Combine, which limited him, resulting in a dismal 40 time of 4.81, along with a 38½-inch vertical jump and a 10-1 broad jump.
PROJECTION: A durable Everyman who doesn’t jump out on tape as much as some of the other prospects, but when you look at the stat sheet at the end of the game, you’re impressed. He may still be on the board at the start of Day 3, but has S.O.D. intangibles for the team that drafts him.

Jeremy Langford, Michigan State, 5-11¾, 208 – Fifth-year senior…Two-year starter who had 568 carries for 2,944 yards, 39 receptions for 219 yards and a whopping 41 touchdowns in that span…Had 12 straight 100-yard rushing games against Big 10 opponents, including each of the last 10 in his career…Has good vision, balance and finishing strength…Incredible production in terms of yards and touchdowns – 41 TDs in 27 games…An intriguing skill set, having played running back, wide receiver, cornerback and special teams at MSU…Doesn’t have elite burst and takes too long to hit top speed, despite having a great 40 time (see below)…Is not a patient runner and runs up the backs of his offensive linemen too often…Doesn’t make people miss and gets slowed down after contact too often…Didn’t lift at the Combine due to a right shoulder injury, but ran a 4.43 40 with a 34½-inch vertical jump and a 9-10 broad jump.
PROJECTION: He increased his stock at the Combine with his 40 time, but he doesn’t play as fast as he timed out. He has a lot to offer and will likely be viewed as a steal in the middle rounds.

OTHERS TO WATCH
Cameron Artis-Payne, Auburn, 5-9¾, 212
Dominique Brown, Louisville, 6-2, 234
John Crockett, North Dakota State, 5-11¾, 234
Mike Davis, South Carolina, 5-9¼, 217
David Johnson, Northern Iowa, 6-0¾, 224
Matt Jones, Florida, 6-2½, 231
Terrence Magee, LSU, 5-8½, 213
Josh Robinson, Mississippi State, 5-8, 217
Karlos Williams, Florida State, 6-0¾, 230
Zach Zenner, South Dakota State, 5-11½, 223

SCOUT.COM DRAFT RANKINGS

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