Putting too much stock in a running back prospect is a great way to ruin an NFL team. But there are a few skilled players out there who could help their new employers beat the football odds in 2015.
Their names echo through the halls of football history. Lawrence Phillips. Ki-Jana Carter. Joe Profit. These are just three of the running backs who were taken way too early in the NFL Draft, then failed to produce in the pros. Why waste a high draft pick on arguably the most fungible position in football? Even worse, why trade your entire draft to move up and get one? Ask Mike Ditka and Ricky Williams how that worked out.
For the most part, teams have learned their lesson. Okay, maybe not the Cleveland Browns (Trent Richardson, No. 3 in 2012). But it’s pretty rare these days that a running back gets taken with an early first-round pick. In fact, there were no running backs taken at all in the first round the past two years. Will that change in 2015? Maybe the first two guys on the following list can step in right away and help his team crush the NFL odds. Maybe.
1. Melvin Gordon, Wisconsin
It’s not quite the same situation as we have at quarterback, where we’ve slotted Jameis Winston second behind Marcus Mariota. But we’re putting Gordon at the top of our running back list even though some others may disagree. In this case, you can make the argument that Gordon (6-foot-1, 210 pounds) is still the top talent available at this position. He easily led the FBS in 2014 with 2,587 yards (7.5 yards per carry) and 29 TDs, and he’s got a great attitude as well. The most logical landing spot is with the San Diego Chargers (9-7 SU, 7-9 ATS) at No. 17.
2. Todd Gurley, Georgia
Gurley’s transgressions in college are a lot more reminiscent of Johnny Manziel than Winston, but that’s enough of a red flag for us. He was suspended four games for signing autographs – an NCAA no-no. Gurley (6-foot, 230 pounds) also tore up his ACL last year, and has had ankle and hip troubles in the past. But Gurley just might be the most talented running back in this year’s draft. He’ll probably end up taken late in the first round, possibly by the offense-happy Dallas Cowboys (12-4 SU, 10-6 ATS) at No. 27.
3. Tevin Coleman, Indiana
There’s a bit of a drop-off from Gordon and Gurley to our No. 3 running back. Coleman (6-foot, 210 pounds) finished second to Gordon last year with 2,036 rushing yards at the same 7.5 yards a pop, adding 15 TDs for the Hoosiers. He has a little bit of everything you need to succeed in the pros, and coaches love his attitude. Sounds like someone who could work well with the Seattle Seahawks (12-4 SU, 9-6-1 ATS) at No. 31 if Marshawn Lynch decides to hang up his golden cleats.
4. T.J. Yeldon, Alabama
It’s hard to go wrong with a Crimson Tide program that’s churned out the likes of Eddie Lacy (2013) and Mark Ingram (2011) – okay, and Richardson. Yeldon (6-foot-2, 220 pounds) split the carries with Lacy in 2012 and had to do it again last year with Derrick Henry, who sometimes looked like the better back. Yeldon also needs to work on ball security. Otherwise, he’s a fluid runner with a good head on his shoulders. The Minnesota Vikings (7-9 SU, 10-6 ATS) could scoop him up in the second round. Adrian Peterson needs to be replaced soon.
5. Duke Johnson, Miami
Our designated sleeper NFL pick: Johnson (5-foot-9, 205 pounds) is a bit short for the position, but he runs like the wind and picks up tons of all-purpose yards, so feel free to make comparisons to Darren Sproles. Johnson could go anywhere in the top four rounds; we’ll hazard a guess that the Jacksonville Jaguars (3-13 SU, 6-9-1 ATS) take the plunge in Round 3.