In the most recent installment of this series, we looked at which positions in the 2015 draft are expected to be strong - early returns have running back, quarterback, defensive end and inside linebacker with rich yields - and posited that the Cowboys can benefit from that strength. To wit: when a position is strong, and the majority of teams are drafting for need (which they are), it means that players at these strong positions will fall. When pursued over the long term, therefore, a strategy of drafting to positional strength yields greater value.
How might this impact the 2015 draft? Think about the above-delineated positions of strength: while the Cowboys have done a lot to shore up their defensive line, nobody thinks they are done with their rebuild; Rod Marinelli, or whoever his replacement is, will need more "rushmen" for this to be a top of the line defense. With Sean Lee's status perpetually in doubt, getting good value on an inside linebacker hardly seems foolish; and when better to draft (and begin to groom) Tony Romo's successor that in a QB-rich 2014 selection meeting?
The other position of strength is running back. DeMarco Murray is currently on the last year of his contract, and one of the foundational tenets of NFl team-building is never to give running backs lucrative second contracts. With this in mind, the increasingly judicious Cowboys could - nay, should - be looking for a new runner in 2014.
Today, we offer you a look at some of the early top candidates. Not surprisingly, the vast majority of the good'uns are juniors. This is true for many positions, but especially so for RBs, who don't require as much developmental time (that's why they tend to succeed as rookies moreso than any other position) and are smart to declare for the draft as soon as possible, to minimize unpaid wear and tear on their bodies. So, without further ado, let's take a look at potential replacements - or backfield mates - for number 29.
Note: Juniors are designated with an *
The Big Three:
*Todd Gurley, Georgia (6-1, 232; 4.54):
Arguably the most complete back in this entire draft class, Gurley boasts an NFL-caliber size/speed combo and has the ability to punish - I mean really punish - defenders physically. NFLDraftScout.com's Rob Rang compares him to the Seahawks' Marshawn Lynch ("just about that action, boss") due to Gurley's impressive combination of balance, burst (he has enough giddyup to blow by defenders) and unabashed power.
In 2013, as a sophomore, Gurley averaged six yards per carry as he ran for 989 yards and 10 touchdowns. He added 30 receptions for 344 yards and five touchdowns in the passing game. Gurley was particularly stout against South Carolina (30-132) and Clemson (12-154) before getting injured; he missed three games, but played well after returning to the lineup.
And that appears to be the key with Gurley: staying healthy. When hale and hearty, he's the most complete and dangerous running back in the country, with the size and athleticism to be an elite feature back at the next level. However, he already shows signs of breaking down, after logging more than 400 touches at the bruising SEC level. With Bulldog QB Aaron Murray now in the NFL, Gurley should be the bell cow of the Bulldogs' offense in 2014.If he stays healthy, he should be the first back off the board.
Here are some highlights from his 2013 campaign:
*Melvin Gordon III, Wisconsin (6-1, 207; 4.54):
Gordon is lightning to Gurley's thunder; he's a big play threat every time he touches the ball, with top-end speed and burst. Gordon boasts blazing speed and excellent tackle-shedding ability to pair with a surprisingly sturdy frame. In 2012 and '13, Gordon stood out while backing up the likes of Montee Ball and James White. In 2013, he averaged a juicy 7.8 yards per carry, tallying 1,609 yards and 12 touchdowns on 206 second-string carries.
Gordon runs low and shows good acceleration and vision. He shows good patience, following his blocks and finding daylight, using excellent balance to break tackles without losing momentum. He is especially dangerous in space, demonstrating elusive at the second level and beyond. On the other hand, he could stand to add weight and, most importantly, has been a non-factor in the passing game, with only one 2013 catch and limited use as a pass protector.
NFL scouts have compared him to Jamaal Charles and Reggie Bush, but he'll have to improve drastically as a receiver before his game will be as complete as those guys. If he stays healthy and productive in 2014, he'll have a great opportunity to earn that comparison at the NFL level.
Want to see Gordon in motion? Check out these highlights:
*T.J. Yeldon, Alabama (6-2, 218; 4.46):
As a true freshman in 2012, Yeldon had an excellent debut campaign, sharing the backfield with (and often outshining ) Eddie Lacy. He logged 175 carries, totalling 1,108 yards and 12 touchdowns, and also caught 11 passes for 131 yards and a score - sufficient to register the best season by a freshman running back in Alabama football's storied history. Last season, in a follow-up effort, Yeldon averaged six yards per carry, gaining 1,235 yards and scoring 14 touchdowns, chipping in 18 catches for 160 yards.
Yeldon isn't a bruiser a la Lacy or Trent Richardson. His game is mostly about fluidity and athleticism. He possesses very good vision and and is a patient yet decisive runner, with the ability to find and cut through holes and very good, if not elite, speed to break long runs. On the downside is the fact that he is an upright runner (a type that historically has a short NFL shelf life) and has had some issues with ball security. Also, knowing he would carry a bigger load in 2013, Yelden bulked up, but it appeared to cost him some quickness and burst. Check him out in the highlight video below:
Nevertheless, with his impressive combination of vision, jump-cuts and acceleration, Yeldon seems poised to join Lacy in the pantheon of Tide running backs who made a successful transition to the NFL.
The Next Tier:
*Mike Davis, South Carolina (5-9, 216; 4.52):
Davis had big shoes to fill, replacing Gamecocks legend Marcus Lattimore. Davis not only managed to fit into Lattimore's shoes but, according to some scouting reports I read, actually grades out higher than Lattimore. As a freshman in 2012, Davis averaged 5.3 yards per carry for 275 yards and two touchdowns; in 2013, Davis averaged 5.8 yards per carry with 1,183 yards and 11 touchdowns. He also had 34 receptions for 352 yards. He was a model of consistency, finishing with seven 100+ yard rushing games.
Davis has strong, powerful legs and a low center of gravity, to help push the pile, and accumulate hard-won extra yards. He uses his compact size to explode through the line, whether a hole exists or not. David has some surprising explosion to go along with his power. He also runs with excellent pad level, and balance to bounce off and run through tackles, and while the stride doesn't make you think he has breakaway speed, he doesn't get caught from behind. He's also a surprisingly good receiver out of the backfield, and may be used more there with the departures of Connor Shaw and Bruce Ellington to the NFL.
Perhaps a Davis highlight reel might provide some visual evidence:
On the downside, his physical style of play led to him getting banged up a lot last year, so he'll need to have a healthy 2014 to demonstrate to scouts that he can handle the rigors of the NFL game at its most bruising position.Nevertheless, he projects to be selected in the top 100 picks next spring.
*Duke Johnson, Miami (5-9, 206; 4.42):
In 2012, Johnson was one of the best freshman in college football, leading the Hurricanes on the ground and averaging 6.8 yards per carry while running for 947 yards and 10 touchdowns. He also caught 27 passes for 221 yards and another score. in 2013, Johnson totaled 920 yards with six scores (6.3 average) in a half-season, before missing the final five games after breaking his ankle against Florida State.
Johnson boasts fantastic quickness and footwork, and has proven to be a freakishly productive runner who can take any carry the distance. Due to size limitations, some scouts might view Johnson as a "scatback" type. This is probably an unfair evaluation, as he added a power element to his game in a 2013 season in which he led the ACC with 3.3 yards after contact per rush. Making him more desirable, Johnson showed himself to be a phenomenal special teams player as a frosh, coming in second in the nation in kick returns with an average of 33 yards per return, and returning two kicks for touchdowns.
The problem is consistency and durability. His broken ankle in 2013 and the fact that he shared carries with Mike James in 2012 make him an unknown quantity. To NFL Scouts, Johnson is that much-coveted quantity: a playmaker with the ability to break a game open. Check out these game-breaking plays:
The primary question that Johnson must answer is what he is: merely a specialty player or a guy capable of handling a big load at the next level. In 2014, he'll be hoping to put in a full season en route to an early-round draft slot.
Karlos Williams, Florida State (6-1, 219; 4.42)
Karlos Williams. He's a tremendous athlete, he has great potential, and he projects to a great size/speed combo. But there are a whole lotta question marks.
For his first two seasons in Tallahassee, Williams was a member of the Semonoles' secondary as a backup safety and kick returner before shifting over to running back early in the 2013 season. In FSU's offensive backfield, he found a home, wowing fans and scouts with an electric 2013 in which he averaged a sweet 8.0 yards per carry while sharing time with (and taking carries away from) Devonta Freeman and James Wilder, Jr. On the year, Williams had 91 carries for 730 yards and 11 touchdowns, adding eight catches for 63 yards in the passing game.
Williams possesses a great blend of speed and power, with the ability to make big plays by the handful. Perhaps due to his background as a defensive back, he shows off excellent agility and balance, especially considering his size. He also has shown to be a scintillating return man with superb speed and vision. On the other hand, he is very raw; with only one year toting the rock on his resume, Williams will have to harness his instincts by honing his technique in 2014.
Thankfully, there is a lot to work with, as is evident from Williams' highlight reel:
The Best of the Rest:
Ameer Abdullah, Nebraska (5-9, 195; 4.48)
Abdullah could have declared for the 2013 draft (he reportedly was given a high draft grade), but decided to stay and finish his degree. In 2013, Abdullah finished his junior season with 1,690 rushing yards, his second consecutive 1,000-yard season, the highest yardage total for a Husker since Ahman Green in 1997, and the fourth-best total in school history. His eleven 100-yard rushing games tied the Nebraska school record. Abdullah is fast and surprisingly powerful for his size, and boasts top-flite agility. In addition, Abdullah's return skills should intrigue NFL clubs; he was Nebraska's primary returner as a freshman and sophomore.
Jeremy Langford, Michigan State (6-0, 205; 4.47)
Like Karlos Williams, Langford started his Spartan career on the defensive side of the ball, before converting to RB full time. in 2013, he was the Michigan State offense's workhorse, averaging 4.9 yards per carry on his way to eight straight 100-yard games, 1,422 yards and 18 touchdowns. He lacks top-level explosiveness but has good vision and consistently adds yardage after contact. Plus, Langford appears able to handle duties in an NFL-style passing offense; he is a solid blocker and gathered in 28 receptions for 157 yards and a score in 2013.
Corey Grant, Auburn (5-10; 205; 4.34)
An Alabama native, Grant spent one year with the Crimson Tide before transferring to their hated rival in pursuit of playing time. A quiet contender to be one of the breakout players in the SEC, Grant notched a staggering 9.8 yards per carry in 2013. Grant's best feature is his speed; with a special extra gear, he's a big play waiting to happen
Terrance Magee, LSU (5-9, 214; 4.57)
Although much of the attention in the Bayou is going to be on rookie stud Leonard Fournette, its Magee who has a developed NFL skill set. Last season, Magee averaged 7.3 yards per carry in a limited role as a member of a deep backfield that featured future Bengals second-rounder Jeremy Hill at the top of the depth chart. With an opportunity for a bigger role, Magee could be in line for a big season.
Bryron Marshall, Oregon (5-9, 201; 4.47)
When we think of Oregon running backs, the first image that comes to mind is of a speedy, undersized guy running in the open field. Marshall breaks that mold; he's more like LaGarrette Blount than De'Anthony Thomas - a between-the-tackles runner with a powerful legs. That said, he's not all power; Marshall has a nice stutter-step, the burst to get quickly to the second level, and enough speed to break free for long gains. As a sophomore, he the team with 1,038 yards and 14 scores. Marshall could be in line for a huge season in 2014.
There you have it folks: a gallery of potential future Cowboys running backs. Any of them strike your fancy? Make you uneasy? Go to the comments section and let 'er rip...!