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Cowboys 2015 Draft Targets: Alabama RB T.J. Yeldon

Because there has been such a high correlation in recent years between the top collegians invited to Valley Ranch for pre-draft visits and who the Cowboys end up drafting, it's important to know as much as possible about these players. As a service to you, BTB offers a series of detailed scouting reports on these players, compiled from the work of top draft analysts. Today, we look at Alabama RB T.J. Yeldon

Beth Hall-USA TODAY Sports

Timothy "T.J." Yeldon made an immediate impact upon arrival in Tuscaloosa. In 2012, as a true freshman, he served as Eddie Lacy's back-up but saw considerable action, toting the rock 175 times for 1,108 yards and 12 touchdowns (becoming the only freshman in school history to eclipse the thousand yard mark), earning Freshman All-American honors.

The following season, with Lacy off to the NFL, Yeldon became the Crimson Tide starter, amassing 1,235 yards and 14 rushing scores, garnering First Team All-SEC laurels. In 2014, Yeldon battled injuries, starting only ten games. He rushed for the lowest per-carry average of his collegiate career (5.0 yards per), and failed to gain 1,000 yards for the first time in his career, finishing with 979 yards and 11 touchdowns. Still, it was enough to gain him Second Team All-SEC honors.

Yeldon is an instinctive, athletic back who displays very good foot quickness; he's a small-striding big man. Perhaps because of this, his lateral agility and movement skills are top-notch: he almost floats as he runs, making second-level defenders miss with quick, balanced cuts. Plus, he's a well-developed pass catcher and pass protector, and is more likely than other college backs to be able to step in and hold his own on third downs.

But it's not all champagne and roses here. Although he is a capable runner between the tackles, Yeldon is much better in space; in the hole, he struggles to make guys miss. If he is to succeed in an offense such as the Cowboys', Yeldon will need to be more decisive; too often, he waits for plays to develop rather than sticking his foot in the ground and hitting the hole. He's also had some fumbling problems and, while a good open field runner, lacks the extra gear that would make him truly dangerous.

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Want to scout like a boss? Let's start by looking at his measurables:

Height Weight Arms Hands 40yd 10yd Bench Vert Broad 3Cone 20ss SPARQ (%)
6' 1" 226 31⅝" 9" 4.61 1.63 22 36" 117" 7.19 4.22 118.2 (40.1)

And here they are in the form of a spider graph, courtesy of the folks at Mockdraftable.com:

And over at Draft Breakdown, they have four of Yeldon's games on video, two each from the 2013 and 2014 seasons. From 2013, watch him face off versus Virginia Tech (17-75 and a touchdown) and Oklahoma (17-72 and a score); from last season, check him out against Auburn (19-127, two TDs) and West Virginia (23-126 two TDs)

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Let's see what our panel of scouts has to say about Yeldon's game:

Gary Horton (ESPN.com) 7th-ranked RB; 69th overall:

Competitiveness: Good effort in all areas. Not an overpowering runner, but works hard to gain yards after contact. Does a great job of fighting for yards along the sidelines, and of locating the pylon at the goal line. Ball security is the biggest issue here. Ball security improved in 2014 (0.9 fumble percentage compared to 1.3 fumble percentage during first two seasons). Showed a lot of toughness playing through nagging injuries in 2014.

Vision/Patience: Patient. Allows blocks to develop. But can be too patient at times (occasionally hesitates or looks to make an extra cut when it's unnecessary). Above average overall vision. Senses cutback lane. Does a good job of anticipating second cut when he's working through initial hole.

Agility/Acceleration: Creates a lot of unavailable yards with excellent lateral agility and stop-start ability. Very light on feet. Flexible ankles. Can change directions on a dime. Outstanding job of making penetrating defenders miss with quick jump-cut or lateral cut. Seamlessly strings together multiple cuts. Slips through small creases, and displays good acceleration to and through the hole. Top-end speed is good, but not elite.

Power/Balance: Runs with good balance and forward lean. Keeps legs under him, and does a good job of lowering pads before contact. Naturally keeps feet moving after contact, and displays adequate power to break attempted arm tackles. However, is not an overpowering runner. Not going to break a high percentage of tackles. Struggles to push pile on short-yardage runs.

Passing Game: Can improve route running. Does a solid job of working back to QB after initial breaks down. Tends to body catch when facing QB. But shows ability to high point ball and also to adjust. Has made multiple over-head catches on tapes we've studied. SHows good body control working sideline (keeping feet in). Quickly transitions up field, and is shifty in space; can create after catch. Work in progress in pass pro, but there's no questioning his willingness, and he has enough size/strength to develop. Gets in adequate position, but frequently allows pads to rise. Flashes good initial pop to jar oncoming defender, but needs to re-sink hips and keep feet moving after initial contact in order to sustain.

Intangibles: Handles his business, and is very humble. Does not like spotlight, and not very active on social media. Leads by example. Well-liked and respected by teammates and coaches. No off-the-field issues to our knowledge.

Matt Waldman (RSP): 5th-ranked RB:

...Yeldon is capable of consistent, high-level production. One compelling reason to get him on the field immediately is his pass protection. Whether it is stoning a linebacker screaming through the a-gap with a perfect punch or using leverage and hands to funnel a defensive end outside the pocket and to the ground, Yeldon does each job with a proficiency beyond his years.

Although not incredibly fast or quick, his burst and change of direction are starter-caliber. He's an economical runner who utilizes layers of compact jukes, bends, cuts, and stutters to exploit tight creases after a patient set up. A big man with a little stride, Yeldon is still capable of one big cut on every run and he does so with a strong base and flexibility....

One of the best things Yeldon does between the tackles is time his burst. Like the other backs ranked above him, Yeldon can use his feet to execute what his eyes see—and he often identifies what the defense is doing a level beyond his immediate obstacle.

A strong back, Yeldon hits opponents with a pop and because his stride is short, he's often initiating collisions with his feet under him to push piles or drive opponents off balance. In the open field, Yeldon often draws from a repertoire of moves that differ completely from what he'll do between the tackles. He's a savvy ballcarrier who physically and conceptually keeps opponents off-balance...

Efficient, patient, smart, and physical, Yeldon is a football player's football player. In today's NFL, there's a good chance that he begins his career as a backup to an established starter. But like Stephen Davis, Steven Jackson, and Michael Turner, Yeldon has the talent to take over the job and not look back when he earns the opportunity.

Lance Zierlein (NFL.com) 5th-ranked RB; 50th overall:

Strengths: Has good size with room on his frame to add more bulk. Exceptional hips and foot quickness, using both to weave and dart through the trash between tackles. Quick, decisive reads on zone plays. Has ankle flexion to dip, one-cut and burst through second level and into the third. Creative runner showing innate feel for running lanes. Anticipates creases that are developing and makes himself skinny to squeeze through. Effortless lateral movement. Can make tacklers miss and change tackle angles in confined quarters. Above average out of backfield and after the catch. Productive when playing through pain.

Weaknesses: Upright runner in space, opening himself and the ball up to big hits. Pad level too high at point of collision. Mediocre power for size. Doesn't push the pile and won't run through many tackles. Pass protection lacking. Throws shoulder at pass rusher rather than squaring up and taking on with good posture. Tends to bounce and juke a little too long at the second level. Must improve ball security after fumbling 10 times over 576 career carries. Needs to improve willingness to keep play flowing play-side rather than over-thinking cutbacks.

NFL Comparison: Terrance West

Dane Brugler (NFL Draft Guide) 7th-ranked RB:

Strengths: Smooth lateral movements and makes it look easy stringing together various moves...terrific lower body burst and coordination, using elusive cuts and subtle footwork to be shifty in the open field - awesome stutter-and-go with a strong plant foot to accelerate out of cuts...always balanced with his nimble feet underneath him to stay upright through contact...patient to maneuver through traffic close to the line of scrimmage...has some deceiving power and won't avoid contact, shaking off defenders without losing momentum or forward lean...toughs out injuries, often playing through pain...natural pass-catcher with beautiful body control, soft hands and smooth routes, often splitting out wide as a receiver...won't shy in pass protection, squaring up with better take-on strength and blitz recognition than expected...reliable football character and work ethic with a likeable, soft-spoken personality...consistent production all three seasons in Tuscaloosa, leaving Alabama with 3,322 career rushing yards, which ranks No. 4 on the school's all-time list.

Weaknesses: Taller than ideal with a lean torso and overall build, lacking an ideal body type for the position...run style is too upright and needs to improve his pad level...too reactionary and patient and needs to improve his recognition and decisiveness once he gets the ball...takes too much time reading blocks and needs to sense holes quicker to attack with authority - questionable vision and inside run instincts...not a pile mover and can be taken down by arm tackles at times...lacks elite speed and doesn't have multiple gears to run away from defenders or consistently win the edge...squares well in pass protection, but doesn't consistently play with the leverage, anchor or aggression necessary...improved ball security, but still has room for improvement - 10 fumbles in his three-year career (fumbled once every 62.2 offensive touches)...doesn't have experience as a return man...has dealt with several nagging injuries, including hamstring and ankle issues in 2014.

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Our scouts see Yeldon as the fifth to seventh-best running back in a deep draft class, and those that give him an overall ranking have him between 50 and 69, which translates to the mid-second to early third round. Given the depth of this class, and the fact that Yeldon's recent tape doesn't show the same explosive runner who provided the lightning to Eddie Lacy's thunder in 2012 and '13, I'll put him in the third round, where the Cowboys hold the 91st pick.

And I'd be just fine if they picked the former Alabama product there. What that would most likely mean is that they found better value at defensive positions than they did at running back in the first two rounds. But it would also mean that they were getting a player who might be a good deal better than he's been given credit for over the course of the draft process. Yeldon is a surprisingly quick, tough back with an NFL-ready skillset. To get a guy like that in round three, especially is they have shored up deficient defensive positions in the first two frames? Get out your crayons and color me happy...

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Next up: USC RB Javorius "Buck" Allen