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Evaluating the Running Back Draft Class

Regardless of whether Demarco Murray returns to the Cowboys, the team is surely evaluating the running back draft class.  This draft has a very strong and deep group of running backs.  Mike Mayock’s top 5 running backs are:

1. Melvin Gordon

2. Todd Gurley

3.  Ameer Abdullah

4.  Duke Johnson

5.  Tevin Coleman

After watching video of each of those players and other running backs, my preferences differ from Mayock’s list.  Mayock is a more knowledgeable and experienced evaluator of talent than I am, but I tried to not let his ratings influence my analysis.  Additionally, I evaluated the backs through the lens of how they would fit with the Cowboys.  My ratings* are:

1.  Todd Gurley (6-1, 226), Georgia

2.  Melvin Gordon (6-1, 213), Wisconsin

3.  Jay Ajayi (6-0, 216), Boise State

4.  Tevin Coleman (6-1, 210) Indiana

5.  David Johnson (6-3, 229) Northern Iowa

6.  Duke Johnson (5-9, 206) Miami (FL)

7.  Ameer Abjullah (5-9, 195) Nebraska

Unranked Wild Card – Corey Grant (5-11, 205) Auburn

Todd Gurley is ranked first due to his huge upside and production while healthy.  The only knocks on Gurley is that he has been injured the past two seasons and that his backup also produced at a high level in his absence.  Despite those concerns, it would be very difficult to pass on Gurley if he was available at the 27th pick in the first round.  A former sprinter, he reportedly runs the 40 in the 4.3 range at 226 pounds, and he also plays extremely fast and with power.  His potential rivals and likely exceeds the best in the game like Adrian Peterson.  He appears to be adept at pass protection and catching passes.  If the Cowboys drafted him, they could ease him into the lineup, possibly even by keeping him on the PUP list in the early part of the season to save a roster spot, then (if Murray does not return) have him take over for the second half of the season after Randle and Williams carry the load in the first portion of the season.   NFL Comparisons – Adrian Peterson and Willis McGahee

Melvin Gordon is a quick, shifty runner that can find creases and pick up large chunks of yards.  Despite a thin hipped frame and limited power, he can pick up dirty yards and is good in pass protection.  While he was rarely used as a receiver in college, he showed good hands at the combine.  Wisconsin runs zone stretch plays similar to the Cowboys, and Gordon could be productive right out of the gate.  His upside is lower than Gurleys, but he is considered a safer pick and is ranked higher than Gurley by most draft experts.  NFL Comparison – Jamaal Charles

Jay Ajayi is a complete back.  He runs, catches, and blocks at a very good, but not elite, level.  He has good lateral quickness and uses an effective jump cut.  He is another player that should be able to contribute immediately.  He would be a good value if he lasts until the Cowboys second round pick.  NFL Comparison – Steven Jackson

Tevin Coleman is a tall, lean back with good speed.  He is a fast back that can burst through creases and take it to the endzone.  He isn’t the most powerful due to his angular frame, but he does fall forward at the end of his runs.  The videos I watched didn’t offer a chance to evaluate him in pass protection.  He has good upside as a one cut runner, especially if he can add some muscle to his frame similar to they way Demarco Murray did in his four years with the Cowboys.  A potential pick in the second round, but a good value if he lasts until the Cowboys’ third round pick.  NFL Comparison – Robert Smith

David Johnson is a back that I like significantly more than Mayock and the draft prognosticators.  He might be under-rated because he plays for a small school, but this guy has good physical attributes and is a complete player.  Based on the video I watched, he is by far the best pass protector and receiver of the running backs I evaluated.  He regularly stops pass rushers in their tracks.  As a receiver, he has a very effective stutter step when running routes and has the ability to run routes and catch passes down the seam while running in full stride rather than only the typical routes in the flat that most running run.  He had more than 200 yards receiving against Iowa and is often lined up as a slot receiver.  As a runner, he has good vision, is patient, and will take the dirty yards inside rather than being too quick to bounce runs to the outside.  His acceleration isn’t as impressive as the most of the other backs evaluated, but it is definitely adequate.  His long speed is impressive for his size and was confirmed by his 4.50 40 yard dash at the NFL Combine.  The combination of size, pass protection prowess, and hands would allow him to stay on the field in all situations, and he could excel as both a third down back and short yardage back, which is an unusual combination.  Effectively uses a stiff-arm move on the perimeter.  In my opinion, Johnson is on par with Tevin Coleman and would be a value in the third value, but mock drafts tend to have him between the third and fifth rounds.  NFL Comparison – Demarco Murray (not as good of a runner, but better potential as a receiver and blocker)

Duke Johnson is a compact runner with good quickness and burst.  Was asked to run up the middle in the games I reviewed and was effective if not spectacular, showcasing quick fit to pick through holes.  His long speed was disappointing at the combine, but that isn’t much of a concern considering his good acceleration and quickness.  The video watched didn’t offer a chance to evaluate his pass protection.  NFL Comparison – Frank Gore, although not as powerful

Ameer Abjullah is a smaller back with good speed, acceleration, one-cut ability, and hands.  He was a willing participant in pass protection, but his effectiveness was limited by his lack of size and thin frame.  The primary reason, however, that he is ranked this low is that Mayock stated that he fumbled 24 times in college.  While he compiled 813 carries while in college, 24 fumbles is still a lot.  With small hands and many carries (opportunities to improve ball security), this is a problem that may not be correctible.

Corey Grant is my wild card pick.  Grant didn’t start and was used infrequently at Auburn, with only 135 career carries.  He played behind Cameron Artis-Payne, who will likely be drafted as a mid to late round pick.  Grant did return kickoffs and had a touchdown on a return that highlighted his impressive speed.  Impressive is a word that actually isn’t emphatic enough.  Grant ran a 4.25 at Auburns pro day and is very muscular with 205 pounds packed on his 5-9 frame.  He also reportedly showed good hands at his pro day.  Finding video was difficult, which made an evaluation difficult.  Games highlighting all of his plays are not available on Draftbreakdown.com, and I was only able to find highlights.  While taking into account the low number of plays reviewed, which were hand-picked highlight plays (therefore the term sample size doesn’t even apply because only positive plays were included), Grant displayed awesome playing speed that matched his 4.25 timed speed.  He was visibly the fastest player on the field.  Grant wasn’t invited to the NFL Combine and wasn’t on the draft radar.  Even after his pro day, mock drafts on Fanspeak.com have him going in the 7th round or undrafted using several different website’s draft boards.  Grant definitely intrigues me as a late round pick and possibly as a mid round pick.  He is unusually muscular for a player with his superb speed and could be a real threat on outside zone runs, draws, and as a receiver out of the backfield.  On one highlight, he laid out a Clemson defender, displaying that his frame translates to power on the field.  At the same height and only 5 pounds lighter than Emmitt Smith, it can’t be assumed that he can’t be a decent pass protector.  Additionally, he could replace Dwayne Harris on kickoff returns and likely on punt returns.  His speed could also allow him to excel as a gunner on special teams.  I’m not saying he is a great player or even a good player, only that he has some intriguing traits.  I wasn’t able to do much of an evaluation based on the limited information available.

Summary:  This past season has shown that the Cowboys need two quality and trustworthy running backs.  If Demarco Murray isn’t re-signed, drafting a running back is a high priority.  Even if Murray is re-signed, adding a running back is a good idea if good value is presented.

* Note that I did not evaluate TJ Yeldon, David Cobb, or any other back.

Frank B
Writer with a financial background who specializes in roster management and the salary cap.
Frank B

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