Column: High value in middle rounds at running back

Opinion posted April 1, 2015 in Sports, CommRadio, NFL Draft by Kristopher Rogers

Over the past few seasons, the running back position has been devalued around the NFL. Since 2011 when Trent Richardson, Doug Martin and David Wilson were the marquee running backs at the top of the draft, no rusher has been drafted in the first round.

While that trend may be bucked this year by the likes of either Todd Gurley or Melvin Gordon, the 2015 NFL Draft class has plenty of talent in the mid-rounds.

Former Indiana Hoosier Tevin Coleman could slip on draft day because of broken big toe suffered in an Oct. 4 victory over North Texas. The injury kept him from performing in drills at the NFL Combine, and will have a special Pro Day on April 15.

Coleman has a decisive north-south running style that fits in every scheme, and a vicious jump cut to elude linebackers. He has a fearless, powerful approach to running the football, and has an extra gear that leaves would-be tacklers in the dust.

In the passing game, Coleman is a capable receiver out of the backfield and willing to take on blocks to keep his quarterback upright.

Where teams may have some questions about the unanimous All-American could be from his lack of patience. On stretch plays, Coleman sometimes shoots his gap too soon instead of letting the play develop.

In 2014, the Hoosier rushed for a team record 2,036 yards on 270 carries (7.5 ypc) and 15 touchdowns.

Michigan State running back Jeremy Langford shot up draft boards after his combine workout; clocking the fastest 40-yard dash time at 4.42 seconds. A well-rounded back who does not shy away from contact, Langford rushed for 100-yards in 12 straight Big Ten careers over his college career.

While not the shiftiest or fastest back, Langford is a powerful runner with a good but not great all-around skillset.

Langford completed his senior year rushing the ball 276 times for 1,522 yards (5.5 ypc) and 22 TDs.

Boise State running back Jay Ajayi had a breakout senior season, which boosted his draft stock significantly. The “Jay-Train” became the first back in FBS history to rush for more than 1,800 yards and 500 receiving yards in a single season.

At six feet tall and 220 lbs, Ajayi has a powerful frame and explosive quickness to get through the hole. Not one to shy away from contact, he has a habit of bowling over defenders and dragging them for extra yards.

Despite his powerful running style, the former Bronco tends to bounce runs to the outside, sometimes getting stopped at the line of scrimmage instead of cutting it up field for positive yards. He would likely benefit from an outside zone blocking scheme so he could get blockers in front of him to lead the way.

The biggest flaw in Ajayi’s game is that he does not take care of the ball; putting it on the ground seven times in his junior season. He also has very poor technique in pass protection.

In 2014, Ajayi carried the ball an FBS-leading 347 times for 1,823 yards (5.3 ypc) and 28 TDs while also catching 50 passes for 535 yards and another four scores.

A smaller school prospect, Northern Iowa running back David Johnson first appeared on draft boards after his appearance in the Reese’s Senior Bowl. Despite playing at the FCS level, Johnson earned an invite to the NFL Combine and dominated the workout, putting up top numbers in the 40-yard dash (4.50 sec), bench press (25 reps), broad jump (127 in.) and vertical leap (41.5 in.) to give himself a mid-round draft grade.

A big back at 6-1 and 224 lbs. he has great top speed and agility, which enables him to put moves on defenders to get into open space for a big gain. He also has very soft hands out of the backfield and can use his size and speed to create mismatches against slower linebackers.

Johnson can also return kicks, averaging 36.5 yards per return in 2014 including a 98-yard touchdown versus Illinois State

Of course the question with Johnson’s game is that he put up big numbers against lesser competition, but he had 237 all-purpose yards against the Iowa Hawkeyes. Also, he sometimes looks to cutback early, instead of being patient and letting his blocking develop.

Johnson finished 2014 rushing for 1,553 yards on 287 carries (5.4 ypc), 17 TDs and 38 catches for 536 yards and two scores.

Duke Johnson finished his collegiate career as the second all-time leading rusher in Miami Hurricanes history with 3,519 total yards. In his senior season, Johnson earned a 2014 All-ACC team nod.

Formerly the top rated running back out of high school, Johnson has an explosive burst and is flexible to elude defenders in close space. He also has quick feet and would operate best in a one-cut zone offense; being able to get around the corner and shift into a higher gear to break off big runs.

However, the former Hurricane is merely average in between the tackles and does not have the best vision. Also at 5-9 and 205 lbs, he probably is not built for the role of an every-down back. 

In 2014, Johnson rushed 242 times for 1,655 yards (6.8 ypc) and 10 TDs, while also pulling down 38 catches for 421 yards and another three scores.

The NFL Draft is not won in the first round. Rounds three and four are just as important as one and two for building a championship team, and the middle of the draft will have plenty of talent for ball carriers.

Photo Credit: (AP Photo/Otto Kitsinger)

Kristopher Rogers is a senior studying broadcast journalism. To contact him, email klr5374@psu.edu