2014 Rookie Review: Last year's first three running back prospects were drafted within four slots of one another: Bishop Sankey went 54th overall, Jeremy Hill went 55th and Carlos Hyde went 57th. Sankey figured to have the clearest path to playing time with the Tennessee Titans, and in fantasy leagues was drafted highest of any rookie rusher, but proceeded to lose major time to Shonn Greene and finish 46th in RB fantasy points. Hyde was even worse, managing just 83 carries. Hill was the star of the bunch, but didn't really even bust out as a trustable fantasy commodity until Week 9; even so, he finished with 1,124 rushing yards and tied for ninth in RB fantasy points. Third-rounders Tre Mason, Terrance West and Jerick McKinnon took turns as their NFL squads' leading men, but were up-and-down for fantasy. Andre Williams and Alfred Blue got some run when their veteran starters got injured. And I continue to think that Ka'Deem Carey, currently buried behind Matt Forte, has a useful NFL future ahead.
The 2015 prospects
Todd Gurley (Georgia): Let's get this out of the way: Gurley is the best RB in this draft. He may not be selected first, but that will be because of the torn ACL he suffered in November. Gurley didn't do anything at this year's combine, but that shouldn't prevent him from being an early-round pick in April. Healthy, Gurley has the size (6-foot-1, 222 pounds) and speed to be an All-Pro. He's powerful, patient and efficient. That said, it's tough to project fantasy glory for him as a rookie, because of his knee.
Comparable: The season I started up the League of American Recreational Gridiron Enthusiasts (L.A.R.G.E.) -- which is still going strong these many years later -- Fred Taylor was coming out of Florida. That guy was a beast. So big. So fast. A punisher who could get to the house when he broke into the clear. You can insert several big backs into the Gurley conversation (you'll hear Adrian Peterson and Marshawn Lynch a lot), but nobody reminds me of Gurley more than Taylor. Here's hoping he doesn't share the "Fragile" moniker down the road.
Melvin Gordon (Wisconsin): Like Gurley, Gordon is a candidate to be taken in the first round of the '15 draft. Unlike Gurley, there are no questions about Gordon's Week 1 availability. He's a strong sprinter whose ability to get to the corner and use stiff-arms leaps off the tape. His acceleration from a dead stop is ridiculous. He has a bit of a reputation for being a fumbler and not the most fluid pass-catcher, and he probably isn't ready to be a pro-level blocker right away. But man, is this guy going to make some big plays.
Comparable: I hear Jamaal Charles a lot for Gordon, and I can see the slashing comparisons. But one thing I've always admired about J-Mail is that for all his game-breaking talent, he's not a dancer, and I do think Gordon has some work to do on his decisiveness. In college, he could get away with stopping when a hole wasn't there, and still had time to break a big one outside. That happens less frequently in the NFL. But listen, no matter what happens, this guy is a home run hitter's home run hitter. I'll say Chris Johnson, who even in his best years sometimes could tend to bounce runs outside a bit too often. Sure, Gordon ran "only" a 4.52 40 in Indy, which is slower than CJ2K's legendary 4.24 (and even Charles' 4.36), but Gordon is legit fast for 215 pounds, man. Pop in the tape.
Jay Ajayi (Boise State) and David Cobb (Minnesota): Now that we've got the two obvious names out of the way, there's less consensus. Based on film study, my next two favorite "complete" RBs are Ajayi and Cobb. Ajayi may not be spectacular at anything, but he does everything well and if he lands in the right spot, could be a three-down player. He's not a pure bruiser and he's not a sprinter, but Ajayi is a subtle, sneaky player with tremendous balance and he's the kind of hard charger who can lift an offense. Cobb is a 229-pound wrecking ball, a prototypical "runs-behind-his-pads" player with good short-area instincts. As such, he looks like a goal-line savant right away. But Cobb can also catch the ball, and he's got enough muscle to develop into a pass protector.
Comparables: Ajayi's best case is someone like Matt Forte; there's a jack-of-all-trades feel about his game. But maybe we shouldn't shoot quite so high, especially when Ajayi doesn't have tons of tape against elite collegiate competition. (Then again, neither did Forte!) Anyway, I feel I can put Ajayi safely in the Ahmad Bradshaw category, which is pretty darned good. As for Cobb, it's teed up for me, so I might as well say it: Jeremy Hill. He's a big kid who wants to get north-south as quickly as possible, and can punish defenders. Like Hill, Cobb isn't an every-down breakaway threat, but he can occasionally surprise you in the open field. (Hill ran a 4.66 40 in last year's combine; Cobb ran 4.81 this year.)
Duke Johnson (Miami): In the NFL, size matters. During the past few years, we've seen some terrific talents come into the league and show unbelievable ceilings, but they haven't been sturdy enough to hold up, or they've been thrust into frustrating platoons. I'm thinking of C.J. Spiller, Jahvid Best and Andre Ellington, to name a few. So while I like Johnson for his crazy athletic gifts, and while I acknowledge he weighed in at 207 pounds, I wonder if at 5-9 he's a feature back in a world where Giovani Bernard gets supplanted by Jeremy Hill. Don't get me wrong: I think he'll be a great piece for his NFL team. He's a home run threat and a spectacular open-field cutter, but there's a good chance Johnson's pro team will protect its investment by platooning him.
Comparable: It's possible Johnson turns into LeSean McCoy. He's got that kind of quickness (even if his 40 time was "only" 4.50). But remember that even Shady has lost significant time to injury, and drove his owners crazy for much of '14. If Johnson lands with a coach willing to invest a ton of snaps in the rookie right away, and things break right, you won't find his kind of upside in many other places. But I think it's time to get realistic about players who are on the borderline of being "big enough" to handle full-time workloads. They don't tend to get them. I think for all his polish and warts, Reggie Bush is a great comp for Johnson.
Jeremy Langford (Michigan State): It was a surprise that Langford was the fastest RB at this year's combine. At 6-foot and 208 pounds, Langford ran 4.42, and while we shouldn't get hot-and-bothered over hundredths of a second when players are out of uniform, it validates Langford's tape, where he made big plays getting to the corner. I do think Langford may lack quick-twitch acceleration, and is more of a "build-up" speed player. But you can't deny that 3,163 scrimmage yards and 41 total TDs the past two seasons make him an accomplished player.
Comparable: I think Langford is a hard-nosed, aggressive runner who'll mainly make a big play in the NFL when things go right. He doesn't have deceptive change of direction, but he'll gain yards in bunches when he and his offensive line get on a roll. I wouldn't consider him an elite prospect, but he's very good, and as a converted wideout, you know he can catch it. He's a bit lighter than Ryan Mathews, but I think their games compare.
Javorius Allen (USC): On tape, Allen actually reminds me of Langford a little bit, though Allen is heavier. Allen is also a good receiver, but he's not all-world elusive or decisive -- his big plays I saw rarely came from sudden changes of direction -- nor does he seem to bring all of his 221 pounds' worth of power all the time. Like so many of the guys at this point in my list, Allen may get pushed into the lower rounds of the NFL draft, but that will be because there are a ton of legit pro prospects. It won't be a reflection on his future.
Comparable: Allen feels like a big back who tries to run like a small back, but without the ultra-quickness to leave behind NFL-quality defenders. That was often my complaint with Beanie Wells. But Allen has got a prototypical RB body, and treating any of these players as if they're finished products is goofy. He won't be handed anyone's starting job as a rookie, but could absolutely find himself in the mix. Like Langford, Allen has the upside to be someone like Mathews.
Mike Davis (South Carolina) and T.J. Yeldon (Alabama): Both are coming off relatively disappointing campaigns, and that's going to put a ceiling on their draft status. But I like Davis a lot for the NFL, because he's got that banger's mentality. More than any other RB's tape I watched, Davis looks like he wants to hurt a defense. He also has unexpectedly soft hands. His measurables don't have "wow" factor, but his lower-body power will play in the league. As for Yeldon? It's tough to say a guy who just rushed for 11 TDs in a season is "disappointing," but his ball security is a constant struggle and I'm not sure he always runs like a power back. He's upright and doesn't drive with his legs, instead slashing seemingly whenever he can.
Comparables: Last year at this time, comparing Davis to Zac Stacy would've been a compliment. Now, not so much. But Davis has that kind of power. If he proves to have niftier feet than Stacy, the comparison of Alfred Morris could be his ceiling. Meanwhile, Yeldon joins the ranks of tall, upright RBs who need to decide what they're going to be. Is he Darren McFadden? Maybe, though hopefully he'll be a more durable version. Is he Steven Jackson? That would be great, but Yeldon needs to prove more reliable than he was in '14.
Other names to know: When Tevin Coleman (Indiana) -- a player who just rushed for 2,036 yards in a single season -- can't get inside my first nine names, you know it's potentially a historically deep RB class. Coleman didn't participate in the combine because of foot surgery, but should be fine by this summer. He's a lanky big-play threat who's also a bit upright, and also invites McFadden comparisons. ... David Johnson (Northern Iowa) is a big guy who doesn't necessarily run like a big guy, but who can be awesome catching the ball. The smaller school gives him sleeper appeal, and he reportedly had a great Senior Bowl week (I wasn't there), but he's an upright runner who may not have the leg drive to bowl people over in the NFL. Nevertheless, running 4.50 at 224 pounds will have scouts taking note. ... Ameer Abdullah (Nebraska) has size questions similar to Duke Johnson: Anyone who's seen him leave behind a trail of broken ankles knows he could be an NFL leading man, but he's 5-9 and 205 pounds. Plus there are big-time ball-security issues with Abdullah. His positives include excellent short-area burst, as reflected in excellent three-cone and shuttle times. His is a Donald Brown-style profile. ... It's impossible not to love Josh Robinson's (Mississippi State) tape. He's a Weeble: He wobbles, but he rarely falls down. Is he an NFL feature back? At 5-8, perhaps not. But he's no shrinking violet (he weighs a robust 217 pounds), and his lower-body strength absolutely will translate to the NFL. Some coach is going to get a look at him in a game, and fall in love a little bit. ... Cameron Artis-Payne (Auburn) busted out of Tre Mason's shadow in '14, and while CAP shares Mason's lack of ideal size (5-10, 212 pounds), at times he looked quite a bit like the man he replaced at Auburn. What he lacks in power, Artis-Payne makes up for in vision and balance. In the right spot, he could contribute right away.
There are other intriguing names! Trey Williams (Texas A&M), Kenny Hilliard (LSU), Dee Hart (Colorado State), Malcolm Brown (Texas), Terrence Magee (LSU), Dominique Brown (Louisville), Karlos Williams (Florida State), Marcus Coker (Stony Brook), Joe Bergeron (Texas A&M-Commerce), Matt Jones (Florida) and Thomas Rawls (Central Michigan) could all find themselves fantasy-relevant in '15. This is a great draft year for RBs.