While some rookie running backs were more highly touted than others going into the NFL Combine, their potential Fantasy value naturally shifts depending on how – or if, in the case of Georgia’s Todd Gurley, they performed. It’ll shift again based on their landing spots in the NFL draft. Last year’s rookie wide receiver class featuring Odell Beckham Jr., Mike Evans, Kelvin Benjamin and Sammy Watkins was deep. This year, the RB class has more depth of talent than the WR corps. Here’s my post-Combine Top 5 RBs for the upcoming Fantasy season, plus one under-the-radar running back to watch.
1. Todd Gurley, Georgia: I really wanted to put him second, behind Melvin Gordon, because of the ACL injury, but I just couldn’t do it. Gurley, amid swirling questions about his knee after tearing it in mid-November, is the only workhorse back in this class with elite versatility, vision and speed, and he looks more ready than the other prospects to glide immediately into a featured NFL role, assuming his health. The 6’1”, 222 pound Georgia back refused to let Combine doctors examine his surgically-repaired knee, but he’s reportedly been ahead of schedule and many teams have monitored his progress with intrigue. Gurley is a rare combination of speed and strength with excellent hands and ball-security skills, fumbling only three times in more than 500 carries. He’s a beast after contact a la Marshawn Lynch; nearly two-thirds of his rushing yards in 2014 came after contact. He’s the only back in this class who has the same explosive potential running between the tackles as he does bouncing outside, and like Le’Veon Bell, he has great vision and the patience to wait for holes to open up. Pass-blocking will be a key skill for him to improve upon as it is for all rookie RBs, but he has better awareness than most of them.
Gurley notched 911 yards and nine TDs on 123 carries along with 12 receptions before going down in November. He had 989 rushing yards and 10 rushing TDs on 165 carries the year prior to go with 37 receptions for 441 yards and six receiving TDs, and ran at an average of 6.4 YPC over his career with Georgia. He carried the ball about half as many times as some of the other top prospects in this RB class, but for NFL teams that means less wear on his tires. At face value, Gordon’s stats look quite a bit better than Gurley’s, but Gurley’s unique blend of size, power, patience, vision and speed make him more equipped to be an immediate every-down producer in the NFL. His health remains the biggest question. For Fantasy owners with the 1.01 pick in their rookie drafts, the questions around Gurley’s knee and Gordon’s third-down ability may make a wide receiver the de facto choice – possibly Amani Cooper, as long as he doesn’t end up going to the Raiders with their fourth-overall pick in the draft.
2. Melvin Gordon, Wisconsin: The 6’1”, 215 pound former Badger has moved up on early draft boards amid concern over Gurley’s November ACL injury, but it’s not enough to rank him over the talented Georgia back. He’s a smaller, quicker player as far as RBs go, and while he isn’t billed as the type of power back that Gurley was in college, he’s stronger than most other RBs his size and he is dynamic in the open field. Gordon didn’t get much opportunity to catch balls in the run-heavy Wisconsin system until this last year, when he caught 19 balls for 153 yards and three TDs. He had only had three receptions for 71 yards and a TD in the prior eight games started of his college career (he was active for 30) The lack of experience in third down passing situations means he’s got a ton to learn in terms of pass blocking and awareness. He developed a bit over the course of the season but has a long way to go, and teams may want to start out complimenting him with a more proven third down pass protector and receiver.
Gordon is a durable player who only missed one game in two seasons after taking over the lead back role, and he’s known for taking it to the house (40 runs of 15 or more yards last year). Gordon averaged 7.6 YPC over his last two seasons – with 80-plus-yard TDs in each — and had 29 and 12 TDs, respectively, in 2014 and 2013. But he also got stuffed a lot, which makes one question how he’ll perform in the NFL when his offensive line doesn’t hand him gaping run lanes every down. Between the fumbling (lost the ball six times in his last five games as a Badger) and the immaturity in pass protection, coaches will likely question how trustworthy he is on third down and he’s not likely to be drafted by a team looking for an every down back. To be fair, Gordon is sketchy in areas in which he hasn’t had a lot of experience. That doesn’t mean he couldn’t learn and grow into those roles and become elite in them. But NFL coaches don’t like a lot of guesswork in the early rounds of the draft, and neither do Fantasy owners.
He had a solid 40-yard dash time (4.52) and he’s been compared to Jamaal Charles for his 0-60 acceleration and ability to rip off electric runs, but, again, he lacks that key third-down ability that makes Charles so special on the real and Fantasy gridirons. There’s a lot we don’t know about his ability as a receiver, though what we’ve seen in limited action suggests he has the potential to be a viable, though not elite, receiver. Gordon has the shiftiness and speed of a Gio Bernard, but lacks the pass-blocking and receiving skills; he has the size of Jeremy Hill, but lacks the same ability to power through linebackers. While he may be of immediate value for the team that drafts him, his Fantasy value may be hampered by the fact that teams won’t want to trust him completely out of the gate, and fewer snaps equals fewer potential Fantasy points. He can do it. His history suggests, though, that teams won’t want to rely on him out of the gate.
3. Jay Ajayi, Boise State: Fantasy owners, especially those in PPR leagues, want to keep an eye on Ajayi. The 6’0”, 221 pound workhorse out of Boise State isn’t particularly elite in any one category, but he does everything well. Ajayi only ran a 4.57 40-yard dash at the Combine, but Le’Veon Bell wasn’t known for being a speedster and Fantasy owners watched him maximize his skill set and the Steelers’ system en route to becoming the top RB in Fantasy PPR leagues last season. Ajayi is an intelligent and powerful runner who can improvise well mid-play and outsmart defenders with his craftiness. Like Bell, Ajayi’s versatility makes him a dynamic player. He carried the ball nearly 350 times in his final season with Boise State for more than 1,800 yards and 28 TDs and caught 50 balls for 535 yards and another four scores. He’s also solid in short-yardage situations and his superior stiff arm has bailed him out in goal line spots where he has lacked decisiveness.
Though his pass protection needs improvement, the same could be said about most RBs when they first come into the league. Unlike some of the other top prospects, though, he has extensive experience being on the field in third-down situations, so with him we’re talking more about improving and developing technique rather than establishing technique, like we are with Gordon. To be fair, he most often left the pocket on passing routes so he wasn’t required to pass block and this, not his heavily scrutinized fumbling issues (seven in 2014, four of them lost), is his biggest barricade to being an every-down starting back in the NFL. Another main criticism of him is that he often just runs into opposing defenders, which raises some questions about his vision and patience. Ajayi isn’t as explosive as Gordon, and if there aren’t natural holes, he may have trouble finding creases. But what he lacks in speed he makes up for in efficiency. He’s a strong back with nice spin moves who can bounce off defenders, though the size advantage he had in college may not be the same asset in the NFL. He tore his ACL in 2011 but returned to heavy workloads the following two seasons.
Ajayi does have the potential to be an immediate NFL contributor – but to a team that would involve him heavily in the passing game like the Ravens. Baltimore picks near the end of the first round and if they pass on Gordon, who may be there, they might look to get superior value with Ajayi in the second or third round. His size and skill sets have earned him comparisons to Matt Forte and Ahmad Bradshaw, though his potential likely falls somewhere in between. The bottom line is, if a team drafts him to be a workhorse back and gets him the reps early, he’ll be a Top 5 rookie Fantasy RB.
4. Duke Johnson, Miami: This ranking may be a bit ambitious for a 5’9”, 207-pound RB whose injury concerns and pass-protection problems make him a player who has been more billed as a complimentary RB and third down player than an every down back. But Johnson is big for his height with great hands and he’s exceptional in space. He’s the type of back a team like the Lions may be interested in to replace Reggie Bush and roll out there in a tandem with Joique Bell. Of course, that scenario doesn’t make Fantasy owners particularly excited – Bush had injury issues, as does Johnson, and Bush ceded goal-line TDs and red zone snaps to Bell, as Johnson likely would if he landed in Detroit. But this kid is fearless – and fast. He changes direction on a dime, without breaking his trademark space, fights off arm tackles and battles for extra yards on every tote. He has excellent awareness as a receiver out of the backfield and can adjust to poorly thrown balls to create big gains. Johnson is knocked a bit for his vision and blocking ability, but there’s no question that when he sees daylight, he’s gone. His electricity, elusiveness and instincts should earn him immediate NFL playing time and he has the potential to be an immediate Fantasy producer in PPR leagues if he lands in the right spot (naturally, if that’s Detroit, it would also help if the Lions cut third-down specialist Theo Riddick – but Riddick can’t be a straight one-cut runner, and Johnson can). He ran a 4.54 at the Combine and carried the ball 242 times in 2014 at 6.8 YPC for 1,652 yards and 10 TDs. Johnson added 421 yards and three TDs through the air on 38 receptions. Johnson has an electric combination of speed and receiving skills, but Fantasy leagues that award points per reception will be central to his value.
5. Mike Davis, South Carolina: This 5’9”, 217-pound back out of Carolina is intriguing in that the biggest knock on him is that he didn’t live up to his potential in college. There have been no questions about his talent; he’s got a big body in a small frame, keeps churning his feet and can bounce off one defender after another until he finds daylight. He ran just a 4.61 at the Combine, but has surprising burst at times and he has a basic, critical understanding of pass protection. He won’t be the fastest player on the field by any means, which means he needs to improve his vision. If he doesn’t get that right, though, his ability to keep moving piles may help make up for it.
Davis thrives on heavy workloads, and while his conditioning and motivation have been called into question, we’ve seen players like Eddie Lacy and Alshon Jeffrey who shrugged off the “fat” label and went on to have stellar Fantasy seasons in the NFL. Davis has been compared to Alfred Morris for his body size and running style, and he can play on every down. Fantasy owners should not toss him by the wayside because of his conditioning; that’s something that can be fixed and if Davis wants to play in the NFL he’ll have to fix it. Talent that isn’t there, however, can’t be fixed – and for Davis, that’s not a problem. We’ve seen players hit a different level of motivation once they hit the NFL, and Davis could be one of those players. He had an injury-riddled college career, but improved conditioning and, again, motivation, should help with those concerns.
Under the Radar: Zach Zenner, South Dakota State: This Jackrabbit hasn’t been talked about much because he came from a small school, but he has just eight career fumbles on 300-plus carries each of the last three seasons, just one of which came in the last year. The excellent one-cut runner had 45 rushing TDs and six receiving TDs over his last two seasons and 20 or more receptions each of the last three seasons, with ever-increasing receiving yards (197 in 2012, 251 in 2013, 331 in 2014). Zenner won’t be a high pick in the NFL draft or in rookie Fantasy drafts, but when you’re wading through the question marks and muck near the end of your rookie draft, he’s worth taking a flier on. He caught my eye during the Combine and his blend of size, speed and production is attracting potential NFL suitors as well. He may have no impact whatsoever, of course, but if he lands in the right spot and system he could be interesting.