by Matt Waldman
The 2015 running back draft class is a potential embarrassment of riches. It may test the collective sentiment of recent claims from football media that running back is no longer an early-round position.
To give full disclosure, I’ve often tried to justify these claims so I could wrap my head around the two-year drought of first-round picks at the position. I made the rationalization that the pool of available backs is so densely talented that the drop in demand for a feature back has created a parallel to NFL runners and NBA-caliber shooting guards: you can find one off the street and at least get reasonable short-term production.
We’ll ultimately see how the NFL regards this crop of runners, but at this stage of the process I think it could rival the 2008 class, which had 14 runners who at least flashed contributor-level talent.
The second- and third-round picks have been at least as productive as those from the opening round, and 80 percent of those first-round options had at least one quality season as a starter. Note that I didn’t use the phrases “first-round or second-round talent” to describe these players. Scheme fit, personality, and off-field behavior all factor into the draft.
I thought Jamaal Charles, Matt Forte, and Ray Rice were first-round talents and I liked them more than Darren McFadden or Chris Johnson. I’ve seen people say that Charles didn’t show the same talent at Texas that he has in Kansas City. Don’t count me in that group.
I have often said that Charles’ performances at Texas were analogous to the super-bored, brilliant kid who was failing math class because he was spending nights in his dad’s garage building robots from kitchen appliances and not interested in his homework. Charles displayed the recognition to make the smart, safe choice, but he enjoyed testing his limits a little too often. If he thought he could bounce a run across the width of the offensive line behind the line of scrimmage and still outrun pursuit, he wanted to try it. Even if he didn’t act on it, there were enough good decisions in his film portfolio to see that he saw the field the way a running back should.
Jonathan Stewart was my pick as the most classically talented back in this class. When looking at the size-speed-strength-agility data, Stewart was the winner of the Running Back Beauty Pageant, but injuries robbed him of opportunities to build on his NFL moments that take your breath away.
He’s the new kid in the neighborhood who shows up to the playground for the first time and it takes all of 30 seconds to realize you’re taking him first if you have a pickup game.
Forte and Rice were underrated backs for their conceptual savvy, versatility, and ability to carry their college offenses. However, there were a lot of doubters after their rookie years. Forte was seen by some as a fluke and others questioned Rice’s athleticism. They were, at least initially, the “middle children” in this group
If Forte and Rice were the unsung prospects from this class of backs, Johnson might be the eldest child whose efforts set the tone, but was then left wondering if what he does would ever seen as good enough. Johnson has never failed to rush for 1,000 yards in a season, but he has endured (often valid) criticism about his decision-making.
Even so, Johnson’s NFL career has to be considered a major success. Admittedly, I got hung up on the East Carolina scheme and wrote him off as a wide receiver convert whose NFL trajectory would look more like Denard Robinson and less like Ricky Watters. Johnson and Charles are shining examples of successful interior runners capable of feature back responsibilities despite weighing 200 pounds or less.
At this early stage of the college football season, the storylines of the 2015 running back class have striking similarities to its 2008 predecessors: Melvin Gordon, Todd Gurley, Ameer Abdullah, and T.J. Yeldon all draw parallels to the backs mentioned above.
Gordon sported gaudy stats in a Wisconsin system that got the back on the map with jet sweeps. According to an NFL scout, Gordon earned 70 percent of his 2012 rushing totals from this play alone, and close to 40 percent in 2013.
Think of Gordon’s speed, frame, and the benefit of a system wrinkle, and there are echoes of Darren McFadden’s storyline. Even if I like Gordon’s vision more than that of the Raiders’ backup, Gordon’s fit within an offense will be important to his development. It’s a way of saying that he’s an NFL-caliber prospect, but not necessarily a special one.
Georgia’s Todd Gurley is the Jonathan Stewart “front runner” in this class. Big, strong, fast, and agile, Gurley’s work at a big-time program known for churning out talent will keep his NFL expectations burning at a fever pitch.
Physically, Gurley has everything that an NFL team will want from a running back, but based on what we’ve seen from the likes of Stewart, Ricky Williams, Cedric Benson, and Larry Johnson, big-time talents aren’t immune from the issues that factor into learning how to cross the great emotional divide between talented prospect and consistent professional.
If Gurley is the Running Back Beauty Pageant’s “Mr. First Overall RB,” then Ameer Abdullah might be the equivalent of “Mr. Congeniality.” Abdullah may not compete well in the pageant dynamics of NFL Draft Season, but as football players go, he has enough to offer that he shouldn’t be written off. Abdullah, like Forte and Rice, could be that second-tier draft option with first-tier understanding of the game.
Don’t forget about T.J. Yeldon, either. The likely first runner-up to Gurley in the draft pageant, he’s another big-time player with all the physical tools to make scouts write bigger numbers at the bottom of their reports. Yeldon’s style, big-program background, and physical skills remind me a little of Rashard Mendenhall, and I expect teams with an old-school mindset about runners to flock to Yeldon this winter.
Then there’s Duke Johnson, about whom this article is actually written. Could he be the bored, brilliant kid who flashes just enough skill to get the football cognoscenti’s attention, but never completely looks the part of a star in the making?
Like Jamaal Charles, Miami’s Duke Johnson’s smallish frame (5-foot-9, 206 pounds) for a running back generates easy excuses to mark the runner down. It doesn’t help that prior to an ankle fracture in November 2013, Johnson had only faced four ranked teams during his college career, and averaged 2.9 yards per carry against those squads.
Some draft analysts won’t gush over backs sporting these kinds of bullet points on their resumes. They reserve that admiration for the front runners. However, Johnson’s tape reveals a back who, at worst, becomes a versatile contributor who can lead a committee in production from the backfield. At best, Johnson might have many admitting in hindsight that the Hurricane should have been regarded as one of the best backs in this rich class.
Johnson runs bigger than his size and he has a complete game as a receiver, blocker, return specialist, and interior runner. The Miami runner’s style is well within the spectrum of Chris Johnson and Clinton Portis. He’s a mashup of these two successful NFL talents, with a dash of Charles added to the mix.
The question will be how close is his talent to that of these three backs? If Johnson’s athleticism makes him capable of executing a wide variety of plays that NFL coaches would often mete to different backs in a committee, then he’ll be a feature back, because the vision, balance, and smarts are all there.
Anytime that a prospect displays physicality, athleticism, and awareness, he’ll earn my admiration. This three-play sequence illustrates that Johnson is a physical football player with smarts.
It begins with a play-action pass from a 12-personnel weakside twin stack receiver set to the right of the formation. Johnson is left of the quarterback on the unbalanced strong side of the line.
Johnson slides to the right end, gets square to the edge rush that beats the right tackle, and delivers a good punch with his hands. College backs with 15 or 30 pounds on Johnson often try to cut defenders in these situations. If they do engage with a stand-up block, they try to throw a shoulder rather than thrown their hands.
Johnson not only throws a punch, but he continues mirroring the movement of the defender to funnel the opponent outside the pocket. Johnson’s handiwork gives the quarterback time to hit his receiver up the seam on a post for a touchdown. It’s a demonstration of Johnson understanding good technique and the willingness to use it.
The next two plays reveal that Johnson’s head is in the game and he is capable of processing information at an advanced level. The first of these two plays is a 2x1 receiver, 11 personnel shotgun set with Johnson flanking the quarterback’s right side. Georgia Tech plays a 3-3-5 defensive look with two safeties deep and iblitzes a nickelback from the twin (Johnson’s) side.
Miami catches this blitz with a swing pass to Johnson, and the runner makes a good catch over his inside shoulder 6 yards behind the line of scrimmage. The Hurricanes’ blocking and Johnson’s acceleration do the rest.
Johnson is chased outside the boundary after a 27-yard gain by the defensive back with an angle over top. Even if Johnson’s second gear is up for debate, this play wouldn’t be an indication that he lacks one.
With this play still in mind, there’s a third-and-13 pass play during the second half that looks like another Yellow Jackets nickel blitz from the right side from a 3-3-5 look. However, Tech is faking this blitz and sending outside linebacker Jeremiah Attaochu from the left edge. Note how Johnson responds to the situation.
The Hurricanes runner begins his release to the flat on a swing route, but when he reads the defensive back’s drop he stops his route and breaks across the line of scrimmage to cut Attaochu’s feet. It’s not the perfect cut and the quarterback throws an interception, but the adjustment that Johnson makes to diagnose and execute this block is fine work -- and it’s enough to prevent a sack. Johnson couldn’t control the quarterback’s decision, but he gave his teammate an opportunity to make a better one.
Ball Security: Detrimental Echoes of Charles
Like Charles early in his NFL career, Johnson has earned a reputation as a fumbler. Johnson has proven capable of taking hard shots from defenders without losing the ball, but he can lose focus on ball security while eluding defenders.
This 11-personnel, 2x1 receiver set is an outside zone run to the right edge where Johnson successfully gets to the corner, but he fails to hold onto the ball.
The linebacker, Attaochu, shoots the gap at the edge and clips Johnson’s inside foot, but the Miami runner has a knack for maintaining his balance through trash. Johnson turns the corner, accelerates 5 yards and dips inside the pursuit at the Miami 45.
He displays the kind of attack-first mentality and balance for his size that is comparable with Charles and Portis, especially when he lowers his inside shoulder and bounces off a glancing blow at the 50. However, outside pursuit grabs Johnson’s sideline arm and drags the runner to the ground, prying the ball loose in the process.
The issue is the way the runner carries the ball too low on this play. It doesn’t give Johnson much wiggle room to adjust to the pressure of the defender tugging at his arm.
It’s common for runners to loosen their arm as they change direction in the open field, and this is part of the problem with Johnson’s ball security. It’s a fixable problem and the lone issue with Johnson’s game worthy of concern.
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An underrated aspect of this play is his change of direction (C.O.D.). Some football analysts define good C.O.D. as video game-caliber cuts where running backs stop their stride with a hard plant and cut. These are pretty displays of athleticism, but a more streamlined, efficient C.O.D. at top speed without losing pace is far more effective for the rigors of the NFL.
The play above features Johnson making a strong jab to the outside and a sharp cut inside without breaking stride. It opens a whole new lane that Johnson might have exploited for another 5 to 7 yards if he had not carried the ball like low-hanging fruit.
Big Back Balance, Pad Level, and Ball Security
This draw in the red zone at the end of the half is a sign of Johnson’s potential as a short-yardage back even if the setting of the draw play doesn’t match the traditional big-tight alignments to pound the ball. He may not be a perfect fit for a run offense with tight line splits -- in fact, he’s probably best-suited for offenses that spread the field and have wider splits -- but if Johnson’s burst proves capable, he could exceed expectations in a more traditional run system.
The way that Johnson finishes this run is a positive display of functional power that will translate to the NFL.
Johnson works through the opening at the right hash and makes a good cut inside his center. This is another example of a fine change of direction, because the move is sharper than it appears from the broadcast angle.
Note that Johnson makes his approach to the second level outside the right hash and to the outside shoulder of the defender. When he makes his cut it’s a change of direction inside the hash.
There are several sharper cuts from Johnson in this game, but he squeezes this move tight to his center’s back. As he gets downhill, the linebacker delivers a head-on shot that Johnson meets with excellent pad level to bounce off the contact.
Not only does Johnson keep his feet, but he bounces off a second head-on collision, rebounds off a teammate, and comes within inches of the first down. Does Johnson stay upright after the second hit if he doesn’t bounce off the trailing offensive lineman? Heck no, but it is a good display of a runner who maintains his bearings after hard contact.
Here’s another run where Johnson bounces off a head-on collision from a linebacker to Johnson’s ball-carrying shoulder in the hole.
It’s a good pop from the linebacker, but Johnson’s pad level and ball security are sound and he keeps his feet moving through traffic to earn another 5 yards. He also nearly sheds the wrap of the backside pursuit of the defensive lineman.
With the game close, Miami continues to trust Johnson as the load-carrier to run out the clock. This second-down run with 4:34 left is not only a display of the qualities highlighted above, but also a fine press and cutback to set up the crease.
Johnson gets parallel to the line of scrimmage after the exchange with the quarterback. It’s a complete sell of a run to the edge, but Johnson accelerates through his cut downhill and inside the right hash to squeeze under the blocks of the tight end and left tackle.
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Note Johnson makes this dynamic cut with both arms around the football, gains the 6 yards for the first down, and then drops his sideline shoulder into the oncoming hit that makes direct contact on the football. Johnson’s quick pad drop to attack the defensive back leaves his opponent on the turf and he runs through a second wrap to finish the play with a 15-yard gain.
This balance, attack, and finish are not only reminiscent of Jamaal Charles beating defeating defenders to the contact, but it’s very Clinton Portis-like. If Johnson has the second gear that some claim he lacks, he has all the tools to have upside similar to Charles. If not, he’s still fast enough to break the occasional long play like Portis, who had six seasons with at least 1,500 total yards during a nine-year career.
If the speed and burst are more in line with what some critics believe, Johnson’s upside is more in line with Ahmad Bradshaw -- one of the more underrated talents at the position if judging strictly on film work over production. Like Johnson, Bradshaw is adept at gap plays, zone plays, draws, and delays, and he thrives in zone run schemes as well as the Colts’ Stanford-inspired formations.
Johnson is a more ideal option for schemes like the Eagles and Saints, but as the tape shows, he’s not just a finesse player. Yet, it might be speed and burst that ultimately determines whether he’s a strong committee option or potentially an elite runner.
Matt Waldman authors the Rookie Scouting Portfolio. available for download now. The guide covers 164 prospects at the offensive skill positions (QB, RB, WR, and TE). If you're a fantasy owner the 56-page Post-Draft Add-on comes with the 2012 -- 2014 RSPs at no additional charge and available for download within a week after the NFL Draft. Best of all, 10 percent of every sale is donated to Darkness to Light to combat sexual abuse. You can purchase past editions of the Rookie Scouting Portfolio (2006-2013) for just $9.95 apiece. Take a video tour of the RSP.