Film room: Rookie running backs stealing the show


With another weekly dose of preseason action about to pour out over the land, we're gearing up for a second look at this year's crop of rookie running backs.

We've already written plenty about Ameer Abdullah, Detroit's second-rounder and "the most eye-popping player" at Lions camp outside of Calvin Johnson. Abdullah's handiwork spilled over into an impressive debut against the Jets, with the second-rounder displaying rare acceleration on his ankle-breaking cuts and Metcalfian footwork out of the backfield.

We've also unpacked the debut of Titans rookie David Cobb, who NFL Media's Daniel Jeremiah called a "sneaky Rookie of the Year candidate." At 5-foot-11 and 229 pounds, Cobb has emerged as Tennessee's best option out of the backfield, giving the Titans a downhill runner who fights for extra yards and shows decisiveness at the line. Against the Falcons, Cobb clearly outshined Bishop Sankey, inspiring coach Ken Whisenhunt to suggest that Tennessee isn't "necessarily a running back committee."

Abdullah and Cobb, though, aren't the only show in town. Here's a look at a collection of rookie runners we've enjoyed watching on Game Pass this week:

Matt Jones, Redskins

"Matt ran hard, and you can see his physicality," coach Jay Gruden said of Washington's third-rounder. Jones ripped off a pair of nice runs, which you can check out in the video at right. The former Florida star showed off his balance on the first carry, spinning off Tank Carder's attempted tackle to regain his feet, keep his speed and break outside for 23 yards. He eats up Cleveland's edge contain on the second gallop, too, using quick cuts to dance his way for extra real estate. Redskins general manager Scot McCloughan has drawn comparisons to Marshawn Lynch. Jones is three inches taller and 15 pounds heavier than Beast Mode, but you can see the shared DNA when the rookie sheds would-be tacklers to keep on plowing downfield.

Melvin Gordon, Chargers

It's just one game, but I didn't love Gordon's film. What stood out was a lack of decisiveness and too much dancing at the line. Gordon admitted as much this week. As Chris Wesseling pointed out in a good read on San Diego's first-rounder, Gordon's "ability in traffic" remains an issue for NFL draft analyst Fran Duffy. Running for just 1.8 yards per attempt against Dallas, none of the rookie's snaps stood out as special. With Gordon a possible scratch against the Cardinals due to a minor ankle injury, we'll need to wait for more evidence. As it stands, the undrafted and unsung Branden Oliver looks like the better runner.

Zach Zenner, Lions

Abdullah isn't the only back gaining steam in Detroit. Zach Zenner out of South Dakota State ran with verve against the Jets. After frying college opponents with three straight 2,000-yard campaigns, the undrafted Zenner is a classic "Preseason Hero" archetype. He's fun to watch. Zenner's vision and balance stand out in the clip at right, with the rookie gaining extra yardage where a less agile back would falter. Working "intermittently" with the first-team attack in practice, Zenner is pushing for a roster spot behind Joique Bell, Abdullah and Theo Riddick. "You can see he can bang it up in there and he's got vision and he's deceptive," coach Jim Caldwell told the team's official website. "You can see him accelerate through a hole with a good forward lean. Has some pop behind him."

Cameron Artis-Payne, Panthers

At 5-foot-10 and 212 pounds, Artis-Payne's a stocky runner who won't blow you away with his speed. He showed the requisite power and moves, though, to break into the second level of Buffalo's defense late in last week's preseason tilt. His eight totes -- at 3.0 yards per clip -- included four runs of two or fewer yards. Artis-Payne, on some plays, seems smaller to me than his measurables, but he's enjoyed a strong camp and brings some shiftiness to his game. Not a jaw-dropping athlete, but Artis-Payne will get his carries in a not-so-deep Panthers backfield this season.

Jarryd Hayne, 49ers

Hayne piled up 63 yards off five attempts in a 23-10 preseason loss to the Texans. The former Rugby League star out of Australia won over Niners fans with his 53-yard surge through Houston's defense. Tight end Garrett Celek called Hayne a "beast," but coach Jim Tomsula told reporters, "I'd just like to temper everything," saying: "I just want him to stay focused on getting better." He's an upright runner, but Hayne plays with confidence and possesses saucy athletic ability. He also added another 57 yards off two punt returns, showing off the kind of versatility that might earn him a roster spot. The next three weeks will help decide Hayne's NFL chances.

The latest Around The NFL Podcast continues with its fantasy extravaganza and takes you behind the scenes in Cleveland with Marc Sessler.