The Brandt Report  

 

Rookie running back reappraisal: Thomas Rawls rockets skyward

Print

Todd Gurley leads rookie running backs with 794 rushing yards. Thomas Rawls is second, with 685. Gurley was selected with the No. 10 overall pick in this year's draft. Rawls wasn't drafted at all.

Watching Rawls rack up 290 rushing yards over the last two weeks made me want to reevaluate this year's rookie running back class. So I took a fresh look at the top 10 rookie running backs of 2015, assigning each player a new draft grade based on what we've seen of these guys at the pro level.

Below, you'll see these players arranged according to their new draft grades. Note that I did not take into account which team picked where in the actual draft; the grade below merely reflects which round I'd slot the player in today, now that we've gotten a fairly good look at what these guys can do at the pro level.

1) Todd Gurley, St. Louis Rams

New draft position: Early first round (top 10 overall).

Original draft position: Early first round (No. 10 overall).

Gurley has slowed down a bit since racking up 655 rushing yards in his first five starts. But he's shown that he has the goods. He can make people miss (24 broken or missed tackles) and he can catch the ball well -- the only thing he could improve on, probably, is his pass blocking. I think his recent downturn can mostly be attributed to offensive-line struggles and the Rams' inability to pass. I think he'll be a Pro Bowl-caliber player for some time, well worth a high-end draft pick.

2) Melvin Gordon, San Diego Chargers

New draft position: Late first round (No. 24-32 overall).

Original draft position: Mid-first round (No. 15 overall).

Gordon has not set the world on fire, rushing for just 3.6 yards per carry and (infamously) zero touchdowns in 11 games. But I still see enough in him -- I still think he's special enough -- to spend a first-round pick on. Thanks to the questionable offensive line in front of him, I don't think he's gotten the chance to really show his running skills. But I've seen flashes; I've seen him make some moves that suggest promise.

Of course, Gordon has some things to work on, starting with adding strength -- he's listed at 215 pounds, but he looks more like 195. He also has to work on ball security and learn to run inside better, to run up inside and then cut it outside. In that respect, Gordon calls to mind former Chargers great LaDainian Tomlinson, who learned to jump-cut and then became a future first-ballot Hall of Famer. This is a judgment call, but Gordon -- who, after all, didn't become a good receiver until his final season at Wisconsin -- has the talent and character to become an impact player.

3) Thomas Rawls, Seattle Seahawks

New draft position: Late first to early second round (No. 28-40 overall).

Original draft position: Undrafted.

Representatives from 18 different NFL teams watched Rawls work out at Central Michigan's pro day in March, so it's not like he wasn't scouted. I guess nobody realized what he could do with pads on. Of course, the off-the-field issues the former transfer from Michigan dealt with in college -- which included pleading guilty to a charge of attempted larceny last September -- surely played a role in his going undrafted.

Still, what he's done this year marks him as one of the biggest surprises of any player at any position in this year's rookie crop. Rawls has racked up 685 rushing yards on 122 carries, for a healthy yards-per-carry mark of 5.61. He's also posted games of 209 and 169 yards, both better than the career single-game regular-season high (153 yards) of the player he's been filling in for, Marshawn Lynch. Most people, including myself, looked at Rawls as a downhill runner who lacked receiving skills, but he's shown he can catch the ball (six catches for 54 yards) and change direction to make people miss. Some of his success might be attributable to scheme, and we haven't seen a large sample size from him yet, but based on this output, I'd be comfortable selecting him somewhere between 28th and 40th overall.

4) Karlos Williams, Buffalo Bills

New draft position: Early to mid-second round (No. 34-50 overall).

Original draft position: Mid-fifth round (No. 155 overall).

Williams (376 rushing yards and five rushing touchdowns on 66 carries) is a pretty good player with speed to burn. He could stand to get a bit stronger and gain some experience, but he's proven to be a force in relatively limited action. Williams seems to block well in pass protection and can catch the ball, and he's got quickness and explosiveness, which are very important traits.

5) T.J. Yeldon, Jacksonville Jaguars

New draft position: Early to mid-second round (No. 36-50 overall).

Original draft position: Early second round (No. 36 overall).

It looks like Yeldon was drafted about where he should have been, based on what he's done this season (621 rushing yards and one rushing touchdown on 156 carries). He has outstanding size (6-foot-1 3/4, 226 pounds) and is very tough and competitive. He also has clear running ability, given that he's racked up 21 broken or missed tackles. He only picks up an average of 1.7 yards after contact per carry, which is a bit low, but his yards-from-scrimmage average (82) is right where you'd like it to be. Of course, you also have to take into account the subpar quality of the O-line in Jacksonville.

6) Tevin Coleman, Atlanta Falcons

New draft position: Late second to early third round (No. 60-70 overall).

Original draft position: Early third round (No. 73 overall).

Coleman's had trouble staying healthy, but he's very strong with big-play ability and great acceleration. He's only registered 77 carries this season, but six went for 10-plus yards. Given the start in Week 12, Coleman topped 100 rushing yards for the first time this season, racking up 6.1 yards per carry. Coleman has everything you want a running back to have. I like him a lot and think he has a chance to be special, and so I'd bump him up a bit.

7) Jeremy Langford, Chicago Bears

New draft position: Mid-third round (No. 75-90 overall).

Original draft position: Early fourth round (No. 106 overall).

Langford has good vision when running, and he's a great goal-line runner with plenty of quickness. His 10-yard split in the 40-yard dash was 1.50 seconds at the NFL Scouting Combine, tied for the fastest 10-yard split among running backs. Langford has small hands but catches well. He needs to add strength and boost his mediocre yards-per-carry mark (3.3), and I'd like to see him breaking more tackles and making more people miss, but I think he'll be a good starter whenever Matt Forte moves on from Chicago.

8) Duke Johnson, Cleveland Browns

New draft position: Mid- to late third round (No. 80-90 overall).

Original draft position: Early third round (No. 77 overall).

If Johnson had landed with a team like the Patriots, he'd be enjoying a more successful rookie year than he is with the Browns. I don't know if anyone -- from Todd Gurley to Adrian Peterson -- would set the world on fire in Cleveland. Johnson is a do-everything back with good quickness and skills who needs to get a bit stronger. I'd love to see him land with a team like the Patriots or Eagles, who would fit his style.

9) Buck Allen, Baltimore Ravens

New draft position: Late third to early fourth round (No. 95-110 overall).

Original draft position: Late fourth round (No. 125 overall).

Allen is the first USC player drafted by the Ravens under Ozzie Newsome. He'd seen limited action this season until last week's win over the Browns, in which Allen gained 4.6 yards per carry. He has running ability (seven broken or missed tackles) and five runs of 10-plus yards on 76 carries. He's an athlete who needs to improve his blocking and is a bit better than where he was originally drafted.

10) Matt Jones, Washington Redskins

New draft position: Early fourth round (No. 100-115 overall).

Original draft position: Late third round (No. 95 overall).

Jones has outstanding size and strength to run the ball between the tackles. He's only averaging 3.6 yards per carry. He's at his best as an inside runner trying to close out a game. That said, he's not a fluid runner and not the fastest guy, and I'm not sure he can be an effective full-time starter.

What about Ameer Abdullah?

Abdullah generate plenty of preseason hype, but the second-round pick looks more like a spot player who can return kicks than an every-down running back capable of starting, thanks to his size and small hands. He also lacks great speed, and is averaging just 3.6 yards per carry. He's the kind of guy you draft in the bottom of the third or top of the fourth round, someone who can come in occasionally on third down and handle return duties.

Follow Gil Brandt on Twitter @Gil_Brandt.

Print

Headlines

The previous element was an advertisement.

NFL Shop