More than ever, NFL offenses are splitting their running back responsibilities among multiple players. That's bad news for the position as a whole, because it drives down draft and free-agency value. But it's good news for backs who can do more than just carry the mail, because roster spots are available for a wider variety of skills. Being able to catch the ball and move the chains on third downs is a reason a guy like Darren Sproles is still cashing NFL checks. So who brings the best receiving skills to the position in the draft this year? Here are five running backs with legitimate receiving skills in the 2015 draft class:
Abdullah has soft hands out of the backfield as a lot of backs do, but his ability to accelerate in the open field makes him naturally dangerous as a receiver. He caught 20-plus passes over each of his last three years at Nebraska, but last year improved his average per catch from 8.9 to 12.2. Abdullah hasn't dropped a pass since his sophomore year.
NFL fit:Miami Dolphins. Abdullah, at the very least, could take some of the receiving load off of Lamar Miller, who did it all for the Dolphins last season. If Knowshon Moreno signs elsewhere, a draft pick like Abdullah would make even more sense.
Ajayi's role as a receiver in the Boise State offense exploded last year. He went from 20 receptions in 2013 to a whopping 50 last year. Only eight running backs in college football averaged more than Ajayi's 3.6 catches per game. His hands aren't as soft as Abdullah's, but he can generate first downs from the flat better than most backs his size (221 pounds).
NFL fit:Dallas Cowboys. If the Cowboys don't invest their first-round pick in a running back, Ajayi should be a strong consideration. A Dallas-area native (Plano), Ajayi could be a nice hometown answer for a Cowboys team that just lost the NFL rushing champion to a division rival -- and Ajayi is well aware of the vacancy.
The best testament for Yeldon's receiving skills is that he didn't come off the field on third downs for Alabama last year. Nick Saban has never been shy about backfield substitutions, but most of backup Derrick Henry's action came on early downs. Yeldon established himself as a dynamic receiving option right from his freshman year in 2012, when he stunned LSU fans with a last-minute game-winning touchdown on a screen pass.
NFL fit:Jacksonville Jaguars. It's a relative certainty that the Jaguars will draft a running back, and even more certain that pick won't come at No. 3 overall. In a worst-case scenario, Yeldon could contribute on third downs. He has made an official visit to the Jaguars' facility.
Who better than a former wide receiver to throw to out of the backfield? Johnson broke several school receiving records in high school, but quickly outgrew the position and is now a 225-pound rusher whose hands are as soft as any back in the draft. Johnson impressed NFL coaches and scouts at the Senior Bowl in January with his ability to catch the ball. Look for Johnson to be picked in the middle rounds, ahead of bigger names from bigger schools.
NFL fit:San Diego Chargers. There is a reasonable chance the Chargers address the running back position in the first round with Todd Gurley or Melvin Gordon. If they don't, watch for Johnson as a strong value pick later in the draft.
There is no doubt Murphy has some of the best receiving skills available among running backs in the draft. His problem is that at 5-foot-8 and 190 pounds, receiving might have to be his overriding skill in the NFL. This from his NFL.com draft profile: "In passing game, mismatches inside 'backers with razor-sharp cuts to the sideline, creating easy throws for the quarterback. ... Has excellent hands and concentration to finish a catch despite impending contact." Murphy has the speed to win foot races and is durable for his size, but he figures to be a third-down substitute only.
NFL fit:Carolina Panthers. Wherever Murphy lands, drafted or otherwise, he'll be looking to make a roster as a special-teams ace who can be a dangerous back in sub packages. The Panthers were in the bottom half of the NFL in both kickoff and punt returns, which could give Murphy a window.