The difference between the best running backs in the NFL and the rest, more often than not, is the extra gear needed to break away for the big gainers. But finding a back with that kind of explosiveness isn't easy. No NFL back had four rushes of 40-plus yards last season, and only five had three of them.
Here are five running backs available in the 2015 NFL Draft who showed a knack for the big play at the college level.
Power and size are the Gurley traits we think of first, but he's also proved to be fast enough to beat SEC defensive backs in footraces that start on his own half of the 50-yard line. At 232 pounds, he is as much of a big-play threat as any back in the draft. Gurley's explosiveness as a kickoff returner (11 career returns, 422 yards, 38.4 avg., 2 TDs) validate his speed as well. With a full ACL recovery and given a solid offensive line, he will be a big play waiting to happen as a rookie.
NFL fit:San Diego Chargers. For a club nicknamed the Bolts, this backfield is severely lacking electricity. Gurley could not only take over the job, but help quarterback Philip Rivers in play-action as well.
The Heisman Trophy finalist didn't average an astounding 7.8 yards per carry for his entire college career because he dragged tacklers that far. He averaged that much because breakaway touchdowns were a regular Saturday occurrence. Gordon led the entire NCAA last year in runs of 30-plus yards (21), 40-plus (17) and 50-plus (10). If that's not an indicator of game-changing speed, nothing is. Gordon isn't the fastest player listed here on a track (see combine), but his football speed is proven beyond doubt.
NFL fit:Dallas Cowboys. Bridges are for sale for those who believe the Cowboys won't pit free-agent signee Darren McFadden against significant rookie competition. The Dallas offensive line is too good to put a disappointing back behind it. Gordon is one of five high-profile backs who will have a pre-draft visit with the Cowboys, according to Jerry Jones.
People might question things like size and ball security (Abdullah's fumbling issues are a legit concern), but he has speed in spades. The Nebraska star averaged better than six yards per carry last year and had five touchdowns of 40 yards or more. He ran in the low 4.5s at the Cornhuskers' pro-day event -- not exactly blazing track speed, but he shows an extra gear when it matters: with his pads on and the lights on.
NFL fit:Arizona Cardinals. One of the least-productive rushing attacks in the NFL last year could do a lot worse than Abdullah, who is especially dangerous when allowed to bounce a play outside and turn the corner.
Langford led all running backs at the combine in the 40-yard dash at 4.42, and it wasn't particularly close, with the next-best time being Karlos Williams' 4.48. That won't make him a home run threat from anywhere on the field -- Chris Johnson, he's not -- but he won't be easy to catch in the open field. The knock on Langford isn't his wheels; his reputed inability to break tackles is why his draft status isn't especially high. He rushed for over 100 yards in Michigan State's last 10 games in 2014 after falling short of the mark in its first four.
NFL fit:Pittsburgh Steelers. If Pittsburgh wants Le'Veon Bell's career to be a long one, its reserves will need to get more action than they did a year ago. Langford could give Bell a third-down breather at a minimum draft-day expense.
If there's a legit candidate for a sleeper on this list anywhere, it's at Auburn, where NFL scouts clocked the Tigers senior anywhere from 4.24 to 4.30 in the 40-yard dash at the AU pro day. The Auburn offense used Grant almost strictly on perimeter plays and as a receiver, and that would figure to be the sum of his role in the NFL, along with special teams. With impressive showings in the other combine drills at pro day as well, Grant should be one of the 30 or so players drafted who didn't go to the combine (there were 32 last year).
NFL fit:Oakland Raiders. The late Al Davis would certainly approve of a late pick spent on an offensive player this explosive. Oakland could get him on the cheap as a complement to Trent Richardson, who will surely need one, and as an added weapon for Derek Carr's second-year development.