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Re-drafting the boffo 2015 running back class

The Rams' surprising selection of Todd Gurley with the No. 10 overall pick last year marked the first time since 2012 a running back was taken in the first round. It turns out Gurley wasn't taken high enough.

Re-run the 2015 draft, and Gurley should go No. 3 overall behind Jameis Winston and Marcus Mariota. No one is doubting the preeminence of quarterbacks, but Gurley is the safest pick of the three to make the Pro Bowl his second home.

Perhaps Gurley's emergence will help remind general managers that top-shelf running backs still have massive value. Le'Veon Bell (taken No. 48), Eddie Lacy (No. 61) and Devonta Freeman (fourth round) are among the best values of the last few drafts while supposedly "safe" left tackle prospects like Luke Joeckel and Greg Robinson were taken in the top five. It was as if the entire league had to recover from falling in love with Trent Richardson.

Gurley wasn't the only undervalued running back last season. David Johnson proved to be a top-10 talent despite being taken No. 86 by Arizona. Thomas Rawls, who went undrafted, has taken the sting out of Marshawn Lynch's retirement in Seattle. Quality players are worth snagging early, no matter what position they play. And there were an exceptional amount of quality running backs in the Class of 2015.

The crazy depth inspired us to go back and watch every 2015 rookie class running back through the magic of NFL GamePass. With the benefit of hindsight, here is how we'd draft them now:

Franchise-changing backs

1. Todd Gurley, Los Angeles Rams

If you like watching defenders take bad angles, you'll love watching Todd Gurley play football. NFL players can't quite believe Gurley's size and speed combination until they see it in person.

At 21 years old and coming off a torn ACL, Gurley beat the Cardinals all by himself in his second career game, uncorking more big plays in one half than some backs did all season.

Gurley is a rare big back that regularly makes defenders miss in small spaces. He's a power back that comfortably gets to the outside. He can take plays the distance and break tackles. In short: Gurley can do it all and is a strong bet to be a top-five running NFL back for a very long time. He has a real chance to be the best player from the entire Class of 2015.

Biggest surprise: Gurley's best trait is his vision. He has an uncanny ability to see cutback lanes and find space where it doesn't look possible. While Gurley's numbers tailed off in the second half of the season, he still showed great burst and great hands through Week 17. He didn't fall off; his team did. Block for Gurley and he'll put up crazy numbers.

2. David Johnson, Arizona Cardinals

David Johnson was the seventh running back drafted last year. You could argue now he'll be one of the best seven players in the entire draft. Like Gurley, Johnson is a rare complete three-down running back.

There aren't many NFL starters that can get low with power in goal-line situations and break a linebacker's ankles while running a route from the slot. In Johnson's first career start, the Cardinals set a season-high in yards. That same game: He scored a touchdown playing wide receiver and put up 120 yards from scrimmage. A few months later, Johnson was practically the only Cardinals player that performed well in the NFC Championship Game.

Johnson's two most famous plays show off his incredible versatility. His Beast Mode-like run against the Eagles on Sunday Night Football displayed Johnson's power and introduced him to America. His incredible third-down catch on a throw behind his body is the forgotten gem that helped the Cardinals beat Green Bay in the Divisional Round.

Biggest surprise: Johnson's patience is uncanny. He can change speeds in an instant, waiting and waiting for the right time to hit the turbo button. So many defenders hesitate and guess wrong while waiting for Johnson to make his moves.

Still can be stars

3. Matt Jones, Washington Redskins

After a sterling preseason and September, Matt Jones looked like a potential Offensive Rookie of the Year candidate. He struggled to get consistent playing time after that because of a nasty fumbling problem, coughing the ball up five times in 163 touches. Jones' rookie year ultimately disappointed, but this is not a ranking of what player had the best 2015 season. It's a ranking of where we'd draft Jones now, and he repeatedly showed off special traits.

For a 230-pound guy, Jones shows incredible cutting ability and shiftiness. He can bounce it outside too much, but he still breaks tackles. He is a natural in the passing game and can be a three-down back. We love the way he runs and believe he'll improve. The Redskins agree; they have expressed confidence he can step into a primary back role in 2016. Buy low, fantasy people!

Biggest surprise: Jones' numbers flagged late in the year in large part because of the offensive line giving up penetration. 

4. Duke Johnson, Cleveland Browns

Duke Johnson was the revelation of this entire exercise. He finished in the top-five in receptions and receiving yards among all running backs, but his running ability was even better on tape than expected. Johnson showed an impressive ability to fight for extra yards after contact, atypical of a stereotypical third-down back. His change of direction and lateral speed as a receiver and runner stood out. 

Why Johnson deserves more touches: Every NFL coach wants a third-down back who can beat linebackers while lining up as a wide receiver. Johnson has the potential to be more under new coach Hue Jackson because he is plenty powerful. He can be Jackson's new Giovani Bernard, and Johnson's ceiling could be even higher because of the ability to run between the tackles. Taken in the third round last year, we'd place a second-round value on Johnson now. Old buddy Ray Farmer got this one right!

5. Thomas Rawls, Seattle Seahawks

It's easy to remember how Thomas Rawls finishes his runs like a mini-Marshawn Lynch. It's easy to remember the monster holes Seattle's offensive line opened late in the year and how Rawls tore through them like they were the last runs he'd ever see. It wasn't as easy to remember Rawls' quick feet and change of direction as he piled up four monster games in only seven starts. It's hard to understand how this guy went undrafted, entering Seahawks training camp fourth on the depth chart.

So why isn't he ranked higher? Rawls is coming off a broken ankle, a complicated injury to return from. His violent playing style invites injuries. He is reminiscent of a bigger Ahmad Bradshaw and it's worth wondering if Rawls can continue a long NFL career at the breakneck pace he played last season. Rawls is a perfect fit for Seattle, but he wouldn't necessarily work in every system. We're hoping that he's underrated on this list like he was underrated in the draft coming out of Central Michigan. 

6. Melvin Gordon, San Diego Chargers

The Chargers traded up to No. 15 overall to draft Melvin Gordon, a decision that looks questionable after one season. We're here to tell Chargers fans not to give up faith. It's hard to overstate the decrepitude that was the Chargers' offensive line last year. Gordon was hit in the backfield so often that it was hard to see positives, but they were there.

The case for Gordon: Gordon showed himself to be a good receiver, even if it took a while to learn how to pass protect. He undoubtedly played better as the season wore on, even when there was nothing open in front of him. His Week 11 performance against Jacksonville was a perfect example. He broke tackles, made defenders miss often and consistently finished tough runs. Yet he still finished with only 60 rushing yards. Playing with the Chargers' offensive line was like playing with ankle weights. His movement is more fluid than any of the other backs on this list except Gurley.

Then again: The line between patient and indecisive is thin in the NFL, especially behind a lousy offensive line. Gordon was indecisive and danced too much early in the year although he did eventually improve his reads. Although the Chargers didn't get Gordon the ball in space nearly enough, his lack of big plays were alarming. In 33 receptions, shouldn't one go over 18 yards? He had only four runs over 20 yards in 184 attempts. He was a boom-or-bust runner without the booms.

We believe Gordon will get better. He has a strong chance to improve in Year 2 and can rebound into solid NFL starter status. But can he be special? That's what the Chargers were counting on when they traded up.

7. T.J. Yeldon, Jacksonville Jaguars

T.J. Yeldon came as advertised. He immediately gave the Jaguars a professional, no-frills starting NFL running back. Every part of his game proved solid, including his protection skills. Yet very rarely did his upright, slashing running style prove exciting. He is going to pile up plenty of four and five-yard gains without the long speed or ability to make you miss that special backs provide. Chris Ivory was signed for big money in the offseason to help take pressure off Yeldon, especially in the red zone.

What is dependable worth? This all sounds critical but Yeldon looks like a quality pick by Jaguars general manager Dave Caldwell. Yeldon is an NFL starter that will reliably eat snaps, carry out his assignments and get what's blocked. That is worthy of a second-round selection, even if some better players were taken after him.

8. Ameer Abdullah, Detroit Lions

After the preseason, Ameer Abdullah was looking like a draft steal. His cutting ability and acceleration looked special. That's why it was unexpected when Abdullah looked so unflashy once the real games started.

Biggest surprise: Abdullah was surprisingly effective picking out holes on runs up the middle, yet he struggled to break big plays as a receiver. He had one catch over 20 yards in 25 receptions and mostly gained what was blocked. This was a solid rookie campaign for Abdullah, who looks like a nice rotational back at worst. He needs to take a step forward to become a second-round steal.

Role Players

9. Karlos Williams, Buffalo Bills: The fifth-round pick is a throwback to a time in the NFL when 240-pound running backs were asked to be human sledgehammers. Williams' ability to get to the outside at his size and deliver punishment is unique. He doesn't look out of place in the running game. He had to battle through four injuries as a rookie but his seven touchdowns and 5.6 yards-per-carry average were not total flukes. He is a unique talent with a high ceiling if he develops behind LeSean McCoy.

10. Jay Ajayi, Miami Dolphins: I legitimately feel guilty ranking Ajayi this low because he looks promising. This is just a very deep class and Ajayi's limitations as a pure one-cut downhill runner with injury concerns knocks him down a few pegs. Still, Ajayi runs angry and is a good receiver. His ceiling is higher than the rest of this group, even though he has bigger risks. Ajayi is not going to make plays to the outside but he could be a very intriguing player if paired with the right running partner.

11. Jeremy Langford, Chicago Bears: In most years, Langford would be one of the most promising rookie running backs. While productive in place for Matt Forte, his tape didn't stand out no matter how much I watched. He runs hard but isn't really a power back. He has breakaway speed but is not going to make defenders miss, limiting his big plays. He's good in the pass game but also had some drops.

If I was ranking "good situations for easy numbers," Langford would be much higher. He is in a great situation and looks capable of being a stop-gap starter. Langford should have a nice NFL career but early fantasy drafters are taking him way too high. After striking out on C.J. Anderson, don't be surprised if the Bears split Langford's workload with Ka'Deem Carey or a rookie to be named later.

12. Javorious "Buck" Allen, Baltimore Ravens: He plays like a guy named "Buck" should play. He finishes runs and was at his best on plays up the middle, averaging nearly a yard more than the league average. He also showed off excellent hands and had an uncanny ability to make the first defender miss after a reception. Don't be shocked if Allen beats Justin Forsett out for the starting job in Baltimore.

Allen is a great example of how incredibly deep this running back class was. He would be an acceptable Week 1 starting running back and he looks like the 12th most promising runner in the entire class.

13. Tevin Coleman, Atlanta Falcons: Other than Melvin Gordon, Coleman is the only 2015 running back that looks overdrafted after one season. Coleman was hardly a disaster as a rookie, averaging 4.4 yards per carry. But the No. 73 overall pick was taken ahead of David Johnson, Duke Johnson and Matt Jones. Coleman doesn't have a lot of wiggle to his game and he got knocked backwards too often for a one-cut runner. His fumbling and passing game struggles should improve over time.

Guys like David Cobb, Cameron Artis-Payne and Josh Robinson didn't show enough as rookies to be ranked here. They will have to improve quickly to stick with the rest of this insanely bountiful class of running backs that is poised to have long NFL careers.

With a little luck, this group has a chance to go down as one of the best running back classes we've ever seen. 

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