Front Office Insider: Why rookie RBs have been running wild in the NFL

This year's rookie running back class could be the deepest in the last decade.

This year’s rookie running back class had a plan entering the league this past spring: Ditch the stigma attached to the once-glamorous position.

Months before San Diego Chargers’ brass spent a first-round pick on running back Melvin Gordon, the electrifying playmaker told that he and other members of the class wanted to prove that the position shouldn’t be devalued.

"I know there are other running backs out there that feel the way that I do, and we want to show kids that running backs can go in the first round, too," Gordon said in February at EXOS training facility in Carlsbad, Calif. "It’s a possibility. You just have to put some work in, and that’s what I’m trying to do right now."

A couple months later, both Gordon — drafted 15th overall, out of Alabama — and St. Louis’ Todd Gurley — selected 10th overall, out of Georgia — proved running backs still can be taken in Round 1. But so far this season, the depth of the running back class has been the story.

"You can still find really good value in the later rounds," an NFC personnel exec told "One thing that has stood out is the size of these backs. Some schools are going to bigger backs. To play the position you have to be able to take hits. Several of the rookies are 200 pounds with big, strong legs."

The trend of running backs typically taking time to acclimate to the speed of the pro game doesn’t have much merit this year. From Seattle to Western New York, much of the class has already made an impact at a very high level.

"The passing game in college has helped players in terms of pass protection," an AFC scout said. "Teams want to put more on young running backs. It’s really a youth movement, too, with how the league is going. People want fresh legs and guys who have less wear and tear on them."


Despite this class being headlined by the two first-round picks, teams have already squeezed the potential out of mid- and late-round choices and even undrafted free agents.

Jacksonville’s T.J. Yeldon, a second-round pick out of Alabama, ranks ninth in the league with 48 carries. Buffalo’s Karlos Williams, a Florida State product selected in the fifth round, is the first rookie running back in NFL history with a touchdown in each of his first three games. Seattle’s Thomas Rawls, an undrafted free agent from Central Michigan, took over for Marshawn Lynch last week when Lynch exited with a hamstring injury.

In Atlanta, third-round pick Tevin Coleman earned the starting job for the Falcons before fracturing a rib. Detroit second-rounder Ameer Abdullah, Washington third-rounder Matt Jones and Cleveland third-rounder Duke Johnson continue to get more work as the season unfolds.

The deep crop of talent has casual fans wondering where these players are coming from. But scouts and several talent evaluators have been well aware for months how far and wide the talent ranges at the position. Below are notes on the top runners from conversations I had with talent evaluators over the past week.

He looks quick. He looks sudden. He looks explosive. He breaks tackles. He’s strong. In a lot of ways, he looks like a different player.

AFC personnel director on Lions RB Ameer Abdullah

Ameer Abdullah, Lions, second round: After rewriting record books at Nebraska, Abdullah has drawn high praise around the league. "He looked more explosive on the pro tape than he even did on the college tape," an AFC personnel director said. "I had some questions about his burst and explosiveness at Nebraska. Maybe that could’ve been a factor of him being overworked and getting a lot of carries. He looks quick. He looks sudden. He looks explosive. He breaks tackles. He’s strong. In a lot of ways, he looks like a different player. It has been surprising because he was a good player at Nebraska, but he looks like a guy who could be an every-down back at this point."

Karlos Williams, Bills, fifth round: He hasn’t had a large sample size, but he’s made the most of each carry. In fact, Williams leads the league at 7.8 yards per attempt. "He’s much better than I thought he’d be," an AFC area scout said. "He wasn’t showcased that much during his time at Florida State and was a backup. He’s playing much better at this level than he did in college. He’s a great fit for their offense because of his downhill style. I wouldn’t be surprised to see him split carries with LeSean (McCoy) moving forward." In fact, Williams will be playing more sooner rather than later. FS1 NFL insider Mike Garafolo reported on Monday that McCoy (hamstring) is unlikely to participate in Sunday’s game against the Giants (FOX, 1 p.m.). Said an AFC personnel director: "Even in college, (Williams) was a big, physical running back. He was a guy that can get downhill and break a lot of tackles. He has more speed than people give him credit for. When you get him going downhill and his shoulders square to the line of scrimmage he’s going to break tackles and make yards."

T.J. Yeldon, Jaguars, second round: The Jaguars have given Yeldon a workhorse workload. One reason is offensive coordinator Greg Olson never has to take him off the field. "He’s a good runner, he can catch the ball, he can play on all three downs," the AFC personnel director said. "If you get a guy who can play all three downs, that’s a huge bonus for you."

Melvin Gordon, Chargers, first round: One NFC scout wonders whether Gordon is a good fit in Chargers head coach Mike McCoy’s pass-first offense. Gordon doesn’t have the most natural hands, and that could be a good indicator of why Danny Woodhead has received a chunk of San Diego’s third-down snaps. "He’s a really talented runner," an AFC scout said. "He probably is still developing in the passing game, but as a runner he has good inside vision, power, he has enough long speed that he can take the ball the distance. He broke tackles. I thought he was a good, all-around guy. I think he’ll eventually develop into a three-down back. He’s a volume runner. The more you feed him the ball, the better he’s going to get. Gordon is a guy that needs the ball to be effective."

Todd Gurley, Rams, first round: Just 10 months removed from ACL surgery, the Rams rookie has been fully cleared. Though his debut in last Sunday’s game was limited, Gurley will eventually be a major factor in Frank Cignetti’s offense. "You can’t put the expectations too high on him," the NFC exec said. "He’s someone who didn’t have a training camp or preseason, so you have to give him time to get acclimated. But he’s a proven player. He’s big, fast and strong. Once he gets used to the pads, people will see how special he is."

Thomas Rawls, Seahawks, undrafted: Rawls has quickly built on an impressive preseason. Doing so, he was able to make former second-round choice Christine Michael expendable as the Seahawks dealt him to Dallas for a conditional pick. "He’s quick, strong and runs like Marshawn Lynch," the NFC personnel exec said. "Runs with a lot of toughness and has some burst. He runs with short, little strides until he finds a crease and then he hits the hole. He’s not afraid to keep his legs churning to push the pile and likes to finish runs."

He doesn’t have the same speed, but he kind of has that Marion Barber-type physicalness to his running style.

AFC personnel director on Redskins RB Matt Jones

Matt Jones, Redskins, third round: Coach Jay Gruden told reporters this week he was "concerned" about Jones’ two fumbles in the past two games. But the 6-foot-2, 231-pounder’s skillset has teams around the league taking note. "Matt is a big guy that has power," the AFC personnel director said. "He is going to break a lot of tackles. He fits really well in Washington’s scheme because they want physical, downhill backs that are going to get to the line of scrimmage and create yards on their own if there’s nothing there. He doesn’t have the same speed, but he kind of has that Marion Barber-type physicalness to his running style. The way they’re using him, Matt is going to wear down a defense with the number of carries he’s going to get. He’s going to pound on a defense and will get stronger as the game goes on. And he has shown that. He’s even shown a little more versatility to his running style than what you saw at Florida. He has a little more wiggle in open space than I would’ve given him credit for."

Duke Johnson, Browns, third round: The Miami product has worked well as Isaiah Crowell’s backup with the Browns. Because he has good hands, he’s been a reliable checkdown option for Cleveland quarterbacks. "He might be too small (5-9, 210) to be an every-down back," an NFC scout said. "Pro football is a big, rugged game, and you need to be able to withstand the punishment week in and week out. I think he’s a complementary player coming into the league, and he’ll need to develop some of those traits to be an every-down back. He does have some of the burst, explosiveness and twitch, which is impressive."

David Johnson, Cardinals, third round: Johnson has been a complementary weapon to Chris Johnson, but there’s no denying the ability of someone who has already scored a TD as a runner, receiver and return man. "Johnson has great vision and runs with toughness," an AFC scout said. "He helps offensive lineman because blocks don’t have to be great. He has a physical skillset that reminds me of Le’Veon Bell. He’s a former wide receiver, so he has versatility. The height, weight and speed is off the charts."


BASKETBALL ON GRASS IN BUFFALO: The playmakers are plentiful in Greg Roman’s offense. But the real star, err, point guard running the show has been Tyrod Taylor. The athletic quarterback ranks fourth in the NFL in completion rate (74.4 percent), mainly because of the short passing game. As a runner, he has moved the chains and bought time to make plays. "Tyrod is a very good quarterback and is a problem for teams to cover," an AFC scout said. "He can run all over the place, and that presents a matchup nightmare. They have too many threats. He’s going to be a fresh QB in the fourth quarter, and it won’t be good with tired big men chasing him around."

BRADFORD’S DEEP BALL: Eagles quarterback Sam Bradford entered last Sunday’s game 6-for-23 on passes thrown 10 or more yards through the air, per Pro Football Focus. In Week 3, via NFL Game Pass, Bradford completed three of eight, including a perfectly placed ball to Ryan Mathews on a wheel route against the Jets. How will Bradford fare this Sunday against the Redskins (FOX, 1 p.m. ET), who have a much-improved secondary?

CAN INDY OWN THE SOUTH AGAIN? The Colts escaped Tennessee with their near three-year streak of not losing a divisional game intact. Since Dec. 16, 2012, the Colts have gone 14-0 against AFC South opponents. This week, the Colts host the Jaguars (CBS, 1 p.m. ET), then four days later travel to play the Texans.

THE TRADE THAT NEVER HAPPENED: Texans defensive end Jadeveon Clowney played 58 snaps (95 percent) last week against the Tampa Bay Buccaneers, according to the Houston Chronicle’s Aaron Wilson. It was the most action Clowney has seen since he was drafted No. 1 overall in 2014. As the Texans prepare to play the Falcons (CBS, 1 p.m) on Sunday, I’m reminded of the rumors that swirled prior to that draft. Clowney was on the record saying he wished the Falcons would trade up to get him. For Falcons general manager Thomas Dimitroff, it was most likely beneficial that he didn’t package a bounty of picks to mortgage the future for Clowney, who needed all of last year to rehab from microfracture knee surgery. Instead, Atlanta selected bookend tackle Jake Matthews, who will likely see his fair share of Clowney this weekend.

SPEAKING OF FIRST OVERALL PICKS: Two of them –€“ quarterbacks Cam Newton and Jameis Winston — will be going head-to-head Sunday in Tampa Bay (FOX, 1 p.m. ET). The former Heisman Trophy winners were highly scrutinized going through the draft process. How the rest of their pro careers progress, within the same division, will be fun to watch. 

MARIOTA’S NEW GO-TO THREAT? Titans rookie wide receiver Dorial Green-Beckham had only three targets last week, but his 6-foot-6 frame was beneficial while hauling in a touchdown over Colts cornerback Vontae Davis. "He showed what everyone was hoping he could be, which is a red-zone threat," an NFC scout said. "He’s got freakish tools. He only played one full year really at Missouri. Some said he was limited running the route tree, but maybe it was more that we just hadn’t seen him do it. He’s going to get better with coaching, but his physical ability could make him special."