Our NFL draft analyst, Ryan Wood, talks to Wes Hodkiewicz about the Green Bay Packers' needs for running backs and returners and the top players available in the 2015 NFL draft. (April 22 2015)
Even in a passing league, where the running back position has been devalued like never before, the importance of a solid, steady ground game can't be overstated.
The Green Bay Packers spent years searching for rushing support to protect their explosive passing offense. Keeping defenses honest has been an elusive goal. Ryan Grant pieced together three productive seasons, but age caught up to him. James Starks looked like a potential answer in the 2010 postseason, but injuries relegated him to backup status.
General manager Ted Thompson drafted six running backs over a seven-year period from 2007-13. Three were taken in the first three rounds: second-rounder Brandon Jackson in 2007, third-rounder Alex Green in 2011 and second-rounder Eddie Lacy in 2013.
2015 NFL Draft: More Packers draft coverage
It wasn't until the Packers drafted Lacy that Thompson found a suitable backfield complement for quarterback Aaron Rodgers.
Finally, as the 2015 NFL draft approaches, the Packers are not in dire need of a running back. Lacy will be only 25 years old next season. He has two years left on a four-year, $3.39 million rookie contract that has proven to be an exceptional bargain. The 2013 NFL Offensive Rookie of the Year has been to one Pro Bowl, and he's exceeded 1,100 rushing yards in each of his two seasons.
Starks enters the final year of his contract in 2015. He's been a reliable backup to Lacy, rushing for 826 yards and five touchdowns in the past two seasons.
While the Packers won't need a running back in the first few rounds, many teams could take their shot at securing a workhorse back early in the draft. An early run on tailbacks would break a recent trend that has seen the position severely devalued. No running backs have been drafted in the first round since 2012, but two — Georgia's Todd Gurley and Wisconsin's Melvin Gordon — have a chance to end that drought.
Behind Gurley and Gordon, the draft is rich with prospects who could become their team's featured back as early as next season. As many as 10 could be taken on the draft's second day, including Nebraska's Ameer Abdullah (1,611 yards, 19 touchdowns last season), Boise State's Jay Ajayi (1,823, 28) and Indiana's Tevin Coleman (2,036, 15).
"The running back position is very deep, and very solid overall," ESPN NFL draft guru Mel Kiper Jr. said. "I would say there's good depth. I think you're going to have a great second, third and fourth round at running back in addition to the two first-rounders."
The Packers could draft a third-string tailback after they declined to offer DuJuan Harris a contract following last season. Ideally, any player who assumes that role would have the ability to double as a kick-return specialist, a spot Harris unsuccessfully filled last season.
If they draft the position, it's unlikely to happen until the late rounds — possibly the seventh. Two prospects could fit their need in the final round. Auburn tailback Corey Grant (4.28 40-yard dash), Texas A&M tailback Trey Williams (4.49) and Missouri tailback Marcus Murphy (4.61) were kick returners in college.
It's no guarantee Grant, Williams or Murphy will be drafted. At least one, and perhaps all three, could be available as free agents. But if the Packers want to secure a versatile running back who could immediately help on special teams late in the draft, these are three strong candidates.
After starting his career at Alabama, Grant transferred and played his final three seasons at Auburn. High expectations followed the former four-star high school recruit throughout his college career, but Grant was never able to meet them. He finished with 1,040 rushing yards and 10 total touchdowns in three seasons at Auburn, backing up Tre Mason in 2012 and 2013, and Cameron Artis-Payne last year.
Still, the stopwatch can be persuasive. Grant's speed was impossible to ignore in college, and it's likely to land him on several teams' draft boards.
"He's got big speed," former Cleveland Browns general manager and current Senior Bowl director Phil Savage said. "Had a lot of perimeter runs, didn't have a lot of experience the last two years running between the tackles. For whatever reason, last year it became the Tre Mason show. This year, it became more Cameron Artis-Payne. He lost some traction as far as what people were hoping for with him being part of the rotation there.
"He's got good hands. He is a talented kick returner. So I think he's got a chance, absolutely."
Williams was a "scat back" at Texas A&M. In a two-back rotation, Williams led the Aggies with seven rushing touchdowns and was second with 560 yards last season.
Unlike Williams and Murphy, Grant was not invited to the NFL combine. Savage believes he has a chance to be one of the rare noncombine invitees to be drafted. For all three, their lone hope for being drafted is what they offer with versatility. Williams averaged 24.76 yards per return on 17 kickoffs last season, while Grant averaged 22.39 yards per return on 18 kickoffs.
Of the three, Murphy was the most productive kickoff returner in college. He averaged 29.65 yards with two touchdowns on 17 returns last season. His 40-yard time was slower than expected at the combine, and he didn't do much better with a 4.58 at his pro day. But Murphy has the type of versatility that has value at the end of the draft, scoring seven return touchdowns — four on punts, three on kickoffs — during his college career.
"Both of those guys are late round," Savage said. "Or give them a chance as a free agent and see if there's more to their game than just returning. But Corey Grant has some talent. He can fly."
Rising stock: Boise State running back Jay Ajayi has quickly risen up draft boards after dominating the Mountain West Conference last season.
Falling stock: Minnesota running back David Cobb began the predraft process with an outside shot to be one of the top five tailbacks, but he has yet to recover after running a 4.81-second, 40-yard dash at the NFL combine.
Sleeper: Injuries limited his junior season, but South Carolina running back Mike Davis has a chance to be a steal in the middle rounds if he can stay healthy.
Top 10 running backs
1. Todd Gurley, Georgia
Height: 6-1. Weight: 222. Class: Junior. Stats: 123 carries, 911 yards, 9 touchdowns. 40-yard dash: N/A. Projection: Round 1.
» Gurley missed the pre-draft process because of a torn ACL suffered in November, but he's the top running back in the draft because of his potential when his knee is healthy.
2. Melvin Gordon, Wisconsin
Height: 6-1. Weight: 215. Class: Junior. Stats: 343 carries, 2,587 yards, 29 total touchdowns. 40-yard dash: 4.52. Projection: Round 1.
» The Heisman Trophy finalist is aiming to add another rare distinction to his résumé — first-round running back.
3. Ameer Abdullah, Nebraska
Height: 5-9. Weight: 205. Class: Senior. Stats: 264 carries, 1,611 yards, 19 touchdowns. 40-yard dash: 4.6. Projection: Round 2.
» Abdullah plays bigger than his listed size as a tough, physical runner between the tackles.
4. Jay Ajayi, Boise State
Height: 6-0.Weight: 221.Class: Junior.Stats: 347 carries, 1,823 yards, 28 touchdowns. 40-yard dash: 4.57. Projection: Round 2.
» With a mixture of elite balance and explosion, Ajayi is a threat any time he touches the football.
5. Tevin Coleman, Indiana
Height: 5-11. Weight: 206. Class: Junior. Stats: 270 carries, 2,036 yards, 15 touchdowns. 40-yard dash: 4.4. Projection: Round 2.
» Despite running half the season on a broken right big toe, Coleman exceeded 2,000 rushing yards in the Big Ten as a junior.
6. Duke Johnson, Miami
Height: 5-9 Weight: 207. Class: Junior. Stats: 242 carries, 1,652 yards, 10 touchdowns. 40-yard dash: 4.54. Projection: Round 2.
» May never become a workhorse, but Johnson is a good runner with consistent hands that make him a receiving threat out of the backfield.
7. T.J. Yeldon, Alabama
Height: 6-1. Weight: 226. Class: Junior. Stats: 194 carries, 979 yards, 11 touchdowns. 40-yard dash: 4.61. Projection: Rounds 2-3.
» After rotating with Eddie Lacy as a freshman, Yeldon became the workhorse in Alabama's backfield during his final two seasons and helped the Crimson Tide win a national title in 2013.
8. David Johnson, Northern Iowa
Height: 6-1. Weight: 224. Class: Senior. Stats: 222 carries, 1,286 yards, 17 touchdowns. 40-yard dash: 4.5. Projection: Rounds 2-3.
» A north and south runner, Johnson lacks speed to run away from tacklers but has the power to run over them.
9. Jeremy Langford, Michigan State
Height: 6-0. Weight: 208. Class: Senior. Stats: 276 carries, 1,522 yards, 22 touchdowns. 40-yard dash: 4.42. Projection: Round 3.
» Langford ran under the radar in a Big Ten that didn't lack for tailbacks in 2014, but he has a lot of potential at the next level.
10. Mike Davis, South Carolina
Height: 5-9. Weight: 217. Class: Junior. Stats: 199 carries, 982 yards, 9 touchdowns. 40-yard dash: 4.61. Projection: Rounds 3-4.
» Powerful runner with a solid repertoire of moves, Davis must prove he can stay healthy enough to be a lead running back in the NFL.