It’s no secret that the 2014 NFL Draft produced what might be the greatest wide receiver class of all time. Through the first two years of their careers, players like Odell Beckham Jr., Mike Evans, Allen Robinson, Jarvis Landry, Sammy Watkins, Brandin Cooks and many others have made an enormous impact on the NFL as we know it. To be certain, draft classes this talent rich at any position are a true rarity in the league we love. So what does this have to do with running backs, you ask?
Enter the NFL running back draft class of 2015.
While it may not have the depth of 2014’s wideout class, there is another highly talented position group that is flying under the radar. Last year’s group of runners was surprisingly deep, with quality players available in abundance. Now entering their sophomore seasons, there are several talented backs poised to breakout in 2016.
Sophomore Running Back Breakout Candidates
With that said, for the purposes of this discussion we won’t be discussing the Los Angeles Rams’ Todd Gurley. Why, you ask? Simply put, he already enjoyed his breakout season as a rookie. Gurley’s first season as a pro was sensational. The Georgia product rushed for 1,106 yards and 10 touchdowns across only twelve starts (13 appearances). He solidified himself as a foundation back, a franchise player, and a household name, while taking home NFL Offensive Rookie of the Year honors in the process. While he will only get better with time, for all intents and purposes, he has already broken out.
With that said, let’s take a look at several players who are poised to join him.
David Johnson, Arizona Cardinals
This one might be the easiest one to predict. Johnson’s play down the stretch in 2015 was absolutely dominant. Over the final five games of the regular season, Johnson accumulated 442 rushing yards, 216 receiving yards, and five touchdowns. These are borderline video game numbers coming from a player who had just taken over as a starter. On the season, he averaged 4.6 Yards Per Carry and 12.7 Yards Per Reception. Furthermore, he scored 13 combined touchdowns in a largely supporting role as a rookie (8 rushing, 4 receiving, one returning).
Entering 2016 as the unquestioned starter in one of the league’s best offenses, Johnson’s arrow is pointing up. He has the confidence of his coaches, a complete three-down skill set, and great players around him. He is the safest bet of any player on this list to enjoy a true breakout season.
Thomas Rawls, Seattle Seahawks
Thomas Rawls joined the Seattle Seahawks as a 2015 undrafted free agent just hoping to crack an NFL roster. He proceeded to become one of the season’s most delightful surprises. Stepping in to a starting role in relief of an injured Marshawn Lynch, Rawls rushed for 830 yards and scored five total touchdowns in 2015. Furthermore, his 5.6 yards per carry was tops in the league among qualified rushers. The only impediment to a true breakout 2016 will be his recovery from a Week 14 broken ankle.
Currently, not much is know of Rawls’ rehabilitation timeline, and the Seahawks did select rookie tailbacks C.J. Procise and Alex Collins in the 2016 draft. While that might not seem like an ideal situation, it is expected that Rawls will step right back into his early down workload when he returns to full health. After his highly impressive rookie year, Rawls is an extremely likely breakout candidate, in spite of a less than ideal set of circumstances.
Melvin Gordon, San Diego Chargers
Sadly, it became quite fashionable to pick on Melvin Gordon as he endured a difficult rookie campaign. He struggled to find running room en route to 741 rushing yards (3.5 YPC) and zero touchdowns. Sure, on paper those numbers sound bad, but let’s examine the facts more closely. The Chargers offensive line struggled mightily all season. Gordon had nowhere to run, and found himself crashing into walls repeatedly. There simply weren’t holes to run through.
Still, he showed nice burst and wiggle on more than a few occasions, and his talent has never been in question. Gordon is a 6’1″, 215 pound back with 4.52 speed and high-end athleticism. He was the 15th overall pick in the 2015 NFL draft for a very good reason. Clearly, it’s far too soon to write him off.
With Ken Whisenhunt returning to his old offensive co-ordinator job, the running game will become a priority and Gordon will be a key beneficiary. Forget about last year’s struggles. Melvin Gordon is a strong candidate to enjoy a breakout season.
Ameer Abdullah, Detroit Lions
Ameer Abdullah is a great example of a player that pundits were a year too early on. He made some big plays for the Detroit Lions as a rookie, but a lack of touches, a few costly fumbles, and a full-blown committee limited his upside.
However, the Nebraska product and SPARQ score dynamo is poised to demonstrate that immense upside in 2016.
The Lions are expected to be a much more balance offense this season, and Abdullah will be a featured player. With Joique Bell no longer in the mix, his status as the lead back is no longer in question. Theo Riddick will continue to serve as a receiving specialist, and Zach Zenner and Stevan Ridley will vie for carries, but there is little doubt who the running game will feature. Abdullah is quick, agile, and a talented pass-catcher in his own right. Expect him to make the most of his opportunity.
Jay Ajayi, Miami Dolphins
Jay Ajayi was regarded as a likely second round pick last year, before injury concerns dropped him to the fifth round. While he had impressive moments in relief of Lamar Miller last season, he didn’t handle enough of a workload to demonstrate his true potential.
That will change in 2016.
Miller is a Houston Texan now, and the starting job in Miami is Ajayi’s for the taking. It wasn’t necessarily the easiest path to get here, however. The Dolphins kicked the tires on several veteran runners in free agency, even going as far as to sign C.J. Anderson to an offer sheet that the Denver Broncos would eventually match. Still, none of these attempts proved successful, and Ajayi appears locked into lead back duties.
Yes, Ajayi has to contend with rookie Kenyan Drake for carries, but the former Boise State Bronco remains at the top of the depth chart. With a three-down skill set, an ample opportunity in front of him, and playing in an Adam Gase offense, he could be poised for success in 2016.
Jeremy Langford, Chicago Bears
Speaking of Adam Gase, let’s talk about his running back from last year: Jeremy Langford. Langford will be a fascinating player to watch this season. Without question, his play in relief of Matt Forte in 2015 was one of the bright spots of an otherwise frustrating season in the Windy City. So much so, that when Forte departed for New York in free agency, everyone assumed that Langford was on deck as the Bears starter.
It didn’t exactly work out that way. In fact, Langford’s off-season has been quite similar to Ajayi’s in Miami. The Bears also unsuccessfully pursued C.J. Anderson in free agency, and drafted Jordan Howard in the fifth round in 2016. The difference between Langford’s and Ajayi’s situations is that word out of Chicago indicates that the Bears will employ a committee backfield this season, riding the “hot hand”, as it were.
Clearly, this dampens Langford’s breakout potential, but doesn’t eliminate it altogether. Langford still figures to open the season as the Bears’ starter. If he plays well out of the gate, it will be tough to take the job from him.
Matt Jones, Washington
Alfred Morris signed with the Dallas Cowboys and Matt Jones was instantly thrust into a starting job. The fact that Washington waited until the seventh round of the 2016 draft to assess the position indicates that they are confident in Jones’ potential to fill this role.
Don’t write him off because of a few fumbles last season. Jones flashed serious potential on several occasions. It is difficult to get a read on his true potential based on the limited action he saw last year, but clearly, he has the confidence of his coaches. While Washington was a passing team down the stretch last season, Jones will see plenty of action as an early down runner. A breakout could be on the way, if the opportunity presents itself.
T.J. Yeldon, Jacksonville Jaguars
T.J. Yeldon is an interesting case. While he acquitted himself quite well in his rookie year, the Jaguars don’t seem convinced of his potential. In fact, after the Jags signed Chris Ivory to a five year, $32 million deal, it seemed like Yeldon would find himself in a supporting role.
This is certainly possible, but don’t count out the former Alabama standout just yet. In 2015, Yeldon rushed for 740 yards and caught 36 passes for 279 yards in only twelve games. While his three total touchdowns are lower than some would like to see, it’s important to note how pass-happy the Jaguars were last season. Yeldon’s better than advertised rookie year, combined with his high draft capital (34th overall in 2015) assure he’ll be involved in the offense this season.
Will he be a featured back? Certainly not. Ivory will handle a heavy workload, but Yeldon will get his touches too. His breakout likelihood is lower than his counterparts on this list, but not impossible.
Other possible 2016 breakouts that just missed this list include: Cleveland Browns RB Duke Johnson, Buffalo Bills RB Karlos Williams, Baltimore Ravens RB Javorius Allen, Carolina Panthers RB Cameron Artis-Payne, Atlanta Falcons RB Tevin Coleman.
Clearly, the 2015 running back class is strong. All of the men on this list are poised to make significant contributions this season. Is this the beginning of a renewed focus on runners? It seems unlikely in today’s NFL but certainly, talented players like this will warrant plenty of attention going forward.
DETROIT, MI – DECEMBER 27: Ameer Abdullah #21 of the Detroit Lions carries the ball in the second quarter while playing the San Francisco 49ers during an NFL game at Ford Field on December 27, 2015 in Detroit, Michigan. (Photo by Dave Reginek/Getty Images)