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6 RBs to Watch in the 2015 NFL Combine

Melvin Gordon-Steve-Schar

Although, the 2014 NFL season is officially over, Fantasy Football players need to start building their draft boards with the start of the 2015 NFL Combine.

If you’ve never won your league’s trophy, the offseason is where preparation starts for Fantasy Football championships. The average player pays attention to training camps, but the best players know that the offseason is filled with nuggets of gold (from the NFL Combine to coaching changes) that can put you ahead of your competition.

Before I show six running back candidates that need to be on your radar, I want to quickly go over how you can use combine information for your 2015 Fantasy Football draft preparation.

The Importance of Speed with Running Backs

One of the best Fantasy Football resources on the market is Jonathan Bales’ “Fantasy Football for Smart People: What the Experts Don’t Want You to Know,” as Bales brings years of data and extensive research to unknown and misunderstood concepts.

In “What the Experts Don’t Want You to Know,” Bales showcases the correlations between 40-yard dash time and future success, which is obviously important when you are deciding to add a rookie running back to your roster. He states that, “The results couldn’t be more apparent; if a running back doesn’t check in somewhere in the 4.4s or lower, the odds are stacked against a productive NFL career. The average value of running backs in that range is nearly four times that of backs in the 4.50 to 4.59 range”.

While there will always be exceptions to the rule (Frank Gore’s 4.65 dash time), the data shows that you aren’t going to find a ton of success going against the grain. Look for solid 40-yard dash times.

A Rookie Running Back’s Role

When you draft a rookie running back, you have to understand that success is related to talent and opportunity. You could have the next coming of Adrian Peterson, but it doesn’t matter if he’s buried in the depth chart and only sees five total touches a game.

Before the start of the 2014 season, many Fantasy Football players were debating between owning Carlos Hyde and Jeremy Hill. Everyone counts out Gore every single year, and with Giovani Bernard finding a nice rhythm in his rookie season, many players drafted Hyde with very high expectations.

I wrote the article, “2014 Fantasy Football Running Backs: Carlos Hyde vs. Jeremy Hill,” and I believed that Hill would have the better season, though I thought owning both could end up as a solid option. Average Fantasy Football players dumped Hill after a Week 1 performance of 19 rushing yards, but smart owners held on, and Hill finished as a top-10 back in 2014.

How did I reach my conclusion on Hill? Gore is a tank, while Bernard at 5-foot-9, relies more on his elusiveness. That isn’t to say Bernard isn’t powerful in his own right, but he isn’t plowing through people like Gore or Marshawn Lynch, either. Hill had more complementary strengths to Bernard than Hyde did to Gore, which would allow more opportunities for Hill. As a goal-line back or a guy to move the chains, the odds pointed to Hill having more of an impact.

So now you know some criteria to use in judging which rookie back to add to your team. Let’s take a look at the backs you should have your eye on in the 2015 NFL Combine.

2015 NFL Combine: 6 Running Backs to Watch

  1. Melvin Gordon, Wisconsin

2014 Rushing Yards 2014 Rushing Touchdowns 2014 Receiving Yards 2014 Receiving Touchdowns
2,587 29 153 3

Gordon’s stats are obviously impressive, but some analysts are concerned about Gordon’s success coming more from a system, than being from actual talent. Former Badger Montee Ball has yet to live up to his final 2012 college season of 1,830 rushing yards and 22 touchdowns, so Gordon needs to have a solid combine to step away from Ball’s shadow.

He only totaled 22 receptions throughout his college career, so in Fantasy Football leagues that award points for receptions, Gordon would not add extra value. There are several playoff teams from 2014 that could use a powerful back, however, so Gordon could find himself apart of a very favorable offense to start his career.

  1. Todd Gurley, Georgia

2014 Rushing Yards 2014 Rushing Touchdowns 2014 Receiving Yards 2014 Receiving Touchdowns
911 9 57 0

*Gurley will not participate in the 2015 NFL Combine. He is still one of the best backs in the draft, so see if Gordon gains an edge with his performance. 

With most NFL teams rostering a few pass-catching backs, it’s interesting that the top-two rookie running back candidates of 2015 weren’t really involved in their college teams’ passing attacks.

Gurley missed time in 2014 due to a four-game suspension for signing autographs, and he tore his ACL upon his return, so these statistics were accumulated in only six games. The numbers are absolutely insane, as Gurley averaged 151.83 rushing yards per game in 2014.

The future of Marshawn Lynch is very questionable, and Gurley may have a potential landing spot in Seattle.

  1. Mike Davis, South Carolina

2014 Rushing Yards 2014 Rushing Touchdowns 2014 Receiving Yards 2014 Receiving Touchdowns
982 9 368 2

While he isn’t the flashiest player, Davis does most things well. He is very stout and can be difficult to tackle, has good vision and is an obvious asset in the passing game. With that being said, analysts don’t seem to have a concise decision on where he should be drafted.

I’ve seen everything from Davis being ranked the third running back off the board, to falling to Round 7. I don’t think this a knock on Davis’ talent; I think this is more of a case of teams focusing on other positions, which leaves a large pool of running backs.

The Gamecocks’ back also dealt with some wear and tear in 2014, which may be related to his decrease in usage and productivity towards the end of the year. A solid player, but his ability as a starter in the NFL is under heavy review.

  1. Jay Ajayi, Boise State

2014 Rushing Yards 2014 Rushing Touchdowns 2014 Receiving Yards 2014 Receiving Touchdowns
1,823 28 535 4

Numbers don’t lie, although, defenses in the Mountain West aren’t the stiffest of competition.

Ajayi draws comparisons to Lynch, but his two main issues are ball security (11 fumbles during 597 carries), and an ACL injury from 2011. Because of his playmaking-ability, however, Ajayi is viewed as a more complete back than some of the other prospects entering the 2015 NFL Draft.

If he falls to the third round, this will make him a value pick, which may not be good for his Fantasy Football stock in 2015. He could be picked up by a team that isn’t in need of a back, but views him as a good value for where he is available (this buries him on the depth chart). That isn’t to say Ajayi couldn’t work his way into a prominent role, but for him to find early Fantasy success, he needs to land with a team that isn’t afraid to put his abilities to work in Week 1.

  1. Duke Johnson, Miami

2014 Rushing Yards 2014 Rushing Touchdowns 2014 Receiving Yards 2014 Receiving Touchdowns
1,652 10 421 3

With 3,519 rushing yards and 30 total touchdowns during his college tenure, Johnson’s explosive speed and elusiveness make him a hot commodity for NFL teams in search of a home-run threat.

The problem this brings is a potential committee approach, as Johnson’s blocking skills have come into question. Teams with young or veteran quarterbacks who need extra protection may avoid him, and without improvement, he will have a hard time finding a consistent role.

The future NFL back might not be a candidate for first-year success, but pay close attention to his combine results, and any team that mentions it.

  1. Kenny Hilliard, LSU

2014 Rushing Yards 2014 Rushing Touchdowns 2014 Receiving Yards 2014 Receiving Touchdowns
447 6 35 0

It’s hard what to make from a running back leaving a committee approach, but Alfred Blue made the Houston Texans with 343 rushing yards and one rushing touchdown in his final season with LSU. While not Fantasy relevant, Blue still found a role with the Texans, as he finished his rookie season with 528 rushing yards and 113 receiving yards.

The reason I think Hilliard is worth watching is the fact that he has fresh legs. Like I mentioned before, Fantasy Football success occurs from opportunities and talent, and with a bigger role, Hilliard may be a surprise hit. If he can hold on to a roster spot and a veteran back becomes injured, that could be all that he needs to make a Fantasy Football impact.

Then again, he might not even be drafted. Keep Hilliard on your radar, but don’t devote all your attention to him. He’s also the nephew of former Saints running back Dalton Hilliard.

These six running backs are on a fast track to your Fantasy Football team, but they have to pass the test that is — the 2015 NFL Combine.

Melvin Gordon Photo Credit: Steve Schar

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