NFL Draft Positional Review: Running Back

Adding a potential superstar like Gurley will be very tempting if he's there at 32
As the NFL draft rapidly approaches, PatriotsLife will be doing it's best to keep you informed and up-to-date on all things draft. With that in mind, we'll be taking an in-depth look at each of the Patriots positions of need, sifting through the prospects to highlight potential Patriot fits. After starting the series yesterday with a look at the guards, we're shifting gears and taking a look at one of the "sexy" positions: running back.

Position: Running back

Need level: Moderate/Hard to forecast. The Patriots running back position is currently in a state of flux, as 2011 draftees Shane Vereen and Stevan Ridley are about to hit the free agent market. Vereen's stock is at an all-time high following his 11 catch Super Bowl performance, and the running back is said to be seeking $5 million a season. The Patriots reportedly like Vereen and intend to keep him, but they'll have a tough time bringing him back at that price given their cap situation. I'd be surprised if Vereen gets that kind of offer on the open market, although the rising salary cap could play to his benefit. Vereen and the Patriots will both likely have to wait it out at the start of free agency, as new deals for DeMarco Murray, Frank Gore, CJ Spiller, Justin Forsett, Mark Ingram and (maybe) Marshawn Lynch will likely set the market at his position.

ESPN Boston's Mike Reiss has posited that the Patriots will likely consider the three year, $10.5 million deal Donald Brown got from the Chargers as a benchmark. The Pats would happily keep Vereen for $3.5 million per year (the same annual average as Darren Sproles), given the value he brings as a pass catching mismatch. If other team's offers begin to creep into the $4-5 million a year range, I'd expect the Pats to let him go and look elsewhere to complement their backfield.

Losing Vereen would be a big hit to the Patriots passing game, as the back is an important mismatch creator in their no-huddle attack. The importance of this role can't be overstated, not just for the on-field impact his talent brings, but also the trust Vereen has earned from Brady both as a receiver and in protection. James White was seemingly drafted last year as a possible successor to that third down role, but an extremely quiet rookie season raised more questions than answers for the Wisconsin product. He earned praise from the likes of Brady and Belichick in minicamps and training camp, but failed to show either breakaway speed or tackle-breaking power in his limited opportunities. Perhaps White can turn around and develop into a contributor, but handing him such an important role at this point would certainly be a gamble.

Unlike Vereen, Ridley hits free agency with his league-wide value at an all-time low following an ACL tear. He'll likely be looking for what I call a "Prove It" deal: a cheap, incentives-laden one year deal. Such a deal actually could appeal to the Patriots; as banking on a return from injury from a talented and productive player well-versed in the team's scheme for cheap could be a better value than spending significant resources on shoring up the position.

Of course, the cubbard won't be completely bare even if both Vereen and Ridley wind up leaving, as the Pats have both LeGarrette Blount and Jonas Gray signed for figurative peanuts in 2015. Both Blount and Gray are capable runners, each of whom had their obvious moments last season. Tyler Gaffney, a 2014 draft choice who was plucked from Carolina's cuts and stashed in a "redshirt" type rookie season, represents another intriguing X factor in the group. The running game won't fall apart without Ridley and Vereen, but it's fair to wonder if it will be as consistent, as neither Blount nor Gray established enough consistency to run away with the job for next season. Improving the offensive line with one of the guards we discussed yesterday would certainly help this duo going forward.

The depth and talent of this year's unusually strong running back class could influence the Patriots thinking towards the positions future. It would be foolish to not sniff around what appears to be the strongest class of running backs we've seen in some time, especially given the team's uncertain future at the position. The team's cap situation could also influence their thinking, as the team needs to be saving wherever they can in preparation for upcoming big deals for the likes of Darrelle Revis, Devin McCourty, Chandler Jones, Dont'a Hightower, Nate Solder and Jamie Collins. Replacing Vereen/Ridley with a talented yet inexpensive draft choice could be a way to open up cap space crucial to keeping the team's talented core together.

Day One fits:

2015 seems set to break a two year streak with no running backs drafted in the first round (not surprising, given the three backs taken that year were Trent Richardson, Doug Martin and David Wilson). While there are a number of backs with starter potential out there, two stand out as obvious superstar talents: Wisconsin's Melvin Gordon and Georgia's Todd Gurley.

Gordon has invoked Jamaal Charles comparisons
Gurley is currently rehabbing a torn ACL, which means Gordon will likely be the first back selected and gone before the Patriots pick at 32. If he somehow slips into their range, his explosive big-play speed and pass catching potential would make him a tantalizing possibility. Gordon's small but compact build, explosive burst and uncanny balance have earned comparison's with Jamaal Charles, with Gordon being a tad less explosive but boasting more tackle-breaking power than the Chief's standout. The one concern with Gordon is ball security, but his playmaking upside more than makes up for that.

Gurley may be even better, although the team that draft's him will certainly be gambling that he can return to form following his knee surgery. Gurley's injury history is really the only knock on him, as the Georgia product has a rare blend of big play speed, explosive quickness and bruising power. He's also a more-than-capable receiver and yards-after-contact machine who rarely fumbled in college.

If Gurley is available with the 32nd pick (doubtful but possible), the opportunity to add a dominant playmaker of his caliber may be too good to pass up. Adding a runner with his talent would dramatically lessen the burden on the soon-to-be-38 Tom Brady, while adding a level of offensive balance that could make an already dangerous offense downright deadly. The presence of Blount and Gray would also allow the Patriots the luxury of taking their time with Gurley's rehab, hopefully increasing his odds of him coming back at full strength.

Day Two fits (Rounds 2-3)

The second round figures to see a major run on running backs, as most projections have 4-5 backs going in that range. That run could be over by the time the Patriots current second round pick (64th overall) comes around, but trading back out of the first round could land the Pats in the range to pick up a potential franchise back. Three backs in this range particularly intrigue me: Indiana's Tevin Coleman, Boise State's Jay Ajayi, and Nebraska's Ameer Abdullah.

Coleman's explosive speed and violent running style made him a constant big play threat: 14 of his 28 career touchdowns were of 43 or more yards. That physicality also translates to pass protection, something sure to catch the eye of the Pats training staff. Coleman could use some polish as a receiver, but he flashes the talent (including solid hands) to improve in that department, and comes with the talent to be an impact runner right away.

Ajayi might be an even better fit, football-wise, for the Patriots. The talented Boise State runner is a ready-made, three-down back whose combination of power, balance and explosiveness has invoked comparisons to Marshawn Lynch. The Pats will surely look into three red flags: a 2011 torn ACL, a 2011 arrest for stealing sweatpants, and ball security issues. Ajayi is clearly still explosive following knee surgery and earned respect for the accountability he showed handling being in Coach Chris Peterson's doghouse following that 2011 arrest, but 11 fumbles in 597 carries is a high number. There's a lot to look into here, but Ajayi's top end talent and all-around game make him a potential steal in the second round.

Abdullah comes with a Vereen-like skill set well suited for the passing game
Finally, the Pats can turn to Abdullah if they are looking specifically for a back to fill Vereen's passing game role. At 5'9" and 195 pounds, Abdullah likely lacks the size to be an every down threat, but his speed, explosive quickness and reliable hands could make him a perfect option to excel in that passing down role. Abdullah brings additional value as a capable return specialist, something that could come in handy if Danny Amendola's $5.7 million cap hit makes him a cap casualty. He also has an excellent reputation for great character amongst the scouting community, both on and off the field. Like many of the other backs in this crop, ball security is one of the few knocks on Abdullah's game, as he put it on the ground 13 times in his four year Nebraska career.

If the Pats wait until the third round to address the running back position, they could find value in the form of Alabama's TJ Yeldon. Yeldon battled admirably through injuries in 2014 to post a solid season, and has enough power and speed to be a productive runner at the next level. He also is an experienced back well-versed in Belichick ally Nick Saban's pro-style offense who has proven capable as a pass catcher out of the backfield. Versatility is Yeldon's calling card, but unlike some of the prospects listed above, he doesn't have enough top-end talent to get away with occasional ball security lapses at the next level.

Day Three fits (Rounds 4-7):

The odds of finding a franchise back in the later rounds are obviously low, so I've adjusted my focus here towards players with a specific skill set that could translate at the next level. Given the potential departure of Amendola and the heavy workload Edelman has taken on, extra consideration was given towards prospects with return ability. Kansas City's De'Anthony Thomas was merely the most recent example of that type of player providing an immediate impact from the later rounds.

Missouri's Marcus Murphy is a perfect example of a player who fits that bill. At 5'9" and 195, Murphy is never going to be a featured early down back. However, his explosive quickness makes him a dangerous big play threat as a change of pace option, and he'll be an instant coverage mismatch for linebackers at the next level. Adding Murphy would also bring an explosive, big-play element to the Pats return game, while also lessening the high number of hits Edelman takes on punt returns. The one knock on Murphy is that his lack of size makes it difficult for him to compete in pass protection, but the diminutive back would still offer a lot of value as a late round selection.

Another prospect who would bring immediate value in the return game is Texas A&M's Trey Williams. Williams is another guy who will never be big enough to be a feature back, but has the quickness and speed to be an explosive, big-play threat if used correctly. Like Murphy, Williams' big play potential make him a potential value pick in the sixth or seventh round range.

Another undersized option could be Kentuckey's Braylon Heard. Like Murphy, Heard will never be asked to carry the load in the running game, but his athleticism should make him a difficult cover for linebackers across the league. He could be another option if the team looks to roll the dice on an explosive but small playmaker late in the draft.

Finally, North Dakota State's John Crockett brings a little more size to the position, although he'll still need to bulk up in the pros. Crockett flashed an impressive all around game in college, including natural receiving ability and explosiveness as a runner, and could become a late round find if he develops at the next level.