ENGLEWOOD, Colo. -- The depth at running back this year is so great that some potential game-changing backs could drop into the draft's third day simply because of the glut of prospects. As an example, ESPN's Mel Kiper Jr. noted that Boise State running back Jay Ajayi -- one of the sleepers that I discussed on Broncos TV-- could drop into the draft's third day.
While I do not concur with that assessment -- in part because Ajayi is not only productive, but could have the quickest feet of any running back prospect in this year's class -- the general point is true: quality will fall to the fourth through seventh rounds.
Here's a look at some players that might be available then.
Notes:Listed at 215 pounds in college, he bulked up a bit and lost none of his speed -- and, if anything, got faster. Timed at 4.57 seconds in the 40-yard dash before his senior year, he ran the 40 in 4.50 seconds, fourth-best among all Combine running backs. Johnson has an easy gait in the open field, and runs away from defenders -- even though his long strides make it seem like he's gliding. He's outstanding at catching passes out of the backfield, and if he encounters a secondary defender in space, he often makes him miss. Johnson is one of the best size/speed blends in this class. The big issue for him is getting up to speed quickly; while he's devastating in the open field, he needs to be quicker and reading his blocks and reacting upon taking the handoff.
School:South Dakota State
Notes:He might project to a fullback in the NFL if he adds some weight, but he fits the template of fullbacks that the Broncos favored in past years because he has outstanding skills with the football, both as a runner and a receiver. He's also a willing, effective blocker in pass protection and won't need too much coaching up in terms of technique.
Notes:It's a bit odd to describe a Florida State running back as a "sleeper," but Williams is an unusual case. When he gets uncorked, he's perhaps the best size/speed blend in the draft class; it's hard to ignore a 4.48 40-yard dash when it's run by a 230-pounder. He's smooth when running routes out of the backfield, and could be deadly on wheel routes, where he can cause mismatches. He's also adept in pass protection. But he is an upright runner, and doesn't always get as low as he needs to.
Notes:At his size, there are questions about whether he can absorb a pounding, but he played bigger than his frame at Michigan State, especially when asked to contribute in pass protection. His awareness is above-average, and he does a good job reading his blocks -- and diagnosing coverage near the line of scrimmage to get in position to catch passes out of the backfield, which should make him an effective third-down back.
Notes:A spate of fumbles last season present a concern, but he looked like he'd overcome them by the time he arrived at Senior Bowl practice in January, and looked to be the most complete back there, even outplaying Nebraska's Ameer Abdullah. There's a lot to like from his Golden Gophers film as well, particularly his ability to get low, use his powerful legs and persist for yardage after contact. A quadriceps injury hindered him at the Combine and led to his 4.81 40-yard dash time; it kept him from running the 40 at his Pro Day this week, as well.
Notes:A year ago, I think we might have been talking about Davis as a second-round pick, but with the depth in this class and his struggles last year, he blends into the crowd. His 2013 tape reveals a running back who does well at bouncing off defenders for extra yardage and reading the holes as they develop; his 2014 tape shows a back who went down more easily. If the real Davis is the 2013 version, he can flourish at this level, if it's not, he will struggle.
Notes:At his size, he can take a pounding, and ought to be able to help in short-yardage and at the goal line immediately. He also has the physical tools -- and the natural aggression -- to be effective at picking up A-gap blitzes in pass protection. But with his speed and quickness numbers, he doesn't seem to be the breakaway threat that -- for example -- Juwan Thompson is as a bigger back.
Notes:By no means an every-down prospect, Williams is quick to the edge, has good balance and a tendency to make the first man miss, but it's the latter which will be more important, as his NFL opportunities will come in space, where his quick stop and start can make defenders miss. He fared well in the quickness drills at the Combine -- third-best among Combine running backs in the three-cone drill (6.84 seconds) and fifth-best in the short shuttle (4.12 seconds), and he should find an immediate niche as a kickoff returner.
Others of note in the late Day 2 or Day 3 range:Malcolm Agnew, Southern Illinois; Buck Allen, USC; Cameron Artis-Payne, Auburn; Dominique Brown, Louisville; Malcolm Brown, Texas; John Crockett, North Dakota State; Michael Dyer, Louisville; Dee Hart, Colorado State; Braylon Heard, Kentucky; Terrence Magee, LSU; Marcus Murphy, Missouri; Thomas Rawls, Central Michigan; Josh Robinson, Mississippi State; Ross Scheuerman, Lafayette; Tyler Varga, Yale; T.J. Yeldon, Alabama.