Low ceiling, high floor.
That’s how I’d describe former Alabama running back, T.J. Yeldon.
With the 2015 NFL Draft just over a month away, it’s time to start breaking down the upcoming rookie class. And in a class that, by many people, is referred to as a fairly deep one, especially at the running back position, a handful of guys can often be overlooked. I mean, you have a Heisman finalist in Melvin Gordon, an elite combo of speed and power in Todd Gurley, as well as immensely talented backs such as Ameer Abdullah, Jay Ajayi, and Tevin Coleman. But what about Yeldon, a strong runner who played on one of the best programs in college football for three years, under a head coach that has developed some strong NFL caliber running backs?
Let’s find out.
Yeldon certainly isn’t the most athletic prospect among this year’s rushers, lacking elite, breakaway speed and doesn’t shed through tackles as a guy like Gordon would. However, he’s more quick than fast, possessing strong foot quickness and can weave in and out of holes in impressive fashion. He has good balance, able to remain upright after taking hits. And, like many of the backs who lack that elite explosion and home run ability, Yeldon shows terrific lateral quickness, and just because he doesn’t have Jamaal Charles speed, it doesn’t mean he’s a statue. He can make defenders miss and escape tight windows.
He plunged up the middle for one yard, crossing the goal line.
In 2012, Yeldon was a true, but spectacular freshman. That one-yard score I mentioned above was his first career touchdown, in his first career game as a member of the Crimson Tide. He finished the game with 111 yards and that score and, despite splitting time with future Pro Bowler Eddie Lacy, Yeldon still rushed for an impressive 1,108 yards, averaging over six yards per clip. That was good enough for the best rookie rushing total in school history. And after rushing for 1,200 yards the next season, he became the first player in the history of the school to eclipse 1,000 rushing yards in his first two campaigns. His 3,322 yards ranks top-10 all-time, and his 37 career rushing scores is good for third-most in school history, behind only Shaun Alexander and Mark Ingram. After his junior season, Yeldon declared for the NFL Draft, placing among strong company in terms of school rushing records.
1) Shaun Alexander (727)
2) Kenneth Darby (702)
3) Bobby Humphrey (615)
4) Dennis Riddle (612)
5) T.J. Yeldon (576)
1) Shaun Alexander (3,565)
2) Bobby Humphrey (3,420)
3) Kenneth Darby (3,324)
4) T.J. Yeldon (3,322)
5) Mark Ingram (3,261)
1) Mark Ingram (42)
2) Shaun Alexander (41)
3) T.J. Yeldon (37)
4) Trent Richardson (35)
5) Johnny Musso (34)
So it’s pretty safe to say that Yeldon had a tremendous career at one of the most prestigious universities in college football. But how will he manage at the next level, and, more importantly, should fantasy owners be targeting Yeldon?
Let’s take a closer look at his game, shall we?
Like I mentioned before, one of Yeldon’s biggest strengths is his ability to move his feet just as fast as his mind. He always keeps his feet moving so that he never becomes stagnant, making it easier to make that cut, and making it a more powerful one, at that. Yeldon also plants his foot in the ground and goes, while possessing the vision to make strong cutbacks. And despite running into his lineman, he stays upright, plants his foot in the ground and dashes left to open space.
You see it again on this run. He sees the hole, sticks his foot in the ground and explodes through the hole, makes a smaller cut around his lead blocker to the outside and dives into the end zone for the score. Again, he’s not going to destroy you with elite, top-end speed, and he’s not going to run through you. However, Yeldon is simply a smart runner who reads blocks well and runs where he needs to. I mean, averaging 5.7 yards per carry over the course of his career is pretty impressive.
Of course, he has weaknesses, too. Yeldon is a capable, but inconsistent pass-protector. Sometimes, he can knock a defender on his butt, but other times, he can be a liability, resulting in sacks. He also needs to sure up his ball security, as he put the ball on the ground 10 times on 576 carries.
Because of a rather weak showing at the combine, Yeldon’s draft stock is starting to fall in an already loaded running back group. Many mocks have him going in the second or third round, which is understandable. However, I personally don’t think he’s a third-round talent, which means whoever selects him could be getting a potential steal. Odds are, he won’t enter training camp as the number one back on a team, but one club that would make me very intrigued for his fantasy appeal is the Baltimore Ravens.
Baltimore did just recently re-sign Justin Forsett, who is coming off a breakout campaign, rushing for 1,266 yards (5th) and leading the league in yards per clip (5.4). However, it took them a long time to decide to bring him back, so it’s plausible that they aren’t exactly in love with him. I could very well see the Ravens snagging Yeldon in the second or third round, and if for whatever reason he was to see an uptick in playing time, I would like the fit.
Playing in a Marc Trestman-led offense will lead to plenty of receptions, and Yeldon has good hands and runs strong routes out of the backfield. Trestman helped Matt Forte post the most receptions a running back has ever had a season ago, and while Yeldon is obviously no Forte, he’s no Andre Williams, either. He’d also be playing behind a very strong offensive line, as the Ravens ranked fourth in the NFL in run-blocking, according to Pro Football Focus. And the Ravens don’t really have a good short-yardage back, as they often pulled Forsett from that role at times last year. Meanwhile, Yeldon is a strong short-yardage back, possessing a nice spin move, but can also drive through the pile, using his 6-foot-1, 226-pound frame. Last year, Alabama had 27 red zone rushing touchdowns, which was among the most in the country. Yeldon contributed 11 of the 27 red zone touchdowns on the ground (40 percent). He simply has a nose for the end zone. There’s also that connection with general manager, Ozzie Newsome, who attended Alabama.
I also wouldn’t mind the fit with the Dallas Cowboys, who now have a need at the running back position with DeMarco Murray gone. The team signed Darren McFadden, but he has one 16-game season under his belt, and over the last three seasons, his yards per carry average has hovered around an ugly 3.3. Dallas uses an inside zone running scheme quite often, and Yeldon fits that system very well. He’s got a big frame, is arguably the best pure power back in the draft, and runs very well out of the shotgun. Don’t be surprised at all if Yeldon found himself playing for Jerry during his rookie season, which would bode well for fantasy numbers, playing in an explosive offense and behind the best overall offensive line in the game.
At the end of the day, Yeldon isn’t generating the buzz of guys like Melvin Gordon or Todd Gurley. And even if he goes in the second or third round, it doesn’t mean that he’ll never start or see significant playing time in this league. The running back position is a fickle one, as guys are getting hurt all the time, creating opportunities for younger guys to step in and fill a void. He obviously isn’t going to be the first pick in any rookie fantasy drafts, but because he’s being slept on (as well as being one of my favorites in this class), I wanted to start this series with Yeldon.
He can play, folks.