Not a single running back was selected in the top 50 picks of the NFL Draft last year — a historic snub for a position that until the last two years figured prominently in one of the NFL’s most popular annual events.
This year, there could be a bunch taken in the first two rounds.
And Jay Ajayi, who left Boise State after his junior season, could be one of the top figures in that run.
Ajayi is considered somewhere between the third- and eighth-best running back in this draft class and likely will be selected sometime Friday evening, when the second and third rounds are conducted.
Todd Gurley of Georgia and Melvin Gordon of Wisconsin are expected to land in Thursday’s first round, ending a two-year drought for the position.
“This (RB) class is one of the best in the last 10 years both because it has quality up top and depth throughout,” NFL Network analyst Mike Mayock told USA Today.
Ajayi, who trained for the Scouting Combine with Gordon, said Tuesday he belongs in the same conversation with the two stars.
“I feel that I am at the top of this class,” Ajayi said. “I believe that I am the best running back in this class and the most complete back in this class. That’s really what my mindset is. I always want to strive to be the best. I don’t think I would be doing myself justice or this game justice if I went out on the football field not trying to be the best.”
Ajayi finished second in the nation in 2014 with 2,358 yards from scrimmage, first with 397 touches and tied for first with 32 touchdowns. He was the first player in FBS history with at least 1,800 rushing yards and at least 500 receiving yards in a season.
But he became the subject of national debate earlier this month when draft analysts reported that teams had concerns about his right knee, which was badly damaged while he was redshirting in 2011. He underwent surgery and returned to become one of the top tailbacks in Boise State history.
“It definitely caught me by surprise,” Ajayi said. “At the same time, I knew I had an injury in 2011 and I knew that it would probably be something teams would look at just because it’s something, if you have an injury, at the combine you have to get it checked out. I knew it was a possibility that a team would ask me about my knee. I was just surprised at how big it really got.
“I can’t control that and I can’t control what teams think. I can only control what I can do. I know how my knee feels. I know it feels healthy.”
Here’s what to expect from the running back position as the draft plays out:
Gurley, whose 2014 season ended early because of a knee injury, still is considered a top-10 prospect because of his explosive running ability.
Gordon, a Heisman Trophy finalist who tied with Ajayi for the national lead in TDs (32), reminds Mayock of Chiefs star Jamaal Charles.
Ajayi is the most complete back in the group vying for No. 3 position. But the NFL has leaned heavily upon tailback tandems, and there are a few tantalizing prospects for the speed half of that equation: Ameer Abdullah of Nebraska (1,611 yards, 19 TDs), Tevin Coleman of Indiana (2,036 yards, 7.5-yard average) and Duke Johnson of Miami (1,652 yards, 6.8 average). T.J. Yeldon of Alabama (979 yards) also could factor into this mix as a complementary back. ESPN’s Todd McShay has these five tailbacks rated from No. 41 overall to No. 68, illustrating the depth at the position. Mayock ranks them from No. 41 to No. 67.
Teams in need of running backs include the Jets (picks 6, 37, 70), Falcons (8, 42, 73), Dolphins (14, 47), Chargers (17, 48, 83), Lions (23, 54, 88), Cardinals (24, 55, 86), Cowboys (27, 60, 91), Jaguars (3, 36, 67), Vikings (11, 45, 76) and Patriots (32, 64, 96, 97), according to McShay and ESPN’s Mel Kiper Jr. Running back is the top need for the Chargers and Cowboys, McShay wrote.
Ajayi met with several teams but only identified two — the Ravens and Cowboys. He also worked out for the Cowboys at the team facility.
The Jaguars, Seahawks and Chargers sent their running backs coaches to Boise State’s pro day.
The Cowboys are intriguing because they like Boise State players (cornerback Orlando Scandrick and defensive linemen Tyrone Crawford and DeMarcus Lawrence are there now), they need a replacement for NFL leading rusher DeMarco Murray and the offensive line is strong enough that the team may feel comfortable waiting until pick No. 60 or trading up in the second round.
Ajayi’s draft party with family and friends at his home in Plano, Texas, will be about 20 miles from the Cowboys’ war room. The workout for the Cowboys was one of the highlights of his pre-draft experience.
“It was very special to me, knowing where I came from and being from Texas,” he said.
Here’s a sampling of where analysts rank Ajayi or expect him to land in the draft:
has ranked Ajayi as the No. 50 prospect and the No. 4 tailback. In a combined mock draft with Kiper, McShay selected Ajayi for the Chargers with the 83rd pick (third round).
• Kiper has ranked Ajayi as the No. 4 tailback. He has him behind Coleman in addition to the two first-rounders. McShay had him behind Abdullah.
has Ajayi as the No. 67 prospect and No. 8 tailback. He had Ajayi projected to the middle of the second round, which could be a top-50 pick, but is one of the analysts hearing rumblings about the knee. “I’ve talked to a bunch of teams, and I think it’s going to hurt him a little bit,” Mayock said on a recent media conference call. “Some teams don’t care that much. Other teams do. ... Worst case he drops into the third round where teams will feel like it’s a little bit more value for the risk.”
• Among other NFL Network analysts, Charles Davis ranks Ajayi as the No. 3 tailback, Gil Brandt has him No. 4 and Bucky Brooks dropped him out of the top five. A seven-round mock draft on NFL.com projects Ajayi to the Falcons with the 73rd pick (third round). Then there’s Daniel Jeremiah, who is bullish on Ajayi – he slots him to the Jaguars with the 36th pick (second round).
lists Ajayi as the No. 4 tailback.CBSSports.com
has him at No. 6.