The Jacksonville Jaguars wanted a running back going into the 2015 NFL Draft so badly they nearly traded back into the first round to get Todd Gurley or Melvin Gordon. But when both went quicker than expected, they turned their attention towards Alabama running back T.J. Yeldon, making him the 36th overall pick.
Yeldon had some very good NFL Combine numbers coming into the NFL Draft, hence why Jaguars general manager Dave Caldwell and head coach Gus Bradley felt comfortable selecting him at the top of the second round.
What kind of player is Yeldon? How will he fit into the Jaguars offense? Was he worth the 36th overall pick? Here's John Saxon of SB Nation's Roll Bama Roll to answer five questions about our newest running back:
1. What are T.J. Yeldon's strengths? If an offensive scheme was tailor-made for him, what would his roles and responsibilities be?
The one thing that will blow you away about T.J. Yeldon is his footwork, which is as pretty as you’re ever going to see. He is blessed with extraordinarily flexible hips and ankles, which in concert with his foot quickness and vision allow for effective running in traffic and exceptional lateral movement. You’ll often see him juke with minimal loss in speed, which is particularly important as he is not a burner at this level.
He has great size at 6’1" and a lean 225 pounds, and while he will not truck people in the vein of fellow Crimson Tide alum and current Packer Eddie Lacy, he runs with sufficient power to make tackling difficult at times. He’s an above-average pass protector and underrated pass catcher out of the backfield. I wouldn’t say (outside of the footwork) that Yeldon is elite at any one facet of the game, but you’re getting someone who’s good or better at all of them — a jack of all trades. As far as tailoring an offense is concerned, that’s a bit tougher to answer.
I might be a bit biased, but I don’t think there’s an offense Yeldon can’t be successful in with his multitude of skills, provided adequate line play and coaching. That being said, the ideal running offense with Yeldon as the lead back would probably look a lot like Alabama’s pro-style, without a lot of speed sweeps and the like that hinge on elite quickness from the back.
Instead you’d be looking at a more smash-mouth running style that leverages line play and Yeldon’s vision and abilities in traffic in lieu of misdirection — winning with physicality, which I’ll admit is much harder to do in the NFL than in college. Screens would be a big part of it, as again he’s capable of backbreaking work as a catcher out of the backfield.
2. If you're an opponent, how are you trying to neutralize Yeldon? What are his weaknesses?
I’ll hit weaknesses first, and the two big ones are ball security and durability. Yeldon avoided major injury at Alabama — no broken bones or torn ligaments here — but he was constantly nicked up, which I personally think depressed his valuation considerably. The fumbling issues are well-publicized, but he made strides over the course of his career in this area, and I only recall him losing one last season. He does have small hands and his upright running style invites big hits, so I suspect he’s still going to put it on the ground from time to time.
He is not a speed threat even when fully healthy, so as a defensive coordinator I would try to force him into situations where he has to beat you with speed — load the box, and try to close the little creases he’s so good at finding. Respect the ability in the passing game.
3. How do you think Yeldon will do in the NFL? Is he fast enough to compete with NFL defenders?
I would say he’s fast enough, yes. If he can stay healthy, that is — Yeldon was a completely different animal for opposing defenses when he was playing at full strength, both in the speed and agility arenas. The windows are tighter in the NFL, so a back with the agility and vision of Yeldon, as well as the noted ability to effectively run in traffic, would be a big positive. It’d be great if he had 4.4 speed of course, but you don’t have to have 4.4 speed to succeed in the NFL as a skill player.
Much like with his predecessors at Alabama in Lacy and Trent Richardson, I think long-term success is going to really depend on the line play. He’s not Barry Sanders; he’s going to need good blocking to be successful at this level. Lacy’s gotten it in Green Bay and he’s done well there. Richardson never really has, and his various other issues have rendered him a total bust at this point. Bortles’ development is important as well — a big part of Lacy’s success is the constant threat of Aaron Rodgers.
4. What are some reasonable expectations for Yeldon's rookie year with the Jaguars? We've seen some buzz about rookie of the year considerations for him.
Rookie of the year talk is hilariously premature; if either of the top two quarterbacks does well they’ve got it locked up, not to mention former teammate Amari Cooper out in Oakland or the two backs drafted ahead of Yeldon in Todd Gurley and Melvin Gordon.
That being said, I’d say he’s going to see a lot of work right out of the gate. Toby Gerhart moving into the role Marcel Reece filled in Oakland the last two years makes too much sense to me not to happen, particularly with the release of Will Taʻufoʻou; he’s always been a glorified fullback anyway. Denard Robinson is too slight to carry a heavy workload and will always be a change-of-pace guy, so to me it’s down to Yeldon and Storm Johnson as your "starter" in what will surely be a platoon.
Somewhere in the ballpark of 200 carries and 800 yards seems reasonable for a rookie year, with some good work catching the ball out of the backfield. That, of course, is again largely dependent on line play, which should improve with Doug Marrone running the show and new talent added to a young pool.
5. How do you like Yeldon's skill set in the Jaguars offense? Do you think he'll fit well, or are there some things he and the team will have to change?
This is tough to answer; I’m not sure anyone knows what the Jaguars offense looks like yet given the significant staff overhaul at coordinator, backs coach, and line coach.
Based on what I’ve read, Greg Olson’s never had a particularly explosive or innovative offense, but he’s somewhat renowned for making adjustments for his talent as opposed to fitting square pegs in round holes. That commentary was more directed toward Blake Bortles’ continued development, but it fits with Yeldon as well. I don’t expect he’ll be asked to do things outside of his skill set, so in that sense I think he’ll fit quite well.
The main thing for Yeldon is to continue focusing on ball security and staying healthy — if he can keep it reasonable on those fronts he’ll be fine.