Despite the success of Ezekiel Elliott last season, it’s too soon to fully say the running back position again carries high value in the NFL. Was Elliott the exception thanks to the combination of his talent and the excellent Dallas offensive line? Or should we once again consider running back to be a viable first-round option?
The 2017 NFL draft will provide a good test case because there’s good talent at the top and solid depth for the middle rounds. Flip a coin between Florida State’s Dalvin Cook and LSU’s Leonard Fournette as the top player at the position. They’re distinctly different players, but their draft grades are close.
Right after them, and not far behind, is Stanford all-purpose machine Christian McCaffrey. He can do a little of everything for a team. Ohio State’s Curtis Samuel and Tennessee’s Alvin Kamara are good all-purpose players as well, but just a notch behind McCaffrey.
Then there’s Oklahoma’s Joe Mixon, the unquestioned most polarizing player in the draft this year.
1. Dalvin Cook, RB, Florida State
The offseason process has not been kind to Cook. After a sensational three seasons at Florida State, on the field he looks like the best running back in the draft. But character questions about Cook have persisted. Probably more concerning for NFL teams is a history of shoulder injuries. Cook also performed worse than expected at the NFL Scouting Combine.
On the field, though, Cook is electric. In three years at Florida State, averaged 6.5 yards per carry, finishing with 4,464 yards on 687 attempts. He also caught 79 passes for 935 yards. In total, he had 48 touchdowns. Cook is a creative runner who can make defenders miss thanks to his body control and agility. Cook can get up to top speed in a hurry, which allows him to get to the edge. Has the speed on the field to run away from defenders. Runs with good aggression and toughness. What pushes Cook over the top is his ability as a receiver. Teams can put him in the slot or work him on screens and wheel routes. He did have some fumbling issues at Florida State that will need to be corrected.
2. Leonard Fournette, RB, LSU
Fournette is a brute of a running back. Few running back prospects ever run with his aggressiveness and power. There were countless times at LSU where Fournette was happy not only running through defenders, but effortlessly throwing them to the side with one hand. Whether or not that works in the NFL, where players are bigger and faster, will be the key to his pro success. In 32 games at LSU, Fournette ran for 3,830 yards and 40 touchdowns. Every time he touched the ball there was a chance he’d pop a big run. For a player of his size (he usually plays at about 230 pounds), he has good speed. Fournette can accelerate out of a cut like a 190-pound runner. His technique will need a little work, but he should be effective as a blocker.
The big knock on Fournette is that he’s not that creative of a runner. He’s not going to wiggle and make defenders miss, and what made him great in college may not work as well in the NFL. You have to wonder with his playing style if he’ll have injury issues in the NFL. He missed some time in 2016 with a ligament injury in his ankle. He was also most successful running behind a fullback, a position that is scarce in most offenses.
3. Christian McCaffrey, RB, Stanford
If there were a category of offensive weapon, McCaffrey would be at the top of it. He paced the FBS in yards from scrimmage each of the past two seasons thanks to his skill not only running and receiving, but as a return man. McCaffrey is an impressive athlete who changes direction and gets to high gear with ease. He also runs with good balance and enough power. McCaffrey is patient as a runner, which shows both when he’s behind his blockers on a run play and when he returns kicks.
McCaffrey’s size may be his issue as a pro. He’s not only similar to Reggie Bush in playing style and versatility, but he’s similar in body type. The only thing that could be more problematic than his durability is the offense that he goes to. McCaffrey would be wasted in an offense that doesn’t use him creatively. But will a team be willing to give a rookie that diverse of a role?
4. Alvin Kamara, RB, Tennessee
Kamara is a little hot and cold of a player. If you watch the game he had against Texas A&M where he ran for 127 yards and had 161 yards receiving, you’d think he’s the best running back in the draft. But then you have to consider that Kamara couldn’t beat out Jalen Hurd, or the fact that he never carried the ball more than 18 times in a game. Kamara went from being an Alabama transfer who was suspended by Nick Saban in 2013 to one of Tennessee’s team captains in 2016. He gets a high rating because of shiftiness and speed to get through small gaps in protection.
One of the things NFL teams look for is finishing in a running back, and Kamara does it. It might only mean an extra yard here or there, but Kamara runs square and pushes forward on contact. He’s also a very good receiver, catching 74 passes in part-time duty over two seasons. Compared to the running backs above him, Kamara has very little wear and tear on his body. At the least he could start his career as a third-down back and special teams ace. He has the talent to be much more.
5. Curtis Samuel, RB/WR, Ohio State
Samuel is another player who would fit into an offensive weapon category. At Ohio State, Samuel played the key H-back role, which for head coach Urban Meyer is a combo running back and wide receiver. It’s the Percy Harvin position where speed and more speed is utilized in plays. Certainly that 4.31 40-yard dash speed is what makes Samuel successful both as a receiver and running back. In 2016 he actually had more receiving yards (865) than rushing yards (771), and led the Big Ten in all-purpose yards.
While Samuel has that excellent speed, he’s not a one-speed runner. He knows how to decelerate in the open field to make a cut and speed back up. It’s a method he uses both with the ball in his hands and when he’s running routes. He’s never going to be a power player in the NFL, and that could cause him some problems if he gets held up behind blocks. But if he consistently gets the ball in space, he could be a star.
6. Joe Mixon, RB, Oklahoma
Well, this could be contentious. There are some who would have Mixon rated as the top running back in the draft, and there are others who wouldn’t rate him at all because of his documented off-field troubles. That goes for draft analysts and NFL teams. This ranking is sort of a middle ground. You can read plenty about Mixon’s off-field issues here.
On the field, Oklahoma paired Mixon with Samaje Perine in the backfield. He was used as a running back and split out as a receiver. He’s such a smooth runner that his speed can be deceptive. He has really good vision and knows when to cut back and change direction. At 228 pounds, he has good power and can be hard to take down. For a running back, Mixon has good hands to catch the ball and pulled in 37 passes for 538 yards and five touchdowns in 2016. He’s a work in progress as a blocker. He had some fumbling issues and will need to be more consistent holding onto the ball.
As a football player, Mixon often makes things look effortless on the field. Off it, he does not.
7. Kareem Hunt, RB, Toledo
If you consider a player for one standout trait, Hunt may not be your man. He’s not the fastest, nor is he the biggest or some elite athlete. What he is, however, is a good all-around back who could be a solid lead runner in the right system. At Toledo had a productive four years of 4,945 yards and 44 touchdowns running the ball. Hunt is a smart runner who gets low on contact, which makes him hard to tackle. He doesn’t have to slow down when he cuts or changes direction and he has just enough speed to get to the outside.
Holding Hunt back is a lack of top-end speed. He may not break many deep runs as a pro and can get caught from behind. He’s developing nicely as a pass catcher, pulling in 41 receptions in 2016 compared to 32 the previous three seasons. He’s not much as a blocker, and will really ding him with some teams.
8. Samaje Perine, RB, Oklahoma
What’s to love about Perine also exposes his flaws as a prospect. While Perine isn’t going to make defenders miss him, he’s strong enough to run through them. Once Perine builds up some momentum, he can be hard to bring down and looks every bit of the 233 pounds he’s listed. In a power system, he can be a workhorse back, shown by his 16 games of at least 20 carries while also splitting time. Perine may have to start his career as a short-yardage back because of his lack of speed and ability to create in space. He’s also not as advanced of a receiver as some other running backs in this draft.
9. D’Onta Foreman, RB, Texas
After a solid 2015 season with 681 yards and five touchdowns, Foreman exploded in 2016 running for 2,028 yards and 15 touchdowns for Texas. At 250 pounds he runs with the type of power that you’d expect, but has good foot quickness and decent lateral agility in space. He’s not much of a threat in the passing game, catching just 20 career passes. He also leaves something to be desired as a blocker. He has to be in the right scheme and is probably a two-down player. Because of his power and good speed and agility for his size, he should have a good role on an NFL team.
10. Wayne Gallman, RB, Clemson
Gallman might not be as big as Foreman, but for a 215-pound running back he will absolutely truck some defenders. Gallman seems to thrive on contact, and knows how to finish runs through it. Gallman runs with good balance and can shake tacklers off. Gallman wasn’t used a lot as a receiver and was basically put on only screens and short swing passes. As a runner, he can get a little high, which gives defenders a big target to tackle. Gallman is probably the best pass-blocking running back in the entire draft.
Best of the rest:
11. Brian Hill, RB, Wyoming
12. Jeremy McNichols, RB, Boise State
13. Elijah Hood, RB, North Carolina
14. Marlon Mack, RB, South Florida
15. De’Veon Smith, RB, Michigan
16. Matthew Dayes, RB, North Carolina State
17. Corey Clement, RB, Wisconsin
18. T.J. Logan, RB, North Carolina
19. James Conner, RB, Pittsburgh
20. Jamaal Williams, RB, BYU
21. Joe Williams, RB, Utah
22. Donnel Pumphrey, RB, San Diego State
23. Justin Davis, RB, Southern California
24. Dare Ogunbowale, RB, Wisconsin