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Joe Mixon is the best RB in the 2017 NFL draft. That’s ... awkward, to say the least

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Ranking 24 top RB prospects, based on their college and combine numbers.

NCAA Football: Sugar Bowl-Auburn vs Oklahoma Derick E. Hingle-USA TODAY Sports

Last year around draft time, I used fancy stats and combine numbers to tell you that Ezekiel Elliott was a pretty good running back. Pretty brilliant, right? Who could have known that without numbers.

To be fair, those numbers said more difficult things. They said third-rounder C.J. Prosise could be a steal and that fifth-rounder DeAndre Washington might be a massive steal. They said fourth-rounder Kenneth Dixon might be versatile enough to play an early role, that second-rounder Derrick Henry would be efficient but little else, and that fourth-rounder Devontae Booker probably wasn't going to be ready to produce.

A quick glance at Football Outsiders' 2016 NFL running back stats backs up most of those assertions. High fives all around.

So let’s see what the same stats and charts tell us about 2017s crop of rookie backs.

We’ll start by referring to Dan Kadar’s most recent list of draft running back prospects. Here’s some 2016 data for each, along with a couple of measures from the NFL Combine. Green is good; red means that player compares poorly with the rest of this class.

2017 NFL draft running backs
% of carries: Player’s share of team’s rushing attempts. Opp Rate: % of player’s carries exceeding 5 yards. Hlt/ Opp: Yards over 5 for each 5-yard-plus carry. Target: Pass intended for this player.

What does this tell us? For starters, it tells us that there are exciting backs in this draft, players who produced solid efficiency numbers with upper-level explosiveness. Many also excelled in the passing game.

Let’s start distinguishing them.

On the field, Joe Mixon is the best back in the draft.

I think any of Kadar’s top five backs are exciting players. Aside from a slightly substandard catch rate, for instance, Florida State’s Dalvin Cook was in the green in every other category. He is a workhorse with upper-level explosiveness. There are excellent things to say about Leonard Fournette, Christian McCaffrey, Alvin Kamara, and Curtis Samuel, as well.

One player topped Cook in almost every category above, however: Oklahoma’s Joe Mixon. Because of the presence of Samaje Perine in the backfield, Mixon didn’t have to carry as much of a load as Cook. But his efficiency (opportunity rate), explosiveness (highlight yards per opportunity) and receiving numbers were all at least slightly superior, and he benched only one fewer rep than the stockier Cook.

Let’s compare Mixon to last year’s top running back prospect, Ezekiel Elliott.

Here’s Elliott’s 2016 draft radar.


And here’s Mixon’s.

Joe Mixon draft radar

Mixon was not quite as efficient, but was far more explosive and more dangerous in the passing game. This isn’t to say Mixon is automatically a better prospect, but the simple fact that he compares well is an exciting sign.

Mixon is a potentially incredible back. We don’t know that he can be a true workhorse, because he hasn’t been asked to be one. But he has checked every box he has had an opportunity to check.

Of course, Mixon comes with one enormous red flag, and we know it well by this point.

Since he punched a woman in the face so hard that she had to have eight hours’ worth of reconstructive surgery, he hasn’t had any incidents worse than yelling at a parking attendant. But he punched a woman in the face so hard that she had to have eight hours’ worth of reconstructive surgery.

And it was caught on camera. And he was shielded from media for almost two years afterward, which had the effect of reviving the incident over and over with no resolution.

“Without the incident, he’s a top-five pick,” as one NFC executive has said. The stats more than back that up.

Recently, Mixon and his victim made public peace with each other. She said that she is "satisfied that we are going to put this behind us and work towards helping others who may have found themselves in similar circumstances."

The team that drafts Mixon will be scorned for choosing wins over character. He will have an opportunity to prove that when he says, “That’s not me. That’s not the way that I was raised,” he means it. But until years have passed and he has backed it up — if he has — he remains a character and PR risk.

Let’s run through the rest of Kadar’s top five prospects.

Dalvin Cook, Florida State

Dalvin Cook draft radar

Cook produced iffy agility numbers (short shuttle, three-cone drill) at the NFL Combine, but his balance and straight-line speed — plus his ability to create opportunities to show that straight-line speed — made him an incredible back. He knows how to use his strength and center of gravity to bounce off of tacklers, but if he struggles at the next level, we’ll know agility matters.

Leonard Fournette, LSU

Leonard Fournette draft radar

College football’s perfect running back specimen dealt with injury here and there, but when he was healthy (and not playing Alabama), he proved his recruiting hype right. He is a thoroughbred in the open field, and he showed patience and physicality.

Maybe injury issues continue (it’s hard to get a read for who’s “injury-prone” in college; remember how many injuries Adrian Peterson dealt with at Oklahoma?), or maybe his own lack of agility will prove a hindrance. But he spent quite a bit of the last three years looking the part.

Christian McCaffrey, Stanford:

Christian McCaffrey draft radar

McCaffrey’s liabilities are obvious: he isn’t big or all that strong. He also didn’t produce a ton as a frequently targeted receiver in 2016.

But in terms of pure running ability — agility, vision, speed, productivity — he proved A grade in virtually all categories.

Alvin Kamara, Tennessee

Alvin Kamara draft radar

Kamara spent quite a bit of his two years in Knoxville behind workhorse Jalen Hurd on the depth chart and didn’t get a chance to prove himself over the course of a full season. What he showed in 2016 was a combination of average size, solid explosiveness, and major potential in the passing game.

(He also showed there’s almost no way he’d rank ahead of Mixon on the field.)

Curtis Samuel, Ohio State:

Curtis Samuel draft radar

Samuel is maybe the most unique skill guy in this year’s draft. He’s small and crazy fast, but he’s also strong and efficient. Ohio State used him all over the field, and he ended up combining 97 carries with 97 pass targets in 2016.

If you’re looking for a running back prototype, look elsewhere. If you’re looking for a versatile guy who is dangerous as hell with the ball, pick Samuel.

I’d pick Samuel over Kamara and perhaps McCaffrey, for whatever that’s worth.

Let’s look at some more prospects.

The oxen

Samaje Perine draft radar
D’Onta Foreman draft radar

Oklahoma’s Samaje Perine and Texas’ D’Onta Foreman both took on heavy loads. After 489 carries in his first two years, Perine dealt with some wear and tear and saw his carries slip under 200 as a junior; Foreman carried just 111 times in his first two years but took on a ridiculous 323-carry load as a junior.

Both proved big, strong, and efficient, and they look the part. Neither is going to be particularly explosive.

Potential sleepers

Jeremy McNichols draft radar

Boise State’s Jeremy McNichols might be the best-rounded prospect outside of Kadar’s top six.

Jamaal Williams draft radar

BYU’s Jamaal Williams didn’t prove much in the passing game but has decent size and elite agility. He showed a nice mix of efficient and explosiveness.

T.J. Logan draft radar

UNC’s T.J. Logan backed up fellow prospect Elijah Hood in 2016 but finished his career with 2,165 career rushing yards, 663 receiving yards, and four return scores, then posted an excellent 4.37 time in the 40. As a potential third-down back and return man, he is intriguing.

Aaron Jones draft radar

Aaron Jones was UTEP’s entire offense and produced strong numbers despite opposing game plans geared to stop him. He is not large, but he is agile and efficient.

Uh oh

Wayne Gallman draft radar

Wayne Gallman looks the part, and his highlights are as good as anyone’s. But he was never particularly consistent at Clemson, and his explosiveness was minimal during last year’s title campaign.

Corey Clement draft radar

Given a chance to prove himself after Melvin Gordon left, Wisconsin’s Corey Clement proved he is capable of a heavy load and reliably catching. But his explosiveness was sporadic (he was hurt multiple times), and he was dreadfully inefficient, recording five or more yards on just 31 percent of his carries in both 2015 and 2016. A lot of backs in this draft more consistently proved their upside.