2017 NFL Draft Prospects: Top Running Backs

QB | WR/TE | DE/Edge | DB

Ryan Mayer

The NFL Draft is slated to take place in the city of brotherly love from April 27th-April 30th. As you get ready to watch who your team will select, CBS Local Sports will preview the top available prospects in the various different position groups.

The running back in today’s NFL has dropped significantly in value as teams have moved more towards passing offenses and two-back systems. The days of the 300-carry back are largely behind us it would seem. However, the Dallas Cowboys took Ezekiel Elliott in the Top 10 last season and went from a 3-13 team to a 13-3 one. There were mitigating circumstances there for sure (most notably having a healthy QB for a full season), but nonetheless, Elliott’s impact was significant. This year’s draft class may not have a back like Elliott, but there’s some high-level prospects that can step in immediately and improve a team’s running game.

 

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Credit: Joe Robbins/Getty Images

Leonard Fournette, RB, LSU

6’0 240 lbs.

College Stats: 616 carries, 3,830 yards 6.5 YPC, 40 TDs

Combine Stats: 40 Time- 4.51 seconds, Vertical- 28.5 inches

Fournette’s name is well known among football fans as he’s seemingly been producing highlight-reel worthy plays for the past five years. In reality, he’s been at LSU for three seasons, and in that time, he established a reputation as one of the most physical straight-line runners that we’ve seen. Fournette is a specimen listed at 240 pounds at the combine, which worried some at first, before he ripped off a 4.51 40-time and those concerns magically melted away.

There are some concerns still about Fournette, the main one being injuries. Fournette was largely healthy through his first two seasons in Baton Rouge until he hurt his ankle late in his sophomore campaign. He never really fully recovered and the injury forced him out of six games this past season. So, teams may wonder whether his physical running style can withstand multiple years of high carry totals in the NFL.

However, the upside with Fournette outweighs the concern. He’s likely to be taken in the first round, not as high as Elliott was last year, but it wouldn’t surprise me if he was gone before the 10th pick.

 

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Credit: Joe Robbins/Getty Images

Christian McCaffrey, RB, Stanford

5’11” 202 lbs.

College Stats: 632 carries, 3,922 yards, 6.2 YPC, 21 TDs, 99 receptions 1,206 yards 10 TDs

Combine Stats: 40 Time- 4.48 seconds, Vertical- 37.5 inches, Broad Jump- 10’1″, Bench Press- 10 reps, 3-cone- 6.57 seconds, 20-yard shuttle- 4.22 seconds,

McCaffrey is a perfect back for today’s NFL. Not only can he run both in-between the tackles and outside, but he’s also extremely proficient in the passing game as a receiver. That versatility is ideal for the league today that has skewed towards a short-to-medium passing game and McCaffrey has proved to be an extremely capable receiver, wowing scouts at the combine in the various receiver drills that he participated in.

Not only is he dangerous in the running and receiving game, but he has proved to be a capable kick returner in his career at Stanford as well. He averaged 26.4 yards per return in college and recorded a kick return touchdown. Granted, any team that’s taking him likely won’t be looking to use a first/second round pick as a kick returner, particularly if they see him as a feature back, but it’s an added element that he bring to whatever team takes him.

He was slowed by injuries in his junior season like Fournette, but overall, he played in 37 of a possible 42 games in college so it shouldn’t be much of a concern. You won’t see McCaffrey bowl over or break through many tacklers, but his lack of power is made up for with shiftiness and agility. McCaffrey, like Fournette, looks to be a Day 1 pick, and would be a superb value if he falls to the second round.

 

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Credit: Joe Robbins/Getty Images

Dalvin Cook, RB, Florida State

5’10” 210 lbs.

College Stats: 687 carries 4,464 yards 6.1 YPC 46 TDs, 79 receptions 935 yards 2 TDs

Combine Stats: 40 Time- 4.49 seconds, Vertical- 30.5 inches, Broad Jump- 9’8″, Bench Press- 22 reps, 3-cone- 7.27 seconds, 20-yard shuttle- 4.53 seconds

Cook’s college career at Florida State was actually the most prolific of this group of backs from a run-game standpoint. He has the most touchdowns, carries, and yards among these five backs. That production at the college level, at a Power 5 program, is always going to get you noticed. Cook’s combination of explosive speed and tough running will appeal to teams looking for a lead back.

On the other hand, Cook had ball security issues while at Florida State, fumbling 13 times during the course of his career with the Seminoles. He also had his fair share of drops on passes out of the backfield. Both of those qualities will concern teams as they decide whether or not to draft him. Cook will absolutely get drafted, but he may fall to the second round as opposed to his original first round expected grade when he declared.

 

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Credit: Frederick Breedon/Getty Images

Alvin Kamara, RB, Tennessee

5’10” 214 lbs.

College Stats: 210 carries 1,294 yards 6.2 YPC 16 TDs, 74 receptions 683 yards 7 TDs

Combine Stats: 40 Time- 4.56 seconds, Vertical- 39.5 inches, Broad Jump- 10’11”, Bench Press- 15 reps

Kamara is an interesting prospect mainly because he was never the feature back in his time at Tennessee. He split reps with Jalen Hurd throughout his two years with the Vols’ but he still put up some pretty good numbers in that split role. The biggest benefit of the split role is that Kamara doesn’t have a ton of mileage on him. Not that any of these guys are huge worries in that department, but Kamara does have significantly less wear-and-tear on him than any of the other backs in this class. With the highest vertical jump and longest broad jump among running backs Kamara showed off his explosive ability.

The questions come with some of the injuries that he’s previously suffered. Kamara missed his freshman season at Alabama due to a knee injury, and then missed time in 2016 with a sprained left knee. Multiple knee injuries, though Kamara’s aren’t wholly serious, are always scary to teams when looking at a running back. That said, the versatility he provides out of the backfield should make him a good combination back to go along with an established runner at the NFL level.

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Credit: Matthew Stockman/Getty Images

Joe Mixon, RB, Oklahoma

6’1″ 226 lbs.

College Stats: 300 carries 2,027 yards 6.8 YPC 17 TDs, 65 receptions 894 yards 9 TDs

You likely know by now why there aren’t any NFL Combine statistics for Mixon. The NFL didn’t allow him to attend the event due to his assault of a female student at Oklahoma two years ago. The video made the rounds on the Internet and in response, the league decided that Mixon didn’t deserve the privilege of attending the combine. Whether or not you agree with the NFL and believe Mixon shouldn’t have been in Indy, the fact remains that he wasn’t, this incident was serious, and one team has already said they have taken Mixon off their draft board because of it.

The problem that the league’s teams face is weighing Mixon’s incident against the remorse and sincerity of his actions since the incident and what he can do on the field. There’s no denying that the production he put up in his two seasons with the Sooners was impressive. Despite splitting time with Samaje Perine, Mixon has emerged as the higher rated draft prospect. Mixon’s game is more towards the McCaffrey/Kamara end of the spectrum than the Fournette end. He’s a reliable pass catcher out of the backfield with the speed and elusiveness to break tackles in space. He’s got a little more power than either McCaffrey or Kamara have, but he’s not as dominant an inside runner as Fournette. Mixon is highly talented, the question remains which team believes that he has turned his life around.

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