Here’s a new mini-series breaking down each positional group heading into the 2017 NFL Draft. Luke Inman has done the dirty work grinding the tape and now gives us a deep dive into some of the top prospects that could be playing for a team near you in 2017.
Plus, it’s a closer look at some of the sleeper names you can find in the late rounds that add value, and the glue in between the cracks of future NFL rosters.
No matter how you slice and dice it this game is — and always will be — won and lost in the trenches. However, in a new pass-happy league, the guy that can stay on the field for all three downs reigns as the king of the castle. The days of being an old-school, blue-collar workhorse on first and second down just aren’t good enough when the guy from corporate one office over can do your job and then some — in a more efficient manner.
With teams passing over 60 percent of the time, the running back position has been watered down over the last five years. Yet offenses still need an effective and efficient running game to lean on. One common trend we’ve seen take over because of this is the dual running back backfield, or two-headed monster. Having the power back specialize in between the tackles and short-yardage situations, while the other can be utilized in the passing game on third down is certainly the en vogue thing right now. Of course, the ideal scenario — and women will tell you it’s the dream — is finding you a man that can do both.
Of course, the ideal scenario — and women will tell you it’s the dream — is finding you a man that can do both.
Personally, I wouldn’t want to be a running back in today’s NFL. With late talent to be found every year it’s getting harder and harder to justify selecting the position in the top-10 let — alone the first round — unless you can be a swiss army knife of versatility. Even with his talent and college pedigree, Leonard Fournette is on the outside looking in with questions surrounding his pass catching and blocking, looking more like a two-down back who is limited in the way the game is now played. Conversely, a guy like Christian McCaffrey brings much more value to the table with his ability to make a serious impact on any and every down and situation.
If I’m building a team, I’m drafting a running back on day three every year. That is, finding a workhorse to carry the load and max out the miles for five years before throwing him to the curb for the next set of fresh legs and motor. It may sound cruel but it’s what the league has evolved into.
Luckily, this year’s draft is loaded with everything from day-one beauties to day-three studs. From four-wheel pickups to speedster corvettes, whatever kind of car your team wants to drive in the backfield, this class has got it.
But don’t let my used car salesmen pitch sell you, come take a look for yourself.
1. Christian McCaffrey, Stanford – Haters will tell you he can’t be a 25-carry per game guy, which isn’t wrong, but only matters if you’re still stuck in 1992 Tecmo Bowl. McCaffrey fits the mold of today’s ideal back who can be on the field on every down, making explosive plays in both the running and passing game.
With NFL bloodlines — he’s the son of legendary wide receiver Ed McCaffrey — McCaffrey was born for the spotlight and will translate seamlessly into the NFL, something you just can’t say for certain about even with today’s best prospects. No one makes people miss out in the open field like McCaffrey, who set an NCAA record with 3,864 all-purpose yards while showcasing his special teams prowess, too. While Fournette is an asset between the tackles, McCaffrey’s electric quickness fits today’s pass-happy league as a playmaker at all three levels.
2. Leonard Fournette, LSU – At 240 pounds, Fournette is an old-school bruiser that surprises you with an outstanding burst to boot. A 22 touchdown sophomore season put his talents on display for the country to see, showcasing a level of talent that was clearly above his top-tier SEC competition. His junior season wasn’t as planned; however, Fournette is still a rare breed with his combination of size and speed that you just don’t see every year. Unlike McCaffrey, he is a guy you grind out games with, letting him shoulder the load with close to 30 touches per game while taking nearly all the pressure of your quarterback. Questions will arise about his third-down ability both as a pass catcher and blocker, though. I also wonder how his body will hold with that kind of punishment. With his playing style and talents, we can compare him to Adrian Peterson all we want, but things could look a lot different from now with thousands of miles of tread on the tires five years down the road.
3. Dalvin Cook, FSU – One can’t argue the momentum is down on this top-10 prospect heading into the draft. That could mean some lucky team gets a steal with Cook far later than his talent is worthy of. Cook loves the bright lights and the chance to score after putting up 19 touchdowns in 2016 with a raise in intensity when he got close to the goal line. He’s a home run threat every time he touches the ball with world-class use of vision and quick feet getting his money’s worth out of the entire field. However, a serious case of the injury bug raises too many questions about his ability to ever play a full 16-game slate as well as some concerns about his off-field character.
4. Kareem Hunt, Toledo – My hidden gem early in the process has become a household name thanks to a knack for turning any play into a highlight reel touchdown. Hunt possesses some of the best balance you’ll find, making him a nightmare to bring down to the ground despite his lanky frame. While his 216-pound frame and running style say he won’t be a physical bruiser that you rely on late in the fourth quarter, he fits the mold of today’s dual running back systems as a big-play complimentary back in both the run and passing game.
With 44 touchdowns his senior season of high school, Hunt is a guy you can only contain for so long before he pulls the trigger on you, like his 271-yard, five touchdown game to cap his collegiate career.
5. D’onta Foreman, Texas – I don’t care if he seems one dimensional, you can’t find a rock that will consistently move the chains like Foreman. He’s not just a boring, stereotypical between the tackles runner either, as Foreman surprises defenders with silky athleticism for a 235-pound back that likes to get crafty at the second level for big chunk plays. He’s a guy you’d look long and hard at around the end of round one any other year; however, thanks to a deep class you can steal him in the third round or later. In a game still won and lost in the trenches, sign me up.
6. Alvin Kamara, Tennessee – This is your prototypical NFL runner with the right combination of size, speed, power and quick twitch. An original Crimson Tide commit, Kamara was one of the nation’s best talents out of high school; however, he never seemed to find any rhythm during his college career due to injuries, system fits and crowded backfields. No matter, as Kamara fits better as an NFL product, looking like a great pass catcher, special teams firecracker and a guy you can trust to protect your quarterback blocking.
Samaje Perine, Oklahoma
At 5-foot-11 and 233 pounds, have fun tackling Perine, who put up a whopping position-best 30 bench reps at the NFL combine. Perine runs hard and physical. There’s no other way to put it, as arm tacklers have little to no choice at bringing him down.
While he lacks any threat to be a lateral runner, you’ll be hard-pressed to find a better north and south bulldozer when you need to bully defenses on early downs and late in games. He won’t be mistaken for Reggie Bush with his average burst, but Perine is a methodical and crafty bruiser who takes pride in his style of running that’s fit for the NFL.
I don’t care if he’s vanilla in the scouting report and NFL teams won’t either, because when I need one yard at the goal line, there’s no one in this class I’d rather put my money on than him.
Biggest Wild Card
Joe Mixon, Oklahoma
The teammate of Perine (above) balanced the bruiser out majestically with the big-play ability both in and outside of the tackles. A well-rounded player who is seasoned in nearly every facet of the game, Mixon is how you’d draw them up with the perfect balance of lightning speed who plays with big-boy physicality.
The No. 1 recruit in the nation coming out of high school who’s arguably played like the No. 1 back in the country, Mixon is a special player that will put a scare into opposing defenses.
However, with so many minor off-field incidents followed by one colossal mistake, teams must determine if he’s learned his lesson and if it warrants a second chance. The same teams that take him off their board completely are the teams the will look you in the eye and say he’s the best running back of this class. In this poker game of a draft, Mixon truly is the joker in the deck.
Five Day-Three Sleepers
Donnel Pumphrey, San Diego State
The all-time rushing record holder in all of college football — yes, you read that right — Pumphrey isn’t even considered one of the top backs because of a loaded class and due to his tiny frame. With just five bench reps at the combine on a 165-pound frame, you’ll hold your breath every time he gets hit in the NFL.
However, his game is built to make you miss.
With quick feet, Pumphrey is a lightning bug that squirts out of tackles and forces miss tackles in the open field. You have to love his versatility as a dangerous return man and value he’ll bring in the passing game, too. He’s a lighter version of McCaffrey — five rounds later. How’s that for value?
De’Angelo Henderson, Coastal Carolina
This is a tough, hard-nosed kid who doesn’t shy away from physicality. Henderson embraces contact with his stout, thick, 5-foot-7, 205-pound body. He’ll take the punishment of a 25-carry game and hop back up after each and every big hit, filling up his teammates with energy and passion grinding games out in the second half.
Marlon Mack, South Florida
Bursting on the scene as a freshman, Mack quickly became the best running back in the conference and never looked back. With great balance and choppy feet in traffic, Mack slips off tackles with ease and uses good vision to cruise all over the field laterally for big plays.
Mack’s home run style is also his biggest downside, however, as he often fails to take what’s given. Too many times, he will get caught up in the backfield for negative plays, something that won’t put him in the good graces of coaches at the next level.
James Conner, Pittsburgh
It’s easy to forget Conner was one of the nation’s best runners in 2015 before his season was cut short due to injury. During his rehab, Conner found out he had Lymphoma, tackling his biggest challenge of his life on and off the field. Conner beat the disease and has been cancer-free since May of 2016. Conner remarkably returned back to action this past season, helping Pittsburgh form one of the best rushing attacks in the conference.
Teams will not only have to swallow the fact Conner has been injury riddled during his collegiate career, but also the nightmarish scenario that his cancer could someday return. However, when healthy, Conner destroyed defenses with his bruising 6-foot-2, 240-pound frame as a physical runner that surprised defenses with his burst in tight spaces.
When he was at his best in 2014, Conner rushed for a record-breaking 26 touchdowns, earning himself ACC Player of the Year honors.
Joe Williams, Utah
It’s the strangest story you’ll come across when studying the 2017 draft class. Williams just packed up and left, bailing on his team and “retiring” from football, only to come back a month later. What Williams did upon his return was wild, as he rushed for over 1,300 yards in just seven games.
Williams wins with outstanding athleticism (4.41 speed) with great quickness but combines it with power to run through arm tackles, too. There’s no questioning the raw talent Williams offers, but how high of a pick will teams use after quitting on his coaches and teammates?