As an NFL fan, there is a lot to look forward to in these next couple of weeks. The combine just started, free agency starts soon, and then the draft. This year there is a lot of news based around running backs. The running back draft class is more talented than ever, and free agency is headlined by two of the NFL’s best running backs sitting on the market. Will teams want to draft their next franchise back? Or will they pick someone up through free agency like Adrian Peterson, Jamaal Charles or LeGarrette Blount? Things are starting to heat up this offseason.
Headlined by Leonard Fournette, Dalvin Cook, and Christian McCaffrey, this draft class is one of the deepest ones in history. Many scouts believe that this draft class could yield quite a few franchise backs. The running back position group has been very popular in the news as of late. From Leonard Fournette drawing comparisons to Bo Jackson from NFL.com, to the Joe Mixon controversy, we have consistently been updated on this running back class. Tarik Cohen, out of NC A&T just took home the 1st annual Deacon Jones Award, which is awarded to the best player at an HBCU and McCaffrey broke Barry Sanders’ all-purpose yard record in 2015. This is one of the hardest position groups to rank, with many prospects that would be sensible in the top 6 that are excluded for minor reasons, but I think we rounded it out pretty well. I hope you enjoy.
- Leonard Fournette (LSU)
- Height: 6’, Weight: 240 lbs.
- 300 Attempts, 1,953 Yards, 22 TDs (2015)
- 19 Receptions, 253 Yards, 1 TD (2015)
- 3 Year Starter
Strengths: I’m sure you’ve probably seen a highlight on SportsCenter over the past year of Fournette running over a defender and going in for a touchdown. Shear power is his main asse that separates him from the rest of this running back draft class. He weighed in at 240 pounds this week at the combine, but you can’t tell that from the speed he displays. I know, he hasn’t run the 40 yet, although I highly doubt he runs anything higher than a 4.5. Many people, including myself, have questioned his ability as a receiver out of the backfield, however after watching 5 different games this past season I saw that the capability to be a receiver is there (see below). With that being said, LSU’s offense didn’t incorporate a large number receiving plays for their running backs, so that basis is off a limited amount of plays. Although, LSU’s pro style offense will benefit Fournette during his transition.
Weaknesses: As I said above, Fournette had limited reps as a receiver while in college, but that isn’t the only area where he hasn’t gain a significant amount of experience. Pass protection is something Fournette did not do a lot of at LSU. Again, he has some great film, a bit lackadaisical at times, but overall he does a decent job with the limited reps he had. Pass protection is one of the toughest for running backs to get a grasp on when transitioning to the league. Offensive coordinators love running backs who can block, look at Ezekiel Elliott for example he is one of the best blocking backs in the league. Fournette needs to constantly perform well in pass protection to earn a starting job. Lastly, the concern of injury due to his, AP like, running style, question how long will he be able to play. The power running style ends with brutal hits for both sides of the ball and that can wear and tear on a running back, just look at AP medical history.
Overall: Fournette has the tools to be truly something special. I had a hard time determining who would be on the top of the list. Then, I asked myself who, Fournette or Cook, ultimately is the more pro ready back? With Fournette size, power, and explosiveness it’s difficult to put him at 2. Although, he worked out of the I formation the majority of the time in college, I believe he will be successful within any offensive style. I look forward to watching this man play next year and would be surprised if he didn’t go in the top 10 in this years draft.
- Dalvin Cook (FSU)
- Height: 5’10, Weight: 210 lbs.
- 288 Attempts 1,765 Yards, 19 TDs
- 33 Receptions, 488 Yards, 1 TD
- 3 Year Starter
Strengths: Cook is an explosive and versatile athlete with incredible vision. He can line up as a receiver and he can run between the tackles. Cook makes people miss in tight spaces with his ability to make sharp cuts and stop on a dime. He can be a true one-cut back and once he finds the hole he goes north. Once the endzone is in sight, good luck stopping him. Another strength of Cook is his ability to show up when it matters. Cook posted a monstrous 169 rushing yards on only 19 carries against Clemson, who of course went on to win the National Championship. His talents were also on display in the Orange Bowl against Michigan, where he ran for 145 yards on 20 carries and also had 62 receiving yards.
Weaknesses: While Cook has displayed his ability to line up as a receiver and his ability to catch a football, he has also showed that he has inconsistent hands. He has let multiple passes hit his hands and then hit the turf. Another issue is that he has fumbled 13 times throughout his career (NFL.com), that is a high number for a running back who has the talent to be the #1 RB in the draft class. There are also questions about Dalvin Cook’s character. He got into some trouble in 2014 and 2015, as did a few other players on FSU’s football team. He has not had any off the field issues recently, but it is worth noting when it comes to first round picks.
Overall: It is hard not to love Cook, it’s a tossup between Fournette and him on who is the best back in this incredibly deep draft class of running backs. The playmaking ability he displays when you turn on any game he’s been in speaks volumes. Cook is an athlete that can do it all. Some people are comparing him to Edgerrin James, and that’s not the worst thing to be compared to. Cook will be a lethal player in the league and he very well could be the Offensive Rookie of the Year next year.
- Christian McCaffrey (Stanford)
- Height: 5’11, Weight: 202 lbs.
- 253 Attempts, 1,603 Yards, 13 TDs
- 37 Receptions, 310 Yards, 3 TDs
- 2 Year Starter
Strengths: McCaffrey put the world on notice with an amazing 2015 season, breaking Barry Sanders’ single season all purpose yard record with 3,864 yards. Accumulated a whopping 8.5 yards a play. A dynamic football player that has displayed abilities in the run game, pass game, and as a returner. Being a talented returner boosts McCaffrey’s draft stock exponentially. He may only be 200 pounds, but he plays with a chip on his shoulder. He also keeps a wide base and doesn’t get beat too often in pass protection. McCaffrey, displays great field vision and has experience in a pro-style offense. The ability to make people miss as well as lower his shoulder for extra yards are his strong suits.
Weaknesses: Being a 200 pound running back can make scouts hesitant because it’s uncertain if he’ll have the ability to be an every down back. Also, it is uncertain if his speed will translate to big plays in the NFL as it did in college. While he is a talented returner, his style of play does not fit every team, his success will depend on being put into the right scheme. Putting up that many yards in multiple season comes at a hefty price, that price is a lot of wear and tear on the body.
Overall: McCaffrey is an offensive weapon no matter where you line him up in the offense. He may only be 200 pounds and he may have only hit 225 a mere 10 times in the combine, but that doesn’t change the fact that he is an explosive athlete that is usually the best player on the field. McCaffrey is Day 1 talent, especially due to the fact that he is an experienced return man. The fact is that there is a chance he is on the board going into Day 2 because some question his ability to be an every-down back in the NFL.
- Joe Mixon (Oklahoma)
- Height: 6’1, Weight: 226 lbs.
- 187 Attempts, 1,274 Yards, 10 TDs
- 37 Receptions, 538 Yards, 5 TDs
- 2 Year Split Starter
Strengths: Mixon is excellent all across the board, he is a freak athlete. His frame is built like a NFL running back and the fact that he is 6’1 makes any scout smile. The best part of his game is his ability to catch the ball out of the backfield and work in the open field (see below). I watched 4 of his games from this past year and I believe didn’t drop a pass in any of them. Within his running game he can switch styles from being patient, waiting for blocks to develop to downhill, hard hole hitting back.
Weaknesses: He has the biggest red flag of anyone within this year’s draft class. Mixon punched and knocked a girl out 3 years ago at a bar. Since then he has been able to stay out trouble, but many scouts wonder if his character has improved. Mixon wasn’t invited to the combine this season, which hurts his draft stock due to the inability to interview with many teams showing them his true character. On the field Mixon split reps with Perene, which isn’t necessarily a bad thing, however when mixon was on the field he rarely stayed in for pass protection as he was the team’s main receiving back. That leads me to question his pass protection skills.
Overall: I don’t condone any of the actions that has he done previously, but you can’t ignore his terrific physical ability. He won’t be drafted until late day 2/early day 3 due to his character issues. Although, whoever drafts him is getting a steal. If he is able to adjust his character issues and develop professionalism, watch out he will put some pressure on the starting running back.
- Kareem Hunt (Toledo)
- Height: 5’10, Weight: 216 lbs.
- 262 Attempts, 1.475 Yards, 10 TDs
- 41 Receptions, 403 Yards, 1 TD
- 4 Year Starter
Strengths: Hunt is true gamer. His skills are widespread in the running and passing game. Similar to Mixon his greatest attribute is catching the ball out of the backfield (see below). His pace during the game is great, he constantly falls forward and seems to wear out defenders in the 4th quarter. During the Senior bowl, Hunt showed his exceptional breakaway speed leading him to being the offensive MVP.
Weaknesses: Playing at Toledo, Hunt didn’t play against the top competition week in and week out. I know, he had a great week at the senior bowl, but how will his body and competition level change as he faces top tier players every week. For a running back he is a bit undersized, it’s not a significant issue, however it might be a factor that drops him down the draft board a round.
Overall: Hunt is my favorite player in this year’s running back draft class. He is highly under the radar as the focus is all on Fournette, Cook, and McCaffrey. He has a great skill and blocks well for a running back. Just like Mixon, whoever gets Hunt will be getting a steal, though without the character issues.
- Alvin Kamara (Tennessee)
- Height: 5’10, Weight: 214 lbs.
- 103 Attempts, 596 Yards, 9 TDs
- 40 Receptions, 392 Yards, 4 TDs
- 2 Year Split Starter
- Strengths: Kamara shows his top-end acceleration game after game. He has a burst that can get him to the next level in an instant. Shows consistency in the pass game and gets out of the backfield quick, also has ability to line up as a WR and run routes. Runs balanced and breaks a lot of tackles. Athleticism is on display every time he touches the football. Has shown ability to pass block. Value also goes up because of experience in kick and punt returns. Team leader and thought highly of in the locker room.
Weaknesses: Flashes instances of great field vision, but it is not consistent. Struggles reading blocks from time to time and relies on his athleticism to get away from defenders. Needs to develop consistency as a pass blocker. Also has never been the feature back, so there are questions with durability. Has never had 20 carries in a football game in college.
Overall: Scouts are aware of the lack of full game experience, but that doesn’t change the score that he has been getting. He is an explosive athlete with fresh legs and dynamic playmaking ability. Very competitive runner and will always fight for extra yards. He will have to show that he has the durability to be an every-down back in the NFL, but he has the NFL talent to do so. Kamara has Day 1 talent, but is a likely Day 2 candidate, pending his full combine results.
Darkhorse: Tarik Cohen (NC A&T – FCS)
- Height: 5’6, Weight: 179 lbs.
- 212 Attempts, 1,588 Yards, 18 TDs
- 37 Receptions, 339 Yards, 1 TD
- 4 Year Starter
Strengths: Nobody was better in the open field than Cohen this past year. His vision is impeccable, just when you think he is about to get tackled he breaks out for the first down (see below). The change of direction and acceleration he has leads to big games in the passing game. His efficiency in the open field is very similar to James White’s this past season, especially catching the ball out of the backfield.
Weaknesses: The big two are his size and level of competition in college. He made some spectacular plays in college, but one thing I’m sure on is there will be better displays of tackling in NFL games then there were on those plays. Also, the only way I see Cohen being successful in the NFL is catching the ball out of the backfield. He won’t be able to run in between the tackles and rarely will be able to get the edge on outside runs. His role on NFL teams is limited to being a 3rd down back.
Overall: Later today the running backs will run their 40 yard dashes and participate in different field work drills and expect Cohen to wow the crowd. After today, highlights of his spectacular plays will be all over social media. With a great combine I see Cohen being drafted in the 6th or 7th round, but his chances of making the roster depend on the offensive system he enters into.
- Sam Rogers (Virginia Tech)
- Height: 5’10, Weight: 231 lbs.
- 67 Attempts, 283 Yards, 2 TDs
- 24 Receptions, 301 Yards, 4 TDs
- 2 Year Starter
Overall: Former VT walk-on that earned his role immediately. Rogers can run the ball as a bruising back and he can also catch the ball very well for a fullback. He’s carried the ball over 60 times the past two seasons, so there is no questioning his experience carrying the ball. He is an effort player that won’t kill you with his blocks or wow you at the combine, but he is a guy that will outwork anyone in front of him. He will be a great special teams asset and a solid NFL fullback for teams that plan to use one.
- Freddie Stevenson (FSU)
- Height: 6’0, Weight: 234 lbs.
- 13 Attempts, 90 Yards, 4 TDs
- 1 Reception, 6 Yards, 1 TD
- 2 Year Starter
Overall: Many people believe that he is just a bigger running back and Florida State wanted to utilize his freakish athletic ability and put him in front of Dalvin Cook. He has the physical tenacity to play fullback in the league, but also could be the feature short down back. I don’t see him being drafted, although he can a productive undrafted free agent if he chooses the right system to get into.
All stats included are from the 2015 or 2016 season. Highlights included are from both the 2015 and 2016 season.
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