Continuing with our series in previewing some of the prospects for the upcoming 2017 NFL Draft. This week we take a glimpse at the top-five running backs who look to be available come the Spring of 2017.
The RB class contains several talented runners who project very well at the next level. Overall depth in the class will allow teams, in need of a RB, to find starting caliber backs on the drafts third-day. Reminiscent to last year when the Bears drafted Jordan Howard, the league’s second leading rusher, in the fifth-round.
1. Leonard Fournette, LSU
Coming out of high school Leonard Fournette was regarded as the number one prospect in the nation, and was one of the most highly recruited players to ever come out of the state of Louisiana. Throughout his stay in Baton Rouge Fournette did not disappoint as he set LSU’s school rushing record by a freshman (1,034 yards) in 2014, then as a sophomore proceeded to establish the Tigers single-season rushing mark in both yards (1,953) and touchdowns (22).
Fournette has all the makings of a lead back who is capable of spear heading a team’s ground game. He is an explosive runner who demonstrates a natural feel for the position as he can find openings by getting “skinny” and sneaking through and getting into the defenses second level. Fournettes quick-feet and excellent lateral quickness allow him to change direction, string together multiple cuts on a run, and make defenders miss in the open field. He can bounce a run to the outside or simply plant his foot and cut it up field once he sees an opening on the plays backside.
His balance and strength allow him to easily break through arm tackles and become a difficult runner to bring down to the ground once he gets behind his pads and starts lowering his shoulder into defenders, while also demonstrating a violent stiff arm.
What makes Fournette ever so dangerous is that besides the ability to power through a defense, becoming an effective short yardage or goal line runner, he possesses terrific build up speed that once he gets in the open field he has a chance to pull away from defenders, and take it in for a touchdown.
In terms of what still needs to be developed, pass protection would top the list as he needs to be better at helping to protect the QB. Fournette must get better at absorbing the impact from the defender instead of just meeting them at the POC or attempting to stall them with a shoulder block. While as a pass catcher Fournette was limited in the number of passes thrown his way so his route running and overall effectiveness in the passing game is something his NFL coaches will need to develop.
Overall, Fournette’ s combination of size, speed, and power running ability project him developing into a lead back and a bell cow for an offense. He has all the attributes you look for in a true-blue chip NFL runner that you build your team around, and one that can be an impact starter as a rookie next season.
2. Dalvin Cook, Florida State
A five-star high school prospect and top running back in the state of Florida Dalvin Cook put together quite the resume as a Seminole. Cook posted back-to-back All-America Campaigns (unanimous All-American in 2016) as he leaves FSU as the school’s all-time leading rusher surpassing the 20-year record set by Warrick Dunn. He also ranks second all-time in the ACC with 4,464 career rushing yards, and became the only player in conference history to break the 4,000-yard marker in just three seasons.
Cook possesses a well-rounded game posing just as big of a threat as a pass catcher as he is a runner. Whether it’s his quick-feet when he strings together multiple cuts on a single run, or when he easily bounces a run designed to go up the middle to the outside, Cook is an offensive weapon that opposing defenses need to game plan against.
Cook’s balance and quickness allow him to run through arm tackles in the defenses second and third levels once he is past the LOS. He can make defenders miss in the open field and possesses the athletic ability to change directions without needing to slow down. While his vision and instincts help him quickly identify holes opening on the plays backside.
Cook flashes game-breaking ability when he catches a screen pass out of the backfield and runs up the sideline turning on the jets and running by the defense into the end zone for a touchdown. With his speed, Cook is a threat to score every time he touches the ball, whether it is being handed off to him or thrown to him.
While his blocking technique and overall strength need continued development, he is not a total liability in pass protection as he is aware of protection schemes and which defender is his responsibility to pick-up when the defense rushes or blitzes the quarterback.
Where Cook can struggle is in short-yardage situations where he is called on to lower his pad level, take on a defender, and move the sticks.
Overall, when you watch Cook play his ability pops out at you, and there is no doubt that we are watching one of the more exciting players in the country, and a future NFL running back. Cook’s versatility and all-around talents fit perfectly in today’s pass happy NFL game. Flashing game-changing talent as both a runner and pass catcher.
3. Christian McCaffrey, Stanford
As a sophomore in 2015 all Christian McCaffrey did was become the NCAA single-season all-purpose yards’ record holder (3,864) eclipsing the mark which was previously held by Barry Sanders. McCaffrey also became the only FBS player to ever lead his team in rushing, and receiving yardage in the same season. He would be named The AP player of the year and Paul Hornung Award winner leading the NCAA and Pac-12 in rushing with 2,019 yards, while racking up another 1,070 yards on 37 kick-offs returns for a whopping 28.9-yard average per return.
This past season McCaffrey once again led the PAC-12 in rushing with 1,603 yards while playing in only 11 games.
McCaffrey’s athletic ability and big play potential is evident when you watch him play. Whether it’s as a runner, receiver, or returner his ability in space and the threat to score at any time is impressive.
As a runner, McCaffrey displays excellent vision as he can quickly identify a hole and accelerate through the line of scrimmage and into the defenses second and third levels. He plays with patience and demonstrates good instincts as a runner in allowing his blockers time to set up and quickly anticipating an opening or a play developing. With quickness and speed being his calling card, McCaffrey can easily get to the edge and take the corner at full speed and quickly accelerate up field.
As a receiving threat, McCaffrey’s hands are good enough to play wide receiver on a full-time basis. He can line up in the slot and run receiver routes. He can set up defensive backs with head fakes, and create separation at the top of his stem with sharp precise cuts.
While on special teams McCaffrey, for his career, averaged 26.4 yards on kick-off returns helping to consistently set up his offense with very good field position.
The main concern with McCaffrey is his size. At 5’11” and 202-pounds he will not be every down carry the load type of running back. Instead he projects as more of a stretch runner that will threaten the edge of the defense as opposed to a between the tackles type who will keep pounding away inside.
Overall, McCaffrey does not possess the frame that can add that much more weight so expecting him to be a 20-25 carry runner is unrealistic. Where McCaffrey can win is by leveraging his quickness, speed, and playmaking ability in both the running, and passing game along with additional chances on both kick-off and punt return duties. This would allow McCaffrey ample opportunities to get the ball into his hands and to continue making big plays.
4. D’Onta Foreman, Texas
In a draft class deep with talented runners it appears Texas tailback D’Onta Foreman gets lost in the shuffle. However, the reigning Doak Walker Award winner is a talented power runner who in just a one season as a starter led the BIG-12 with 2,028 rushing yards and 15 touchdowns in route to being named a Consensus First Team All-American, becoming the first Longhorn runner to earn that distinction since Ricky Williams back in 1998. He ended his collegiate career by rushing for a school-record, 13 straight 100-yards games.
Foreman is an old-school downhill power runner who is comfortable running it between the tackles and taking on big-bodied defenders at the LOS. He has very good athleticism for a big power back carrying his weight well, demonstrating quick-feet and vision with his jump cut ability in and out of holes along with a knack to see blocking develop at the first and second level of the defense. Foreman is a patient runner who will allow his blockers to get out and set up their blocks, and follow them through the gap. He is good at finishing his runs by lowering his pad level and running through defenders. Demonstrates good balance and leg-strength running through arm tackles, bouncing off and continuing to pick up YAC; also, is a weapon in short-yardage and goal line situations.
Foreman has very good straight line speed, breaking off long TD runs of 74 and 62 yards this past season. Just last week Foreman confirmed his long speed for scouts at Texas Pro Day where he was hand-timed twice running a 4.45 forty.
Some of the concerns in Foreman’s resume starts with his marginal receiving production, where in his three seasons at Texas where he totaled just 13 receptions. He never appeared to be a viable option in the passing game for the Texas coaches. His pass-blocking is also questionable, and is still a work in progress, taking some questionable angles and appearing to still be learning how to block. He also had seven fumbles this past season, losing six of them, which bring into question his ball security.
Overall, Foreman is a big north south runner with good quickness, vision, and strength. He possesses the speed to break-off big chunks of yardage and could be an ideal four-minute back capable of grinding out the clock. Appears to be best suited for a power Gap blocking system where he will make his mark creating tough yards. Limited contributions as a receiver and blocker could lessen his draft stock.
5. Samaje Perine, Oklahoma
A three-year starter and two-time first team Big-12 selection (by the league coaches) Perine leaves Oklahoma as the school’s all-time leading rusher with 4,122 yards despite turning pro after just three seasons. The NCAA single-game rushing record holder (427 yards vs. Kansas in 2014) Perine is fourth in Oklahoma history with 49 rushing TD’s and second with six games of at least 200 rushing yards.
Perine is a powerful compact runner who rarely goes down on first contact, displaying very good balance that allows him to excel at running through contact. Exhibits good play strength and an ability to finish by lowering his pads and punishing tacklers at the end of his runs. At 5’11” and 233-pounds he is deceptively quick for his size as he can quickly plant and cut in seemingly one motion, swiveling his hips, to allude defenders or spring through an opening at the LOS. He does not dance around behind the line, instantly looking to follow his blockers, up into the hole, or use his good run vision to find an outside alley that could develop on the plays backside.
Perine has solid instincts as a runner, anticipates openings, and can feel his way through the trash along the line of scrimmage. He is good at avoiding negative runs, and is rarely ever taken down for a loss. Instead he is always leaning forward and driving his legs to gain positive yards on a play.
Perine is a bit of a short stepper with tightness in his hips – gears to cut, does not open his stride in the open field and can get caught from behind, lacking breakaway speed.
He never really developed as a pass catcher, only 40 receptions in three seasons, as he shared the backfield with Joe Mixon who was much more heavily utilized in the passing game.
Overall, Perine is a big, strong, competitive runner with bruising power to produce tough yards between the tackles. With his vision, balance, and ability to excel in short-yardage situations, bouncing off contact, Perine appears to have the makings of a 15-20 carry between the tackle thumper at the next level. Proving to be a viable option in the passing game, will determine if Perine can develop into a three-down back.