With the upcoming NFL draft less than two weeks away, teams across the league are honing in on their targets to try to strengthen their rosters for the 2017 season. Running back is a position that has been de-valued the last few years as the NFL has moved to a more quarterback driven league. Teams with high-powered passing game and superstar quarterbacks are dominating in the postseason.
That’s not the only reason it’s considered taboo to take a running back in the first round anymore. A quick glance at the leading rushers across the NFL will show that the value is much better to take a running back on day two or even day three of the draft. Last season, Jordan Howard(5th round), DeMarco Murray(3rd round), and Jay Ajayi(5th round) finished second, third, and fourth in the league rushing, respectively. Lagarrette Blount, Isiah Crowell, and Rob Kelley all led their respective teams in rushing in 2016. All three of them were undrafted.
All that being said, there are some exceptional talents at the running back position in the 2017 NFL draft. On most draft boards, LSU’s Leonard Fournette sits at the top of this list. Fournette is a big(6′-1″, 227) back with elite, top end speed. In just three years in Baton Rouge, Fournette rushed for nearly 4,000 yards, despite an injury-plagued 2016 where he had issues with his ankle. Fournette was healthy at the combine in February and showed it running the 40 in 4.4 seconds while weighing nearly 240 lbs. At his pro day last month, Fournette slimmed down to 227 pounds, which is where NFL teams would like him to be. Fournette does most things well, but pass protection and his route running in the passing game are some things that he could improve on.
Florida State’s Dalvin Cook is another player that is projected anywhere from the top ten of the draft to early second round. Cook is smaller than Fournette at a compact 5′-10″, 210 pounds, but has the same big play ability that the LSU star has. Cook’s three-year career at FSU was spectacular. He rushed for over 4,400 yards and also hauled in 79 receptions in three years. Cook’s strength though, was showing up big in the big games, specifically the rivalry games. In three games against Florida, Cook ran for 480 yards. Against Miami he racked up 464 yards. The bigger the stage, the more Cook seemed to elevate his game. Although Cook had what most considered to be a poor combine workout with his times on speed runs, it’s important to note that Cook was rarely caught from behind in games. There’s something to be said for his game speed.
There are some things to be concerned about with Cook. NFL teams will be interested in his medical checks, because of the three shoulder surgeries he’s had since high school. Cook tore his rotator cuff in high school, then tore the front part of his labrum in 2014, and the back part of the labrum in 2016. There has been some mentions of character issues, but Cook’s issues were mostly when he was still in high school, and he has seemed to put that behind him. A
Cook has been linked to several teams in the first round, including the Colts, Eagles, and Redskins. It would be surprising if Cook got past the Bucs at pick #19.
There are two more backs that have what most consider first round talent. Stanford’s Christian McCaffrey and Okalhoma’s Joe Mixon.
McCaffrey is a jack-of-all-trades back who can do it all. He’s adept in the return game and effective in the passing game where he can create mismatch problems out of the backfield. McCaffrey has decent size at 5′-11″, 202 lbs but there are concerns that he doesn’t have the ideal size or physicality of an every down NFL running back. Still, McCaffrey could be a luxury pick to an already strong team picking late in the first round. His skills in the return and passing game means he could be eased in to an offense as the season progresses.
Mixon may be the most talented, complete back in the draft. The obvious character flags might slip him into the second round though. In a highly publicized incident in 2014, Mixon punched a female student who shoved him causing severe injuries to the victim. The videotape was released in 2016, forcing Mixon to make a public apology. NFL teams will have to take a hard look at Mixon to try to determine if this was a one time mistake. On the field, Mixon has few weaknesses. Great size(6′-1″, 225 lbs) and speed, Mixon is a threat in the running and passing game. He’s effective in the passing game because of his size and route running abilities, he’s different from McCaffrey, in that he can be detached from the line of scrimmage and run routes against nickel backs and safeties. Without the off field baggage, there is little doubt that Mixon could be argued as the best running back prospect in the draft.