By: Zach Metkler, GZ Sports Report WriterFollow @GZSports_ZM
Over the years, the running back position has taken a backseat to the pass game, as the NFL has become a heavy pass-first league, with team’s putting a premium on elite quarterbacks. However, that does not mean that running back’s have no value in the league. In the 2017 NFL Draft, team’s in need of a new face in their backfield should be licking their chops. This year’s class is one of the strongest groups of backs to come into the league in recent memory, with at least three to four having the potential to be taken in the first 32 picks of the draft. Below is my initial big board for the 2017 running back class.
- Leonard Fournette, RB, LSU
- Dalvin Cook, RB, Florida State
- Christian McCaffrey, RB, Stanford
- Alvin Kamara, RB, Tennessee
- Joe Mixon, RB, Oklahoma
- D’Onta Foreman, RB, Texas
- Kareem Hunt, RB, Toledo
- Wayne Gallman, RB, Clemson
- Samaje Perine, RB, Oklahoma
- Marlon Mack, RB, South Florida
- James Conner, RB, Pittsburgh
- Brian Hill, RB, Wyoming
- Corey Clement, RB, Wisconsin
- Jeremy McNichols, RB, Boise State
- Jamaal Williams, RB, BYU
There has been much controversy about who deserves the top spot in the running back draft rankings, but for me, the clear choice is LSU’s Leonard Fournette. Coming in at 6’1″, 230 lbs., Fournette is built like a linebacker and has all of the looks of a future franchise cornerstone and Pro Bowler similar to that of Adrian Peterson. Fournette is an absolutely punishing runner who never shies away from lowering his pads to lay the hammer down on an opposing tackler. What makes him so amazing, however, is his ability to get run-away separation in the open field, where he was consistently a home run threat whenever he had the ball in his hands. While Fournette is the best back in this class, he still carries some concerns, namely his injury history with issues involving a ligament in his ankle. Additionally, Fournette does not have a great track record of creating his own plays when things break down on the line. Most of his big plays came from his offensive line creating tremendous holes for him to work his magic on the second level. Regardless, Fournette is the standard in this class of talented running backs.
While Fournette is a big brusing back, Dalvin Cook is nearly the complete opposite. At 5’11”, 206 lbs., Cook possesses the ability to make plays whenever he has the ball in his hands. He is an extremely explosive player with great agility, demonstrating the ability to start, stop, and redirect on a dime. This elusiveness allows him to make defenders miss from the tiniest of spaces to in the open field and makes defenders who try to arm tackle him look silly. Cook does an excellent job of sensing his surroundings and quickly reading his blocks by setting up his moves with patience reminiscent of Le’Veon Bell. Once he gets through the line, he flashes the ability to turn on the turbo and fly past defenders in the secondary. While Cook possesses these athletic traits, there are concerns about his longevity in the NFL, as he lacks the ideal bulk that teams often look for in an every-down back. Cook also has issues with ball security, as he had an alarming 12 fumbles over the past three seasons at Florida State, which amounts to 1 fumble every 63.8 touches. There is no denying that Cook is a playmaker, but he will likely need to find the right system to be able to showcase his skillset and talents.
Christian McCaffrey has been the utility offensive player in college football over the past few seasons at Stanford. Possessing a rock-solid 6′, 202 lb. frame, he is an absolute nightmare when trying to take him down in the open field. McCaffrey is extremely quick footed and is able to quickly hit the hole and explode through it and into the second level with ease due to his tremendous vision. This vision and agility is what has made McCaffrey such a threat in the run game, the passing game, and the return game. While he might seem underweight for his position, McCaffrey has surprising power to be able to make defenders miss and to continue driving his legs through contact, a trait that shows his pure determination as a runner. While he has this power, he still lacks the preferred bulk for the running back position and just as with Dalvin Cook, much of McCaffrey’s game is based off of elusiveness rather than power. This raises concerns about his ability to be an every-down back in the league. However, given McCaffrey’s pedigree as a home run threat with the ball in his hands, he will have no problem finding a role in the league as a do-it-all weapon similar to Tyreek Hill.
Beyond the top 3 running backs in this class, there are still plenty of choices that teams will have to be able to find a plug-and-play player. If you are looking for a player with very little wear and tear, look no further than the Jamaal Charles-Devonta Freeman clone Alvin Kamara that is an absolute nightmare as a dual-threat running back. If you’d rather have a hard-nose bulldozer with deceptive speed, then maybe Samaje Perine is the back for you. If neither of these choices appeal to you and you want to take a risk on a player with extreme upside to be a Matt Forte/Le’Veon Bell-esque runner-receiver with off-the-field baggage great enough to fill an airport terminal, Joe Mixon might be the ultimate back for you. Regardless of what you want, you are likely to find it in this years running back draft class. Truth be told, some of the late-round graded backs could easily be taken higher in any other year but will likely get pushed down just based on the pure depth of this class. Either way, expect big things from the 2017 class of runners.
Class Position Strength: Strong/Elite
Inside Running: Leonard Fournette, LSU
Outside Running: Dalvin Cook, Florida State
Breaking Tackles: Leonard Fournette, LSU
Trucking: Samaje Perine, Oklahoma
Receiving: Alvin Kamara, Tennessee
Pass Blocking: Jamaal Williams, BYU
Intangibles: Dalvin Cook, Florida State
Elusiveness: Kareem Hunt, Toledo
Biggest Sleeper: Wayne Gallman, Clemson
Highest Ceiling: Leonard Fournette, LSU
Could Disappoint: Christian McCaffrey, Stanford
Could Surprise: James Conner, Pittsburgh
Biggest Risk: Joe Mixon, Oklahoma
Join the discussion at steelernation.com!