After 45 defensive players profiled, I realized that I would never get to as many prospects as I wished. To do the draft properly, it has to be a full-time gig and perhaps require as many as 300 profiles and prospects. So, given this is certainly not my only calling, I decided to grab 10 offensive names you may enjoy and look at them, and then it will be time to do some drafting.
This week, I wanted to get after these running backs, because I think this could be one of the best running back classes in recent memory.
If you recall, we were pretty committed to running backs in this league since the beginning of time, and there was no draft pick too high to take them. Then, recently, way too many running backs in the first round washed out, we studied the short career spans of the position, and realized that in most cases, the best backfield is one with many backs rather than just one. So, we decided to stop picking running backs high, because that wasn't considered smart. So in 2013 and 2014, there were zero running backs taken in the first round of those drafts. We figured that the league had permanently turned the corner.
But, in 2015 and 2016, the league thought it found some extraordinary options up high, so it dove back into the mix. The Rams took Todd Gurley at No. 10 and the Chargers took Melvin Gordon at 15th in 2015. Then, in 2016, the Cowboys decided to invest even more in Ezekiel Elliott at No. 4. All three backs have ranged from moderate successes (Gordon) to league MVP candidate (Elliott). They have all been picks their teams have been delighted about.
Which brings us to 2017. I think there are four running backs that all suggest first-round quality. Given there have been three running backs taken in the first round of the past four drafts combined, it seems unlikely that this year will feature four in the top round. But man, these four all look the part as prospects, with ceilings in the neighborhood of those from the past few years. This has a chance to be an unbelievable class.
Now, before we profile those four (and a bonus profile for a local product), I think it is good to know what makes ideal size for a running back in this era. Things are constantly evolving, so it is best that we put up a fine chart (made by my talented radio interns -- James Creange and Jeremy Sheehy) that offers a height and weight grid for some significant running backs in the league today:
So, we can see the "sweet spot" is between 5-11 and 6-1, with the ideal weight between 220-230. Now, there are plenty out of the range -- with Darren Sproles waaaay out of the range -- but Zeke, Jay Ajayi, Le'Veon Bell, DeMarco Murray and Adrian Peterson all are very close under that one blanket.
Now, let's set our eyes on the top running backs in the draft this year:
As you can see above, the only prospect who falls in those parameters is Joe Mixon. Otherwise, Leonard Fournette, D'Onta Foreman and Samaje Perine are heavier, and Christian McCaffrey is lighter. Dalvin Cook is lighter and shorter, but closer to the weight range than McCaffrey, who is significantly lighter at 200 pounds than anyone but Jamaal Charles. However, he also is right at the height and weight of Chris Johnson, who was considered the finest running back in the sport not so long ago (from 2009-2014, nobody this side of Adrian Peterson was better).
Now, let's get to our prospects.
RB - Florida State - #4 - Junior
5-10 - 210 - 4.49 40-yard dash
Last two years: 25 games - 517 carries, 3,456 yards - 57 catches, 732 yards - 12.8 - 40 TDs
Cook is a first-team All American with some physical concerns, but a fantastic set of skills to be a complete back.
POSITIVES: Let's start with this truth about running backs in 2017. The NFL desires "complete backs" these days way more than they do the one-dimensional battering rams. They want guys who can diagnose and pick up blitzing linebackers, guys who can run inside and out, and guys who feature a pass-catching component that may become a threat on passes both short and sometimes even long as a wide receiver. Cook fits this checklist very well. He has blinding speed when he turns the corner. He has very strong vision and can finish runs. He sets up blocks. He catches by snatching the ball with his hands. He will be perfect in today's 11 personnel offenses. He has what appears to be the total package. He is incredibly competitive.
CONCERNS: Unfortunately, the issues with Cook are rather sizable. First, there are real concerns about his shoulder. He did not miss much time as a collegian, but when you consider he is an undersized back (5-10/210) who already has shoulder issues, this could be a problem when he has been inspected. He also has some off-the-field issues that you would not term as incredibly severe, but there have been a multitude of scrapes with the law that suggest he has been a problem at times when he was younger. He also has a fumble rate (one per 64 touches) that you would not love.
Overall, Cook is a complete back who is not Zeke -- who is 225 -- but a smaller version who may be a fantastic player. But, you better make sure your medical staff is comfortable with the amount of wear and tear a back asks of his shoulders. He has a tremendous ceiling, but perhaps a floor that makes you consider things carefully as well. In other words, he is a bit of a complicated study.
RB - Stanford - #5 - Junior
5-11 - 202 - 4.48
Last two years: 25 games - 590 carries, 3,622 yards - 82 catches, 955 yards - 11.6 - 29 TDs
McCaffrey is the smallest of the group, but perhaps the most complete in his varied skill set.
POSITIVES: McCaffrey has some absurd game-breaker characteristics, as he can affect a game in so many ways. He can be lined up as a wide receiver and cause all sorts of problems off by himself or in the slot. He can return kicks and punts at a high rate. Or he can be a running back where he runs well behind the O-line on inside runs, but has the vision to bounce it outside and make defensive backs miss in space with regularity. He is shifty as heck and has a great wiggle in space to make guys miss. The first guy seldom gets him to the ground and on swing passes or screens, he is going to be a real terror. He, of course, has tremendous bloodlines with a father, mother and grandfather who all could be termed as elite athletes. He runs powerfully and with conviction as who will not go down easily despite his smallish size. He really attracts attention wherever he is on the field.
CONCERNS: All of these players have something that make you wonder, but with McCaffrey it almost all goes back to his size. He weighs 200 and may not get much bigger. Now, this is not a deal-breaker as we mentioned above, but it does put him in the "outlier" category from the norms. That leads to make people wonder whether he is more of a change-up back and what he will be like in short yardage and at the goal line. I am not worried about his role -- I can see him getting 20 touches as a combination of runs and catches, but I will concede that you may want another plan at the goal line. Beyond that, he seems to have the fewest concerns of the group.
Those teams that prefer to be in shotgun with shifting formations out of 11 personnel would certainly increase their explosiveness with someone like McCaffrey to move around as a chess piece. He appears to be a star in the making.
RB - LSU - #7 - Junior
6-0 - 240 - 4.51
Last two years: 19 games - 429 carries, 2,796 yards - 34 catches, 403 yards - 11.8 - 31 TDs
Fournette is a massive freight train who has home-run capabilities at any moment.
POSITIVES: Let's start with the fact that Fournette has been the focal point of college football and draft enthusiasts for 24 months or so, and has often delivered with jaw-dropping greatness and his phenomenal combination of size and speed. He has massive size at 240, but also still retains what many big men lose -- an elusiveness and change-of-direction ability that combines with impressive balance to give him all of the good components of size, but none of the bad. He has breakaway speed and home-run hitting capabilities that are so rare in big backs. He can certainly put any blitzing linebacker in his place. But the best part of his game is going to be in the second halves of games, when defensive backs have had enough of dealing with him and have to try to tackle him without their inner conviction still high.
CONCERNS: First, he has been banged up a bit with his ankle and that is the real Kryptonite of any back who takes punishment. Can their bodies hold up long term? Next, he comes with many of the questions that Adrian Peterson deals with to this day. Can he operate from the shotgun? Can he cause many issues as a pass catcher? Peterson certainly has laughed off those questions all the way to Canton, and Fournette has the ability to do the same. Fournette has a lot of mystery to his overall package because we don't know what he would look like in an elite, modern offense. He often played against full boxes that did not fear his quarterback and focused on him. He would show some frustration against teams like Alabama, which made his life miserable, but he kept competing. He may spin too much, rather than trust vision to pick his paths.
But overall, Fournette is going to be fun if his body holds up. He ran for more than six yards per carry in the SEC without much else on his offense, so I am confident he will find Sundays to his liking.
RB - Oklahoma - #25 - RS Sophomore
6-0 - 228 - 4.45
Last two years: 25 games - 300 carries, 2,027 yards - 6.8 - 65 catches, 894 yds - 13.8 - 26 TDs
Mixon is well known for all the wrong reasons, but he is an amazing talent who could be the best of the entire bunch when all is said and done.
POSITIVES: Mixon has ideal size with a frame of 6-0/228 that also tests extremely well with 4.45 speed and an explosive vertical of 35 inches. He is a supreme athlete who has a real natural feel to his game. Add to that his patience and vision when running the football, and you immediately want to compare him to Le'Veon Bell of the Steelers. He has shiftiness and elusiveness that will cause issues from sideline to sideline and may be best when he is receiving the ball, where he is a tremendously natural pass catcher. He will make the first guy miss routinely and responds well to physical challenges. He has a burst that you really like and maybe the best stiff arms in the class. He has a complete package with ideal size that may make him the surest bet of the prospects listed if you can get past the concerns. He is a very smart football player who is willing to block or serve as a decoy to help his team win.
CONCERNS: Almost all of his concerns go back to his incredibly poor moment the day after his 18th birthday, when he punched a girl in the face (breaking facial bones) and the tone-deaf responses to that day from both Mixon and his university. There has been concern in many circles that the young man did not quite get the severity of the situation until much later and may be a problem guy. Honestly, I have no idea what kind of humans any of these prospects are, but many of them did something very dumb when they were about 18 years old. Mixon's however, was captured on tape and will follow him for the rest of his career, most likely, and will no doubt take him off the board for a large number of possible destinations. Teams will have to endure some real public relations issues when they turn in his card. Aside from that, there are some small questions about his freelancing and not trusting his blockers and why he did not necessarily play his best games against the best opponents. But, this is a complete back who should be very good in the NFL.
Somebody has a chance to get a real steal here if they trust that his problems are in his past.
RB - Texas- #33 - Junior
6-0 - 234 - 4.45
Last two years: 21 games - 418 carries, 2,709 yards - 12 catches, 139 yds - 20 TDs
Foreman is a one-year wonder who broke records as the Longhorns' workhorse in 2016.
POSITIVES: Foreman is a large man who runs like an even larger man with a punishing rumble that made him the 2016 workhorse for Texas. The numbers he put up were fantastic and he had no games of less than 124 yards rushing all year. He runs strong and was pounded repeatedly out of the shotgun on inside zone plays in this offense. He is a real bull inside and is tough to bring down, for sure. He is willing to help and attempt to pick up blitzers and just offers a battering ram in the red zone. He will make you dig deep to deal with him over the course of the day. Has some nice breakaway ability in space once he gets moving. He runs to daylight and can burst through holes that are made for him, while also picking through traffic.
CONCERNS: There are sizable concerns about Foreman at the next level, because unlike Fournette, he doesn't appear to have the shiftiness you want in big backs. He will definitely get what is blocked and deliver a blow, but as far as vision and the ability to make guys miss, he seems to have one pitch, usually -- that is to run through dudes. Otherwise, he has almost no evidence of being a receiving threat, has some issues in blitz recognition and also has a real alarming fumble rate (one per 55 touches!) to go with just one year of production. He will definitely get a chance to prove his game translates well and has some interesting components, but with a limited skill set, you would like to see a few more boxes checked with elusiveness and ball security.
Take nothing away from his tremendous 2016, but he appears to be a Day 3 guy who will have to find a good home to continue his development.
Next week will be our final Friday draft group, and I will grab five more offensive prospects -- perhaps the quarterbacks -- and then we will be ready to draft.