In the past two years of the NFL Draft, two running backs have been selected in the first round. As NFL defenses get smaller in order to defend the pass, teams are looking to run the football more often. The 2017 NFL Draft running back class is the deepest in many years, and will provide NFL teams with the opportunity to pick up fantastic running back talents in various rounds. More than one back will likely go in the first. Matty Brown shares analysis on the running backs on his watch list for the 2017 draft, with this piece focusing on the non-Power 5 conferences.
Aaron Jones, UTEP, Senior
In 2015, Jones played roughly six quarters, or two games, before being sidelined with a season-ending torn ankle ligament injury. Jones rushed for 209 yards on 32 attempts (6.5 YPC) and a rushing score, while catching nine passes for 106 yards (11.8 avg.) and a touchdown. He holds the program record for the longest touchdown run, with a 91-yarder against Texas Tech. His production should increase from his 2014 numbers as he faces a greater role as a starting back.
He is a dynamic threat as a runner and a receiver. He is able to run through arm tackles, lowering his shoulders and having a powerful off-side stiff arm. He also plays bigger than his size of 5’10” 215 lbs, bouncing off of big hits, lowering his shoulder and keeping his balance. His jukes and cuts, particularly at the line of scrimmage, combined with his ability to regulate his foot speed makes him hard to get hold of. A slight surprise is that Jones has less levels of speed than you would expect from a guy of his running style. In passing situations, he has 43 career receptions with 9.6 yards per catch. When not running a route though, he needs to improve his often shoddy pass protection. He displayed great awareness against Texas Tech, where he recovered a fumble and then threw the ball out of bounds to prevent what would have been a huge loss of yardage.
Leon Allen, WKU, Senior
Allen is very good in short-yardage situations, with the size (6’0”, 235 lbs), and the ability to get low with his pads to slip through tackles for what can be vital extra inches. This skill is talked about well by analyst Matt Waldman. He also flashes being a good finisher at the goal line, but this is something that would be nice to see more consistently. One impressive aspect of Allen in short situations is his way of getting skinny at times for a man his size, squeezing through narrow gaps. He has a spin move to aid him in falling forward, and has excellent leg drive and second effort to keep driving and push the pile.
It would be a disservice to Allen to call him just a short-yardage back, despite not being a breakaway guy who lacks the pace to get to the edge regularly in the NFL. He can string moves together, cutting or jump-cutting at the line, juking in the open field and manipulating defenders. A skill that not enough backs demonstrate frequently, high-stepping to avoid being tripped, is something that Allen uses. When approaching the line of scrimmage, Allen is skilled at faking to bounce outside. He also demonstrates a clear awareness of the location of the seam.
Receiving-wise, he high points the football and beats linebackers in routes. He also has soft hands when catching the football, even possessing a reliable one-handed catch. This enables him to take a check down in the flats to a 10-yard gain, despite lacking explosiveness.
Hopefully, Allen will recover fully from the serious knee injury he suffered in the second game of 2015 against Louisiana Tech, after recording 137 rushing yards at an average of 5.1 YPC and two touchdowns last year. In 2014, he posted 1,542 rushing yards, averaging 5.7 yards per carry and recording 13 touchdowns.
Tarean Folston, Notre Dame, Senior
Folston is a back who is perhaps being overlooked after his ACL tear on his third carry of 2015. C.J. Prosise’s excellent 2015, where the converted wide receiver’s season led to being drafted in the fourth round by the Seattle Seahawks, has probably caused people to forget about Folston.
This would be a mistake. The senior rushed for 889 yards at 5.1 YPC in 2014. He has good vision between the tackles, with enough bulk to outmuscle and shrug off defenders. This, in conjunction with a quick first step, makes him a very dangerous runner. He is best described as an elusive, inside runner but he has done serious damage on outside zone and sweep plays too. He also is very solid as a receiver out of the backfield. In tandem with sophomore Josh Adams, Notre Dame has a great chance of producing two 1,000-yard rushers.
Kareem Hunt, Toledo, Senior
In 2014, Hunt rushed for 1,631 yards, at an average of 8.0 YPC with 16 touchdowns. If Hunt had managed to replicate his 2014 form, he would surely have been drafted. Instead, 2015 saw him miss the first two games after a suspension for violating team rules. He did not play in two other games because of hamstring injuries, which nagged him throughout the season. He appeared to be more like his 2014-self toward the end of the season, but that was not enough to stop his numbers dipping to 973 rushing yards with 5.5 YPC and 12 touchdowns in 2015.
In 2016, Hunt faces his final chance to make it to the NFL. If he can stay healthy and on the field, he should manage this fairly easily. With an ideal build, of 6’0” 225lbs, Hunt also has a thick lower body and a low center of gravity. These factors make him a very hard player to bring to the ground, and he has the potential to break multiple tackles on the same play. He is no slouch either, despite not having the top speed to breakaway regularly, as his good initial burst through the line of scrimmage, quick feet and decisive, sharp cuts make him difficult to catch in space.
Jeremy McNichols, Boise State, Junior
McNichols was tasked with the responsibility of replacing Miami Dolphin Jay Ajayi in 2015, which he passed with flying colors with 1,337 rushing yards, 5.6 YPC and 20 TDs. He is one of the best run / pass threats in college football.
For a fairly small guy, 5’9” 212 lbs, he has good lower body thickness, which is a promising sign for his durability and also his ability to drive through tackles. He is most effective running outside, but it is slightly worrying to see a lot his yards come from well-blocked or well-designed plays.
He added weight in 2015 at the expense of some speed. To better his NFL prospects, he may wish to lose some weight and get back to his best pass catching self. That is not to say McNichols was not a good pass catcher in 2015, he has great hands – hauling in 51 passes for 460 yards.
James Butler, Nevada, Junior
No draft eligible running back is more elusive than James Butler, according to Pro Football Focus. He ranked tops in yards after contact per attempt, with an absurdly high 4.13. He even averaged 4.8 yards against Hawaii, despite averaging less than 1 yard before contact, and forced 11 missed tackles, which is mightily impressive despite it being against a fairly poor team.
He might also be the toughest 5’9” 210 lbs runner in college football, with his powerful lower frame helping him run through bigger guys’ tackles this year. His mentality is also one of toughness, as he fights through the play. He had 1,345 yards, 6.3 YPC and 10 touchdowns in 2015, while sharing carries with Don Jackson. He should receive more handoffs this year, which could lead to a career year.
Donnel Pumphrey, San Diego State, Senior
Despite Pumphrey lacking in size at 5’9” 180 lbs, he has big-play ability that produced more than 2,000 total yards and 20 touchdowns in 2015. He scored 20 touchdowns in 2014 too. His 4,272 career rushing yards make him the leading active rusher in the nation. He and Ezekiel Elliott are the only running backs to run for at least 1,600 yards in the last two years. Pumphrey’s 10 rushes of 30-plus yards made him one of only seven backs in the nation to notch double digits in that statistic, and four of those went for 60-plus yards. He has outstanding burst when getting to the edge, and quick, firm cuts: he truly is a game-breaking talent. He is also patient, looking for the cutback lane a lot — which has been a large reason for his outstanding success. He is a fighter for a smaller guy, wriggling and leaning forward consistently.
His receiving ability is so good that he finds himself lined up in the slot on occasions. He averages 14.9 yards per reception in college.
His size will be a limit, at just 180 lbs. No matter how hard he runs, he will struggle to stay on the field taking bigger hits in the NFL. He also has not put on any weight since high school. Therefore, he will need to be used in a gadget-type/scat back role. In this sense, he is similar to 2015 draftee Tyler Ervin. His below average pass protection, again limited by his frame, will probably limit his ability to be a third-down back. He also may find his production in 2016 drops a bit, with SDSU having to replace numerous starters on the offensive line.
Brian Hill, Wyoming, Junior
Facing eight- and nine-man boxes and on a bad team, Hill ran for 1,631 yards, 5.8 YPC and six touchdowns in 2015. With 1,736 all-purpose yards, the junior accounted for nearly 41 percent of the yardage gained by the Cowboys last year. He led the league in rushing yards per game, with 135.9.
He has great size and great strength at 6’1” 219 lbs. He is very good at finding open space by pressing the point of attack and finding cutback lanes. He also demonstrates an understanding of the gap scheme he plays in, possessing the ability to run inside hard and aggressively. He is hard to take to the ground, with a wide, solid base giving him good balance and forward drive when combined with his constantly churning legs. The jump cut he has through holes, plus the clever moves he has to prevent losses, make him consistent too. He even has the speed to get to the edge.
Marcus Cox, Appalachian State, Senior
Regardless of Cox not being the fastest or biggest (5’10”, 205 lbs) guy, his production is simply too great to ignore. He has gained more than 1,000 yards in each of his seasons with Appalachian State, and in 2015 rushed for 1,423 yards and nine touchdowns despite missing a game. He needs just 717 rushing yards to break Kevin Richardson’s program record of 4,804.
His good balance and lean make him a hard guy to bring down. He has also been pretty durable even though he has received a fairly heavy workload. A receiver for two years in high school, he has caught 34 passes in his two years at Appalachian State, for an average of 10 yards per reception. Appalachian State’s zone blocking system, which averaged 271.5 rushing yards per game in 2015, returns four offensive linemen. That, when joined with the pushing of sophomore Jalin Moore, should see Cox make his final year his best year.
Matt Breida, Georgia Southern, Senior
Quite a raw player in terms of technique, Breida is an athletic, explosive freak who should test very well at the combine in 2017. He is a take-it-the-distance talent, with 36 of his 376 career carries going for 20 yards or more. In 2015, his 7.92-yard average beat that of No. 2-ranked Dalvin Cook of FSU, by more than half a yard per carry. He led the country or tied for the lead in rushes of 30-plus yards (13), 40-plus (9), 50-plus (6), 60-plus (5), 70-plus (4) and 80-plus (2). His current career yards per carry is on record-setting pace, with his 8.3 YPC ranking as the best of all time.
Breida has a nice little cut and stutter move when hitting the hole at speed, and he hits the hole hard too but he could exhibit a bit more patience on occasions. At the second level, his jukes at top speed kill defenders’ angles. Georgia Southern’s spread/triple-option offense often presented him with oceans of space to run outside in, and, when in traffic, he gets tripped up by ankle tackles too often. At 5’11” 190 lbs, he is not going to be able to run inside the majority of the time in the NFL. To better his draft prospects, he needs to find a way of showing he is a good receiver. He is somewhat limited by the offense he is in, as he only caught 11 balls in 2015.
Elijah McGuire, Louisiana-Lafayette, Senior
The 5’11”, 208-pound McGuire is the only active FBS player to have more than 3,000 career rushing yards and 1,000 career receiving yards. The statistics do not lie, he is a well-balanced back with a solid all-round game.
McGuire was called up to the ULL basketball team this offseason, and, despite not playing much, this is testament to his athletic ability. Admittedly, he is not a burner, but he is fast enough — including a good initial burst — to not have to be a slasher at the next level. As a runner, he aims to get north / south, but has great feet usage and lateral agility in getting there. He can run both inside and out, with great pad level, patience and vision. His decisiveness and feet help make angles harder for tacklers, as does his great change of direction ability. At times he is too patient as he waits for holes which do not materialize. His ability to read blockers even saw him tried as a returner, and he will have the opportunity to return punts in Louisiana Lafayette’s opener.
It is as a receiver that McGuire will stand out in this class though. When catching the ball, he provides wide receiver ability from the running back position. He high-points the football with what appears to be an outstanding vertical leap and has soft hands. He is most dangerous on wheel routes. Kenneth Dixon comparisons are natural, and he is probably a speedier, less agile player when contrasting the pair.
Larry Rose III, New Mexico State, Junior
Rose has been heavily leaned on by a poor New Mexico State program. For some context, the New Mexico State defense gave up 45 points a game last year. He had the fourth most yards after contact in the country, with 933 and rushed for 1,651 yards on an average of 6.9 YPC in 2015.
Rose has the ability to embarrass defenders, especially at the second level with his ferocious speed and change of direction ability. He freezes safeties with an uncanny regularity. However, a lot of his yards came off pitch-option plays, where he had a lot of open room to the outside. Clever play design is the best way to manufacture yards for Rose, who is easily at his most dangerous when he has space ahead of him to surge into and then juke and jive in.
The Sun Belt Conference Offensive Player of the Year spends time at receiver too in the New Mexico State attack. He had 30 receptions last year, dealing with little consistency at the quarterback position after three signal callers spent time under center.
Size-wise, durability has to be a concern. Weighing in at 180lbs in 2015, he is apparently closer to 190lbs now. Yet raw mass isn’t the biggest issue, Rose also has quite a skinny frame. Indeed, he will miss New Mexico States’ opener against UTEP with a sports hernia injury.
One part of the game that his size does not seem to have negatively impacted is his pass protection, which is OK. He is possibly too over reliant on the cutblock, and he needs to improve his blitz recognition.
The American Athletic Conference
Marlon Mack, USF, Junior
Mack arrived on a team that was absolutely dreadful, and arguably saved his coach’s job by dragging USF to a victory against Western Carolina. He dragged them through all sorts of difficulty, and, dealing with missed blocks and assignments, he still ran for more than 1,000 yards in 2014. In 2015, he broke Andre Hall’s USF single-season rushing record with 1,381 yards, averaging 6.6 yards a carry and scored nine touchdowns. He would probably have put up bigger numbers, but missed one game because of injury and also came out of games due to USF’s dominance. 2016 will see him overtake the 310 yards needed to become USF’s all-time leading rusher.
Mack has nice balance, and a tantalizing blend of speed and power — despite questions over his initial burst. The level of competition for him makes it look like, at times, this is a man beating up boys. Against tougher teams, he has still done well, including the 230 yards he registered against a tough Temple defense who won the American Athletic Conference East division.
He is 6’0” and was previously 205 lbs. However, according to camp reports, he is “listed at 210 pounds entering camp, appears thicker around the core.” Mack already looked thick for his weight, so this is positive news for a man who has no trouble in hitting some defenders. He may be smart to wait another year before declaring, but it is tough to balance that with the risk of injury at such a physical position.
Follow Matthew on Twitter @mattyfbrown. Check out Matt’s other work here, such as what RBs to watch in the SEC, the Pac 12, and the Big 12, and on Kenneth Dixon and what the Ravens should expect from him this season.
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