(Click to enlarge table)
The headliner of this class is Stanford’s Christian McCaffrey, who I would be comfortably take in the early teens in round 1. The specialness of McCaffrey comes from a presence on the field that I have often described as an omniscience of sorts – his ability to know exactly where he is at any given time and place on the football field is a skill that few running backs possess. McCaffrey is not limited to the stereotype of a situational, or “scat back”, though he does thrive in those areas like being used on special teams, out of the backfield in passing situations, and outside runs to get him to the boundary. He excels at these stereotypical traits but is not bound to them. He proved at Stanford that he is a between-the-tackles running back, who can take a beating, bounce of tackle, and use that “omniscient” vision to wait and find holes that his offensive line creates. Someone this productive and athletic should be considered among the best. McCaffrey is made to thrive in the current NFL environment where so much shotgun formation is used and the spread passing attack has permeated the gameplan of most teams.
Just below McCaffrey is Oklahoma’s controversial Joe Mixon. What is going to keep Mixon from going in the first round is the incident from a few years ago where he was caught on video punching a woman in the face. Mixon was suspended but not dismissed from Oklahoma, and the stigma surrounding him is rightfully keeping him from going where his on-field talent should slot him. In a vacuum, Mixon is a 1st round talent and compares to one of the most special players in the NFL: Pittsburgh’s Le’Veon Bell. At 228 pounds with outstanding lower body power, he has the build to be an impact RB on all three downs and should be the feature back on his team sooner than later into his career. What separates him from similar backs of his build is his ability to be a weapon in the passing game. Mixon has some of the best hands at his position in the class. If off-field woes are behind him, I see little reason to think Joe Mixon isn’t an impact starting running back and future pro bowler within the first three years of his career.
After McCaffrey and Mixon are probably the two most mainstream backs in the class: Dalvin Cook and Leonard Fournette. I have given high second round grades to both for varying reasons. Starting with Cook, he was ultra-productive in every way at Florida State, succeeding as an every-down, between the tackles back, as well as someone who could produce in the passing game and not be a liability in pass protection. What separates him from Fournette, and everyone below him, is that he has the ability to be a three-down back. You can use him on first down, short yardage, and in the shotgun on long-down situations. Cook is someone who can be plugged into an offense rather than the offense having to be molded around his skillset and limitations. What drops him into the second round, and keeps him from the McCaffrey / Mixon tier, are injury concerns and athletic testing that leave a lot to be desired. The “value” of a running back is less now than it’s ever been, so even though Cook is a future starter in the NFL, I would look elsewhere in the first round, in a vacuum.
Fournette has all of the power, straight-line, downhill traits of many great backs from years past. He’s a classic gap scheme runner who wants to go north and south. The problem for Leonard is in today’s NFL, what he does really well is negated by his lack of ability to be a complete back. I call RBs like him “1.5 down” backs. You know he can be used on first down and you know he cannnot be used in shotgun on obvious pass downs. The other downs are 50 / 50 depending on the scenario. I do not value that kind of situational dependency enough to tailor my offense around him, and if you take him early-to-mid Round 1, that is what it demand that you do. Fournette is going to run for a lot of yards in the NFL, but for more legitimate reasons than caused Derrick Henry to fall a year ago, Fournette would be best selected on the second night of the NFL Draft.
“Best of the Rest”
University of Texas workhorse D’Onta Foreman is a true discounted version of Leonard Fournette and is two years younger. For all the good and bad reasons I highlighted Fournette as a round 2, instead of a round 1 back, those apply to Foreman. He is as advanced of a runner as Fournette, is still learning nuances of the position, and is currently a a total unknown in the passing game, which will cause some teams and scouts to be lower on him than me. However, looking at the total package, I see someone who is, at worst, the RB1b in a dual-backfield that wears down defenses in short yardage and late in games. For a team like the Patriots who might be looking to move on from Legarrette Blount or any team looking for the optimum use of a Jeremy Hill / Giovani Bernard duo, Foreman would be an outstanding choice in Round 2.
Marlon Mack is a slashing, home run threat who has to prove that he can overcome fumble issues (a la Tiki Barber) and become a consistent player in order to become a starting, instead of situational, running back. He has strong lower body explosion to accelerate in space and can be a weapon in the passing game early on. Samaje Perine, Brian Hill, and Jamaal Williams are traditional, between the tackle backs, who could sneak their way up the depth chart early on similarly to Jordan Howard a year ago. Perine and Williams are more commonly known, but don’t sleep on Brian Hill out of Wyoming, who tested near or better than Joe Mixon in most drills, and would be a discounted version of him, likely being selected early on Day 3.
Alvin Kamara is similar to Marlon Mack in how he attacks and runs, and has become the in vogue riser in this class among national scouts. The athletic profile is definitely there and I think he’s likely a future RB1b for a team, but I view him similarly (though more favorably) than I did Alabama’s Kenyan Drake a year ago – better in theory than in application at the moment. Kamara didn’t blossom until the midpoint of Tennessee’s season and running back is one position where I believe a high percentage of market share carries and yards matter when projecting forward. Kamara has the ability to succeed at the next level, but I would be most comfortable with him in early round 3 as opposed to the Top 45.
James Conner and Wayne Gallman round out the group of backs who I list as potential future starters. Conner should be on team’s like New England, Oakland, Cincinnati, and Carolina’s boards – team who value size and physicality at the position. With cancer in the rearview, Conner is back on trajectory to be an impact player at the next level. Gallman, too often, is the forgotten back in this class. He was stellar at Clemson whether they needed him to run traditionally north and south, get lateral on sweeps and options, or be a weapon in the passing game. Gallman is one of the more do-it-all RBs in this class.