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 Atlantic Coast Conference prospects.
Wayne Gallman, Clemson, RS Junior
Running behind a line that does not excel in run blocking, Gallman rushed for 769 yards, averaging 4.8 per carry as a true freshman in 2014. In 2015, he dramatically increased these figures, registering 1,514 rushing yards at an average of 5.4 per carry with 13 touchdowns. As a runner, he runs hard and finishes plays with determination and consistent, powerful drive. He had the third most yards after contact in the country, with 937. This is more impressive when his body-type is taken into account: Gallman is skinny, despite being 6’0” 210 lbs, lacking thickness in the lower body and looking more like a wide receiver. His pad level is inconsistent and he runs upright; it’s especially important to have better flexibility for a guy with his frame.
Gallman has an instant initial burst, but lacks top-end speed in the open field, reflected by a mere 32.9% of his yards coming on breakaway plays (runs of 15 yards or more) last year. He does have a nifty spin move, which would be nice to see more often as elusiveness is needed to combat his lack of real explosion.
In quarterback Deshaun Watson, Gallman has one of the best guys at the position running the offense. His protection of Watson has been outstanding, with six hurries, zero hits and zero sacks allowed in the 181 snaps he has spent pass blocking. The development of this skill can be seen from his freshman year, where his 87 snaps of pass protection saw him allow three sacks, two hits and three hurries. His blitz recognition and ability to take on pass rushers might be the best in this class.
Dalvin Cook, Florida State, Junior
Cook is an incredibly explosive back with game-breaking speed and huge big-play ability. He led the nation in breakaway runs with a percentage of 62.9 and 1,066 of his 1,696 total yardage came off of breakaway runs. While speed in the NFL is not rare, it is harder to find the velocity control that Cook demonstrates on tape. He has the ability and feet to regulate his speed, stop on a dime, and change direction rapidly. Decisive at the line of scrimmage, Cook just needs a small hole to hit with his elite burst and he is going places. Cook is also approaching prototypical NFL size, at 5’11” 213 lbs, but, more importantly, he has a thick lower body and great balance which helps him bounce off of opponents and break tackles in the open field. Combined with his vision – which destroys tacklers’ angles – and ability to string moves together in the open field, he is a package difficult to stop; he ran for 19 touchdowns last year, with 1,691 rushing yards and 7.4 yards per carry.
Cook is restricted by not having shown the ability to truck linebackers consistently, like other backs in this class. As for evaluating his catching skills, the sample size is a very small . However, his 10.2 yards per reception average, and 244 yards receiving with one touchdown show that he is a dangerous weapon out of the backfield. He is a rapid route runner with soft hands.
Elijah Hood, University of North Carolina, Junior
Hood is a powerful back who seeks contact and is a punishing runner, particularly for a 6’0” 220lb back. At times, it takes four or five guys to bring him down, and his 4.1 yards per attempt after first contact in 2015 ranked second among returning running backs. In fact, it would be nice to see Hood seek contact more, rather than try to avoid defenders. He has good vision, reading his blocks well, and balance, with the ability to fall forward the majority of the time and to move the pile. He is also physical and stout in pass protection, possessing a smashmouth style while showing impressive blitz recognition with an eye for details.
The main limitation to Hood’s game is his explosiveness. Despite recording a 4.48 40-yard dash, 4.20 shuttle, and 36”vertical at the 2013 SPARQ national championship, his stride in the open field is short and slow ,which can result in him being caught from behind. Furthermore, he lacks lateral agility, struggling to get outside and is largely a straight line runner. It should also be noted that the North Carolina gun-option offense creates favorable reads and situations for him, with rushing lanes naturally created by the system. He does, however, possess a great initial burst through the hole when running north/south. In the pros, he would likely be more of a slashing power back, potentially in a committee or going off the field on third down.
Hood ran for only 259 yards as a true freshman, but in 2015, as a feature back, he ran for 1,463 with 17 touchdowns. He is an intelligent young man, doing an internship in the NC General Assembly over the offseason, and he has a 3.8 GPA. His ability in this offense will allow him to declare early and be drafted, even despite the loaded running back class.
James Conner, Pittsburgh, Senior
Conner must have had an exhausting offseason in order to be ready for college football. Tearing his MCL in the first game of 2015 and missing the rest of the season would have been hard enough to recover from on its own. However, his Hodgkin’s Lymphoma diagnosis shortly afterwards must have put football in perspective. After successfully overcoming the disease, a mere knee injury should not stop Conner from coming back to batter the rest of the ACC.
At 6’2” 235 lbs, Conner is a throwback to the era of running backs which would beat up defenses over and over again. In 2014, he registered 26 touchdowns and 1,765 rushing yards, winning the ACC Player of the Year award. He faced nine-man boxes and won, hitting the hole hard and keeping his legs churning. He can truck over people, and despite lacking wiggle at the second level has a nasty stiff arm to get defenders away from him. In 2014, he led the nation in broken tackles. If his running style was not quite as upright, he would probably break more.
He will not have enough speed to beat NFL defenders to the edge, but he does have enough burst and certainly enough power to run inside effectively at the next level. In fellow backfield inhabitant Qadree Ollison he has a former ACC Freshman of the Year who is the perfect complement to his style of running. An area of his game that is largely unknown is his ability to catch the football, but this should be tested more regularly in 2016 with talk of him lining up in the slot at times.