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 Big 12 prospects.
Shock Linwood, Baylor, RS Senior
Linwood has put up impressive numbers in his three years at Baylor: 881 rushing yards, 6.9 YPC as a third-stringer in 2013, 1,252 yards with 5.0 YPC in 2014 and 1,329 with 6.8 YPC in 2015. At just 5’9” 200 lbs he relies upon his ability to evade would-be tacklers. Pro Football Focus has him down as the most elusive back in the Big 12, and his ability to string a variety moves together — such as stutter and jab steps, jukes, and spin moves — combined with his loose, fluid hips does makes this no surprise. His ability to set up multiple defenders to fail is invaluable.
People may question whether Baylor’s spread system, and the poor defenses of the Big 12, are the real reason for much of his production. However, there are enough good traits shown by Linwood for him to remain an intriguing prospect, even if he does need a big year to quell the major doubts being raised over his ability running the football. Though his size would likely limit him to being a change-of-pace or scat back in the pros, he is perfectly suited for this role when factoring in his ability to catch the football out of the backfield. When in receiving situations, he has great football smarts and awareness which is apparent on tape.
Samaje Perine, Oklahoma, Junior
When Perine runs into defenders, he hits hard. He also has really good bend for such a large running back. While he struggles to make players miss one-on-one, he can power over them. This power also makes him an elite finisher. He is very active with his off hand, showcasing a nasty stiff arm. On initial contact, his ability to stay on his feet is uncanny – his balance is great for his size. Perine’s intelligence when running is another thing that stands out; he understands how to press the point of attack effectively. Furthermore, he understands running concepts, such as reading combination blocks to find a hole. These blocks materialize depending on the defensive front due to the zone with power concepts that Oklahoma runs. His patience is superb. In terms of pass catching, despite having little opportunities (15 catches last year) he has reliable hands.
Perine is a wrecking ball, but at 5’10” 243 lbs he should, arguably, be breaking more tackles. He also does not seek contact, avoiding it and trying to slash around defenders instead. While he can bend well, he struggles to get to the edge. In pass protection, he occasionally turned away from contact when blocking, which is a concerning trait. NFL teams may also have concerns over the Oklahoma offense’s style; the up-tempo, spread, air raid offense naturally creates running lanes and the Big 12 is also full of poor defenses.
Production-wise, his 2015 numbers were actually smaller than his 2014 ones. This, though, can be explained by the emergence of the talented Joe Mixon. In 2015, Perine still rushed for 1,713 yards, at 6.5 YPC. He also punished a terrible Kansas defense, breaking the FBS rushing record with 427 yards and five touchdowns.
Joe Mixon, Oklahoma, RS Sophomore
Mixon has the ability to juke players out of their cleats in the backfield, even when the play appears to be a sure-fire loss. Unlike other elusive guys in this class, he also has the skills to drag opponents forward and lower his shoulder and run them over. However, arm tackles can bring him down. His first step and then rapid gears make him a breakaway player. He is also a talented receiver, turning swing passes that look hopeless into solid gains by using his shiftiness. An underrated part of his game is his ability in sealing the edge for Perine in two-back sets. His blocking is effective and aggressive in this area, and he certainly did better at this than when Perine was in this situation.
His opportunities this year may be somewhat limited by sharing a backfield with Perine, and he may decide to spend another year in college before declaring. Mixon’s off the field issues should not be ignored; he punched a female student and was suspended for the season two years ago.