In the past two years of the NFL Draft, two running backs have beenselected 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 Pac 12 prospects.
Nick Wilson, Arizona, Junior
When Wilson is on the field, and he has been excellent: In his freshman year, he ran for 1,375 yards, averaging 5.8 yards per carry with 16 touchdowns. His issue has been durability. As a freshman, at only 189 lbs, he had a shoulder injury and two concussions, missing one game. Last year, foot and knee injuries resulted in him missing four games and being near non-existent in three other games because of injury. This may have been a result of him being overworked in his first year. In his first six games of 2015, when he was healthy, he had 694 rushing yards averaging 6.0 YPC. Arizona needs him to stay healthy as they are 11-1 when Wilson gains 100 all-purpose yards.
Wilson will probably want to stay for his senior year to ease durability concerns and enter a less crowded and star-studded running back class. He’ll be in more of a running back by committee approach with Orlando Bradford, but it’s looking very unlikely for him to start, with Wilson being limited in practice. His chances of staying healthy, after a longer offseason to recover and a size of 5’10” 208 lbs, should be far better.
Royce Freeman, Oregon, Junior
Freeman is under 2,000 yards away from the Oregon rushing record. It is not unreasonable to expect him to reach this target, as he will be the main man for the Ducks’ offense as they go through a period of transition after losing their starting quarterback to the draft for the second year running (Vernon Adams went undrafted and is now playing in the Canadian Football League). Freeman’s performance in the second half of the Alamo Bowl against TCU, where he was the only player producing for Oregon, suggests that he should be able to handle the pressure and the workload. A power back at 5’11”230 lbs, Freeman rushed for 1,365 yards and 5.4 YPC in 2014 and 1,836 yards and 6.5 YPC with 17 touchdowns in 2015. His strength saw him record the second-most yards after contact in the country among returning running backs, with 1,067. His running style is wide-based and choppy, the nearest thing to Marshawn Lynch in that respect.
Freeman is somewhat limited by his change of direction skills and lateral quickness at the line of scrimmage. His lack of explosiveness also limits him, and his struggles against Michigan State and Utah — where he was kept under 100 yards — were because of the defenses cutting off the inside rushing lanes that Freeman is reliant on. Freeman placed first in the number of breakaway runs amongst college running backs, with 36, but this was largely because of favorable box counts rather than raw explosion. An element where Freeman can improve is his patience when running.
In passing situations, Freeman has disappointed as a receiving back, as his hands are not his strongest attribute. However, offseason video posted seems to show him developing his ability in boxing defenders out and in adjusting to the football mid-flight. In pass-protection, he does fairly well, with a nice cut block.
Christian McCaffrey, Stanford, junior
McCaffrey obliterated Barry Sanders’ NCAA all-purpose yards record by 614 yards (3,864) last season. He also broke Rose Bowl records, becoming the first player in the bowl’s history to have 100 yards rushing and 100 yards receiving. He rushed for 2,019 yards, 6.0 YPC and 645 receiving yards. He is an incredibly versatile player, who can provide elite talent as a runner, a receiver and a returner.
Running with fantastic patience, vision and quickness, which works wonders in Stanford’s power blocking scheme, McCaffrey excels at reading his linemen and understanding run concepts. His foot speed and hips all contribute to a shifty runner who forced 71 missed tackles as a rusher in 2015, which ranked as the fourth-highest total for running backs.
His niftiness translates well to his receiving skills, where he forced 15 missed tackles. He was often used as a slot receiver or as a passing weapon in the backfield because of his catching ability and rapid route running.
His pass protection remains an unknown, thanks to the amount of times he was sent on routes. People should not be surprised to see a slight dip in production rushing wise, as Stanford’s line lost three starters this year. While his 201-pound frame may limit his ability to run inside at the NFL level, with Stanford not using him in the red zone, his versatility and elite playmaking talents could see him become an elite, extreme Reggie Bush / Danny Woodhead / Darren Sproles-type player in the NFL. He is a great offensive weapon.
Justin Davis, USC, Senior
Davis will look to continue his arc of general improvement in 2016, as coach Clay Helton stated he will be the every-down back ahead of explosive sophomore Ronald Jones. In 2014, he had 595 rushing yards with 4.6 YPC. In 2015, he had 902 rushing yards with 5.3 YPC.
Davis has shown a clear progression in his patience in his time with the Trojans, as he no longer forces runs or holes that simply aren’t there. He can run people over, and has a great initial burst and a very nasty cut when nearing the point of attack, which kills defenders’ angles.