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 SEC prospects.
Leonard Fournette, LSU, Junior
Fournette is many people’s favorite to win the Heisman Trophy. The 6’1” 230-pound phenom rushed for 1,935 yards, 6.5 YPC, and 22 touchdowns in 2015. He has enough speed to be a breakaway threat, as well as the power, balance, and body control to run over a defense with 34 of his 1916 rushing yards last season came on runs of 15 yards or longer. His short yardage conversion rate last season was 81.4%. At the same time he had a massive 1,094 yards after contact – the most in the country. Running in a power-i offense and facing eight- or nine-man boxes, Fournette still finds ways to succeed. He demonstrates a clear understanding of the angles of attack, setting up blockers to create running lanes. He would do extremely well running in an inside zone scheme.
The main criticism of Fournette is his lack of lateral quickness, his stiff hips, and his issues creating behind the line of scrimmage. This was best witnessed in LSU’s loss to Alabama last year. The junior’s lack of acceleration takes him longer than some would like to reach his blistering top speed. He has room for improvement in terms of his vision and his ability to lace cuts and jukes together in the open field is lacking. His upright running style exposes him to more blows than backs who keep their shoulders down. The LSU offense will also give him a heavy workload, with a style that is very reliant on the run setting up the play-action. The passing game, led by quarterback Brandon Harris, may take a step back this year after LSU’s line has two new starting offensive tackles on it.
Nick Chubb, Georgia, Junior
Coming off a devastating knee injury, where he suffered extensive ligament damage to his PCL, MCL, and LCL, Chubb – when fully healthy – may be the best back in college football. One positive sign is that he was a full participant in spring practices, running without a knee brace or wrap and has run extremely well in his first two games this year. He rushed for an astonishing 1,547 yards, starting only eight times as a true freshman after Todd Gurley was injured. His 2015 season appeared to be going the same way, rushing for 747 yards at 8.1 YPC in his six starts. He had 13 consecutive 100 yard games as a freshman, mainly against SEC defenses. Through the first two games this season, he has run for 302 yards, a 5.8 YPC, and two touchdowns.
His combination of physicality, speed, and size (5’10”, 220 lbs) make him a potential bell-cow running back. One knock is that he sometimes bounces outside when he could stay inside, but he still has great scheme versatility, enabling him to be successful in both zone and power schemes. His vision improved from his freshman to his sophomore year. He displays a good understanding of play design, pressing the point of attack well. He also plays with natural leverage, making him hard to bring down, especially when his thick, muscular frame is considered. Most noticeable is that he carries a lot of his weight in his lower half, allowing him to push through contact. As a result, he excels in goal-line situations, where he carries opponents into the end zone. A good offensive line is not a necessity for him, with the ability to constantly run through contact. He gets downhill fast, with elite change of direction skills in the open field. He also has the acceleration to beat men around the edge. When approaching the second level, he is really talented at manipulating and reading defenders, baiting opponents into failing. He has great footwork and really strong cuts, which he gets out of quickly.
Chubb caught 22 of the 25 passes he was targeted on over the past two seasons, adding three receiving touchdowns, showcasing his ability to be a three-down back. There should really be more buzz about Chubb, who, if back to his usual self, will thrive in Kirby Smart’s run-orientated, pro-style offense.
Sony Michel, Georgia, Junior
Michel was the man tasked with plugging the gaping chasm that the injured Chubb left. Despite starting on just six occasions, he rushed for 1,161 yards at a 5.3 YPC clip. A rhythmic runner with great leg drive and balance, he is very good at setting up defenders in the open field, but he lacks top-end speed and often needs clear rushing lanes. He averaged 3.3 of his 5.3 YPC after contact. His excellence off of draws and screens, and his style likely makes him a committee-type runner in the NFL. His willingness in pass protection will help his cause. He does, however, have the size – 5’11” 215 lbs –to be something more if he continues to improve. He seems to be fully healthy after breaking his arm in an ATV crash.
Boom Williams, Kentucky, Junior
Williams has only had 10 games with more than 10 carries, but he earned 100 yards or more on eight of those occasions. In total, he had 855 yards in 2015, but a mightily impressive 7.1 YPC. Williams has a good spin move in the open field, and toughness too: Leading the SEC in yards after contact per carry.
Jalen Hurd, Tennessee, Junior
Hurd added weight for 2015, now standing at 6’4” and 240 lbs. Last season he rushed for 1,288 yards, at an average of 4.6 YPC. Even though his rushing yards were greater than his 899 of 2014, his yards per carry decreased slightly (0.1 yards).
Last season, Tennessee had three returning starters on the offensive line. This year the Volunteers have four, with promising redshirt freshman left tackle Drew Richmond joining the veteran crew. For such a big guy, Hurd has very good lateral quickness with a wide base when cutting, and and elusive feet, seeing him force 65 missed tackles on 275 carries. He is very good at finishing runs, and, crucially, he runs behind his pads and keeps low. He has impressive flexibility and an ability to create leverage for such a tall guy.
With a clear runway, the north / south Hurd can blow past defenders with ease. The limitations to Hurd’s game are largely based around a lack of initial explosion. The moves he makes are pretty readable for defenders, as they lack the subtlety of smaller backs. There is also the unavoidable truth that, no matter how good his pad level, he is still a tall back who will take a lot of contact. He would probably be better off in a zone scheme, with the counter power of Tennessee not an ideal scheme fit for his style. He needs to be more patient, especially on runs outside. He could do with pressing the point of attack more and setting up his blockers.
Hurd has not had much of an opportunity in the passing game, but with his height he has undoubted potential. When protecting the quarterback, he has the talent to be a very good blocker. On the other hand, his pass protection is so inconsistent: At times appearing feeble, at times flashing pluses.
He has elements of Brandon Jacobs, Derrick Henry, and Latavius Murray in his game. In the NFL, he may be best leading a committee as an inside runner rather than being an out and out starter.
Alvin Kamara, Tennessee, RS Junior
A quick, fluid, versatile runner with a loose style, Kamara is an ideal accompaniment to Hurd. He has great burst, and ranked second in the SEC in yards after contact per carry. He is most lethal on counter runs, which the Volunteers run, but he has the skill set to run inside and outside effectively.
As a receiver, he forced 13 missed tackles on 35 receptions in addition to racking up 296 receiving yards with three touchdowns. Last season, Kamara was the second most efficient receiving back, behind Christian McCaffrey, in CFB.