2017 NFL Draft Position Review: Running Backs

Charlie lays out an overview at the top players from each position for the 2017 NFL Draft. For further information, check out our in-depth analysis of 2017 NFL Draft Prospects by Position.

By Charlie Campbell.
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This page was last updated April 12, 2017. Follow me @walterfootball for updates.

Position Review: Running Backs

Running Back Class
Early-round talent: A-
Mid-round: A-
Late-round: A-
Overall grade: A-

2017 prospects vs 2016
Leonard Fournette
Ezekiel Elliott
Dalvin Cook
Christian McCaffrey
D’Onta Foreman
Alvin Kamara
Joe Mixon
Derrick Henry
Kenyon Drake
C.J. Prosise
Wayne Gallman
Tyler Ervin
Samaje Perine
Kenneth Dixon
Devontae Booker
DeAndre Washington

The 2017 class of running backs is one of the best running back classes in years. There are a couple of special prospects who could go as top-10 picks. There are other first-round contenders with excellent depth. There are even good running back prospects for the mid-rounds and the final day of the 2017 NFL Draft. Two years ago in this column, I said that Todd Gurley could have a Hall of Fame career if he stays healthy, and last year, I said that Ezekiel Ellliott also had Hall of Fame potential. Thus, it really says something to have Fournette rated higher than Elliott. Some top NFL running back evaluators have told me that they graded Fournette first, Gurley second, and Elliott third in terms of the numerical grade on their draft reports. Thus, Fournette could make it three straight years of an elite running back entering the NFL.

If you were to merge the two classes, I would put Fournette on top as the best prospect coming out of college. Elliott will probably have the better career numbers than Fournette or Gurely because of the Cowboys’ offensive line and supporting cast. Dalvin Cook is also worthy of top-10 consideration and is just a little behind Fournette and Elliott. McCaffrey is a legit first-rounder as well. Foreman, Kamara and Mixon are excellent second-round talents like Derrick Henry. Mixon would be a first-rounder if he were clean off the field. Gallman and Perine are the third- or fourth-round bubblers similar to Ervin.

There is a lot of good depth for the mid-rounds and Day 3. South Florida’s Marlon Mack, Toledo’s Kareem Hunt, Wyoming’s Brian Hill and Boise State’s Jeremy McNichols could be third- or fourth-round picks who contribute quickly. BYU’s Jamaal Williams and Michigan’s De’Veon Smith could be nice values from Day 3.

Safest Pick: Leonard Fournette, LSU
This was an easy choice as Fournette is one of the elite players in the 2017 NFL Draft at any position. Fournette has tremendous burst, power, vision, balance and ability to rip off yards in chunks. He has the strength to run through tackles and pick up yards after contact with the speed to take the ball the distance. Fournette looks like a three-down starter and a future Pro Bowler.

Last year, Elliott was an easy choice, and he ripped off a phenomenal rookie year. Two years ago, I said that Gurley would be the safest pick if it weren’t for his torn ACL. Obviously, he had a tremendous rookie season before the Rams let him down in 2016. Gordon had a rough rookie year, but bounced back in Year 2. Hyde has flashed at times for the 49ers, while Lacy had some good years before a down 2015 season.

Previous Picks
2016: Ezekiel Elliott
2015: Melvin Gordon
2014: Carlos Hyde
2013: Eddie Lacy

Biggest Bust Potential: Wayne Gallman, Clemson
This was a tough choice, and no player is really jumping out at me. I chose Gallman because he is a bit of a jack-of-all-trades/master-of-none prospect. Gallman has decent size, but is not overly powerful. He is quick, but not fast. Gallman also was banged up in 2016 and already had at least one concussion. I could see Gallman becoming a solid secondary back, but he could be drafted to be a lead starter.

Dixon didn’t impress as a rookie, but it is too early to judge his career. Otherwise, this bust list is looking pretty accurate. Davis has done next to nothing over the past two seasons. Seastrunk never made it in the NFL, although he fell deep in the draft. Ball was a bust for the Broncos.

Previous Picks
2016: Kenneth Dixon
2015: Mike Davis
2014: Lache Seastrunk
2013: Montee Ball

Running Back Rankings by Attributes

Natural Running Ability:
NFL prototype: Adrian Peterson, Free Agent
  1. Leonard Fournette
  2. Dalvin Cook
  3. Joe Mixon
  4. D’Onta Foreman
  5. Christian McCaffrey
  6. Alvin Kamara
  7. Samaje Perine
  8. Wayne Gallman

Recap: There are still a number of coaches in the NFL who want the old-school approach of a running-based offense. Additionally, a lot of passing-led offenses want a back who can wear down defenses in the second half of games. All of these backs for the 2017 NFL Draft are quality runners.

Fournette is definitely at the top of the list. Throughout his college career, he was utterly dominant and demonstrated a great combination of speed and power. He can run over defenders and break off long runs with a threat to score on almost any carry. His vision, feet, burst, patience and balance are phenomenal. On top of that, Fournette is elusive in the open field. He uses a combination of all his gifts to spin away from defenders, weave around them, and dodge them. Fournette has a superb ability to run while bending at the knee, which allows him to run behind his pads and helps him to bounce off tacklers. Many backs his size have a tendency to run too upright, but Fournette is very good to bend until he gets in the open field and turns on the afterburners.

There is no doubt that Cook is a dynamic runner for the NFL. He is a well-built back with tremendous speed. He has an explosive first-step and a second gear to accelerate downfield after hitting the second level. Cook is a very elusive runner, and that makes him extremely dangerous in the open field. In space, Cook dominates defenders with juke moves and cuts to weave around defenders. He has natural height, knee bend, and body lean that make him very tough to get a hold of for defenders. As a ball-carrier, he has tremendous feel with vision and patience. He is a natural running back who is a slashing weapon to carve up defenses.

Mixon is a well-balanced runner with explosive speed, cutting ability, vision, patience and balance. He is a tough back who can redirect or go North-South. Mixon is a threat to rip off long chunk runs on any carry.

Foreman is a North-South bulldozer with a burst to the second level. He has the power to run over defenders and the speed to break runs for long gains. The reason why he is lower is because he lacks quick change-of-direction skills and is not elusive enough to dodge tacklers.

As a runner, McCaffrey is a play-maker. He is fast, sudden, and a threat to rip off a big gain on any touch. McCaffrey has moves in the open field to juke defenders or weave around them with excellent cutting ability. He also has a tremendous burst to break into the open field, alongside great vision and cutting ability. While McCaffrey isn’t the biggest of backs, he is tougher than he is given credit for as a runner between the tackles.

Perine has very good vision with a balance of strength and quickness. He hits the second level with power to pick up yards after contact. Gallman has impressive feet with the ability to be elusive in the open field. He has tremendous lateral quickness to dodge tacklers and a burst to accelerate running North-South.

Pass Receiving:
NFL prototype: Le’Veon Bell, Steelers
  1. Christian McCaffrey
  2. Alvin Kamara
  3. Dalvin Cook
  4. Joe Mixon
  5. Leonard Fournette
  6. Wayne Gallman
  7. Samaje Perine
  8. D’Onta Foreman

Recap: The passing-driven NFL has many offensive coordinators emphasizing running backs’ ability to help the aerial offense over their running ability. Coaches want backs who have good hands, run good routes and can rack up yards as outlet receivers. This was a really hard choice as the top four are all excellent receiving backs.

That being said, McCaffrey and Kamara are the best because they both have the potential to be slot receivers. McCaffrey is a phenomenal route-runner and might be the best route-runner in the 2017 NFL Draft, including all of the wide receivers. As a wideout, he has soft hands with quickness, cutting ability, and great feel. He could end up being one of the better receiving backs in the NFL, as could Kamara. Tennessee would line Kamara up as a slot receiver, and he was excellent in that role with running routes down the seam. He is a mismatch nightmare on linebackers.

As a receiver, Cook is an incredible prospect. He runs tremendous routes to get open and has superb hands. He is a threat to make big plays in the passing game running routes vertically down the sideline. With his skills as a receiver, Cook could line up in the slot and should be a mismatch weapon who will be very valuable on third downs as an outlet receiver who can move the chains. Mixon is a superb receiving back as well and was the Sooners’ passing-game back. He is a dangerous weapon in the open field and creates mismatches. Mixon had 32 receptions last year and will be an asset as a receiver in the NFL.

Fournette is a better receiver than he’s given credit for. During his sophomore year, he showed some nice route-running and soft hands. He will be better as an outlet receiver than many realize.

Gallman was a solid outlet receiver, but didn’t get a lot of opportunities as Clemson pushed the ball downfield. Perine and Foreman are big power backs who probably won’t be used much as receivers out of the backfield in the NFL.

Pass Blocking:
NFL prototype: Matt Forte, Jets
  1. Christian McCaffrey
  2. Dalvin Cook
  3. Joe Mixon
  4. Wayne Gallman
  5. Alvin Kamara
  6. Leonard Fournette
  7. D’Onta Foreman
  8. Samaje Perine

Recap: This is huge for offensive coordinators. If a running back can’t pass protect, he is going to have a hard time seeing the field in the NFL. If the defenses know that a running back isn’t trusted to protect the quarterback, it is an immediate tip about what the play is going to be. Coaches want multiple backs with pass-protection skills. The importance of blitz pickup and pass blocking is increasing every year for running backs. The college game has caught on to this, and the 2016 group of running backs is well prepared.

None of these backs are as good as Ezekiel Elliott in this regard last year, but a lot of them have potential. In blitz protection, McCaffrey is a willing blocker and doesn’t shy away from contact. Once he gets some development with learning NFL blitz schemes, he should be a real asset in the passing game.

Gallman was a willing blocker to help protect Deshaun Watson. He could be a versatile back in the NFL. Cook, Mixon and Kamara all flashed some ability as blitz protectors, but they were mainly used as receivers because they are such threats in that role.

Fournette has a willing attitude, and I think in time he could be an asset as a backfield blocker. Foreman and Perine are power backs who have the size to matchup on linebackers, but will need some coaching up for this.

Yards After Contact:
NFL prototype: Todd Gurley, Rams
  1. Leonard Fournette
  2. D’Onta Foreman
  3. Samaje Perine
  4. Joe Mixon
  5. Christian McCaffrey
  6. Dalvin Cook
  7. Wayne Gallman
  8. Alvin Kamara

Recap: For running backs to be consistently successful in the NFL, they have to have the ability to get yards after contact. Breaking tackles is critical to moving the chains and setting up good down and distance. Fournette is the No. 1 back for this. It usually takes multiple defenders to bring him down, and he’s constantly bouncing off or running over defenders to pick up more yards on the ground. There are times where Fournette punishes defenders with violence.

Foreman and Perine are both very good power backs. They can power through arm tackles with ease, and there were plenty of plays that they broke through defenders and churned ahead for more yards. Both are good in short-yardage situations and can run through tacklers.

Mixon also has the ability to pick up yards after contact. He can run through arm tackles and finished his runs extremely well.

While McCaffrey and Cook aren’t huge, they are tough backs who break tackles and get yards after contact. They do a good job of fighting for extra yards and falling forward. Both are thickly built, and defenders can have a hard time of getting a hold of him.

Gallman has good size and was a mixed bag for yards after contact. He did pretty well in 2015, but wasn’t as impressive last year. Kamara has a nice build, but he won’t pick up a ton of yards after contact in the NFL with bigger and stronger defenders.

Zone-Blocking Runner:
NFL prototype: Ezekiel Elliott, Cowboys
  1. Leonard Fournette
  2. D’Onta Foreman
  3. Joe Mixon
  4. Samaje Perine
  5. Wayne Gallman
  6. Dalvin Cook
  7. Christian McCaffrey
  8. Alvin Kamara

Recap: The zone-blocking scheme calls for backs to have quickness and physicality. They need the ability to follow the moving wall, use vision and anticipation to see the hole opening, and make one cut to run downhill. It is a different type of running compared to a set, designed play.

Fournette is a great fit for a zone scheme. He is tremendous to make one cut and explode down the field. Fournette follows his blocks well, and once he accelerates, he flies through the defense. His cutting ability will be very good to hit the cut-back lane and explode downfield. In a zone scheme, Fournette could be devastating.

Foreman flows with the line and powers his way downhill. If he can get to his third or fourth step of running downhill, defenses are in big trouble. Foreman would be better as a zone runner in the NFL than in a man scheme.

Mixon, Perine and Gallman have a lot the attributes to execute in zone. All of them can be one-cut downhill runners who have patience, vision, and sufficient power.

Cook, McCaffrey and Kamara would be better in a man schemes, but they have enough ability to execute zone schemes.

Power-Man Runner:
NFL prototype: Le’Veon Bell, Steelers
  1. Dalvin Cook
  2. Christian McCaffrey
  3. Leonard Fournette
  4. Joe Mixon
  5. Alvin Kamara
  6. Wayne Gallman
  7. D’Onta Foreman
  8. Samaje Perine

Recap: Cook’s cutting ability, balance, and ability to stop and start should make him superb at executing an NFL power-man blocking scheme almost immediately.

McCaffrey, Fournette, Mixon and Kamara are all shifty runners with the cutting ability, speed, and elusiveness to help their blockers and make their own holes. Fournette and Mixon have more size to run through a free defender. All the members of this group are fits for a man scheme.

Gallman could fit in a man scheme. He has a quick lateral jump cut that was very effective in the 2015 season.

Foreman and Perine are more one-cut downhill runners. They don’t have a lot of lateral movement skills and are North-South backs.

NFL prototype: LeSean McCoy, Bills
  1. Dalvin Cook
  2. Leonard Fournette
  3. Christian McCaffrey
  4. Joe Mixon
  5. Alvin Kamara
  6. Wayne Gallman
  7. D’Onta Foreman
  8. Samaje Perine

Recap: Cook and Fournette are basically tied as the most elusive runners in this draft class. They juke defenders, spin away, cut around them and use speed to run by them. Defenders really struggle to get a firm grasp on them. Cook is a little more slippery, thus he gets the edge over Fournette.

McCaffrey, Mixon, and Kamara have elusiveness in the open field. They all can dodge tacklers and juke linebackers in ugly fashion. McCaffrey had a knack for seeming to be stopped and then breaking a run downfield.

Gallman was a tough runner in 2015 as he could weave through defenders in the open field with lateral quickness and a nice jump cut.

Foreman and Perine are downhill runners; they use their strength to be elusive and not let tacklers get control of him. Foreman will run through tacklers and has a little more wiggle to him than Perine. Perine lacks elusiveness with his feet. He won’t juke defenders or zigzag his way through a defense. He is totally a one-cut downhill power runner.

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