In recent years, a trend began of devaluing running backs early in the draft. In 2013 and 2014, no backs were selected in the first round. The past two drafts have seen a total of three backs taken in the first round, and all three have proven to be worthwhile selections. Ezekiel Elliott went fourth overall last year, and was an MVP candidate as a rookie. The 2017 draft will be more like the past two drafts with some elite talent available, and some immediate impact contributors as well.
Leonard Fournette of LSU has been talked about as a premium running back prospect since his high school days and he has lived up to the hype. He is the complete package in every sense physically, and has dominated the college game when healthy. Fournette brings tremendous size and strength, but complements it with great feet, balance, and speed. He is an absolute load to bring down in short yardage, and he routinely punishes defenders in his way. He will find the end zone a lot as a rookie, and throughout his career. His ability to change directions to elude defenders is special for a 230lb back. He can stop on a dime and cut, and also has the speed to simply out run many defenders. Fournette is built to be a true workhorse back, and the type of player an offense is built around. There is a knock on his game though, and that is his durability. He has a lot of wear on his body from his first two years at LSU, and has been banged up quite a bit as a junior before declaring. That concern is legitimate because he is such an aggressive runner and because he is so good, he's going to keep getting the ball. Fournette is a legit top five talent, and will go very high on draft day, but how high may be determined by how safe teams feel about his durability. It's hard to take a back in the top five if you are concerned about him suiting up every week.
- Leonard Fournette, LSU, Jr.
- Dalvin Cook, Florida St. Jr.
- Christian McCaffrey, Stanford, Jr.
- D’Onta Foreman, Texas Jr.
- Alvin Kamara, Tennessee, Jr.
- Wayne Gallman, Clemson, Jr.
- Jeremy McNichols, Boise St, Jr.
- Joe Mixon, RB, Oklahoma
- Brian Hill, RB, Wyoming
- Samaje Perine, Oklahoma, Jr.
Florida State's Dalvin Cook is as explosive as any player in this draft. He is a big play waiting to happen, and it happens a lot. He is not the physical specimen that Fournette is, but he is a game changer nonetheless. Cook has average size at 5'11 213 and doesn't look like he can carry much more weight and maintain his game. His strength is his ability to elude tacklers with his quick feet, patience, and vision. Cook gives his blockers time to create a lane, but also shows the ability to make a cut and improvise when he sees another opening. Once he hits that opening, he accelerates quickly and is gone. He has very good speed and isn't going to get caught from behind very often. Cook is also an excellent weapon in the passing game, where that quickness and speed make him a real weapon as well. Despite his average frame, Cook shows the ability to be a true feature back. He is not afraid to run between the tackles, or battle for extra yards. While he isn't an overly powerful runner, he does keep his feet moving and is able to pick up tough yards. Like Fournette, there are some durability concerns with Cook. He's had two shoulder surgeries in college, and he too has had quite a workload in college with over 700 touches. He also had some nagging leg injuries over his career. Cook's big play ability will be coveted on draft day, and he may surprise whoever drafts him, because he has some feature back ability as well. He is not just a change of pace back.
Christian McCaffrey has been as productive as any college player during his career at Stanford. He is another game breaker, showing game changing ability as a runner, receiver, and return man. He has to be accounted for on every snap. As a runner, he has excellent feet and quickness. He changes direction very well and is very difficult to bring down in the open field. In addition to the ability to make people miss, he has a burst and acceleration that allows him to get up field and run away from defenders. Despite his 6' 200lb frame, the authority he runs with allows him to break more tackles than you would expect. McCaffrey is a real weapon in the passing game as well. He is not just an outlet option; he can be lined up out wide and put in motion to create mismatches. Not to be outdone, McCaffrey is also a fantastic return man. His ability to make plays in all three facets of the game make him very attractive as a running back prospect. His size does raise questions about how much McCaffrey will be used as a true running back at the next. He's a tough runner, but may lack the size and power to carry it between the tackles as a workhorse type back. There may also be some questions on how to ultimately use him. He's so good in all aspects that you want him on the field as much as possible. You do not want to ignore his special teams capability, but you also do not want to limit his offensive touches either. One other factor to watch is the fact that McCaffrey decided to skip Stanford's bowl game to prepare for the NFL Draft. While that may be wise for him individually, he also let his teammates down for their final game of the year, and for some of them, their careers. The NFL may not frown upon that as much as others, but it's still something to keep an eye on. McCaffrey is an all around playmaker, and his versatility will have a lot of teams coveting him in the draft. With the right offensive system, the sky is the limit as a playmaker.
Texas' D'Onta Foreman is a load to bring down. He has the classic workhorse frame at 6'1 250. He is big enough to take a beating, and he can definitely deliver a blow as well. He has a thick, sturdy frame, and he is not shy about initiating contact. There are no concerns about his ability to carry it 20 times a game, carrying it between the tackles, or in short yardage. What truly sets Foreman apart from other backs his size, is his ability to get to top speed quickly. He is a north south runner, but he accelerates very quickly. That allows him to hit holes quicker than you might expect, but it also allows him to pack more of a pop on contact with the defender. An open lane can turn into a big play, as well as a nightmare for defensive back in the open field. As good as he is a runner, Foreman is completely untested as a receiver with just 13 career receptions. In order to see the field more, he will have to expand his game and become a reliable pass catcher. Foreman isn't as flashy as some others on this list, but he is one of the best backs available this year.
Boise State's Jeremy McNichols may not have the big name of other backs on this list, but he is a talented prospect in his own right. He doesn't truly stand out as special in any one area, but his ability to do many things well is impressive. He has a compact frame at 5'9 210lbs. He's small, but does have enough thickness to run between the tackles. McNichols runs hard and fights through contact to break arm tackles and fall forward at the end of the run. He has good quickness and can make defenders miss, and shows the ability to pull away from defenders and pick up big chunks of yardage. As is usual with Boise St backs, McNichols is also a gifted receiver out of the backfield, hauling in over 80 balls for ten scores the past two years. He has also returned kicks for Boise during his college career, and that's an area that he could play in the NFL as well. There are size concerns with McNichols. He appears to have adequate thickness, but his listed size is average at best. If he's smaller than the listed size, it may raise more concern about his workload potential in the NFL. McNichols is a talented performer, regardless of his ultimate size, and his skills can definitely carry over to the NFL. Teams want backs that can handle multiple duties, and McNichols can run it inside and out, as well as catch the ball.
Tennessee's Alvin Kamara is the kind of guy who could be better in the pro game than in college. He originally enrolled at Alabama but left to go to a junior college, before landing at Tennessee. He split time with Jalen Hurd a year ago and part of this season, and that is the type of role that he projects at in the NFL. He is listed at 5'10 215 but does not appear to be that thick. Kamara does show quick feet, good balance, and acceleration which aid him as a playmaker. He shows the ability to routinely make the first defender miss as a runner and receiver, allowing him to get up field and make plays. He quickly accelerates to hit a crease or turn the corner to get into space. Kamara is a very gifted receiver, and this is the area where he may excel at the most in the NFL. He has over 60 catches in two years at Tennessee despite being on the bottom end of a time share for most of that time. Kamara doesn't appear to be a natural runner between the tackles, which limits his upside as a feature back. Most of his runs head to the perimeter to get him into space to make plays. He lacks the power to do much damage as a between the tackles runner. Kamara's role in the NFL seems clearly defined; he's a change of pace back. He could be a very good player in that role with his ability to get into space and make plays as a runner and receiver. He is a junior that is expected to declare, and workouts will likely dictate where he ends up, but he is a third day prospect with some real ability to make an impact in the NFL.
Wayne Gallman of Clemson is not going to jump out at you physically, and probably isn't going to create many “wow” moments, but the all around package is solid. He has a decent frame at 6' 210 and looks like he could gain some more weight to give him some more power as a runner. Gallman is a north-south runner that quickly gets up field. He is aggressive attacking a hole, just as aggressive when he hits a defender. He keeps his legs churning and finishes runs well. While he is not a burner, Gallman can hit the corner and pick up big chunks or yardage, as well as having the ability to hit a crease and get into the open field. He has also proven to be a solid receiver out of the backfield during his career, become a solid safety net for Deshaun Watson. While Gallman shows some all around rushing and receiving ability, there isn't anything to really stands out as an NFL runner. He has average size and power, decent speed and quickness, but isn't going to make many defenders miss. He doesn't profile as a game breaker in the NFL, but his steadiness as a runner and receiver, and willingness to throw his body around to make plays will help him get on the field and make in impact in the NFL.
Keep an eye on: Samaje Perine(Oklahoma), James Conner(Pitt), Kareem Hunt(Toledo)