This ranking of the running backs will kick off my evaluations of the top prospects at every position in this year’s draft over the next few weeks. So make sure you check in to read my rankings leading up to April 27th.
In today’s passing league we often talk about how the running back position is being devalued, but with guys like Ezekiel Elliott, Todd Gurley and Melvin Gordon turning into stars early in their career, people in the draft room will start to bet their money on those young runners. This class has elite quality at the top and depth throughout. I focused on my top ten+ prospects, but I went deeper in my evaluations. So if you want to have my reports on any other players just let me know in the comments.
1. Leonard Fournette, LSU:
This guy has been a superstar in Louisiana since he first touched a football. At 235 pounds (or even 240 at the combine) he has LeBron James-type athleticism with 4.51 speed. He’s an old-school runner with homerun-ability. The running style might be a little upright in general, but he drops his shoulder and buries defenders when they’re in his way or he dishes out a devastating stiff-arm to keep on going. Alabama was pretty much the only defense that could contain him because they dominated the offensive line and didn’t give him any room to run. I’d say he had a solid offensive line over his time at LSU, but there was no help from the quarterback position and you still couldn’t stop this beast. I think he’s at his best in two back-sets where he can get downhill fast and if you give him 25-30 carries a game he will not only get stronger as the game goes along, the defense will get tired and he always falls forward to gain those extra two yards that drive defensive coordinators crazy. Where I think he could get better at is to sometimes use his speed to the edge and not cut it back right away. He never really was an option at third-down and long as a pass protector or receiver, but he definitely has the strength to pick up blitzer and at least at times he has shown natural hands at some occasions. Overall, I think Fournette might be the best running back coming into the draft since Adrian Peterson.
2. Dalvin Cook, Florida State:
This Seminole is a true three down running back. He combines game-changing burst with unbelievable versatility and he has produced at a crazy level (more than 4000 yards from scrimmage and 40 total touchdowns in the last two years). He has proven to be able to make zone and power runs work, with unbelievable feet and an ability to start-and-stop that is second to none. In the open field he displays an Arian Foster-type deadleg move. He has crazy balance and while he might not be a true power runner who drags defenders with him you rarely see him get brought down with arm tackles or hits with the shoulder. He simply doesn’t have the strength to stone linebackers in the hole on pass production due to his size, but he can really stretch defenses horizontally on outside run plays and extended handoffs. Similar to Fournette he has a pretty upright style of running, but once again I have yet to see anybody get a clear shot at him and drive him back into the ground. There are some limitations that come with his size and I’d like to see him take a little better care of the ball (seven fumbles over the last two years), but I think if you keep him fresh and don’t put him in situations where they can be exposed (like asking him to pick up 250+ pound LBs) you get an outstanding offensive weapon. Another thing he showed me at FSU was his toughness when he played through hamstring and shoulder injuries in 2015 and still seemingly changed every game with a big play in the crucial moment.
3. Christian McCaffrey, Stanford:
If you look for a true triple-threat in this draft I don’t think there’s anybody who comes close to what McCaffrey has shown over his collegiate career. He can and has been lined up wide and in the slot and always is a mismatch, as he is the most precise route-runner and has the softest hands at his position in this class. McCaffrey has the ability to break it at any point when he has the ball in his hands. When I compare his tape to the rest of the RBs in the draft I have to say he was the most patient back in college football. He hides behind his offensive line and when he sees an opening he bursts through it. He was one of the most dangerous return men in the country in 2015, averaging 28.9 yards per kick return. In 2015/16 the former Cardinal broke the record for all-purpose yards in NCAA history in and he led the FBS once again last year. Scouts like to knock him for his size, the fact he had great blocking for the most part playing behind a well-coached offensive line and some of the struggles in the middle of his senior year. To me CMC is just a very natural football player who does everything well. He has more power than he gets credit for and the agility to stop and change directions more quickly than anybody in his class. While many experts say he doesn’t have the build to make a living between the tackles in the NFL, he has held up pretty well with 748 total touches and just three fumbles in his collegiate career and what will keep him upright is the fact he understands when the play is over and his hard-work mentality. His shifty and sudden running style will frustrate tacklers in the league.
4. Joe Mixon, Oklahoma:
Samaje Perine put up unbelievable stats his freshman (1713 yards and 21 touchdowns rushing) and most of his sophomore campaign, but Mixon’s talent was just too much to keep Perine their lone workhorse. As a runner and receiver Mixon can take it to the house on any given play. He can stick his foot in the ground and change directions in a heartbeat, he has unbelievable balance, is super patient and then can explode with a different gear. He might lack some power to push the pile on the tough short-yardage plays, but when he is in the open field he often looks like a magician. Against Texas Tech last season he was Barry Sanders-like. The 230-pound redshirt sophomore has very soft hands and often burned defenses big time on check-downs or blitz-killing flat routes. He was on a very high-powered offense with some big-time playmakers, like Dede Westbrook, who drew extra attention, but his play-making ability definitely stood out. He is a willing pass protector who has the feet to mirror hesitant blitzers, even though I could see him being run over at times. What I don’t like about him is that he is pretty loose in how he carries the ball away from his body. An altercation with a woman that pushed and slapped him before he punched her in the face will certainly make his draft stock drop, but if he clears doubt about his aggressiveness his unreal talent should make him very dangerous on the field.
5. Alvin Kamara, Tennessee:
This kid can stick his foot in the ground and go like nobody in his class other than Dalvin Cook maybe. He has experience as a dangerous slot receiver and once he gets going he literally slips through tackle attempts – often multiple ones. I wouldn’t really call him a power-runner, but he certainly fights to keep runs going and has a feel for spinning out of defenders’ hands. On outside plays he certainly has the burst to kill defenses on the edge and he is a true threat in the screen game as Tennessee ran screens with him multiple times per game. During his time at Tennessee he was rather poor at picking up blitzes, he only eclipsed 20 offensive touches in a game once in college and fumbled about every 40 touches, but he is an explosive offensive threat, who simply looks like a first-rounder by how he moves and has a good chance to slide into that first round late if a team falls in love with him.
6. D’onta Foreman, Texas:
I’d say you can call this guy beastly physical. He loves to run downhill and take defenders for a ride with him. He’s tough to bring off balance with crazy lower body strength and great leverage and he punishes defenders constantly. On 3-and-short or goal-line situations he is very dependable as he never quits on plays. Foreman is pretty keen on keeping runs between the tackles, but he reads mistakes by edge defenders or defensive alignments and certainly has the speed to make them pay, even though he’s almost 250 pounds heavy. He often uses an offensive lineman as a lead blocker and stays right behind them with very sudden shifts in his running directions. His junior season was a coming-out-party with more than 2000 rushing yards and he also has experience as a lead blocker for Texas No. 2 QB Swoops. I’m sure I’m not the only one who would have liked to see him stay in school for another year to work on his terrible pass protection and sometimes he relies too heavily on how the play is drawn up instead of watching it develop and react, which makes you question his vision to some degree, but he can definitely give an offense a hardnosed mentality. In the NFL he will have to take better care of the ball though, as he had six fumbles in 2016 alone.
7. Samaje Perine, Oklahoma:
When you talk about Perine, this is a big, bruising back with a naturally low center of gravity. Arm tackles don’t stand a chance. He rarely ever has his pads too high and makes defenders feel him when he finishes runs. I’ll never forget when Melvin Gordon broke LaDainian Tomlinson’s all-time rushing record in a single game two years ago, only to see Perine trump him just a week later, putting up 427 yards and five TDs. Something not a lot people realize I think is that he has much better hands than you’d expect from a banger like him. After finishing up on an impressive redshirt year he had to share the workload with Joe Mixon because he simply lacks game-changing speed or explosiveness, but he’s a very reliable and powerful runner who doesn’t mind taking tacklers with him for the last three or four yards. He might not wow scouts with his athletic ability and therefore drop a bit in the draft, but I really like him as a player.
8. Wayne Gallman, Clemson:
With all the talk about DeShaun Watson and Mike Williams, their bell-cow back was kind of the forgotten member on that championship team. Gallman is pretty tall, but he always runs with a forward lean and was the steady drumbeat to an explosive Clemson offense. If I was asked to describe his running style I’d say he’s a one-cut slasher. When he puts his foot in the ground it’s for real and he carries momentum with him to not give up speed. Near the goal-line he is very determined even when his initial push doesn’t get him in, resulting in 30 touchdowns in his last two years. He has shown outstanding improvement in pass protection coming into his junior year, but he lacks elite vision in my opinion and he is brought down by tacklers catching his feet too easily.
9. Kareem Hunt, Toledo:
It’s kind of tough to evaluate Hunt based on his tape as 230-pound power-back since he arrived at the Senior Bowl at 208 pounds, but there he showed great speed to the edge and that he can take advantage of small creases to explode through them. He has a great jump-cut to avoid charging defenders and a pretty wide area of moves outside of that. My biggest concern off tape was his ability to accelerate quickly, but now?? he’s trimmed down he looks much improved in that area. Now the focus shifts on his health as he has been hampered by hamstring and ankle injuries on multiple occasions during his collegiate career. He has the kind of vision and natural hands that make me believe he could be the next star coming from a small school.
10. Marlon Mack, USF:
South Florida’s all-time leading rusher has a very unique, shifty running style with extremely fluid hips to turn his upper body in every direction. What makes him special is how often he made things happen even though you thought the play in dead. For an elusive runner I like how he lowers his pads and pushes the pile. You never see him slow down and he rarely gets caught from behind due to his blazing speed. As a receiver he has shown natural hands and he often was motioned in to run sweeps from receiver spots. I think he bounces runs too often even though nothing’s there on the outside, giving up yardage and he put the ball on the ground 12 times on less than 600 carries at USF, but there’s no doubt he has big-play ability, as he recorded six touchdowns of 43+ yards in 2016.
Just missed the cut:
James Conner, Pittsburgh:
No question this young man has deserved the huge respect from teammates and opponents he received after overcoming a torn MCL and cancer, but he doesn’t want to be remembered as a cancer survivor, but rather by what he does on turf. Conner charges his way downfield with an imposing will and he drops his shoulder into the last defender with authority. He also has a brutal stiff arm and simply shoves defenders off of him. I thought he got more and more involved in the passing game during his time at Pitt due to his reliability, catching a lot of outside routes or turning them up-field down the sideline. He has a ton of experience out of pro-sets and he leapfrogs over the mash on the goal-line. I wouldn’t say he’s a very elusive or agile runner and he will have to learn how to let the blocking develop longer as well as understanding pass protections, but he plays with a ton of heart and toughness.
Jeremy McNichols, Boise State:
At 5’9’’ McNichols slips through tight openings and then has a no-bullshit approach once he gets going. He combines that with great lateral agility in the backfield and he’s special once he smells the endzone. What I like about his game is how he refuses to go down no matter if he has to step out of the hands of a defender wrapped around him or bounce off of a hit. He kind of tip-taps through defenses, which allowed him to average more than 1500 yards and 21 touchdowns rushing since stepping into a starting role. You saw him flexed out at times and run routes with a natural ability to catch the ball. As a pass-protector he plays bigger than his size would indicate absorbing charging blitzes or cutting them down low. He gets knocked sometimes because he lacks true breakaway speed and explosiveness, losing too much speed when breaking down and trying to make moves downfield, but he puts the effort into everything he does and can be very effective.
Corey Clement, Wisconsin:
I don’t think Clement’s career went quite as well as expected. When Melvin Gordon was there he shined in a RB 2 role, then he was injured most of his junior season. He started his senior year rather slow with some work lost to his replacement during injury Dare Ogunbowale, before finishing the regular season with seven 100 yard efforts in eight games. He’s a north-and-south runner who always falls forward. He uses slight lateral steps or jumps to not lose speed while showing great vision to shoot through the open gap. Once he hits the open field he has the speed to pull away from defenders, but he has to learn to put his second hand on the ball when going into contact (five fumbles in 2016). He’s more of a body-catcher, but finds a way to bring it in. Overall he has shown some flaws, but if he’s healthy and a team feeds him the ball he has shown the ability to carry an offense.
Jamaal Williams, BYU:
This dude has a smashmouth running style and shoves defenders right off. He can cut back multiple gaps with one large step and is very decisive with bouncing runs outside. He will sacrifice his body in multiple ways and do whatever he’s asked to due to his loyalty. He has better play speed than what the timer says (4.59 in the 40) and gets to full speed quickly (his mother was a standout sprinter at UCLA). Williams fights for every inch, but he sometimes lacks the peripheral vision to find another gap where he’d have more room to succeed. He might not be very elusive in the open field or have any go-to-moves other than power, but he will make defenders softer when he runs them over full-speed.
Right behind them:
Matthew Dayes (N.C. State), Donnell Pumphrey (San Diego State), Joe Williams (Utah), Brian Hill (Wyoming), De’Veon Smith (Michigan)