The 2016 draft class for running backs is one that could be looked back on fondly when it’s all said and done. Ezekiel Elliott bucked the recent trend of running backs not being top five picks and lived up to expectations and then some. Jordan Howard also provided fantastic value in the 5th round for the Bears as he finished second in the league in rushing only behind Elliott. That doesn’t even account for the numerous backs who had impacts with lesser workloads.
Despite all that, this group of running backs figures to be even better. While it features a lot of recognizable college players, it also has plenty of smaller school talent as well. There are also various types of backs who would perform better in certain systems than others. For that reason, with so much talent available it is harder to have a clear cut number one option at the position than some might think.
1. Dalvin Cook, Florida State: While the buzz on him has died down over the past few months, Cook has plenty of traits that look like he is destined for NFL success. Not only can he be effective running from shotgun or in a typical I formation, but he has shown the ability to contribute as a receiver out of the backfield as well. While his combine forty time disappointed, Cook in games has shown he has an extra gear to run away from defenders. He has plus vision and is able to stop at a moment’s notice to cut up field.
While many have said Cook needs to work on pass protection (as do many young backs), the most troubling aspect would be his fumbling. Per Pro Football Focus, Cook fumbled 14 times in his 763 touches at Florida State. For many NFL teams, that would be an unacceptable rate. There are also some character red flags that teams will surely get to the bottom of when evaluating Cook. Overall though, I feel he is a combination of Jamaal Charles/Chris Johnson and displays the best traits both backs have to offer. That is a skillset that should pay big dividends for Cook and it wouldn’t be surprising if he came in and contributed in a major way to whoever drafts him.
2. Christian McCaffrey, Stanford: With the workhorse running back becoming a lost art in today’s NFL, McCaffrey’s game could be what we see more of as the league continues to evolve. While some have questions regarding if he is an “every down back”, McCaffrey will be able to handle 20 or so touches a game. They just won’t all come from the running game. On top of showing plus vision and balance as a runner, McCaffrey is a matchup nightmare as a receiver whether it’s out of the backfield or the slot. Those 20 touches could be distributed as 13-15 rushes, four or five receptions and then possibly even have him contribute as a punt or kick returner.
The main thing I am worried about with McCaffrey which is a concern of mine with every young running back was his college workload. With all the various ways he can contribute, McCaffrey had around 750 total touches in the last two seasons. There is also a great risk that whatever team drafts him won’t be creative enough to fully utilize his skillset and that could unfairly change how McCaffrey is viewed as a player. If the right team selects him, McCaffrey should be a key cog in that offense for years to come.
3. Leonard Fournette, LSU: Timing can be a strange thing. As Adrian Peterson the predominant running back of his era is on his way out, Fournette who might be the closest prospect we’ve seen to Peterson from a physical standpoint is just beginning. At LSU there were times where he simply looked like a man amongst boys. His violent running style mixed with a blend of power and speed many times led to defenders just flying off as they held on for dear life. For a big back, Fournette is also nimble and can accelerate quickly to the second level of defenses. So after all that, why isn’t he number one on my rankings?
Oddly enough, Fournette faces some of the same challenges Peterson had throughout his career. Most notably this would involve the very limited body of work catching passes out of the backfield. On some teams, this could lead to him being a two down back if they have another option they trust more in passing situations. Some analysts have also mentioned that Fournette could get too antsy on some of his runs and could afford to show patience waiting for holes to develop. A concern for me is that Fournette also battled an ankle injury most of the 2016 season and those injuries can linger for an extended period. In the right offense that is run oriented and plays to his strengths, the potential is there for Fournette to be an absolute star almost immediately. However in a pass oriented offense, it could prove difficult to live up to the hype that has followed him since his days in high school.
4. Joe Mixon, Oklahoma: Mixon is probably the most polarizing player in this year’s draft. We’ve seen the NFL take a recent stand on domestic violence and while this has been a dilemma around other prospects, Mixon has the most pedigree of the ones we’ve seen to date. Even with the league’s increased efforts, we’ve seen that if you can play, a team will be willing to take a chance on players involved with incidents of that nature. Well, Mixon can certainly play (which is all my ranking of him will be taking into account).
Checking in 6’1″ 228 pounds at his pro day, Mixon has impressive speed for his size and when needed has shown he can be elusive if need be. He is a patient runner and has also shown burst to accelerate whether it’s turning the corner or entering the second levels of a defense. On top of all that, Mixon proved to be a valuable weapon in the receiving game which increases his likelihood of being a three down back. There are times where Mixon wasn’t able to create runs for himself like others in this class, and some may hold it against it him that he could be too patient as a runner. Regardless, on ability alone if he makes it to the late second or early third round he could be quite the value for a team. However, despite the concerns over his incident, the buzz is building and it wouldn’t be surprising if Mixon is long off the board by then.
5. Kareem Hunt, Toledo: In a running back class with a lot of big name prospects, Hunt gets lost in the shuffle. The production has always been there, but unfortunately Toledo wasn’t a program that would have its highlights shown on ESPN every Saturday night. Despite that, per Pro Football Focus’ elusive rating, Hunt ranks among the top in this class at evading defenders. Thanks to all of the missed tackles he forces, Hunt also ranked near the top in terms of yards after contact as he shows outstanding balance to stay up on some of his runs. Hunt also answered the call when asked to make a bigger contribution in the passing game this past season.
The main thing going against Hunt would be that the top end burst or speed that some teams look for isn’t there. Also, there will probably be questions on if he will be able to reel off longer runs in the pros due to the lack of speed and the quality of defender increasing at the next level. Despite that, Hunt appears as if he could be very good in a zone-blocking scheme, and could become a nice find for a team who plays to his strengths.
6. Alvin Kamara, Tennessee: While I prefer running backs with limited tread on their tires from college, Kamara’s body of work is a lot shorter than most. In his two seasons at Tennessee, Kamara touched the ball less than 300 total times. When he did get the ball however, the talent was on full display. Right away when watching you can see that Kamara is able to hit his top speed almost immediately. He also showed an ability to create yards in various ways whether it was his speed, allusiveness or power. Another important thing to note is that Kamara also lined up in the slot on many occasions and showed he can be an effective receiver when called upon.
To me the biggest concern for Kamara is partially out of his control. That is how he has dealt with numerous knee injuries throughout his college career. Having transferred from Alabama with a few incidents, questions will be there about his character as well. Also with limited game reps, he will probably need more work than most young backs in terms of pass protection. Overall, the talent is certainly apparent and if he is able to showcase his versatility while staying healthy, Kamara could be a nice value in the second day of the draft.
7. D’Onta Foreman, Texas: Foreman saw his role increase each year at Texas before it culminated in a junior season with 2,028 rushing yards. For a big runner, the first thing that stands out about Foreman is his quick feet for a bigger back. He also shows the ability to constantly fall forward when finishing runs along with the ability to bounce off opposing tackles. This past year at Texas, he also showed he can handle a full workload as he had a whopping 323 carries in just 11 games.
While the extreme workload in his junior year is worrisome to me, Foreman doesn’t have a ton of wear and tear as he wasn’t a full time starter his first two years with the Longhorns. What is more troublesome is that this past year he fumbled seven times (once every 46 carries) which will be unacceptable for many teams. Foreman also lacks experience in the passing game as he caught 13 passes during his college career. Some will also expect Foreman to run with more power as for his size, he is more of a finesse runner. Foreman still has areas he could improve in, but the talent is there to become a productive starter for a team down the line.
8. Jeremy McNichols, Boise State: Forced with having to replace Jay Ajayi after he was drafted by the Dolphins, McNichols stepped in and didn’t look back. He was highly productive during his two years as a starter and contributed in all aspects of the offense. McNichols runs with nice balance and is able to elude traffic if it gets to him in the backfield. He also seemed to run with a lot of trust in his offensive line as on many occasions he took what they gave him and can run between the tackles. On top of that, McNichols showed that he was more than capable to contribute out of the backfield when called upon.
The questions regarding McNichols at the next level will start with if he will have the burst to reel of big runs. While it obviously isn’t an end all to his prospects, teams would surely like to see that in a back. Fumbling could also be a concern as he fumbled six times in the last two years according to Pro Football Focus. Despite that, McNichols can contribute in various aspects and at the least should make for very good depth and can carry the ball 20 plus times when needed.
9. Samaje Perine, Oklahoma: After an outstanding freshman year that included setting the single game NCAA rushing record, Perine sort of got lost in the shuffle sharing carries with Joe Mixon. Despite that, he’s a noteworthy prospect in his own right. A thick and compact runner, Perine runs with power and showed balance in terms keeping his feet moving through contact. He has also shown over the years that he can shoulder a full workload if called upon.
Due to his physical nature, questions will arise regarding how Perine’s running style will translate to the NFL. It is unlikely that he will be able to just bully over defenders at the next level, so Perine showing more elusiveness would be a nice surprise. For a team who already has a shifty change of pace back, Perine could be a welcome addition to bring a bruising running style on early downs.
10. Donnel Pumphrey, San Diego State: Despite leaving as one of the most productive college backs of all time, Pumphrey can be lost in the shuffle with this draft class. He has experience running in an I formation and from shotgun while also displaying top notch quickness on cuts and a great ability to change direction. Pumphrey has very good vision and it can help him in multiple levels of the defense to extend runs. For a smaller back, Pumphrey also did very well at eluding tacklers and when needed also showed the ability to contribute as a receiver.
Checking in at 5’8″ 176 pounds, the first thing skeptics will say is that Pumphrey is undersized. While that could hurt him in elements such as pass protection, he would be able to cancel that out with an ability to create mismatches as a receiver. Questions could also arise about the level of competition he faced and running behind a strong offensive line, but that’s out of his control. Due to his slender build, Pumphrey even though he showed capable probably won’t be asked to carry 20 plus times a game. However, don’t be surprised if he sticks around a while as a change of pace back who can show flashes when asked to do more.
2017 class grade: A