It’s been a long time since the running game was a key driver of success for NFL contenders. Generally, elite teams expect to get around 70% of their yards from the passing game. The percentage in the first half is even higher, as you’ll see elite teams try to eat clock in the second half. As such, the value of running backs has dropped. Last year we saw Ezekiel Elliot go 4th overall. Two years ago Todd Gurley went 10th. Before that, you’ll have to go back to 2012 to find a running back picked in the top 10: Trent Richardson, who went an absurd 3rd overall.
Leonard Fournette: We are going to see Fournette go in the top 10 this year. He’s a physical marvel, packing both elite speed and power. I spoke poorly of his versatility previously, but in retrospect I may have been unfair. He’s a reasonably solid receiver, if not an explosive one. He’s also shown a willingness to engage blitzers in pass protection, but his technique needs improvement. I’m still concerned about his long term durability given the punishment he’s going to take. I’d much prefer the Jets go in a different direction if he falls to them, but I can understand not passing on such an elite talent.
Dalvin Cook: He jumped out on film. What he lacks in top end speed he makes up for with quick acceleration and excellent body control. He has great vision and patience. There are however, two major red flags. The first is he fact he’s had three shoulder operations. Teams are concerned about his ability to stay healthy. Second, there are major off field concerns. As a general rule, talent trumps that, but running backs are considered somewhat fungible, so it may drop him on a few key draft boards.
Christian McCafferty: Tremendous athlete, but a rare offensive “tweener”. He doesn’t look to have the skills to break through the line. However, he’s awesome in the open field. He is going to embarrass some poor unfortunate linebackers who were just trying to do their job. The trick is getting him into space, which most likely means he’s going to have to do a lot of his damage as a receiver. He might end up being used in a similar fashion to how the Cardinals use David Johnson. No off field concerns here as he’s viewed as a locker-room asset. As such, he might go a bit higher than the film suggests.
Alvin Kamara: Surprisingly polarizing prospect. I see a third-down back who can provide some value in the running game. He can also be useful in the return game, and potentially as a slash RB/WR hybrid. There are rumors he bombed the interviews at the combine. He was suspended multiple times in college, and teams might decide he isn’t worth the potential headache. There is also the problem of a lack of top-end speed, especially given his lack of size. At best, a poor man’s McCafferty.
Joe Mixon: I can’t believe I didn’t notice it at first, but I don’t think I’ve ever seen Mixon run the ball from a snap under center. His entire career has been played out of the shotgun. Like McCafferty and Kamara, he can work as a receiver and returner. However, he’s bigger than either, and may be better able to develop pass protection skills. He missed a year at Oklahoma because there is film of him dropping a woman with a right hook. The talent is undeniable, and I expect him to be the fourth running back taken. The team that takes him is going to take a major PR hit though.
D’Onta Foreman: A downhill runner who had one good college season. A lot of the credit has gone to his blockers, but Foreman’s ability to read, recognize, and hit the hole immediately was notable. I’m less confident in his ability to provide value in the passing game, either as a receiver or blocker. He also needs to work on his carrying technique, as he’s been prone to fumbles.
Samaje Perine: More bowling ball than man. He’s short, thick, strong, and aggressive. He’s the opposite of the RB/WR slash trend that we’ve been seeing. He’s not much of a receiver, but makes up for it with solid pass protection skills. A traditional NFL back. He’s a player I’d be fine with the Jets drafting in the third-round.
Kareem Hunt: Excellent production at Toledo, but needed to impress in the combine to back it up. He didn’t. His versatility should land him in the third round. He was effective rushing or receiving, with unusually solid pass protection skills. What he lacks is top end athleticism, and might find the jump to the NFL a bit daunting.
We know who is going to be the first running back taken. The Cook-McCafferty debate could go either way. Mixon is a going to reveal which team is willing to take a PR hit in exchange for talent. If I were to look for a potential value, it’s Samaje Perine. What I want most from a running back is someone who is effective in short yardage. Perine is short and powerful, and unafraid of contact. I expect whichever team drafts him to be happy with the result.