Running back has always been a specialty of mine. My experience running track has given me the ability to diagnose if a human being has above average functional speed and if they actually know how to run. I know, that sounds stupid, but from observing NFL team and Draft Twitter analysis of running backs, I’m not convinced that scouts truly know exactly what a dynamic running back looks like. The NFL Combine does not measure vision and decision making on the field. You have to see that ability on film. You have to know what works in the current landscape of the NFL. The combine and pro day numbers are useful in measuring the athletic ability but does the athlete know how to properly play the running back position? (I maintain that I was higher on David Johnson before many others were.)
I’m basing my ranks on what I believe the Running Back’s overall talent to be, their potential to help an NFL team win, and which players can potentially provide optimum Fantasy output.
1. Dalvin Cook – Florida State 5’11” 215
The “Human Torch” has everything you want and need in a running back. He is this year’s version of Zeke Elliott. The perfect combo of speed and power with the receiving ability to never come off the field. Ever. Dare I say it, he is Marshawn Lynch but not as eccentric. But, there is some controversy surrounding Cook that no one seems to bring up anymore. An accusation that he hit a woman for not giving him their phone number and another for animal cruelty regarding three chained pit bull puppies that were choking to death. Both are shrouded in question marks but probably won’t effect his draft stock.
Scouting notes: Fantastic speed around the edge. Always keeps legs moving after contact. Displays excellent balance. The speed of foot frequency is freaky. You have to take the correct angle to bring him down. Has uncanny ability to avoid the tackle. Has outstanding jump cut and stiff arm. He has very unique talent in ability to start and stop to disrupt timing to all defenders. He already understands the subtleties of the position and has a great feel for the game. Excellent hands catcher, he makes it look easy. Pass-pro is great. Boasts a three year average of 6.5 yards per carry!
2. Leonard Fournette – LSU 6’1” 235
I’ve been waiting for this day since I read the Bleacher Report article that proclaimed that this is the next Adrian Peterson. Well, they may not be wrong. The man is truly a freak of nature but he is not without flaws. It may not matter though.
Scouting notes: He is a ‘take it to the house’ train. Sudden shift with plenty of power. He rockets to the hole with uncontrollable burst although he does have decent patience to let a hole develop. He is clearly better out of the I formation. (Kind of like how Melvin Gordon was in his 2nd year) He has a solid jump cut and wicked-nasty stiff arm. Shows surprisingly solid skills as a hands catcher. Pass pro is average with mostly chip blocks. Some ball security questions. I’m a little disappointed in how easily he is tackled around the line of scrimmage. My initial feeling is that he could and should resist the tackle more than he does. His career numbers against Alabama are atrocious. He has a high-knee running style like, who else, Adrian Peterson. Sports a 6.5 yard per carry average in two year span.
3. Joe Mixon – Oklahoma 6’1” 226
Easily the most polarizing back in this draft. The talent speaks for itself but which NFL team is going to take on the guy that demolished the face of a young woman on camera for the whole world to see. It’s a mistake that this player will have to live with for the rest of his life. I’ll evaluate him as a football player for now and let the chips fall where they may.
Scouting notes: This playmaker is for real. A physical specimen who has burst for days. Uses off arm well to brush defenders away and stiff arm to smash. Has phenomenal soft hands, snatches it out of the air and makes it look so smooth. Does play behind big Samaje Perine but when on the field is very dynamic. Finishes his runs well. Is super athletic around the goal line. The lateral agility is just too much for defenders. Used as Kick Returner. Running style looks like Le’Veon Bell. Has vision & patience to let blocks set up but needs more refinement in this area. Dances too much behind line of scrimmage. It’s rare but sometimes he goes too fast to keep his own balance. Pass pro looks real good. Can absolutely truck a DE if need be. I would have liked to see what he could do without another back to take touches away.
4. Jamaal Williams – BYU 6’0” 211
Williams certainly has the look of a feature back in the NFL. He did spend a year away from the team for “personal reasons” and I’m sure more will come out about that but he is easily one of my favorite backs to watch this year.
Scouting notes: This true workhorse is light on his feet but has a ferocious running style. Very decisive to and through the hole. Sheds tackles well. Uses a solid stiff arm. Ball security looks good. Has a high gear that he just needs some daylight to get to. Has impressive burst and lateral quickness. His running style and form looks, in all honesty, like David Johnson. He had to face stacked boxes constantly. Shows some solid catching ability although it’s a little concerning that he only had 7 catches in 2016 and potentially regressed in this area. Pass pro inconsistent but you can tell he cares about the craft.
5. Kareem Hunt – Toledo 5’10” 208
During the season Hunt weighed at 225 so his weight at the Senior Bowl will raise questions but his film has no questions to me. He might be a steal.
Scouting notes: 3 down potential. Good power with nice jump cut, spin, and stiff arm. Stays low through the hole. Functional speed looks sufficient, potentially having breakaway ability. Downhill runner goes through arm tackles easy with sweet burst. Solid vision and better than average balance. Moves a pile and sometimes drags defenders. Does not go down easily. Hands are real solid out of the backfield. Real impressive YAC. Pass pro is great. Fumbled once in 731 touches! I only wish I could have seen him against top competition. At the Senior Bowl he stuck out big time.
6. Christian McCaffrey – Stanford 6’0” 202
Scouting notes: A swiss army knife. All around good football player. Can beat you many ways. Has WR skills/A+ hands/runs quality routes. KR/PR skills. Shows great patience to let the play develop. Quality vision and great feel for the game. Can navigate through heavy traffic. Excellent in space. Is built well enough to break tackles but will not be able to push a pile. Daniel Jeremiah, from NFL Network, compared him to Devonta Freeman, which I can see but I’m not completely sold on. His future will depend on how he is used in his OC’s offense. I do not see him as a 3 down back in the NFL. His functional speed is ok but very curious to see his combine numbers. Pass pro is solid. Pretty dominate in 2015 Heisman nominated year at 19 years old with 337/2019/8 + 45/645/5. 253/1603/13 + 37/310/3 in 2016. Son of former Bronco WR Ed McCaffrey. I have concerns about if his body will hold up in the NFL, however, in the two years he was a starter he only missed one game due to injury. I can see him moving to slot receiver/KR specialist.
7. Alvin Kamara – Tennessee 5’10” 215
Scouting notes: Has tons of savvy and understanding of the RB position. Played the third down back behind Jalen Hurd. Needs to display more raw power to be more in NFL. Really good balance after contact. Has nose for the endzone. Good speed around the edge. His field vision is tops in this class. Takes sharp angles to create once he is at the second level, however, when he gets there he isn’t very creative and to me looks to leave a lot of yards on the field. Solid hands out of the backfield. They lined him out wide very often. Pass pro is average. He is a former Alabama RB. Mike Mayock thinks he should be in the 1st rd conversation. I’m thinking more like day two.
8. Samaje Perine – Oklahoma 5’10” 237
Ever since he got the FBS record for rushing yards in a game with 427 as a freshman, Perine has been a top tier RB for me. Over time the cream did rise to the top and Perine was eventually dropped a few notches.
Scouting notes: Mini Tank that can wear a defense down. Solid speed for a big man. Shows great patience when diagnosing a hole and follows with quality burst and quick feet. Average vision overall. Some decent improvising and reading of defenses. Not very elusive or creative but has some simple moves. Has a tough stiff arm. Displays soft hands when catching. Keeps low text-book pad level. Can push a pile. His balance is very impressive. Pass pro is not good but it’s clear he enjoys run blocking as he will flatten dudes! My thinking is he will need an established offense around him to be top tier RB. His stats steadily went down over his career which makes me wonder if his body is letting him down. Obviously, the emergence of Joe Mixon had something to do with that. He did have over 1K yards every season.
9. Donnel Pumphrey – San Diego State 5’9” 169
Say what you want about his size, he could be the next Dion Lewis, Tyreek Hill, or something else but there is definitely a place in the league for someone this good at football. What he accomplished in the NCAA should be applauded.
Scouting notes: Tiny dynamic back with good, but small (8 1/4in) hands. A giant play waiting to happen. It’s amazing that he was a feature back. Obviously he is tough as nails. Three year starter. Can juke you in a phone booth. Just makes defenders look stupid in space. Very patient in letting blocks set up. Not a ton of ‘A’ gap runs, but when he does, he is surgical. Bounces it outside with ease if hole isn’t there. The burst and speed are top notch. You have to wrap him up to stop him. He finishes strongly while keeping his feet grinding and gets extra yards. Runs upright but get’s super low on cut backs. Stutter steps in space. Also, has one cut and go skills. Pass pro not good. Plays in pro-style offense. Dominate in division. I’m very concerned about the wear and tear. 323/2133/17 in 2016. Current NCAA Div. 1 FBS all time leader in rushing yards w/ 6405.
10. Jeremy McNichols – Boise State 5’9” 212
The next coming of Doug Martin…maybe?
Scouting notes: Short but powerful, productive, and versatile back. Used all over the field. Three down potential. Great burst and speed. Uses blocks very well to navigate through the middle. Has a good cut-back. Sifts through trash. Shows some agility in the open field. Super tough cover as a WR/OW. A former WR, he has velcro hands. Super low pad level, breaks tackles and finishes runs strong. Always falls forward and is difficult to bring down. Great at working the sideline. Very solid in pass pro. It’s known that he really enjoys and takes pride in it as well. Has a significant shoulder injury to keep an eye on.
11. Curtis Samuel – Ohio State 5’11” 197
Scouting notes: Playmaker with great speed. Former WR could be change of pace back or slot receiver in the league. His route running is tight and impressive. A very tough cover for a DB. Very shifty but in total control when in space. Nice vision and feel for the game. Needs to bulk up a bit. Very tough dude as I saw him take some big hits. Ohio State manufactured touches for him. Might have been the Buckeye’s best weapon in 2016. Inconsistent hands as he will make catches look easy at times but will let the ball bounce right out too often. He is getting Percy Harvin comparisons.
12. James Conner – Pitt 6’2” 235
Scouting notes: He’s a massive man with surprising speed around the edge and some elusiveness. Vision is mediocre. Not overly shifty in the open field. Gets by on burst and power although straight-line speed is average. He will get caught from behind. Has a nice stiff arm and little bit of a spin move. It takes a village to bring him down as he fights to gain extra yards. Added pass catching to his game in 2016. Voted ACC player of the year over Jameis Winston and had 298/1,765/26 (6 yards per carry) in 2014. Tore MCL & diagnosed with Hodgkin lymphoma in 2015 but made an amazing comeback. 216/1092/16 in 2016. Great story and obviously a super tough guy. In the GA Tech 2014 game he injured his knee and came back to score three TDs. Combine numbers will be important. The main question will be if he can regain that 2014 form.
13. Joe Williams – Utah 5’11” 205
I’ve had Williams as high as number 8 in my rankings. I’m all over the place with this back. I want to like him but I realize that his skill set gets overshadowed by more talented backs. Still, he is a guy that we need to keep an eye on.
Scouting notes: No nonsense downhill runner. Average build with enough straight line speed to make some noise in the NFL. Sufficient explosiveness with decisive one cut and go style. Uses really nice patience or hesitation move and chooses the correct lane after surveying the field. Takes what he is given at first but finishes runs well either by falling forward for positive yards or getting good a chunk of yards at the second level or takes it to the house. Keeps feet churning, plus, outstanding desire to break tackles showing competitive toughness. Hands out of the backfield could be improved. Pass pro is really good. Ball security is not good. Retired from football for 4 games after his sister died and was coaxed back when both RBs that remained on the team got injured. Seems like a really good person who will be professional at the next level.
14. Elijah McGuire – Louisiana Lafayette 5’11” 208
Scouting notes: Very creative in space. Has good power and sudden-ness with low center of gravity. Impressive change of direction while shaking off defenders. Great hands, which is his biggest strength. Shows versatility as he lines up out wide often. Pass pro is mediocre/inconsistent. He always shoots for the defender’s legs. Has been compared to Kenneth Dixon as far as receiving ability and elusiveness. One of the best at the Shrine Game. Level of competition might be a question. Could be a nice sleeper.
15. D’Onta Foreman – Texas 6’1” 249
I might take some heat for this one. Foreman is a guy that early on I was seeing as a top three to five RB prospect. I may be one of the only ones who rank him this low but I trust my eyes. He had a great college season but his tape shows some elementary flaws that will be exposed at the next level. I like him as a talent but this is where I would have him.
Scouting notes: A big boy. Follows his blockers well (like a convoy). Patience to let blockers set up. Finishes runs with some extra power, always falls forward, keeps legs churning. Really good balance. It generally takes a couple of defenders to take him down. Adequate speed around the edge for a big man. Mediocre jump-cut. Some burst through the hole. Would be best following a FB. Stays light on his feet. Can jump over defenders. Seems very competitive. Vision is a question. Runs into the back of the o-line way too often. Average in pass pro. Not a plodder but not a dynamic back. Has a career 6.4 ypc which makes me pause. Hands are a little suspect (13 career rec). The production on the ground this past year was crazy. 323/2028/15 (184.4 yards a game avg) in 2016. A 10 game starter in three years.
TJ hosts his own Fantasy Football and NFL Draft podcast – TJ Smith’s WarRoom