Ezekiel Elliott is coming off one of the most impressive rookie seasons in NFL history, rushing for 15 touchdowns and over 1,600 yards, proving that the Dallas Cowboys made the right decision in using their 4th overall pick in last summer’s NFL draft on the former Ohio State Buckeye.
Elliott was coming off back-to-back 1,800 yard seasons in college, with a combined 43 touchdowns, so there was no questioning his talent, however in the modern NFL game, an every-down, featured back is something many teams have gone away from. Look at last season’s Super Bowl where the champion New England Patriots featured four different running backs, and not one of them were drafted higher than the fourth round. The runner-up Atlanta Falcons featured the most dynamic backfield in the league with Devonte Freeman and Tevin Coleman, but neither of them were drafted higher than the third round either.
Why has this been, that the teams with most success have been able to win games without a first round running back?
In 2010, CJ Spiller, Ryan Matthews and Jahvid Best were selected in the first round. In 2012, Trent Richardson, Doug Martin and David Wilson followed. Did any of these players pan out to be elite, top level talent in the NFL where they could carry the load of their team’s entire rushing attack?
Taking a pass on passing
In the early 2000’s, guys like Shaun Alexander, LaDanian Tomlinson, Larry Johnson, Steven Jackson and Adrian Peterson were taken in the first round, but the expectation of these players were a lot different. The league was not as pass-happy as it is now, and these backs were given the key to their offense from the moment they put on their draft cap on stage. These guys were expected to be able run the ball on every down, and if they caught a ball out of the backfield it was considered a bonus. They were the team’s running back, anyone else on the roster in that position was there for the rare moments these players needed to hit the sidelines for a breath.
Then the league began to change as guys like Drew Brees, Tom Brady and Peyton Manning started putting up video game like passing numbers. The scoring got higher and teams were forced to invest their future in tackles to protect the quarterback, instead of guards to open up holes. They began looking for that elite wide receiver who could sprint down field, while the lead blocking fullbacks became less of a priority. The game was changing, and the way running backs were drafted was a pure reflection of this.
In 2011, only Heisman winner Mark Ingram was taken in the first round. In 2013 and 2014, all 32 teams passed on a ball carrier. Even last year, after Elliott was taken by the Cowboys, 41 other teams selected other positions before the Tennessee Titans took the reigning Heisman winner Derrick Henry in the second round. Yes, this was the same Derrick Henry that rushed for 2,219 yards and 28 touchdowns at Alabama just months prior to the draft. Henry had even out gained Elliott by 398 yards that season, but in today’s NFL, he now shares a backfield, and carries, with DeMarco Murray.
Rushing against the tide
This brings us to the 2017 NFL draft, where all things will change. Yes, the games will still be high scoring, and teams will focus on their air-attack above all else, but this year’s group of running backs in the draft is unlike other recent years, so much so, that I expect four of them to be selected in the first round, and another 2 to follow in the second.
The top running back who will be picked inside the top-ten is former LSU stud Leonard Fournette. The 6’1”, 240lb back is a game-changing athlete who poses a beautiful mixture of power and speed. He downhill running is so strong that he can run over any linebacker or secondary that try to tackle him. When he gets going, he can out run anyone along the sidelines. He is the type of play maker that any time he touches the ball, he has the ability to turn that play into 6-points. He dominated every team he faced in college, except Alabama, who two seasons in a row buried him in the backfield, so it does raise a small concern about him escaping the grasps of elite defenders, but in all, he is the total package and with a good offensive line, he could have an Ezekiel Elliot style welcome to the NFL. I expect him to be drafted by the Jacksonville Jaguars at number 4.
The next running back, and I think in today’s NFL will be the best of the group, is former Florida State Seminole Dalvin Cook. At 5’10”, 210 lbs, he rushed for 1,765 yards and 19 scores last season and added another 480 yards in the air. He is perfect for the league, as he can cut through any defense and fly up the sidelines, while also catching passes out of the backfield and making defenders miss. Ask the Michigan Wolverines if you don’t believe me, as he left them in the dust for 209 total yards in the Orange Bowl. He can do it all, and his upside is unlimited. He does however come with some caution, and teams will be forced to weigh the risk in the first round, as he has some shoulder injuries he is working through, and combined with some fumbling issues, he is going to need some work in the off season. He also runs with a rough crowd, so franchises beware. He could land anywhere from the Carolina Panthers at #8 to the Tampa Bay Buccaneers at 19.
Christian McCaffrey is a special talent, and for that, he will be rewarded a first-round paycheck this week. This 5’11”, 200lb former Stanford Cardinal should be taken in the top 20 picks of the draft. Two seasons in a row he was in the running for the Heisman trophy and is coming off back-to-back seasons where he combined for over 3,600 yards rushing and almost another 1,000 in receptions. He runs precise routes and whichever team selects him will have the option to use him as a slot receiver as well. With his first step moves and his ability to cut, he makes an excellent kick returner as well. Expect to hear his name called somewhere in the teens, between the Philadelphia Eagles at 14 and the Denver Broncos at 20.
Then, we have the wild card, former Oklahoma Sooner Joe Mixon. Had it not been for the off-field issues that included punching a female in the face, he might be the top running back in this year’s draft, but the negative media that goes along with selecting a player with the label of a woman-hitter is too much for some franchises to take on. Except one, the Green Bay Packers. They need a running back desperately, as the Ty Montgomery experiment worked for only a few weeks last season and is not their long-term solution, and Eddie Lacy seems to have eaten his way out of being an every-down back. Mixon would fit perfectly in their offense as a guy who can fly from scrimmage and haul in passes behind it. In college he proved he can get hit and keep running, and with speed and agility, he can make for some fun highlights. With his size and power, he could play week one in the NFL, if someone will give him a chance. Green Bay is that team, at number 29. Their fan base will give him a chance, as the Cheese heads out in Wisconsin believe the Packers can do no wrong.
Then we head to the second round, where guys like former Texas Longhorn D’Onta Foreman and former Tennessee Volunteer Alvin Kamara will make any franchise happy with their services. If a running back is a secondary need for teams in this draft, either of these players are perfect selections during the second time around the draft board.
It is rare to have this much NFL talent in one draft, but teams will be very happy with the services of these former collegiate-standouts. With a potential of four of them hearing their names called in the first round, it will be major change from the recent draft history, but with this talent, it’s hard to pass them by.
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