A Historic Draft Class: The re-emergence of the RB in 2017

Since the fall of the Berlin Wall there have 27 NFL Drafts. In these 27 Drafts, a Running Back has been selected 72 times in the first round (average of 2-3 per draft). However, if we break it down by decade it becomes apparent that the Running Back position has become a significantly undervalued position as 30 RBs were selected in the first round in the 1990s and 33 in the 00s. After seven drafts in the current decade only 9 backs have been selected. We are pace for only 13 Running Backs! That’s a drop off of 56.6% from the ‘90s and 60.6% from the ‘00s!

(I am counting Jarrod Bunch as a Fullback and therefore not a Running Back – this means only 2 RBs were selected in 1991 not 3).

Only SIX times in the last 27 NFL Drafts have there been four or more Running Backs selected in the first round (2008, 2006, 2000, 1998, 1995, 1990). However, despite only three Running Backs being selected in the first round in the last four NFL Drafts, I am predicting that the RB position will re-emerge in the upcoming NFL Draft. I believe that as many as 5 Backs could go in the first round depending on how Big Boards shape up from now until next April as this draft class is simply loaded with talent at the RB position.

 

Why the Change?

Improvement in the Passing Game: Most teams have come to realise that despite many predicting the decline in the Running Back position and that backfields would eventually go the way of RB by committee; NFL teams still have a need for a bell cow in the backfield. The best way to improve the play of your Quarterback (whether a promising young signal caller or an aging veteran) is through great RB play. The best way to open up lanes in the passing game is by having a dominant run game that forces opposing co-ordinators to load the box and play single-high safety. Look at what Dallas have been doing this season with Ezekiel Elliot. Ok, granted he runs behind the best Center, Guards and LT in football but the point is still valid. Even with Dez Bryant out injured, the threat of Elliot forces teams to load the box and allows Dak Prescott to make plays off play-action as teams bite down on the run and allows Prescott to find his receivers through the middle or on the outside as they face single coverage. You only have to look at how teams were forced to play the Seattle and Minnesota teams of the past where the presence of Adrian Peterson and Marshawn Lynch allowed young signal-callers Teddy Bridgewater and Russell Wilson to exploit match ups as they rolled out of play action where Ends were not setting the edge as they were desperate not to get gashed in the run game and found receivers who had managed to separate in coverage.

Can mask a poor Defense: If you have a horrible Defense it is going to stink no matter what. However, if your Defense is average or even slightly above average; a strong run game is important as it wears the clock down and gives Defensive players time to rest and get their breathe back. No Defense wants their Offense going no-huddle and burning just a minute off the clock before punting the football. Dallas did it in 2014 where they masked a poor Defense by having DeMarco Murray extend plays and keep an average Defense off the field.

Production: The name of the game for first round picks is production. The average span of an NFL Head Coach decreases every season, as owners are desperate for the results. NFL Head Coaches and General Managers do not have the luxury of drafting and developing players any more. The name of the game is production. Running Back is one of the easiest positions to get production out of rookies. Look at what Ezekiel Elliot is doing this season; what Todd Gurley and David Johnson did last season. There are numerous example with Eddie Lacy, Alfred Morris, Adrian Peterson, Edgerrin James and if we want to go old-school then Barry Sanders, Earl Campbell and Eric Dickerson to name a few. Granted a few of these were not first round selections, however, the point still stands – Coaches and General Managers can get production out of Running Backs early.

 

Why the 2017 class will break the trend?
While it is true that teams can get great production out of later round picks, the 2017 class features a historic amount of talent at the Running Back position. I believe that there are three players with top 15/20 talent who will be selected in the first round, while two further players who could see their names selected in the end of the first. On top of this I believe there are three more backs who if they manage impress throughout the last half of the college season and have great combines could see their stock rise from “second rounders” to first round contenders.

 

Top 15/20 Talent:

Leonard Fournette, LSU

Entering the 2016 College season, it seemed to most pundits that Fournette had the Heisman all but wrapped up. While Fournette has struggled with injuries this season he remains a freak talent who has excelled at every level of football since gracing the gridiron at a young age. Fournette was reportedly offered scholarships by SEC powerhouses LSU and Alabama while he was just a freshman in high school. When Fournette committed to LSU he was the nations top running back and overall player according to ESPN and Scout.com.

Fournette lived up to hype in his freshman season as he went for 1,034 yards and 10 TDs off just 187 rushes (5.5 average). Last season in his sophomore campaign, Fournette began to draw comparisons with Adrian Peterson and other dominant backs as he went for 1,953 yards, 22TDs off 271 rushes (6.4 average). Fournette is an imposing back at 6-1, 230lbs and is a dominant downhill runner who can run over tacklers while also possessing the acceleration and burst needed to take the ball all the way as he rips off big runs. Fournette has also proved during his time in Baton Rouge, that he is able to display the athleticism needed to elude tacklers in the open field and does not rely on power alone. The only area for improvement would be his pass blocking and his route running, which good coaching should enable him to do.

(Gerald Herbert/ Associated Press)
(Gerald Herbert/ Associated Press)

Fournette is the best RB in the class and an imposing sight in the backfield. He is the prototypical bell-cow who will keep opposing Defenses true, as Co-ordinators will question whether it is wise to nickel or dime with Fournette in the backfield. He is a top-10 talent and there will be numerous teams selecting in the top-10 who will want to select Fournette and instantly upgrade their Offense.

 

Dalvin Cook, FSU

Dalvin Cook and the following player Christian McCaffrey will be interchangeable on draft boards.

Dalvin Cook is an electric playmaker that possesses home-run speed and is a threat to break off a big run any time he has the ball in his hand. He has excellent vision and is a patient back who once he sees a hole will hit it full speed with a burst that makes Linebackers miss and a top gear that can outrun defensive backs. Cook is a future three-down back in the NFL as he has soft hands and excels catching passes out of the backfield. His speed and pass-catching ability will make him a menace for teams trying to contain him catching screens, wheels and swings out of the backfield. Cook is a smaller back at 5-11, 206lbs and therefore suffers in short-yardage situations. He is more suited to breaking off long runs with his elusiveness, speed and vision rather than lowering his pads and fighting for short yards. Cook won the Jim Brown trophy in 2015 (awarded to the nations best college back) over the other names that appear on this list. Cook could go above Fournette (that would be a reach) if he lights up the combine and teams fall in love with his playmaking ability, however, I believe he will be taking either in the 10-15 range or 15-20 depending on where Christian McCaffrey falls.

 

Christian McCaffrey, Stanford

While I personally have Dalvin Cook over Christian McCaffrey, many scouts will fall in love with McCaffrey’s versatility and speed. McCaffrey excels as a runner, receiver and returner, which will appeal to teams looking to get immediate production out of first round selections. McCaffrey’s big-play ability jumps off the tape and many felt he should have won the Heisman in 2015 as he carried the Stanford Cardinals with 337 carries for 2,019 yards and 8 TDs; 45 catches for 645 yards and 5 TDs; 37 kick off returns for 1,070 yards, 1 TD; 15 punt returns for 130 yards, 1 TD. McCaffrey is a patient runner and elusive in the second and third levels. He has breakaway speed and is most effective on the perimeter as he can outrun Linebackers and DBs as he turns the corner. McCaffrey has the hands, route-running ability and speed to create separation and be a weapon in the passing game as Stanford regularly lined him up in the slot or motioned him out of the backfield. He can also be a week 1 starter as a punt and kick-off returner.

(Kyle Terada/ Associated Press)
(Kyle Terada/ Associated Press)

The biggest knock on McCaffrey is that he does not have the frame to be a bell-cow or a 25/30-carry-a-game back in the NFL. However, this might not matter to teams who fall in love with his versatility as he could be deployed similar to how the Atlanta Falcons currently get production out of their backfield. McCaffrey could carry the ball 15 times a game, while lining up in the slot 10 times and also be used in end-arounds and motions to confuse opposing Defenses. McCaffrey is a versatile back who teams could fall in love with as Offensive minded head coaches might imagine the various ways they could use his skill-set in their offence. He also has a ridiculously mean stiff arm

 

End of the First Round Talent:

Nick Chubb, Georgia

Nick Chubb is a classic Georgia RB and appears to take fun in ploughing over fellow SEC defenders. He split time with Todd Gurley in his freshman season and posted an impressive 1,547 yards, 14 TDs off 219 rushes (7.1 average.) At 5-10, 218lbs Chubb is smaller and therefore less powerful than his Bulldogs teammate Todd Gurley, however, he is shiftier, more elusive and can still punish opposing tacklers. Do not think Chubb is not a physical runner simply because he is not as big as Gurley, Chubb is still a violent runner and combines his cutting ability with power to make defenders miss. Chubb has also demonstrated he is an above average blocker and excels in blitz pick-ups. Teams might just see enough in the tape to take Chubb late in the first round.

(AJ Reynolds/ Associated Press)
(AJ Reynolds/ Associated Press)

Royce Freeman, Oregon

Freeman has been a bell-cow for Oregon for two seasons now, yet he has been banged up this year (similar to a lot on this list), which could ultimately hurt his draft stock. When healthy Freeman is thick back who is a bruiser and has showed in his last two seasons that he can carry the rock and get it done between the tackles. Freeman is elusive but at the same time powerful and can be a weapon in the passing game. I am sure it would not surprise many scouts to see him sneak into the first round of the upcoming draft.

 

Backs who could sneak into the First Round

The following players I currently have down as second round talent but could impress the rest of the season and at the combine, which might just convince some NFL scouts to bang the table and convince teams to reach for them late in the first.

Wayne Gallman, Clemson

Wayne Gallman was the workhorse in the Clemson Offense that went to a national championship game in 2015. Gallman is a quick back who although not built like a traditional powerback, gets north-south quickly and finishes runs by initiating contact with defenders. This year’s class is a loaded group and Gallman may get overlooked due to the number of great backs and the attention his Quarterback, Deshaun Watson attracts.

Jalen Hurd, Tennessee

While I think Hurd is a stretch in the first, he is a physical specimen and a mismatch that many around the League might think is worth the gamble. Firstly, Hurd is unique at the RB position with his 6-4, 240lbs frame making him look like a Tight End lined up in the backfield. Hurd possesses the feet and hips of a smaller back as he uses a quick burst and patience to allow blocks to set up before attacking cutback lanes. For his size, Hurd is surprisingly elusive, yet still finishes plays driving his legs and lowers his shoulders to punish tacklers. His height and rare straight-line speed along with his soft hands make him a mismatch in the passing game, which has been exploited by Tennessee. In 2015 he caught 57 catches for 411 yards, 4 TDs alongside his 1,288 yards and 12 TDs off 277 rushes (4.7 average). He is also an exceptional blocker and thus could be utilised by teams with mobile QBs as he is effective out in space or as a lead-blocker.

(Associated Press)
(Associated Press)

Curtis Samuel, The Ohio State

While it is unclear whether Samuel will play RB or WR in the NFL, one thing is for certain; he will blow up the combine as could potentially post an eye-popping 4.33-4.35. Samuel has the playmaking ability to excel at the NFL and has been used as an explosive hybrid wide receiver/ running back by Ohio State. While he is elusive and a dangerous runner with the ball in his hands, due to his size at 5-11 and 197lbs, teams might choose to deploy him as a WR who can also play RB on the side.

 

Conclusion

It is clear that the 2017 NFL Draft class is loaded with premier talent at the Running Back position. This class is not front loaded though as there is plenty of depth and as many as 10 backs have the potential to see their name called in the first two rounds. It is clear that 2017 should be the first time in seven years that at least three backs go in the first round and could be the first time in eight years and only the seventh time in 28 NFL Drafts that we have four or more running backs selected in the first round. Let me know what you think on the various prospects and how many RBs you believe will go in the first round @TomLikeFootball.

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