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2017 NFL Draft: Running back rankings

Creating a big board of running backs and when is the best time to take them.

Allstate Sugar Bowl - Auburn v Oklahoma Photo by Jonathan Bachman/Getty Images

In recent years, I’ve committed to the concept of an NFL Draft “target board.” The idea is to narrow my scope down to 100 prospects, grouped into tiers that indicate where I’d look to select them in an actual draft. Instead of ranking every single player I’ve watched and graded, these are prospects I feel most confident in from a tape, measurables, production, and athletic testing standpoint. In the following days leading up to the draft, I’ll post my board position by position, and to help everyone understand the methods behind my madness, I’ll even include some handy charts and stats to give some insight into which players “checked all the boxes,” and which ones made the cut despite falling short in one area or another.

The cells in the accompanying charts are color-coded based (liberally) on NFL scouting combine averages per position:

  • Green = Significantly Above Average
  • Blue = Above Average
  • Yellow = Average
  • Orange = Below Average
  • Red = Significantly Below Average

Below you’ll find this year’s running back targets.

Joe Mixon Oklahoma 6’1” 228

  • DOB: 7/24/1996
  • 2016: 1274 rush YDS 6.8 AVG, 37 REC 538 YDS 14.5 AVG, 16 TD
  • Career: 2027 rush YDS 6.8 AVG, 65 REC 894 YDS 13.8 AVG, 27 TD in 25 games

I’ve frequently seen Mixon compared to Le’Veon Bell, but after my review of the redshirt sophomore out of Oklahoma, I was left with thoughts of David Johnson. Mixon is a big guy who’s more athlete than running back, but his obvious talent pops off the screen, and that leads me to believe that like Johnson, he will continue to fine tune his ground game. I’ve already seen evidence of improved patience and vision, we just need a little more consistency.

Mixon is an outstanding receiver with breakaway speed, his pass protection is good enough to keep him on the field, and he’s even shown the ability to return kicks. The elephant in the room of course, is the contemptible act caught on tape three years ago.

Scouting circles were aware of Mixon’s rage-fueled attack on a female victim prior to last December, and he had served the punishments doled out by the legal system and his school. But the release of the video revived discussion of the incident, and brought the relative toothlessness of the discipline imposed on Mixon into question. Understandably, some NFL teams will never consider drafting him. Others will determine that time has healed all literal and figurative wounds and consider selecting him within the first two days. Regardless of whether Mixon is drafted or not, he will become a high-level NFL starter if he avoids further off-field infractions.

Grade: 1st-2nd Round

Leonard Fournette LSU 6’ 240

  • DOB: 1/18/1995
  • 2016: 843 rush YDS 6.5 AVG, 15 REC 146 YDS 9.7 AVG, 8 TD
  • Career: 3830 rush YDS 6.2 AVG, 41 REC 526 YDS 12.8 AVG, 42 TD in 32 games

My friend Emory Hunt of once said that Fournette running in the open field reminded him of LeBron James on a fast break, and while Fournette is clearly not the caliber of athlete that James is, that comparison has always stuck with me. The LSU junior running back has outstanding speed for a big man, and when he has a full head of steam, any defender who steps into Fournette's path is going to take the brunt of the punishment.

Critics will question his agility, and because Fournette opted not to participate in the shuttle drills, we can't put a number on it. I'm not thrilled by this, but I've never expected Fournette to dance and juke his way down the field. He's a power player. And he's shown that he can make sharp, open field cuts out at the second level and beyond, make a man miss, and spring himself for the occasional home run. Fournette was slowed by an injury this past year and still averaged 6.5 yards per carry, and he was a dominant force in the SEC as a sophomore. I wouldn't bet against him.

Grade: 1st-2nd Round

Dalvin Cook Florida State 5’10” 210

  • DOB: 8/10/1995
  • 2016: 1765 rush YDS 6.1 AVG, 33 REC 488 YDS 14.8 AVG 20 TD
  • Career: 4464 rush YDS 6.5 AVG, 79 REC 935 YDS 11.8 AVG, 48 TD in 38 games

Cook has scared people off since the season ended as awareness has spread about his history of shoulder injuries and his checkered past off the field. The former FSU star then compounded those fears by producing some woeful combine results that suggest subpar burst and agility. Cook was still able to post a 4.49 40-yard dash, but the damage has been done.

Like Fournette, I wasn't expecting Cook to be Shady McCoy out there. Cook's game is predicated on patience and his ability to fly away from defenders once he plants that foot and cuts it upfield. He'll step right through low tackles without missing much of a step, but unlike Fournette, Cook doesn't have the size to mitigate a lack of wiggle. He won't be running anyone over, and shouldn't considering his shoulders.

Still, I view Cook as a three-down back. Besides being a highly productive runner, he's been a weapon in the passing game. My biggest worry is his shelf life, and to this point he hasn't lost much time due to injuries.

Grade: 2nd Round

Christian McCaffrey Stanford 5’10” 202

  • DOB: 6/7/1996
  • 2016: 1603 rush YDS 6.3 AVG, 37 REC 310 YDS 8.4 AVG, 16 TD
  • Career: 3922 rush YDS 6.2 AVG, 99 REC 1206 YDS 12.2 AVG, 33 TD in 38 games

It's natural to wonder about a running back McCaffrey's size being able to handle the role of a primary ballcarrier in the NFL, but he's averaged 27 touches from scrimmage per game over the past two seasons in addition to kickoff and punt return duties. This weekly punishment in a major college conference makes it difficult to argue that he won't hold up.

McCaffrey is the most agile running back in the class, and may challenge Mixon for most athletic overall. Again, the only real knock on McCaffrey is that he's on the small side. He's eight pounds lighter than Cook, who I just said I viewed as a three-down back, and I've established that durability hasn't been an issue, so I'll give McCaffrey the benefit of the doubt, and hope that whoever drafts him affords him as many touches as possible.

Grade: 2nd-3rd Round

Kareem Hunt Toledo 5’11” 216

  • DOB: 8/6/1995
  • 2016: 1475 rush YDS 5.6 AVG, 41 REC 403 YDS 9.8 AVG, 11 TD
  • Career: 4945 rush YDS 6.3 AVG, 73 REC 555 YDS 7.6 AVG, 45 TD in 46 games

Hunt makes up for below average speed with burst out of the gate, and an uncanny knack for maintaining his balance after contact. He won't typically make defenders miss outright, but he has a slippery running style that makes it hard to land any punch heavier than a glancing blow once he's in the open field, and he never seems to succumb to the first tackler.

In 2015, Hunt showed up out of shape for his junior season, faced discipline, and slogged through a disappointing campaign. But as a senior he reshaped his body, drew praise for his renewed commitment, and piled up nearly 1900 yards from scrimmage. Hunt is a durable runner and capable receiver, but his subpar speed will likely land him in a backfield rotation. With that in mind, and having played in the MAC, Hunt will likely fall to the third day of the draft, where he will represent starting-caliber skills at a discount price.

Grade: 3rd Round

Jamaal Williams BYU 6’ 212

  • DOB: 4/3/1995
  • 2016: 1375 rush YDS 5.9 AVG, 7 REC 80 YDS 11.4 AVG, 12 TD
  • Career: 3901 rush YDS 5.4 AVG, 60 REC 567 YDS 9.5 AVG, 36 TD in 43 games

Williams bounced back from a year-long hiatus to post career highs in rushing yards and yards per carry. Like Hunt, Williams displays exceptional balance through contact while lacking ideal speed. Though he only caught seven passes as a senior, Williams logged 45 receptions during his first two years at BYU, so he's shown he can contribute in the passing game. He young and solidly built, and I see him as a potential NFL starter, but he's another player probably ticketed for a committee role to start out his career.

Grade: 3rd Round

Alvin Kamara Tennessee 5’10” 214

  • DOB: 7/25/1995
  • 2016: 596 rush YDS 5.8 AVG, 40 REC 392 YDS 9.8 AVG, 13 TD
  • Career: 1294 rush YDS 6.2 AVG, 74 REC 683 YDS 9.2 AVG, 24 TD in 24 games

Kamara has been getting first round hype for a while now, which is remarkable for a player who was never a full time starter for his college team. This means he’s likely to be drafted before I would target him, but nonetheless, I would consider drafting him if he fell into the later stages of Day Two. Kamara has a strong lower body and, like Hunt and Williams, he displays good balance, but I never thought Kamara’s tape matched the explosiveness his athletic testing suggests. In terms of speed and agility, again he’s right there with Hunt and Williams in the average-to-below average range, and his appeal is going to be similar. Kamara has a three down skill set, but without an exceptional size/speed ratio or agility score, and since he doesn’t have a workhorse track record in college, he’s a notch below the similar prospects in this class.

Grade: 3rd Round

Jeremy McNichols Boise State 5’9” 214

  • DOB: 12/26/1995
  • 2016: 1709 rush YDS 5.4 AVG, 37 REC 474 YDS 12.8 AVG, 27 TD
  • Career: 3205 rush YDS 5.6 AVG, 103 REC 1089 YDS 10.6 AVG, 55 TD in 34 games

I’m impressed by McNichols’s speed and receiving ability but I’m underwhelmed by his vision as a runner. It makes sense when I consider that McNichols is a former high school receiver. I’d like to see more elusiveness out of a guy who’s testing suggests above average change of direction skills, but it may be an unfair ask of a player who lacks instincts at his new position, so I see him as an upside play on Day Three. If something clicks, I land one of the most athletic running backs in the draft, and even if his development stagnates, I still have a role player who can catch the ball.

Grade: 4th-5th Round

Elijah McGuire Louisiana-Lafayette 5’10” 214

  • DOB: 6/1/1994
  • 2016: 1127 rush YDS 4.9 AVG, 29 REC 238 YDS 8.2 AVG, 9 TD
  • Career: 4301 rush YDS 6.1 AVG, 130 REC 1394 YDS 10.7 AVG, 52 TD in 51 games

McGuire was a dynamo as a freshman and sophomore, winning multiple conference awards. But after losing his quarterback and backfield running mate to graduation, his performance tapered off over the last two seasons. Without other viable threats, defenses were able to hone in on McGuire, and the Ragin’ Cajuns’ star gritted his way through a number of nagging injuries. He was still a key player who showed flashes of brilliance, but his production dipped significantly across the board. As a result, McGuire has become an afterthought, but I still like his well-rounded skill set, and would try to steal him in the early-to-middle stages of Day Three.

Grade: 4th-5th Round

Brian Hill Wyoming 6’1” 219

  • DOB: 11/9/1995
  • 2016: 1860 rush YDS 5.3 AVG, 8 REC 67 YDS 8.4 AVG, 22 TD
  • Career: 4287 rush YDS 5.5 AVG, 41 REC 403 YDS 9.8 AVG, 35 TD in 38 games

Hill is kind of “just a guy” in terms of speed, burst and agility, but he’s a good-sized grinder who can handle a heavy workload and catch the ball out of the backfield. He’s the kind of running back who could break out a big season like Alfred Morris or Jordan Howard if he winds up with the right opportunity. At worst, he’s a solid backup at a low cost.

Grade: 4th-5th Round

Chris Carson Oklahoma State 6’ 218

  • DOB: 9/16/1994
  • 2016: 559 rush YDS 6.8 AVG, 13 REC 128 YDS 9.6 AVG, 10 TD
  • Career: 1076 rush YDS 5.1 AVG, 30 REC 298 YDS 9.9 AVG, 14 TD in 21 games

Carson is a junior college product with marginal FBS production, but he’s a big, one-cut runner with explosiveness. Carson doesn’t have much wiggle, but he can avoid the heavy hit and run though low tackles. His size and athletic profile are similar to my third round backs Hunt, Williams and Kamara, and comparatively speaking in terms of cost, Carson is basically free.

Grade: 5th-7th Round

Joe Williams Utah 5’11” 210

  • DOB: 9/4/1993
  • 2016: 1407 rush YDS 6.7 AVG, 9 REC 107 YDS 11.9 AVG, 10 TD
  • Career: 1884 rush YDS 6.0 AVG, 20 REC 191 YDS 9.6 AVG, 13 TD in 19 games

Williams left UConn after being charged with credit card theft, then spent time in the junior college ranks before heading to Utah. A productive player on the field, Williams still faces questions for his off-field history that now includes a brief personal leave of absence last fall. When he returned he looked like a man on a mission, and he clearly has blazing speed. Despite his age and personal issues, Williams is still a good Day Three play considering his big play potential.

Grade: 5th-7th Round

LeShun Daniels Iowa 5’11” 222

  • DOB: 6/4/1995
  • 2016: 1058 rush YDS 5.0 AVG, 8 REC 67 YDS 8.4 AVG, 10 TD
  • Career: 1895 rush YDS 4.6 AVG, 10 REC 81 YDS 8.1 AVG, 19 TD in 37 games

Daniels is an inexpensive grinder who’s father had a cup of coffee in the NFL years ago. No one trait stands out, but he does appear to have a good feel for the game. Daniels split carries at Iowa, and he’s probably destined to start his NFL career on a practice squad, but I still like the size and power combo enough to consider spending a late round pick.

Grade: 5th-7th Round

Anthony Wales Western Kentucky 5’9” 197

  • DOB: 2/6/1994
  • 2016: 1621 rush YDS 6.8 AVG, 30 REC 323 YDS 10.8 AVG, 29 TD
  • Career: 3342 rush YDS 6.2 AVG, 73 REC 673 YDS 9.2 AVG, 47 TD in 47 games

Wales should follow fellow Hilltoppers running backs Bobby Rainey and Antonio Andrews into the NFL, and in fact, he compares very favorably to Rainey, now a five-year NFL veteran. Wales has surprising power for a little guy, he’s an accomplished receiver, and he also has deceptive speed for a player who often looks like he’s coasting when he runs. But that speaks to Wales’ patience and instincts as a runner. He’s always picking up positive yardage. I doubt he gets drafted, but I would consider spending a pick on him late to keep him from hitting free agency.

Grade: 5th-7th Round