Browns, NFL Draft

WFNY’s 2017 NFL Draft Coverage: Joe Gilbert’s Top Five Running Backs

We finish off this year’s draft-eligible position rankings with the offensive backfield, starting with the running backs group. The Browns have a strong pair of running backs with Isaiah Crowell and Duke Johnson, but are they the long-term answer? These two had a good season last year, manning the team’s running back spot so the team will not likely take a look at drafting one early in the draft. But this year’s class is incredibly deep, meaning the team could take a look at getting a steal at the position later in the draft.

This class has all types of backs with some controversial guys as well as some big-named college stars. Teams will likely find some really talented running backs later in the draft, just because of how deep the class is this year. It is one of the positions where there are a wide variety of opinions from draft experts. So with that, let’s take a look at my top five running backs in the 2017 NFL Draft.

Joe Gilbert’s 2017 NFL Draft Position Rankings: Safeties, Cornerbacks, Inside Linebackers, Edge Rushers, Interior Defensive Linemen, Interior Offensive Linemen, Offensive Tackles, Tight Ends, Wide Receivers

1. Dalvin Cook, Florida State

Stats: In 13 games last season, he rushed 288 times for 1,765 yards and 19 touchdowns, while also catching 33 passes for 488 yards and a touchdown.

Dalvin Cook is my number one running back because of his elite elusiveness. His feet are a blur, moving them continuously throughout the play. He has elite cutting ability, making cuts in an instance. He is able to keep his speed at almost the same level throughout the cut, exploding off the plant to shoot up field. The former Florida State star’s feet are choppy, allowing him to shuffle in any direction quickly. He pairs his cutting ability and feet with great balance and vision. He is able to keep good balance throughout the play, through all sorts of contact and moves he may dish out. His vision makes his cutting ability all that much harder to defend. He can see holes develop and cut back to get to the gap. Part of his great vision is his ability to follow blocks, be patient to set them up, but also not dance too much to be late to enter the gap. As I noted earlier, his lower body is explosive and that helps his ability to start and stop. He is able to stop on a dime, staying balanced, and than explode up field, past defenders. To go along with his elusiveness, he has really good speed. He seems to have different gears to rely on, including the ability to beat defenders to the edge and to break away from the defense to make the big play down field. His elusiveness is his running style, but he has strength to break through tackles and extend plays that way. In the passing game, he shows good route running and hands to be an effective receiver out of the backfield. He is also a willing blocker.

Cook is not perfect. He is not an overly powerful runner with only average size at 5-foot-10, 210 pounds. The running back also suffers from fumbling issues. He must improve his ball security because he will not see the field if he struggles with fumbles in the NFL. He can also suffer from focus drops as a receiver. Even as a willing blocker, he does not have great technique and ability to block. In college career, he suffered multiple injuries, including a multiple shoulder injuries. His athletic testing is also a head scratcher because he shows so much on tape, but failed to do the same in his testing. Teams must investigate his health and make sure there are no long-term issues. He also has some off-field transgressions that must be looked into to see his true character. But in the end, Cook’s elusiveness, speed, balance and other traits will help him be a big play running back who offenses can showcase as their primary back.

2. Leonard Fournette, LSU

Stats: In seven games last season, he rushed 129 times for 843 yards and eight touchdowns, while also catching 15 passes for 146 yards.

Leonard Fournette is one of the most powerful running backs to come out in a very long time. At 6-foot, 240 pounds (probably more 225ish when he is playing), he is built like a linebacker with muscles throughout his body. His size allows him to display some elite power with the ability to completely plow over defenders who are in his path. He plays with good pad level to unload his power. He is almost always the one giving out the brunt force on the tackler. The former Tiger uses his legs to keep churning and running through contact to extend plays. What makes his power even more difficult to handle is his amazing balance to pair with it. He is able to run through contact and keep good balance throughout, allowing him to stay upright to keep going downhill. His strong balance makes him a big time yards-after-contact runner. Another trait that helps Fournette stand out is his impressive speed and burst for a man his size. He has excellent burst, allowing him to get great momentum when running through traffic. He hits the holes with full speed and aggressiveness. He shows a one cut ability, where he plants and bursts up field, exploding with great speed. His speed allows him to win many races to the edge. He has the speed to be a big play runner, who can break away from the defense and take it all the way for the endzone. His size and power also makes him a capable blocker who can really lay the wood on rushers. He is also an able receiver in the passing game.

Fournette has some flaws in his game, however. Overall, he does not have a lot of elusiveness. He is a one cut runner with little wiggle and elusiveness in the open field to make defenders miss. His vision is also not a true strength for him. He can be too aggressive and not be patient enough to read the blocks and find the opening hole that could open on a cutback. His health is a question both because of his injury history in college and his playing style to force contact. He also suffered from fumbling issues in college, which he must shore up. As a blocker, he has the talent to be a good one, but he lacks the technique to do it at this point. As a receiver, he seems to fight the ball and not run the best routes as a receiver. Nevertheless, Fournette has the combination of power, size and speed that is rare to find in a player let alone a running back.

3. Christian McCaffrey, Stanford

Stats: In 11 games last season, he rushed 253 times for 1,603 yards and 13 touchdowns, while also catching 37 passes for 310 yards and three touchdowns.

Christian McCaffrey is an elusive running back, who gives a team great versatility. As a runner, he is incredibly fluid with the elusiveness to make defenders miss. He has great lateral quickness to side step or jump cut to the side, staying within the same speed as he was going before the lateral move. His cutting ability can really make defenders look silly, side stepping defenders so they tackle air. His feet are quick and always moving, using choppy steps so he can move quickly in any direction at a moments notice. He is able to make these impressive moves because he has good balance to stay upright and moving forward. He possesses good speed with the ability to hit another gear and make a play turn into a big one. As a runner, he is patient and has excellent vision. He lets his blocks set up and can see gaps about to open, cutting to get to that hole. One of his best traits is his versatility. He could line up at receiver and be a really productive slot receiver. He runs crisp routes with the ability to make subtle movements to fake out defenders and gain separation. He has good hands to bring in passes and make plays in the passing game. His skillset also makes him a talented returner, who can make big plays on special teams.

But McCaffrey does have some weaknesses in his game. He is does not have the prototypical size that you want in a running back, standing at just 5-foot-11, 202 pounds. His lack of size really makes him more of a finesse runner with little to no power in his game. He will not break tackles with strength and power. He will also not extend plays using his legs to keep churning through contact, driving for every inch. His patience can also be a negative. He has a tendency to wait too much for his blocks to develop, allowing defenders to reach him behind the line and bring him down. His health may also be a question mark in the NFL because of his lack of size and his immense usage he put out already in college. However, McCaffrey will be a versatile running back in the NFL, who can make defenders miss and create big plays for a team.

4. Joe Mixon, Oklahoma

Stats: In 12 games last season, he rushed 187 times for 1,274 yards and 10 touchdowns, while also catching 37 passes for 538 yards and five touchdowns.

Joe Mixon is the most controversial running back and possibly player in the draft. Let’s start with the positives. At 6-foot-1, 226 pounds, he has great size for the position with a well-toned frame. What makes him unique is elusiveness at that size. His ability to cut, side step and other elusive moves are impressive for his size. His feet are quick with the ability to move laterally on a dime. He is so fluid laterally, allowing him to evade tackle attempts from defenders. Off of cuts, he has very good explosion to burst up field with great quickness to speed through gaps. His elusiveness is aided by his patience to let blocks develop and see where the holes will form. He provides some power with a great stiff arm that can push away defenders and allow him to continue up field. He also adds great versatility as a receiver and returner. As a receiver, he has really good hands that allow him to make tough catches. His route running is almost like a wide receiver, showing good subtle movements to fake defenders out to where his route is going. He has experience as a returner on special teams. And as a blocker, he is willing to take on rushers and should have good size to handle the pressure coming at him.

Deciding if and where to place Joe Mixon on my list was one of the hardest decisions of this year’s position rankings. He is a highly talented player, but he has some huge issues. The biggest concern with him is his character. He has been involved in multiple off-field transgressions, including the infamous video showing him punch a woman. Teams must investigate his character before placing him on their board. On the field, he has some flaws, too. Overall, he is not a speedster, who can break away from a defense. He also struggles with ball security, fumbling far too much in college. His vision is also not a big strength in his game. He can be too patient and miss opportunities to hit a hole. He can be a little too slow when approaching the line of scrimmage, lacking aggressiveness to put the defense on their heels. On occasion, he can battle with balance issues, causing him too get taken down easier than it should. He does not have a lot of experience as a blocker, so his ability not fully known. In the end, Mixon is a hard player to evaluate and decide on because of his off-field liabilities, but he has a lot of talent, including great elusiveness. Investigating his character is a must before I would take him, but his talent is on a top five level.

5. Kareem Hunt, Toledo

Stats: In 13 games last season, he rushed 262 times for 1,475 yards and 10 touchdowns, while also catching 41 passes for 403 yards and a touchdown.

Kareem Hunt is a running back with incredible balance that makes him tough to bring down. At 5-foot-10, 216 pounds, he is a player with thick build throughout, including a sturdy lower half. His balance is probably his best attribute as a runner. He is able to withstand contact and remain upright, continuing to push up field. He is able to sustain his forward motion throughout a multitude of elusive moves. His elusiveness is another strength for the sturdy back. He has good lateral quickness to make a side step or jump cut to elude the oncoming tackler. He put multiple elusive moves together to avoid more than one defender. His legs are a powerful force for him. They are the base of his great balance ability. But, they also allow him to drive through tackles and extend the run for additional yardage. He plays with good pad level that allows him to utilize his legs to drive through the tackles like a ram. He has good vision to quickly hit the hole and find daylight before the gap is closed. His vision and elusiveness are a good combination for a running back. In the passing game, he is a solid receiver who can catch passes out of the backfield using his reliable hands.

But, Hunt has some flaws in his game. Overall, he is not an explosive athlete, so he does not have the explosiveness to burst off cuts and leave defenders in his dust. His speed is a question mark because he struggles to put away a defense in his rear view mirror, getting caught from behind when he should have scored. So, he will not be a player who can beat a defender with just pure speed and explosiveness. His ability to be a homerun threat will be limited because of lack of speed to run away from the defense. As a blocker, he did not show a lot of experience at blocking in the passing game. When he did get the task, his technique was not great, often times lunging at the defender rather than staying square to the target. Nevertheless, Hunt has the combination of balance, elusiveness and leg drive that should make him a running back who is tough to bring down.