2017 NFL Draft: Top 10 Running Backs after Bowl Season

Now that the college football season is just about over, the best prospects at each position in the 2017 NFL draft are starting to sort themselves out.

The 2016 college football season has been the Year of the Running Back, and a number of those talented players will be hearing their names called in the 2017 NFL draft.

By now, you’ve probably heard of the top guys like Leonard Fournette and Dalvin Cook. But this class is so deep that there are more than a few talented guys that I had to leave out of the top 10 prospects at the position. Players like Pittsburgh’s James Conner or Wisconsin’s Corey Clement could wind up having great careers in the right situations, but aren’t on this list.

I have also excluded Oklahoma’s Joe Mixon from this list. Make no mistake, Mixon will be drafted, but slotting him on my big board is impossible given the very serious situation he is involved in. Without the off-field concerns, Mixon is a first-round talent, but I’m sure there are a number of NFL teams that won’t want him representing their respective franchises.

My big board is going to continue to change leading up to April, but now that the season is over, it’s as good of a time as any to break down the top 10 running back prospects.

Nov 18, 2016; Boise, ID, USA; Boise State Broncos running back Jeremy McNichols (13) carries the ball against the UNLV Rebels in the second half at Albertsons Stadium. McNichols ran for 206 yards and scored four touchdowns. Boise State defeated UNLV 42-25. Mandatory Credit: Brian Losness-USA TODAY Sports

10

Jeremy McNichols

RB, Boise State

The Boise State Broncos may have gotten blasted in the Cactus Bowl in a 31-12 loss to the Baylor Bears, but it was a solid 10-win season for them and their running back, Jeremy McNichols.

McNichols has been a touchdown machine over the past two seasons for the Broncos, picking up 53 total touchdowns since the start of the 2015 season. He’s also added over 3,000 rushing yards and 900 yards receiving during that span.

The Boise State junior is a short, compact runner at 5-foot-9 and 212 pounds. That frame makes him especially difficult to bring down in open space. He also does a great job of keeping his feet moving to keep his forward momentum and pick up yards after contact.

Here’s a great example of McNichols keeping his feet moving while keeping his balance to extend the play.

Although McNichols can make plenty of plays in the running and passing game, he doesn’t possess great top-end speed for a guy his size, and he’s not going to consistently shed off tacklers at the next level.

Still, the Boise State prospect is a proven playmaker who could be a valuable third-down running back in the NFL for a team looking for a guy who can catch passes out of the backfield.

Dec 17, 2016; Las Vegas, NV, USA; San Diego State Aztecs running back Donnel Pumphrey (19) carries the ball past Houston Cougars defensive end Jerard Carter (52) during the 25th Las Vegas Bowl at Sam Boyd Stadium. Mandatory Credit: Kirby Lee-USA TODAY Sports

9

Donnel Pumphrey

RB, San Diego State

When you’ve had the college career that San Diego State’s Donnel Pumphrey has had, NFL teams are going to come calling. The Aztecs senior was able to break the FBS record for career rushing yards his team’s win over Houston in the Las Vegas Bowl, racking up 6,405 rushing yards over his career.

Had Pumphrey played at a bigger program, he might have been a legitimate Heisman Trophy finalist. He finished his 2016 campaign with 2,133 rushing yards and 17 touchdowns while averaging 6.1 yards per rushing attempt.

Pumphrey is even smaller than McNichols, coming in at just 5-foot-9 and 180 pounds. However, unlike McNichols, Pumphrey has elite speed and burst to break away at any moment. He’s shifty and elusive in the open field, making him a tough guy to get a hand on.

The problem with Pumphrey is that when a defender does get a hand on him, he’s probably not breaking the tackle. His small frame will have some scouts worried about his durability against much more talented competition.

For a team that’s looking for a dynamic playmaker, however, Pumphrey could be a guy with plenty of upside. A strong showing at the NFL Scouting Combine could boost his draft stock in a big way, especially if he can run the 40-yard dash in under 4.4 seconds.

Jan 2, 2017; New Orleans , LA, USA; Oklahoma Sooners running back Samaje Perine (32) carries the ball against Auburn Tigers linebacker Montavious Atkinson (48) in the second quarter of the 2017 Sugar Bowl at the Mercedes-Benz Superdome. Mandatory Credit: Derick E. Hingle-USA TODAY Sports

8

Samaje Perine

RB, Oklahoma

The Oklahoma Sooners had a pair of talented running backs this season, and both will more than likely be playing in the NFL next year. Samaje Perine is the less talked about of the two prospects, but that shouldn’t take away from what he brings to the table.

Despite missing three games this year, Perine still ran for 1,060 yards while scoring 13 total touchdowns. His 86 yards against Auburn in the Sugar Bowl helped him break Oklahoma’s school record for career rushing yards, passing Billy Sims.

Perine runs like a man on the mission when the ball is in his hands, powering through defenders with his 5-foot-10, 235-pound frame. He’s a tough, downhill runner who is more than capable of breaking tackles and picking up yards after contact.

With that kind of frame, Perine isn’t the kind of guy who is going to outrun defenders or hit top speed at the line of scrimmage. There is also the matter of his 685 carries at Oklahoma. That’s a lot of wear and tear on a physical running back.

Perine could be drafted higher than I expect, but the fact is that his play style isn’t sustainable for more than a few seasons at the next level after carrying the load for so long at Oklahoma. Having said that, teams looking for a bruising back to give 10-15 carries a game to in a committee approach could definite use Perine’s services.

Dec 21, 2016; San Diego, CA, USA; Brigham Young Cougars running back Jamaal Williams (21) scores on a 36-yard touchdown run in the fourth quarter against the Wyoming Cowboys during the 2016 Poinsettia Bowl at Qualcomm Stadium. Mandatory Credit: Kirby Lee-USA TODAY Sports

7

Jamaal Williams

RB, BYU

We are now getting to the point in this list where I wouldn’t be surprised if any of these running backs are taken in the second round. They’re all that talented. While BYU’s Jamaal Williams is the first play in this group, that shouldn’t take away from just how talented he is.

I talked to Williams back in November, and his old school mentality really impressed me. It’s hard not to watch him and be reminded of players like DeMarco Murray or Matt Forte with the way he plays.

Williams is a big, tall running back at 6-foot-2 and 220 pounds. He’s a decisive runner who does a great job of getting north-south as soon as possible instead of try to dance around. His vision is inconsistent at times, but when he’s seeing the field well he’s capable of breaking off plays like this one.

The fact that Williams lacks that elite speed that other top-tier prospects keeps him from being a first-round pick. At the same time, given his size, vision and toughness, Williams could make for an excellent NFL running back in a power running scheme.

December 31, 2016; Glendale, AZ, USA; Clemson Tigers tight end Milan Richard (80) blocks for running back Wayne Gallman (9) against the Ohio State Buckeyes in the 2016 CFP semifinal at University of Phoenix Stadium. Mandatory Credit: Mark J. Rebilas-USA TODAY Sports

6

Wayne Gallman

RB, Clemson

The Clemson Tigers are going to the College Football Playoff National Championship to take on the Alabama Crimson Tide on Monday. While offensive stars like Deshaun Watson and Mike Williams get all of the love around NFL draft circles, I feel like running back Wayne Gallman is a guy that’s getting overlooked.

Gallman has been a productive player in the Clemson offense, rushing for 1,087 yards and 16 touchdowns on the year. It was the second straight season with over 1,000 rushing yards for the Tigers running back.

Every running back in the top five has at least one trait that jumps out on tape, but none of them have the elite jump cut that Gallman has put on display at times this season.

Gallman isn’t the fastest or biggest guy out there, but he’s more than capable of finishing through contact. Something scouts will really love about Gallman is his willingness to block for Watson, standing defensive players up before they can get to the quarterback.

Is Gallman a future multi-time Pro Bowler? Probably not, but he’s the kind of guy who you can work into the running back rotation right away given his experience and production in games against elite competition.

Nov 12, 2016; Knoxville, TN, USA; Tennessee Volunteers running back Alvin Kamara (6) runs for a touchdown against the Kentucky Wildcats during the fourth quarter at Neyland Stadium. Tennessee won 49 to 36. Mandatory Credit: Randy Sartin-USA TODAY Sports

5

Alvin Kamara

RB, Tennessee

With so many running backs in this draft class, some are naturally flying under the radar. Considering he came into the 2016 season as a backup behind Jalen Hurd, Tennessee’s Alvin Kamara is someone who definitely isn’t getting the recognition that he deserves.

Kamara doesn’t have the wear and tear that some of the running back prospects have, carrying the ball just 210 times in two years while catching 74 passes. That doesn’t mean he wasn’t productive for the Volunteers, scoring 23 total touchdowns while averaging 6.2 yards per carry and 9.2 yards per reception.

When I turn on the tape and watch Kamara, I’m blown away by his balance and ability to stay upright through contact. His excellent footwork helps him get through the hole and extend plays to make big plays.

The Volunteers running back can do it all, whether that’s running the ball, making catches out of the backfield or blocking in pass protection. Perhaps the only legitimate knock on Kamara is that he’s a jack of all trades, but a master of none.

Some teams might not be looking for that kind of running back, but for teams who need a guy that can do a little bit of it all, Kamara is an excellent option. I’m not sure that he’s going to become a workhorse anywhere in the NFL, but this is the kind of guy who is the perfect option to be an RB2 with the opportunity to get plenty of touches on a weekly basis.

Nov 12, 2016; Austin, TX, USA; Texas Longhorns running back D

4

D’Onta Foreman

RB, Texas

It was a season to forget for the Texas Longhorns, who fired head coach Charlie Strong to try to once again rebuild the program. There were a couple of bright spots on the roster, but none were bigger or brighter than D’Onta Foreman.

Foreman exploded onto the scene this year for the Longhorns. He finished the year with 2,028 rushing yards and 15 touchdowns despite note even playing in a bowl game while averaging an impressive 6.3 yards per carry.

Coming in at 6-foot-1 and 249 pounds, Foreman is definitely the biggest running back on this list. However, he runs like he’s a lot smaller, showing off the vision and burst at the line of scrimmage to make big plays.

One thing that gets overlooked with Foreman is how reliable of a pass blocker he is. Foreman uses his size to his advantage in this phase of the game, doing a great job of staying in front of defenders and pushing them back.

Because of his size, Foreman doesn’t have great top-end speed. There are also some concerns about his ball security given how many times he fumbled the ball away at Texas, but that’s something that can be fixed with proper coaching.

Foreman’s all-around skill set could make him an appealing starter in the NFL in a role similar to someone like Jonathan Stewart or Eddie Lacy. We’ve seen players at Foreman’s size struggle to manage their weight, but Foreman seems like a different kind of player.

Nov 12, 2016; Eugene, OR, USA; Stanford Cardinal running back Christian McCaffrey (5) runs the ball for a touchdown in the first quarter against the Oregon Ducks at Autzen Stadium. Mandatory Credit: Scott Olmos-USA TODAY Sports

3

Christian McCaffrey

RB, Stanford

Personally, I have no problem with Christian McCaffrey deciding to skip Stanford’s Sun Bowl game against North Carolina after what I saw happen to guys like Jake Butt over the past couple of weeks. Some media members have called him out, but since so many of his teammates were vocally supportive of his decision, I don’t think scouts will be concerned about his decision.

McCaffrey is one of those prospects that some will be quick to dismiss for a number of reasons, but on film he’s one of the most talented guys in this draft. His production can’t be ignored either, with McCaffrey picking up over 2,600 yards of total offense as a sophomore in 2015 while adding 1,913 total yards and 16 total touchdowns this season.

I can’t help but be reminded of players like Reggie Bush when I watch McCaffrey. He’s a dynamic playmaker who can run the ball, catch passes as a slot receiver or even break containment and take off in the return game. He has the patience, vision and burst to wait for an opening and take advantage of it to gain a ton of yards, like on this play below.

At 6-foot-0 and 200 pounds, McCaffrey doesn’t have the frame of an every-down back. However, he’s a pure offensive weapon who can be a tough guy to plan against, which could make him a key contributor for any NFL offense.

If McCaffrey somehow isn’t taken in the first round, I wouldn’t be the least bit surprised to see a team try to trade up and get him early in the second.

2

Dalvin Cook

RB, Florida State

The gap between the No. 1 and No. 2 running backs on my big board is closer than the gap between any other running backs on this list. In fact, they’re the No. 4 and No. 5 overall prospects on my big board, with only Jonathan Allen, Myles Garrett and Reuben Foster coming in ahead of them.

Florida State’s Dalvin Cook is my No. 2 running back, but in almost any other draft class he’d probably be the No. 1 guy. Because of the Seminoles’ up and down year, Cook’s 2,200-plus total yards and 20 total touchdowns went relatively overlooked in the Heisman Trophy discussion, but NFL scouts are already in love with this guy.

Cook is a pure home-run hitter who has the big-play potential of a guy like Chris Johnson during his time with the Tennessee Titans. He has elite vision and acceleration with the ability to reach top speed five yards downfield, burning by defenders for huge plays.

Despite being listed at 5-foot-11 and 213 pounds, Cook has an extremely strong lower body that makes it hard for defenders to go low on him. This play probably showcases the best of what Cook can bring to an NFL team.

Ball security was a problem for Cook earlier in his college career, but it appears that he’s fixed those issues. There are few weaknesses for Cook when he’s on the field, but like any explosive college running back, his speed might not translate to the next level.

Still, the holes in Cook’s game are few and far between, and he’s almost guaranteed to be a first-round pick.

1

Leonard Fournette

RB, LSU

We’ve been waiting for Leonard Fournette to make the move to the NFL since he was coming out of high school. Now, after three seasons with the LSU Tigers, we’re going to finally see what Fournette can bring to an NFL franchise.

It was admittedly a down year for Fournette, who dealt with a nagging ankle injury. Meanwhile, the Tigers fired Les Miles and rallied around Ed Orgeron in what was an emotional season for LSU fans. Still, Fournette was able to run for 843 yards and eight touchdowns on just 129 carries in seven games.

Whenever Fournette was on the field, it immediately became must-watch television. No one runs with a killer instinct quite like Fournette, and he was never afraid to finish through contact or level a defender.

That violent running style coupled with a 6-foot-1, 230-pound frame is the reason why Fournette is the top running back in this draft class. He’s instinctive, athletic, powerful and tough to bring down. Few running backs have the attacking mentality that Fournette possesses, and it’s hard not to be reminded of Bo Jackson with the way he runs.

A lot of Fournette’s draft stock is going to rest on his medical evaluation given his ankle injury. If everything checks out there, then the LSU star is going to be a guaranteed top-10 pick in a draft class that’s littered with potentially elite running backs.

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