We’ve heard this is a historic running back class, with as many as four players (Dalvin Cook, Leonard Fournette, Alvin Kamara and Christian McCaffrey) being discussed as first-round possibilities and a fifth (Joe Mixon) who would be in the mix if not for off-field baggage. But how good is the 2017 crop really? Have RB stocks been inflated because of an otherwise so-so year for offensive prospects? Are they getting a boost because of the first-year success of Ezekiel Elliott in Dallas and (before a sophomore slump) Todd Gurley for the Rams, causing the first-round running back to come back into vogue?
So we at The College Column performed an experiment: I asked an evaluator from an NFL team to check his final grades on recent top running back prospects, dating back to 2014, and then factor in the 2017 class. (Confession: This is not my idea. Robert Klemko conducted this exercise two years ago with quarterbacks, when Marcus Mariota and Jameis Winston were the top QB prospects.)
Here, then, is Team X’s Top 15 running back prospects since 2014:
1. Ezekiel Elliott, Ohio State (2016) 2. Leonard Fournette, LSU (2017) 3. Dalvin Cook, Florida State (2017)
4. Todd Gurley, Georgia (2015)
5. Melvin Gordon, Wisconsin (2015)
6. Joe Mixon, Oklahoma (2017)
7. Derrick Henry, Alabama (2016)
8. Carlos Hyde, Ohio State (2014) 9. Alvin Kamara, Tennessee (2017) 10. Christian McCaffrey, Stanford (2017)
11. Tre Mason, Auburn (2014)
12. Jeremy Hill, LSU (2014)
13. Jordan Howard, Indiana (2016)
14. Tevin Coleman, Indiana (2015) 15. D’Onta Foreman, Texas (2017)
In the interest of debate, here is the evaluator’s view on the top of the list:
SCOUT X: First, I think it’s important for your readers to remember that running back can be a subjective evaluation. You might think it’s more straightforward than quarterback, where there are thousands of variables, but there’s a lot take in with running back also. You need to consider scheme fit, versatility, wear-and-tear, medicals, workload and, of course, everything off the field.
The MMQB: Do you think people will be surprised to see Elliott at No. 1?
SCOUT X: Maybe. He was so well-rounded coming out of Ohio State. He’s not the fastest guy you’ll see, but his first step, burst and vision are all elite. He was so much more advanced in blocking pass protection than Gurley or Fournette. He’s a workhorse and not only a three-down back, but he could be featured in the pass game as well. If you’re looking for a pure physical runner, with the best power/speed combination that most of us have ever seen, then Fournette is your guy.
The MMQB: Considering how high Joe Mixon is on this list, I’m assuming these are football-only grades?
SCOUT X: Correct. Look, everyone’s evaluations are different. So yeah, there are a few guys on this list who had some dirt off the field we had to sort out in evaluations and that can affect where they’re drafted. Or not. It just depends. There were concerns about Zeke at Ohio State, his personality and off-the-field curriculars and how that would fit into a locker room. Obviously those who have studied Mixon have gathered a ton of information and just like any prospect, we factor that into our evaluators. But Mixon is a unique case, because on the scouting side we can come up with our assessment for him, but [whether to draft him is] an ownership decision.
The MMQB: I’m surprised to see McCaffrey at No. 10, followed by Tre Mason. Is there a big gap between those two?
SCOUT X: You media love McCaffrey! I like him too. In this year’s class, I think his evaluations vary the most from team to team. I’d have some concerns about using him as an every-down back but I know he has value all over the field. As for Tre Mason? I know you remember him as a bust, and it’s clear he’s going through some troubles right now. He did lack ideal size, but watch some of that tape from 2013—his patience, his vision, his acceleration—you’d see why so many people were high on him.