This will come as no surprise to anyone who has been paying attention, but this year’s running back class has a chance to be elite. Nothing is guaranteed, but it would take a dramatic amount of busts for this running back class to be considered a disappointment. It should come as no surprise who I ranked first and second on my list below, but even at nine or ten you can find a talented running back who could end up a franchise’s workhorse. The good news is, the Miami Dolphins already have theirs in Jay Ajayi. Don’t expect the Dolphins to draft any of these guys, but there could be a surprise scenario where they look to replace Damien Williams. The young running back will be a restricted free agent in upcoming weeks.
Honorable mentions: Corey Clement, Wisconsin; Matthew Dayes, NC State; Donnel Pumphrey, San Diego State
10. James Conner, Pittsburgh: Conner is considered lucky to still be playing football. If you’re unfamiliar with his heartwarming story, check it out here. You’ll root for the guy to succeed after learning about his journey.
Conner possesses a physical style of running that causes a lot broken tackles. The big bodied running back isn’t very shifty or flashy in making defenders miss, lacks quickness, but has decent overall speed. He uses decent cut back and juke moves, but more of a contact guy. It remains to be seen if he can use finesse to beat defenders at the next level, as he usually relies on powerful running and stiff arms. Conner lacks good acceleration out of the backfield. When riding a bike from start to finish, it takes some momentum to reach a high speed. A bike could never hit top speed the way a car does. That’s how Conner is when receiving handoffs. It takes a little momentum until he reaches his top speed. His good vision and patience are what make up for his lack of agility and acceleration.
Regardless of where he is drafted, I’m rooting for him to refine his skills and become an every-down back in the NFL. At the very least, he’s a change-of-pace running back that could get a shot at being an every-down back — much like Legarrette Blount and how he finally found a home in New England.
9. Wayne Gallman, Clemson: Gallman is a tough, athletic runner who has great acceleration from the snap, allowing him to reach the second level quickly and efficiently. Quick cuts and stutter-step jukes are his most effective ways of running. He’s a runner who gets downfield for safe yardage, rather than running east and west for the bigger play. His breakaway speed shows once he hits an opening in the trenches, but not as much on outside runs. He needs to expand his role as a reciever, as he wasn’t trusted often. His receptions per game declined each season, according to rotoviz.com. Gallman must improve his vision. He got caught relying too heavily on his physicality by running into the wrong gap for little gain, rather than bouncing it outside or cutting back inside. He frequently got stuffed by Alabama’s defense in the National Championship game by running into gaps that had already been closed. The Clemson running back doesn’t do anything elite, but he’s a well-rounded running back.
8. Samaje Perine, Oklahoma: Perine became Oklahoma University’s all-time rusher this season, breaking the record for total yards rushed. He’s a slippery, powerful back with great vision and patience. His great acceleration allows him to hit his second gear easily. He’s very fast and shifty, but he doesn’t have elite speed, which is what you’d like to see in a running back with his frame. Despite being able to break long runs, Perine isn’t a guy who is going to out run an entire defense by hitting top speed. He also isn’t a guy who runs over defenders consistently, yet. He has great strength and can break tackles, but you don’t see him deliver many forceful blows to defenders on tape. He is more of a slippery, cutback type of runner, than a tackle-breaking type. With his elite balance as a runner, he draws a comparison to Michael Turner, and has a ceiling of Ahmad Bradshaw. He’ll need to fill out his frame more to deliver contact, rather than absorbing it.
7. Jamaal Williams, BYU: Williams is an interesting prospect. After having an inconsistent three years due to off the field issues, he became BYU’s best running back of all time by the end of his senior year. Williams is one of the biggest running backs in the draft. He’s a strong, powerful back, who hits the holes hard and bounces off of tacklers like a pinball. Inconsistent vision. One game he’ll show great vision, the next (such as the game against Michigan State) he’ll lack great vision. Williams is a decisive, downfield runner who rarely dances around for extra yardage. He lacks a noticeable second gear, but has good enough breakaway speed. Williams lacks agility and fluidity in making defenders miss, and is somewhat of a stiff runner. He does most of his damage between the tackles, rather than outside stretch plays. Williams projects to be a punishing headache for defenses at the next level.
6. Alvin Kamara, Tennessee: Kamara is a weapon with an unknown ceiling. Since Jalen Hurd transferred from the program, Kamara has thrived as the starter. He’s a purely gifted athlete with elite speed and makes defenders miss every time he gets the ball. He’s electric with the ball in his hands, and has balance and ability to stay upright through contact. The Tennessee running back is a naturally smooth runner with ankle-breaking moves. His hands allow him to be utilized as a running back or wide receiver at any point in the game. Think of him as a taller version of Darren Sproles – and that’s no exaggeration. His elite playmaking skills and surprising power, make him a versatile weapon. Once Kamara gets the ball and reaches the second level, he’s a threat to take it all the way, untouched. The question is, can he take on 20+ carries a game at the next level? That remains to be seen, as he is yet to do it in his career.
5. Joe Mixon, Oklahoma: Mixon is a top running back prospect, but it remains unknown what round he’ll be selected in. If you’re not up to date with why, check out his story here.
Mixon is one of the most lethal runners in the draft. He’s got great size, speed and strength. He’s not afraid to lower his shoulder and explode through defenders in every run. Never runs fearful, always with purpose, and is rarely brought down by one defender. Mixon has excellent hands as a receiver, and can be a huge factor in the passing game. He has devastating jukes, cut backs and stiff arms. Mixon has excellent vision and great patience, and once he reaches his second gear, he’s gone. He can get a little careless with the ball, holding the ball loosely and away from his body. He’s not as shifty as his teammate Perine, but he’s better in every other aspect. Mixon must mature and embrace second chance. It will be interesting to see what team gambles on him, but if he can make the most out of his second chance, he can be a top 10 running back in the NFL. He would be graded higher on the list if not for his off-field issues.
4. D’Onta Foreman, Texas: Foreman is a monster that defenses don’t want to face. He lead the nation in rushing yards behind a bad offensive line at Texas. He bulldozes his way through defenders with ease, always gaining extra yardage after contact. He is one of the strong, hard runner, with great speed. He has a change-of-direction ability to accelerate to top speed quickly. His below average hands are a liability in the passing game. Foreman uses a terrific stiff arm and cutback moves to evade defenders. He lacks a great first step and acceleration out of the backfield. He has great vision and patience, but occasionally slows down inexplicably. Foreman is still learning to bounce runs to the outside, but has flashed the ability to do so. Foreman will need to improve ball security, as fumbling was an issue at times. He has the potential to be a top 10 running back in the NFL.
3. Christian McCaffrey, Stanford: McCaffrey is the complete package. He can be used as a weapon in the running or passing game.
Has great hands and awareness when receiving the ball downfield. Don’t expect him to take a play off, as he always fights for extra yardage with his elite vision. He rarely fumbles the football, as he only three career fumbles on 441 offensive touches to date. He's a quick, decisive, strong runner, but will need to add to his frame to break tackles at the next level. McCaffery has an explosive first-step burst, and great top-end speed in the open field. Not many defenders can catch him in pursuit. McCaffery’s most impressive trait is his ability to make sharp cuts at full speed without slowing down. If he can add to his frame and consistently absorb contact, he will have a chance to be great.
2. Dalvin Cook, Florida State: Cook is a top 10 player in this draft. He explodes out of the backfield with great acceleration. Has elite vision, patience, elusiveness and speed. If he hits the second level with room, he’s gone. He’s a big-play threat every time he touches the football. Cook made some jaw-dropping highlight runs over his career at FSU. He has some of the best cutbacks and jukes out of anyone in the entire draft. Cook is a tough, tenacious runner, who is like a small truck in space. He excelled in short yardage situations at key moments in the game. Cook is a great weapon in the passing game and has decent hands for a running back. Cook has single handedly won FSU games over his career. He needs to work on blocking. Occasionally, he will hold the ball a little loosely and will need to fix that to avoid possible fumbling issues. There are some concerns about his previously injured shoulder, but not enough to hurt his draft stock. Cook has the potential to be a star in the NFL.
1. Leonard Fournette, LSU: As one of the most dynamic offensive players in college football, Fournette is a terror for opposing defenses. Fournette is the best running back prospect since Adrian Peterson, with his elite size, strength, speed and agility. Can take on a pile of tacklers and drive the pile forward. If tackling Dalvin Cook is like tackling a truck, then tackling Leonard Fournette is like tackling a train. He has vicious stiff arm and juke moves. Few defenders in the NFL will be able to catch him. Defenders are often left taking poor tackling angles, requiring efforts from multiple teammates. Fournette explodes out of the backfield, looking to maul defenders. He’s easily the hardest runner in the draft. Surprisingly, he wasn’t used very often in the passing game, despite having good hands. He may need to improve route running and awareness as a receiver downfield. You never want to tell a player to settle, but you wonder if all the contact he absorbs will break him down long term. While Fournette extends play at an elite level, he takes a lot of heavy blows to his body due to his aggressive running style. He should occasionally settle for safe yardage or running out of bounds in the NFL to have a long, healthy career – especially after being LSU’s entire offense for years. Fournette has the potential to be the top running back in the NFL.
The Miami Dolphins are unlikely to draft any of these running backs, but if they were to replace Damien Williams via draft, the likely candidates would be: Perine, Clement, Dayes and Pumphrey.