This series will go position by position to look at the tiers of where NFL draft prospects stack up to each other. Rankings are great for discussion, but so many factors such as coaching, scheme fit and usage will affect who actually will have more NFL success. Every player in each tier could easily be the top player in the tier based on these factors. Any prospect not discussed unfortunately did not have enough adequate tape to have a full evaluation. For this edition, we look at running backs.
2017 NFL Draft: Running Back Tiers
1. Dalvin Cook, Florida State
Cook is a do everything back. He is a bit undersized, but do not let that fool you when it comes to the power that he brings to the table. In fact, the best feature of Cook is his entire lower body. He has strong legs to drive through and shed tackles, but possesses soft feet that allow him to dance and break plays to the outside. Cook has had multiple shoulder injuries in his career and has some off-field question marks, but a dynamic pass catcher, between the tackles runner, and breakaway speed demon checks enough boxes to lead the top tier of backs.
2. Joe Mixon, Oklahoma
There is a good chance that Mixon finds himself being the most talented back when all is set and done. Mixon is extremely smooth and fluid as a runner. He displays exceptional patience and is shifty enough to make any defender miss in open space. Add in seamless pass catching abilities and breakaway speed and the argument for him to be the best back in the draft is on the table. Of course, he comes with his baggage off the field that makes taking him in the first round a non-discussion and turns drafting him into a moral decision. However, on the field, it is very easy to argue that he is the top of the class as a football player.
3. Christian McCaffrey, Stanford
McCaffrey is a bit undersized, but he excels where many would not expect him to. He is an incredible asset between the tackles and that comes from vision and patience. He is light on his feet and never in a hurry to hit a hole that is not there. Of course, he also brings what his athletic profile suggests. McCaffrey is quick, shifty and elusive running towards the sidelines and in open space. It is also tough to argue that any back is a more fluid route runner than McCaffrey. While he is not as big as Joe Mixon, nor as powerful as Cook, the complete skill set in which he brings puts him on a similar level and makes him the ultimate offensive weapon.
4. Leonard Fournette, LSU
Of the four top tier backs, Fournette may be the most scheme dependent. He is best working in power football, and the use of a lead blocking fullback is usually what brings out the best of Fournette. Still, his combination of speed and size is rare. Very rare. His best attributes show on toss plays where he can find space, plant his foot and burst into the second level. There, Fournette is a runaway train that is almost impossible to tackle. However, it is getting to that level that Fournette struggles with at times, and is the reason he is not in his own tier as the clear-cut top dog.
5. Jamaal Williams, BYU
Williams brings an exciting mix of power and finesse to his game. You see it with Williams when you watch his hips swivel in tight spaces and his feet in open space to make defenders whiff. Still, the best way to describe Williams is as a north-south runner, and he uses those finesse features to set up physical battles in between the tackles that he looks to dominate by lowering his shoulder. He does not provide much in the passing game and may see himself as a two-down back, but if he gets first downs on those two downs consistently it is not a big problem.
6. Kareem Hunt, Toledo
The best word to describe Hunt is balance. He has tremendous balance and finds himself bouncing off of tackles while still finding running lanes, and keeping his feet. He is elusive in the open space, can catch well out of the backfield and is always falling forward. Hunt may not possess great breakaway speed but has complimentary back skills with the upside to be a potential three-down runner in the NFL.
7. D’Onta Foreman, Texas
Foreman is essentially a bigger version of Jamaal Williams. Williams has better vision and power, but Foreman is the bigger back and has greater breakaway speed. He has a similar hip swivel and plays with finesse feet which are impressive for his size. However, for such a big back it is surprising how often he goes down on first contact, and his capabilities in the passing game are an unknown. Still, a 233-pound home run threat is quite an intriguing prospect.
8. Alvin Kamara, Tennessee
Kamara is explosive, can catch and has the thick lower legs to shrug off arm tackles. He is elusive in open space and uses his speed and vision to use the whole field when running. Still, Kamara has never toted the ball more than 18 times in a game and has 210 career carries. Add in some fumble scares, and it is tough to call him your every down back. Still, as a change of pace player, it may not take long until it is accepted that there are none better.
9. Samaje Perine, Oklahoma
Perine has great lower body strength and is arguably more powerful than any of the backs ahead of him. He uses his lower body strength to build up momentum, and when he gets going, good luck bringing him down. Still, he is a bit of a tight runner and does not have the finesse and swivel that Foreman and Williams have. Envisioning him carrying a career similar to Michael Turner is very easy.
10. Marlon Mack, USF
Marlon Mack is the ultimate risk-reward player. He dances like no other in the class, and laterally may be the best back. It can lead to big plays, and he has speed to break any play open. Still, the dancing also leads to major losses of yards, and he usually does not know when to give up when running laterally.
11. Wayne Gallman, Clemson
Gallman wins in the passing game. As a pass catcher, he is smooth and capable with great footwork to move with the ball in his hands in space. On top of that, he is arguably the top pass protection back in the class. He is a former linebacker and when he gets the nuances and vision he can become a higher ceiling back than where he is ranked.
12. Jeremy McNichols, Boise State
McNichols has a great variety of change of direction, pass catching and elusive abilities. However, what sets him back is his vision and ability to make his cuts up the field. Some have put this on his offensive line, but he needs to show more patience and vision rather than kicking every play to the outside if he wants NFL success.
13. James Connor, Pitt
Connor is a bruiser of a back who is great at breaking tackles. We all know his story and fight through cancer, and if there is one thing you cannot knock, it is his toughness. He has great feet but may not have the elusiveness to break plays to the outside in the NFL. Connor can be a one-cut runner and he should be looked at as a thumper between the tackles that may not have an upside outside of that.
14. Elijah McGuire, UL-Laffayette
McGuire has a thick frame but is very elusive and light on his feet. He can bounce off of weak tackles and make other defenders miss with jukes and shifty moves. On top of that, he is a great pass catcher and is a weapon in most phases. What holds him back are his vision and pass blocking. He doesn’t use the whole field when running and misses assignments that will limit any playing time he would like to see. If he can learn to process better, his upside is an NFL starter.
15. Aaron Jones, UTEP
While McCaffrey is the best route runner, Jones is likely the best pass catcher in the class. He has soft hands, displays a solid catch radius, and is a great ball tracker, making him a deep threat out of the backfield. He has a thick build, but he runs high and his playing strength makes him a likely third down, pass catching option. However, that is more valuable than ever in today’s NFL.
16. Elijah Hood, UNC
Hood has a great combination of vision and power. He is shifty and patient enough to stay light on his feet while he lets holes develop, and in the Oklahoma drill, he is a force that will win in most cases. Still, he does not have breakaway speed and does not really have speed to take plays outside consistently either. His best case is an early down and goal line back in the NFL.
17. Tarik Cohen, North Carolina A&T
They call Cohen the human joystick for a good reason. He is electric with the ball in his hands and can make defenders look silly. Although coming out of NC A&T, there may be a reason these defenders looked so foolish. Add in that he is just 5’6”, 179 pounds and his ceiling is rather limited. Still, he dominated lower competition and in a Darren Sproles role deserves a shot in the NFL.
18. Brian Hill, Wyoming
Hill is a downhill, power back. However, he lacks the great vision and has little elusiveness as well. Picture him as a battering ram, pounding away at a wall until it breaks down. He is a goal line back in the NFL, but a mighty tough one to bring down.
19. Matthew Dayes, North Carolina State
Dayes plays with great patience and vision. He is a one-cut runner who could excel in a zone blocking scheme. However, his lack of athleticism and speed take away any real big plays from him and limit his upside in the NFL. Still, he can find a job as a depth back and could give solid carries in a pinch.
20. T.J. Logan, UNC
Logan is the ultimate home run threat. He is a blazer who can beat defenders to the edge, and turn any play into the big one. Still, he has no presence between the tackles and is more of a change of pace, gimmick back than a real threat that would consistently see the field.
21. Justin Davis, USC
Davis looks like a great running back. He has the size and fluid movements and has shown an ability to catch out of the backfield. However, he tends to rush his process, and may not have the patience to let holes develop. Add in a true lack of power between the tackles and some injury questions and he is a late round shot with backup capabilities.
22. Stanley Williams, Kentucky
Williams is another home run threat. He has quick, shifty feet and breakaway speed to be a vital playmaker. Still, he is well undersized and has little playing strength to offer any upside other than a scat back. Add in that he was hardly used in the passing game, and all of the sudden the questions arise as to whether he can be more than anything but a kick returner.
23. Deangelo Henderson, Coastal Carolina
Henderson is compact and has shown power between the tackles, but in open space has electric speed. In a zone run blocking scheme, there is a chance he can find his way to being a starter. However, he dominated the lower competition and even there showed little elusiveness or ability to consistently shed tackles. Add in that he is 24 years old, and you would have liked to see him dominate his competition to a higher degree to expect real NFL success.
24. Joe Williams, Utah
Williams has big-time home run speed and when he is in the open field he accelerates as quick as anyone in the class. However, in that regard, he is a bit of a one trick pony. He doesn’t show a great feel or vision to find holes and is quick to bail and cut plays to the outside. Williams also has some off-field, character concerns including retiring from football for a month and being kicked out of UConn. Add in fumbles, and smaller, but more capable home run threats like Logan and Stanley Williams come off as better options.
25. Corey Clement, Wisconsin
Clement is a guy who takes what is given, no more and no less. He ran behind a stacked offensive line, and as it wore down the opposition, his big plays began to show. Still, he doesn’t create on his own and has little elusiveness or body fluidity. He is a below average athlete, and his upside may be a special teamer and number three back.
26. Donnel Pumphrey, San Diego State
Pumphrey had an amazing college career as the FBS all-time leading rusher and has drawn the Darren Sproles comparison. However, Sproles has 14 pounds on him and is an extremely better athlete. Tarik Cohen is a better bet to be the Sproles type of the class, and his limited athletic profile with outstanding college production could be compared more to Garrett Wolfe.
27. De’Veon Smith, Michigan
De’Veon Smith is just too slow to have a chance in the NFL. He is slow out of his breaks and has no breakaway speed or agility to speak of. He has good vision and power and may find goal line snaps, but it is tough to envision him being anything more than a third-string back.