NFL Draft: Top 10 running back prospects in 2017 class

  • NFL Draft: Top 10 running back prospects in 2017 class

    While the 2017 NFL Draft running back class has been touted as one of the best in recent memory, we might see only two runners selected in the first round.

    Leonard Fournette is special, but Christian McCaffrey’s uniqueness and Dalvin Cook’s upside give both a reason to be viewed above Fournette for some teams. One also might want to get to know Marlon Mack and D’Onta Foreman. Also a question mark for RBs: where Joe Mixon fits in the class.

    Here are Optimum Scouting’s top 10 running backs in the 2017 NFL Draft class.

    MORE: Latest Mock Draft | Top 100 prospects

    The following 2017 NFL Draft running back prospect ranking is included in Optimum Scouting’s 2017 NFL Draft Guide, which is available for purchase here. The draft guide includes 300-plus scouting reports as well as position-specific analytics for prospects in the 2017 NFL Draft.

  • 1 Samaje Perine, Oklahoma

    Perine is one of the most accomplished running backs in Big 12 history. After just three seasons, he found himself seventh in the conference in career rushing yards, just above fellow former Sooner Adrian Peterson. Perine is a powerful, downhill runner. At roughly 5-11, 233 pounds, he sports a low, thick build that grants him balance and leverage. Perine has the natural strength to plow through defenders and keep his feet under him.

    He doesn't do anything profound or overly impressive, but Perine consistently cuts on time and does fine job of working through congestion. He's a fine third-down back, too. He's not a spectacular pass-catcher, but he does well in pass protection. Early on in the NFL, Perine might be best suited to work in tandem with a quicker back (like he did at Oklahoma), but he has the skills to be a solid No. 1 back in the NFL.

  • 2 Joe Williams, Utah

    Describing Williams’ football career as a wild ride would be an understatement. A versatile athlete coming out of high school, Williams signed with Connecticut in 2012 but only accounted for six yards before he was suspended indefinitely for credit card theft. Be for he ended up at Utah, Williams played for ASA College in Brooklyn and received 2014 All-American accolades after he rushed for more than 1,000 yards and seven touchdowns in just seven starts.

    Williams jumps off the tape with his elite acceleration, change of direction and ability to bounce dead runs into something special. A potential threat in the receiving game, as well, Williams is a tough runner to bring down in space. He fumbled seven times in just 289 attempts at Utah, a bit of a theme. He can be a physical runner between the tackles but might not have the desired frame to be a three-down back, which is concerning because he’s not a willing blocker in the passing game.

  • 3 Joe Mixon, Oklahoma

    Mixon has obvious NFL upside and a chance to be a great player, but his 2014 assault of a female that was caught on camera will stay with the running back and the team that drafts him long after his name is announced in Philadelphia. While those in the Sooners’ program vouch for him, Mixon was there during a stretch of off-field issues for players and a concerning level of "understanding" within the program, starting with coach Bob Stoops.

    A special athlete in space, Mixon's fluidity and ability to work away from his frame puts him in a rare category. He's a smooth pass-catcher and should be able to contribute immediately on third downs in the NFL. He offers elite change-of-direction skills for a taller back, and while he doesn't over-power on the interior, he has the leg drive and lower-half bend to explode through contact. Mixon should be a top-10 pick based on talent alone, but his off-field issues could resurface in the future. His selection also might reiterate the message — both to the public and to future NFL prospects — that respect for a woman comes second to talent.

  • 4 Jamaal Williams, BYU

    Williams should already be in the league. He was productive through his first three years at BYU until his junior season was ruined by a knee injury, which occurred so late in the year and with enough severity that Williams was forced to sit out the 2015 season.

    Williams is a smart, patient runner who predicates his game on being right more often than the defense. He thrives in zone concepts, in which he can press one way and cut back. Williams' understanding of angles, control over his burst and balance make him a dangerous runner at the second level. He does not have home-run speed, but he has enough to compliment his power and balance. On passing downs, he's better off in protection than as a receiver. Due to his status as an older prospect with a severe injury on his resume, Williams loses a little value. But he's an NFL-ready runner who can become a team's lead back.

  • 5 Alvin Kamara, Tennessee

    Kamara, once the nation's No. 1 running back recruit ahead of Derrick Henry, didn’t see playing time as a freshman at Alabama thanks to knee surgery. After two suspensions, he transferred to Hutchinson Community College, where he became conference player of the year in 2014. At Tennessee, Kamara was Jalen Hurd’s backup until Hurd sat out the second half of the 2016 season.

    Kamara brings a change-of-pace style with elite speed, acceleration and elusiveness on the edge. He creates yardage with good patience, allowing his blocks to set so he can burst through holes. He was repeatedly slammed down in the SEC, which is concerning regarding his ability to break tackles. He also has some fumbling issues, and he never carried the ball more than 18 times in a game with the Vols. He’s a willing blocker and an elite pass-catcher for third downs.

  • 6 D’Onta Foreman, Texas

    Foreman emerged at Texas as a sophomore, rotational back before he earned the starting job as a junior. His production that season (Doak Walker Award winner in 2016), which included three games over 250 rushing yards and at least 120 yards in every game he played, was a testament to his upside as an NFL running back.

    Foreman is not a burner, and he needs time to reach his top speed in order to best utilize his natural power. While not as physical or lower half-focused in the open field as he should be, Foreman relies on his sturdy base, short-area balance and lateral control to take advantage of openings in the second level. He does hesitate at times, though that’s more apparent against top competition or in obvious running situations. When Foreman does use his power in-line, he's able to work through contact and quickly re-accelerate. His upside is as high as any running back in the class not named Leonard Fournette.

  • 7 Marlon Mack, South Florida

    A former four-star prospect and a three-year feature back at South Florida, Mack is among the best RBs in the 2017 class. With athletic upside, experience, an established style and third-down value, he’s a fluid athlete who remains nimble and loose as a runner, able to change direction and even get airborne with ease.

    Mack’s body control both from a standstill and when accelerating is among the most impressive in this class. His ability to adjust upfield and elude should allow him to only improve in the NFL. His shiftiness, athleticism and lateral control allow him to navigate away from full contact. He catches with his hands, and while he might be susceptible to focus drops or rush catches, he can be an immediate contributor in the passing game and an ideal after-the-catch runner.

  • 8 Dalvin Cook, Florida State

    Cook is a "leap of faith" prospect. His ability is impressive, but Cook brings a lingering sense of off-field concerns, including his 2015 domestic assault case (found not guilty). He also has battled nagging injuries throughout his career.

    Once Cook has made his decision on where to run, his acceleration and jump-cut ability enable him to keep clean from defenders and separate at the second level. Cook needs a few extra steps to make sharp turns and drastic changes of direction due to some stiffness in his hips, but his nimble footwork and speedy acceleration often are enough to mask his questionable flexibility. Cook's blend of vision, footwork and acceleration gives him the skill set to operate in any scheme. In addition, his ability as a pass-catcher is valuable, and his speed out of the backfield is a real weapon. Cook will need to show improvement as a pass blocker, but aside from that, he can do anything that's asked of him.

  • 9 Christian McCaffrey, Stanford

    A weapon in a balanced, pro-style offense at Stanford, McCaffrey performed at an elite level. He burst on the scene in 2015 when he rushed for more than 2,000 yards, was selected as a first team All-American and finished second in the Heisman voting.

    A dynamic runner, McCaffrey does not have the ideal frame for an every-down back. He’s not able to create chunk plays after dead yardage situations and lacks desired power to erase contact. Even though he’s not projected as a workhorse within the the tackles, McCaffrey shows the football intelligence needed to read and react to what's going on in the trenches. His change-of-direction skills alone should be a good enough reason for a team to draft him with a first-round pick. But his dynamic skill set, above-average vision, overall athleticism and receiving ability give him a strong case to be one of the first running backs selected.

  • 10 Leonard Fournette, LSU

    A Louisiana native who opted to stay in-state after a tumultuous childhood (thanks to the devastation of Hurricane Katrina), Fournette truly is one of the most special running back talents we've seen since Bo Jackson. He's not as impressive anticipation-wise as Ezekiel Elliott or as finished as Todd Gurley or Adrian Peterson were coming out of college, but Fournette is freakishly balanced, explosive and controlled.

    Despite being a 240-pound running back, Fournette is able to accelerate naturally after he takes the handoff. While he does not have great initial lateral quickness, he does display shifting control and subtle movements at the second level. He is phenomenal at adjusting his body to encourage arm tackles. Fournette’s occasional frustrating games and need for adequate offensive line play should not drop him. If he lands with a team that can harness his upside, Fournette could quickly become the most talented running back in the NFL. 

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