This year’s NFL draft features an abundance of quality running backs
Running backs generating first-round buzz are back in fashion, and three could be among the top-20 picks for the first time since 2005.
In next week’s draft, LSU’s Leonard Fournette, Florida State’s Dalvin Cook and Stanford’s Christian McCaffrey headline a deep and talented class of running backs.
The last time there was a draft with three backs taken among the top 20, that distinction went to Miami’s Ronnie Brown (second overall), Chicago’s Cedric Benson (fourth) and Tampa Bay’s Cadillac Williams (fifth).
What a difference a few years make.
Remember when it was fashionable to say teams could get productive backs in any round, and they shouldn’t waste first-round picks on running backs?
In the last four drafts, only three backs - Todd Gurley (Rams) and Melvin Gordon (Chargers) in 2015 and Ezekiel Elliott (Cowboys) in 2016 - were first-round picks.
Gurley was voted NFL Offensive Rookie of the Year. Elliott led the league in rushing as a rookie and won the same award as Gurley.
Backs were such an afterthought that not one was drafted in the first round in 2013 and 2014.
Mixon a tough sell
As the draft approaches, Fournette, Cook and McCaffrey are so hot they’re trending. The show doesn’t stop there, though.
If Oklahoma’s Joe Mixon had not hit a woman, he would be the fourth back chosen in the first round. There hasn’t been at least four backs taken in the first round since 2008.
This year, Mixon, Tennessee’s Alvin Kamara, Texas’ D’Onta Foreman, Toledo’s Kareem Hunt and Oklahoma’s Samage Perine could be taken in the second round.
“There’s a lot of good running backs in this draft,” Texans coach Bill O’Brien said at the combine. “I’ve watched a lot of running backs, and it seems like there’s a good mixture of first- and second-down guys, three-down guys, inside runners, guys that can run inside and outside. Some are really fast that can run to the perimeter of the defense, can catch passes out of the backfield, can line up in an empty (backfield) and match them up on linebackers.”
This class of backs is like a smorgasbord - something for every team with a need.
Two of the most intriguing prospects are McCaffrey and Mixon.
McCaffrey is a terrific all-purpose back. He’s an outstanding runner, receiver and returner. No player has his versatility.
“I think McCaffrey is an excellent player,” O’Brien said. “I think he’s an every-down back. I’m not sure I would even label him as a back. He does so many different things. He’s an offensive weapon. He lines up in the backfield. He’s a very bright guy. Love his competitiveness. I think you have to have a plan for how you’re going to use him.”
Mixon has the best size-speed combination, but some teams have taken him off their board. Whoever drafts him is going to generate unmitigated criticism locally and nationally.
Denver was one of the teams that brought in Mixon for a visit.
“I thought Joe was a nice young man,” new Broncos coach Vance Joseph said. “Obviously, he had an issue three or four years ago, but he’s owned it. We brought Joe in because he didn’t go to the combine. We brought him in and talked to him for a day. He’s been remorseful for his mistake.”
A 1-2 punch for Carroll
Because of injuries, some teams prefer to have two backs on whom they can rely. There are plenty to go around in this draft.
Seattle coach Pete Carroll watched Marshawn Lynch retire. Lynch wants to come out of retirement and play for Oakland. The Seahawks have moved on.
Lynch and Minnesota’s Adrian Peterson were the only first-round picks in 2007, and both are looking for work.
To try to replace Lynch this season, Seattle signed free agent Eddie Lacy and could use a high draft choice on another back.
“I’ve been asked for 15 years if it’s better to have two running backs or one,” Carroll said. “I’ve always thought that’s really valuable when you can have two guys or three guys. If there’s a guy that’s so dominant that nobody else deserves the play time, then you’ve got a great one. … We have always been an advocate of a one-two punch kind of formula.”
Teams have to be careful or they could end up like Cleveland in 2012 when the Browns used the third pick on Alabama’s Trent Richardson, a monumental bust. Then Indianapolis traded a first-round pick to Cleveland for Richardson, who was just as bad for the Colts.
Sometimes it pays for teams in need to wait beyond the first round.
In 2013, Pittsburgh drafted Michigan State’s Le’Veon Bell in the second round. He developed into one of the league’s premier backs.