1. Christian McCaffrey, Stanford
2. Kareem Hunt, Toledo
3. Joe Mixon, Oklahoma
4. Leonard Fournette, LSU
5. Dalvin Cook, Florida State
6. Jamaal Williams, BYU
7. Jeremy McNichols, Boise State
8. Alvin Kamara, Tennessee
9. Marlon Mack, South Florida
10. Wayne Gallman, Clemson
11. D’Onta Foreman, Texas
12. James Conner, Pittsburgh
13. Samaje Perine, Oklahoma
14. Eli McGuire, Louisiana Lafayette
15. Brian Hill, Wyoming
16. Matt Dayes, North Carolina State
17. Dare Ogunbowale, Wisconsin
18. T.J. Logan, North Carolina
19. Aaron Jones, UTEP
20. Taquan Mizzell, Virginia
Best of the rest, in approximate order:
Tarik Cohen, NC Central
I’Tavius Mathers, Middle Tennessee
Joe Williams, Utah
De’Angelo Henderson, Coastal Carolina
LeShun Daniels, Iowa
Elijah Hood, North Carolina
Teriyon Gipson, New Mexico
Marcus Cox, Appalachian State
Joseph Yearby, Miami
Jahad Thomas, Temple
DeVeon Smith, Michigan
Matt Breida, Georgia Southern
Brandon Radcliff, Louisville
Joel Bouagnon, Northern Illinois
McCaffrey is the most likely to succeed with his skills at the next level despite not necessarily being the most overall talented. His short-area quickness and innate ability to set up multiple moves at top speed stands out. McCaffrey is a polished receiver who runs actual routes and can flex outside for matchup advantages. Biggest concern I have is workload, though he’s proven durable and almost never takes big hits. He is the only RB I have in my top 20 overall.
I love Kareem Hunt’s balance. He got himself into prime physical condition in 2016 after getting heavy as a junior and his newfound burst and lesser target to hit on inside runs really elevated his game. He’s best in class in pass protection, something he emphatically proved during Senior Bowl week. He won’t hit a lot of home runs but will consistently move the chains as both a runner and receiver, inside or off tackle.
Mixon obviously carries off-field baggage, but on the field he’s a complete back. He gets from the 5 to 12-yard mark better than any RB here. There are times where I wish he were more assertive in attacking the hole, and I don’t think he sees cutback lanes as consistently as Hunt or others. His acceleration at his size is outstanding. Having a plan in place for handling the PR hit, as well as finding a strong locker room which can help guide him, is imperative.
Fournette can be terrific in a deep set where he can get a couple of steps in before hitting the line. His power/speed ratio is amazing at 240 pounds. I love his aggressive style and his willingness to dish out hits instead of taking them. So why am I so comparatively low on him? Foremost is his lack of creativity. He embraces being the bull too often, dropping his eyes and shoulders. When the initial hole isn’t where he expects it, he tries to hit it anyway. The speed is great top-end but it’s build-up speed, and he doesn’t have any real elusiveness other than a hip/shoulder fake vs. tacklers at full speed. He did not handle being hurt well, and his style will leave him incredibly vulnerable to injuries both small and large. There’s just too many things here where Fournette reminds me of Cedric Benson, who was a good-not-great starter after flopping early.
Cook is, for my money, the most talented and instinctive natural runner in this class. He’s also a great receiver, a home-run hitter who can turn one missed tackle into a long TD. His acceleration, balance, quick feet in tight spaces and burst out of a cut are all elite. He falls for two reasons. Foremost is his three shoulder surgeries, which when combined with his laundry list of minor wounds, create major long-term durability questions. There are also off-field concerns which came fully to light for me at the Combine. Like Mixon, it will take a strong locker room and coaching staff to handle his rather unique set of skills and circumstance. Cook is the most likely RB in this very deep and talented class to win a rushing title.
Williams runs with a similar shoulder-down, I’ll-hit-you-before-you-hit-me style as Fournette, but he’s not as big (212 pounds) or fast. His two-step burst is better than Fournette’s but he can’t sustain it as well. Gets north-south right away and stays on direction. Good pass blocker and he doesn’t fumble, his bowl gaffe a notable exception. He too has some off-field questions as well as a high amount of carries.
Mack and Kamara are similar, all-or-nothing speed backs. Mack has better open-field speed and moves but he tries to take everything outside, for better but often for worse. Kamara’s game against Ohio is very emblematic of how I see his NFL career: his first touch went for 37 yards, his next 9 netted 10. His all-around talents are better than Mack’s but I prefer the former’s “being chased” speed and nose for the end zone. Kamara fits better for a team looking for more receiving work as an actual receiver and not just dump offs.
Foreman doesn’t realize he’s a moose at 233 pounds. He’s strong but not physical. Runs with only one speed and doesn’t have burst from first to second level. His hands are a huge concern, fumbled 7 times and he doesn’t protect the ball while he runs inside. Has little experience as a receiver and is all-or-nothing in pass protection. Reminds me of ex-Browns RB Kevin Mack.
Most of the later backs are fine for a specific role. Perine is a between-the-tackles sledgehammer who is not fun to tackle. I like his ability to always fall forward and finish runs at max effort. Hill fits as a one-cut thumper who runs too upright but can make the first guy miss in a variety of ways. Ogunbowale can cut at full burst and turns the corner quickly. Mizzell is a fantastic receiver on swing passes and screens a la Theo Riddick. Cohen is tiny but hyper-elusive and doesn’t back down despite being small. Mathers is my predicted Mr. Irrelevant, and I like his smooth glide to sharp cut wiggle. Daniels runs as you would expect the son of a former NFL offensive linemen to run. Smith and Thomas are both speedy and could wind up being better pros than collegians.