By Brandon Niles EBS Sports Columnist
With the Super Bowl being played Feb. 5, everyone is talking about the great season Atlanta Falcons quarterback Matt Ryan had and whether or not he can knock off the always-tough New England Patriots. Meanwhile, I’m looking ahead toward the NFL draft.
In my last column, I made a case for Clemson quarterback Deshaun Watson as a top-10 consideration. As I continue to delve into the top prospects available, all the information points to one thing: this is going to be a great running back class.
Only three running backs have been taken in the first round over the past four drafts combined, with none in 2013 and 2014. However, there are at least four running backs that carry a first-round grade in this draft, and I could argue a fifth deserves consideration as well. While team needs will dictate just how many running backs end up being taken on day one this year, it seems likely that at least three will end up going in the first round. That hasn’t happened since 2012.
Quantity is one thing, but there are three legitimate game-changing talents available this year. LSU’s Leonard Fournette is the best prospect I’ve seen since Adrian Peterson came out in 2007, and Florida State’s Dalvin Cook and Stanford’s Christian McCaffrey are both incredible playmakers that will make an immediate impact at the next level.
Fournette missed six games this year with an ankle injury, but he’s been the best runner in college football for the past three seasons. He scored 40 rushing touchdowns in his career at LSU, and ran for 1,953 yards as a sophomore.
Fournette has a rare blend of speed and power that makes him difficult to stop in short yardage situations, but is elusive enough to score any time he touches the ball. When all is said and done, he may end up being the best player in this draft at any position, and should soon become the best running back in the NFL.
Cook could be nearly as good. What he lacks in raw power, he more than makes up for with balance and vision. Plus, he has incredible speed and uses his strong lower body to push through would-be tacklers. Cook caught 33 passes last season for 488 yards and his natural ability as a receiver makes him a more versatile option than Fournette.
McCaffrey has a skillset reminiscent of former USC Trojan and second overall pick Reggie Bush. He has tremendous playmaking skills and can be lined up anywhere on the field. As a sophomore, McCaffrey rushed for 2,019 yards, caught 45 passes, and had 1,200 yards and a pair of touchdowns in the return game as well.
His lean frame might make it difficult for him to hold up as an every-down back, and cause concerns that he’ll have the same durability issues Bush had as a pro, but there’s no doubting his talent and his ability to change a game in the blink of an eye. Some team is going to fall in love with his skillset and it’ll be shocking if he doesn’t hear his name called on day one.
I also have a first round grade on Texas’ D’Onta Foreman who had 2,028 yards last season and runs with a bruising style that compares favorably to New England’s LeGarrette Blount. Additionally, I think Tennessee’s Alvin Kamara and Ohio State’s Curtis Samuel both have enough versatility to make them impact players at the next level.
While not all of these guys will get picked in the first round, three teams are going to get excellent runners with this trio. Oklahoma’s Joe Mixon would probably get consideration in the first round as well, if not for a misdemeanor assault charge in 2014.
All in all, I expect up to eight to 10 backs to come off the board in the first three rounds, and at least six players to make an impact as early as next year. If that comes to fruition, this could be the best running back class in NFL history.
In my next column, I’ll discuss the outcome of the Super Bowl, but for now, as a fan of a team sitting at home that weekend, I’m focused on the upcoming offseason and all the hope and changes it will inevitably bring.
Brandon Niles is a longtime fan of football and scotch, and has been writing about sports for the past decade. He is a fantasy football scout for 4for4 Fantasy Football and is co-host of the 2 Guys Podcast.