Is Ty Montgomery a legit No. 1 running back?
Is he nothing more than a complementary piece?
With such a limited sample size, the Green Bay Packers probably can’t even fully answer those questions. And really, the answers don’t change this fact: After losing Eddie Lacy to Seattle in free agency, the Packers enter this year’s draft needing a running back.
Fortunately for the Packers, a brilliant running back class awaits. Here are eight backs to remember, based on conversations with two scouts, the Packers’ big-back history and our belief that the Packers need a complementary piece to Montgomery. (Note: LSU’s Leonard Fournette has no chance of falling to No. 29, so he will not be discussed for this story.)
Joe Mixon, Oklahoma (6-1, 228; 4.47 in the 40); Dalvin Cook, Florida State (5-10, 210; 4.49); Christian McCaffrey, Stanford (5-11, 202; 4.48): Add Fournette, and this is the Fab Four. In an incredibly deep all-around draft, chances are one of these three backs will fall to Green Bay at No. 29. Taking them one at a time:
Mixon, a redshirt sophomore, started only nine games at Oklahoma but piled up 2,027 rushing yards (6.8 average) and caught 65 passes for 894 yards. That gave him a two-year total of 2,921 yards and 26 total touchdowns. In 2016, he rushed for 1,274 yards (6.8 average), caught 37 passes for 538 yards (14.5 average) and averaged 23.5 yards with one touchdown on kickoff returns. His school-record 2,331 all-purpose yards got him first-team all-Big 12 honors. He’s essentially the perfect Packers back — five fumbles this past season notwithstanding — because he excels as a runner, receiver and protector. However, he missed the 2014 season after punching a female student. How far will this elite talent fall? And would the Packers have the slightest interest if he falls to No. 29?
Cook broke Warrick Dunn’s 20-year-old school career rushing record in just three years. His 4,464 career rushing yards rank second in ACC history, though Cook is the only player with more than 4,000 rushing yards in three seasons. Cook rushed for 1,765 yards (6.1 average) as a junior, 1,691 yards (7.4) as a sophomore and 1,008 (5.9) as a freshman. Cook showed his all-around game with 33 receptions for 488 yards this past season. According to Pro Football Focus, he forced a whopping 92 missed tackles — 16 more than any other back. A poor Scouting Combine, some concern about his shoulder and six fumbles this past season could send him into range — but “probably not,” a scout said.
McCaffrey is a superlative talent. The son of former NFL receiver Ed McCaffrey and the brother of Packers receiver Max McCaffrey, Christian McCaffrey rushed for 2,019 yards (6.0 average) and eight touchdowns to finish second in Heisman Trophy voting as a sophomore in 2015. As a junior, McCaffrey rushed for 1,603 yards (6.3 average) and 13 touchdowns. A superb dual-threat back, he caught a combined 82 passes for 955 yards and eight touchdowns during his final two seasons. He fumbled only three times in 631 career carries. Essentially, he’s a better version of Montgomery. Isn’t that repetitive? Then again, PFF compared him to Marshall Faulk.
Samaje Perine (5-11, 233; 4.65): Perine needed only three seasons to set Oklahoma’s career rushing record. With Mixon suspended in 2014, Perine rushed for 1,713 yards (6.5 average) and 21 touchdowns as a true freshman. He added 1,349 yards (6.0) and 16 touchdowns as a sophomore and 1,060 yards (5.4 average) and 12 touchdowns as a junior to give him a three-year total of 4,122 yards (6.0) and 49 touchdowns. In three seasons, he caught 40 passes, but only 10 during his final season. He ranked in the middle of the pack for breaking tackles and protecting the quarterback. Ball security is an asset, with six fumbles in 684 career carries. How strong is Perine? He put up 30 reps on the 225-pound bench press at the Combine. No other running back (fullbacks excluded) put up more than 23.
D’Onta Freeman, Texas (6-0, 233; DNP): As a junior in 2016, he was a first-team All-American and the winner of the Doak Walker Award, which goes to the nation’s top running back. He rushed for 2,028 yards and 15 touchdowns and led the FBS ranks with 184.4 rushing yards per game — the 10th-highest figure in NCAA history. Foreman played in 11 games. He topped 100 rushing yards in each of them, tying Hall of Famer Earl Campbell for most 100-yard games in a season. However, he caught only 13 passes in three seasons and had a whopping seven fumbles in 2016 — an awful number considering he had the second-largest hands of any back at the Combine. Would the Packers bite on a back who had as many fumbles as catches in his final season? On the bright side, he was spotless in pass protection.
James Conner, Pittsburgh (6-1, 233; 4.65): Conner is one of the great stories in the draft. In 2014, he was a first-team All-American with 1,765 rushing yards and a school-record 26 rushing touchdowns. Conner, however, tore his MCL in the 2015 opener and sat out the rest of the season. The knee injury, however, was nothing compared to what was ahead: a battle against Hodgkin’s lymphoma. After 12 rounds of chemotherapy, Conner returned in 2016. He was named first-team all-ACC with 1,092 rushing yards (5.1 average) and 16 touchdowns and 21 receptions. He fumbled only once but struggled in pass protection. He was one scout's favorite big back beyond the big-guy Big 2 of Fournette and Mixon.
Elijah Hood, North Carolina (6-0, 232; DNP): Hood is a name to remember in Day 3 because of his size and pass-catching skill. He exploded onto the scene as a sophomore in 2015, rushing for 1,463 yards (6.7 average) and 17 touchdowns. He wasn’t quite as effective in 2016, with 858 yards (5.9 average) and eight touchdowns. His three-year total was 2,580 yards (6.0 average) and 29 touchdowns. Of his 40 career catches, 25 came this past season. Hood ranked fifth in PFF’s elusive rating, which measures missed tackles per attempt, and toward the top of the chart in pass protection. He fumbled too often with seven in 431 career rushes but improved in 2016 with two in 145 attempts.
Corey Clement, Wisconsin (5-10, 220; 4.68): Clement tallied career highs with 1,375 rushing yards and 15 touchdowns as a senior. He had eight 100-yard rushing games, including career-high games of 164 yards against powerhouses Ohio State and Penn State. With 547 yards as a freshman, 949 yards as a sophomore and 221 in four games in 2015 (sports hernia), Clement finished his career with 3,092 rushing yards (5.4 average) and 36 touchdowns. Clement added 29 career receptions, including 12 as a senior. However, he coughed it up five times and ranked toward the bottom in pass protection during his final season.
Bill Huber is publisher of PackerReport.com and has written for Packer Report since 1997. E-mail him at firstname.lastname@example.org or leave him a question in Packer Report’s subscribers-only Packers Pro Club forum. Find Bill on Twitter at www.twitter.com/PackerReport.