We continue our position-by-position preview of the NFL Draft with the running backs.
The free-agent departure of Eddie Lacy might have left a huge void in the offense. “Might have” being the key words, because no one can say for certain what Ty Montgomery will become in his first full season at the position. Could Montgomery be a franchise running back? Possibly. Could he be too injury prone and too poor in pass protection to ever be more than a change-of-pace weapon? That’s possible, too. The lasting impression from last year was his 162-yard demolition of the Bears. However, he ran for only 158 yards in the final five games combined. That he is spending the offseason training to play the position should help, and his attitude is nothing but an asset. At the very least, the Packers need to draft a sidekick, if for no other reason than Christine Michael is such a poor fit in the offense.
The Packers’ draft history is noteworthy.
Leonard Fournette, LSU (6-0 1/2, 240; 4.51 40; DNP shuttle): Junior. Being a top-10 pick has been Fournette’s destiny. “This kid is something extraordinary.” Those words were uttered about Fournette when he was an eighth-grader. That year, he was moved up to the freshman team. The other team complained, believing he was a senior. LSU coach Les Miles offered Fournette a scholarship before Fournette’s freshman year at St. Augustine High School in New Orleans.
Fournette lived up to the hype. He had one of the great seasons in college football history as a sophomore, when he rushed for 1,953 yards (6.5 average) and 22 touchdowns. That was almost 300 yards better than any season in school history and was enough to give him first-team All-American honors. He needed only five games to reach 1,000 yards — fastest in FBS history. His final season, however, was ruined by an ankle injury that limited him to seven games. He rushed for only 843 yards (6.5) and eight touchdowns. In three seasons, he rushed for 3,830 yards and 40 touchdowns and caught 41 passes. He fumbled twice last season and four times in his career.
Playing for an offense that couldn’t throw the ball to save its life, Fournette was a marked man. Thus, his numbers in 2016 weren’t sensational. Too often, he didn’t have a prayer, so he averaged a disappointing 2.8 yards after contact that tied for the worst of our top 16 running backs. Fournette ranked 42nd out of 70 running back prospects in ProFootballFocus.com’s elusive rating, which measures missed tackles per touches. He is sturdy protecting the passer, ranking 23rd out of 72 prospects in PFF’s pass-protection metric. Give him a hole that leaves him one-on-one with the safety, and you might as well send the extra-point team on the field. As an added bonus, there are no character concerns, either. “I’ve always been humble, God fearing, kept God first,” he said. “Staying who I am, my roots, my foundation. Just praying. As a freshman in college, 19, 20 years old, you think you have the world by the hand and you don’t Stay focused, that’s all.”
Christian McCaffrey, Stanford (5-11 1/4, 202; 4.48 40; 4.22 shuttle): Junior. McCaffrey turned in back-to-back brilliant seasons. As a sophomore in 2015, he rushed for 2,019 yards (6.0 average) and eight touchdowns to finish second in Heisman Trophy voting. In 2016, McCaffrey rushed for 1,603 yard (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. In the first five games of the 2015 season, LSU’s Leonard Fournette rushed for 1,019 yards. In the final five games of the 2016 season, McCaffrey rushed for 991. While he somehow wasn’t a Heisman Trophy finalist, he was named the CoSIDA Academic All-American of the Year.
The big question: Can McCaffrey be an every-down back? At 202 pounds, McCaffrey wouldn’t seem like the type of back who would get a steady diet of between-the-tackles carries against stacked boxes. Instead, in a study of the top eight running back prospects by Optimum Scouting, only the bruising Fournette got more carries against eight-plus-man boxes than McCaffrey — with Fournette (69 percent) and McCaffrey (65 percent) the only backs to get even half of their carries against loaded boxes. Meanwhile, 65 percent of McCaffrey’s carries came between the tackles.
McCaffrey fumbled once in 2016 and four times in three seasons. He ranked 17th in PFF’s elusive rating and 46th in pass protection. Of course, with McCaffrey’s receiving value, you’re not drafting him to protect the quarterback too often. Simply, McCaffrey has the lower-body power to grind out an extra yard or two and the open-field skills to turn a 7-yard run into seven points. Pro Football Focus compared him to Marshall Faulk.
Joe Mixon, Oklahoma (6-0 5/8, 228; 4.43 40; 4.25 shuttle): Redshirt sophomore. Mixon 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. Mixon was the only player in the nation in 2016 to account for touchdowns passing, rushing, receiving and returning. His talent is undeniable. In our top 16 backs, he ranked sixth with an average of 3.8 yards after contact. He ranked 11th in PFF’s elusive rating and seventh in pass protection. If you were to an award one point for each of those ratings for a composite rating, Mixon’s 18 points would rank No. 1 in the draft.
In a vacuum, he’d challenge Fournette and McCaffrey as the No. 1 back off the board. Really, the only knock on him is ball security (five fumbles last season). However, in July 2014, he punched a female student in the face. Many teams — including Green Bay — brought in Mixon for a visit. The Packers probably wouldn’t have wasted one of their 30 visits on a player who didn’t check out from interviewing those who know him, so chances are they felt relatively solid about his personal growth since the incident. “People better appreciate him,” offensive coordinator Lincoln Riley told the Tulsa World. “He’s fantastic. He’s a fantastic player. He’s a great young man. He’s one of one of most valuable flat-out players on the team because of the energy he brings. … I think Joe will be a team captain one day. He acts like one right now.”
If he’s available for Green Bay, it will be quite the dilemma. Packers coach Mike McCarthy covets three-down backs. Mixon is the best three-down back in the draft. He’s big, he’s fast, he returns kicks and he hits the team’s physical parameters in terms of size, speed and agility. The no-brainer comparison is to Le’Veon Bell.
Dalvin Cook, Florida State (5-10 3/8, 210; 4.49 40; 4.53 shuttle): Junior. One number stands out for the confounding Cook: that 4.53 in the shuttle. Nico Siragusa, a 319-pound guard from San Diego State, ran his shuttle in 4.56. The shuttle is the ultimate measuring stick of change-of-direction agility. The slowest shuttle time for any Packers running back drafted by Thompson was 4.37 seconds by DeShawn Wynn, a 232-pounder who went in the seventh round in 2007. Cook’s time could very well take him off Green Bay’s board — an interesting fact to consider should he tumble through the first round and get within range of the running back-hungry Packers.
The film, however, is a different story. In just three seasons, Cook broke Warrick Dunn’s 20-year-old school career rushing record. 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. It didn’t matter who he played. Cook averaged 5.8 yards per carry against Top 25 teams and 5.7 yards against unranked teams. That includes a 169-yard, four-touchdown day against eventual national champion Clemson. and 145 yards against Michigan in his final collegiate game. Cook ranked second in PFF’s elusive rating. Cook averaged 4.2 yards after contact, the best among our top 16 prospects. Wisconsin’s Corey Clement averaged 4.4 yards overall.
Is Cook a three-down back? Cook has the potential to be an excellent receiver (33 receptions for 488 yards in 2016) but is a poor pass protector (55th in PFF’s protection metric). His pass protection would need to be schemed around. Cook coughed it up six times in 2016 and there are off-the-field concerns. Those facts — and that pesky shuttle — could lead to Cook sliding until deep in the round.
Samaje Perine, Oklahoma (5-10 5/8, 233; 4.65 40; 4.37 shuttle): Junior. Perine needed only three seasons to set Oklahoma’s career rushing record. Perine rushed for 1,713 yards (6.5 average) and 21 touchdowns as a true freshman, 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. As a freshman, a week after Wisconsin’s Melvin Gordon rushed for a FBS-record 408 yards, Perine beat it with 427 yards against Kansas.
Perine started lifting weights when he was 8. Hence, it’s little wonder why he led the running back group with 30 reps on the bench press — seven more than anyone else. His shuttle time would tie Wynn for the slowest of any Packers running back draft pick but he’s 233 pounds, so what did you expect? Combine those two things and you get what you see on film: a powerful runner (with the ability to get skinny) who wins by stinging like a bee rather than floating like a butterfly. There is very little open-field creativity, and if the play is stacked up at the line of scrimmage, Perine is going nowhere fast.
Perine had 40 career catches, with 15 in each of his first two seasons. He’s got good hands, and his size and strength give him the potential to be an excellent pass protector, though he finished only 32nd in PFF’s pass-rushing metric. That gives him the ability to be a poor man’s Lacy as far as being a three-down back. He fumbled twice in 2016 and six times in three years.
D'Onta Foreman, Texas (6-0 1/4, 233; 4.45 40; 4.26 shuttle): 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. In his first career start, he rushed for or 131 yards against Notre Dame. In nine Big 12 games, Foreman rushed for 1,740 yards. He ran for 341 yards against Texas Tech, with 200 coming after contact. In our top 16 backs, Foreman ranked seventh with an average of 3.5 yards after contact. Unlike most backs in most draft classes, there’s not a lot of wear and tear. While he carried 323 times as a junior, he had only 108 in his first two years.
First, the good: He’s huge, fast and remarkable agile. “He's faster than you think. The first guy doesn't get him down,” Texas Tech coach Kliff Kingsbury said. As was the case with Lacy, Foreman isn’t dependent on brute force to break tackles. Both Foreman and Lacy did their testing at pro day. At 231 pounds, Lacy ran his 40 in 4.64 seconds and didn’t do the shuttle. Foreman beat Lacy’s 40 time by almost two-tenths of a second. Also, he ranked No. 1 in PFF’s pass-protection metric with no pressures in 163 pass-blocking snaps. He was the only “perfect” back in this draft class with more than 75 snaps, though he won more with size than any particular skill. Now, the bad — and it’s gruesome: In 2016, Foreman caught seven passes but fumbled five times. The fumbles are particularly troubling considering his huge 10 1/8-inch hands that are the second-largest in the draft class.
Elijah Hood North Carolina (5-11 3/4, 232; 4.63 40; DNP shuttle): Junior. If there’s a late-round “Packers” back, it’s Hood. First off, he’s big. Can he catch? Hood isn’t a dynamic threat but he caught 25 passes during his final season. Can he block? Hood ranked 20th out of 74 in PFF’s pass-protection metric — though that ranked third among our list of the top 16 prospects. Can he make something out of nothing or more out of a little? Impressively, he ranked fifth out of 70 in PFF’s elusive ranking and averaged 3.8 yards after contact per rush, which ranked fifth in our Top 16. He’s smart — an Eagle Scout and all-ACC academic choice.
Hood exploded onto the scene as a sophomore, rushing for 1,463 yards (6.7 average) and 17 touchdowns. He wasn’t quite as productive in UNC’s backfield timeshare 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. His subpar speed and the lack of a shuttle time stem from a pre-Combine hamstring injury, he said. Hood might not be as nifty and as explosive as a healthy Lacy was in the open field, but he’s got a chance to be an effective counterpunching bruiser to a slasher like Montgomery. His hands and protection skill would keep him on the field on third down.
James Conner, Pittsburgh (6-1 1/2, 233; 4.65 40; 4.31 shuttle): Junior. Conner’s story is well known but incredibly inspirational. 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. When he was constantly fatigued through rehab, he went to the doctor. On Thanksgiving 2015, he was diagnosed with Hodgkin’s lymphoma.
Conner detailed his comeback in a first-person account at The Players’ Journal. “I was tired and … weak. My body was resting in that chair, sure. But I couldn’t believe that the person sitting there was really me. It couldn’t be. I was ... known for running people over — either that or for stiff-arming would-be tacklers to the ground. Trying to bring me down was like trying to tackle a linebacker, and when I was locked in, no one was going to tackle me. No one. If I saw a defender in my way, I was lowering my shoulder, and it was not gonna be fun for the other guy. Sometimes I would just look at defenders like, Come on … you literally have no chance of tackling me. I felt like nothing or no one could stop me at that point. On the field. In my element. But that was before treatment six. Treatment six was no joke. Treatment six didn’t just stop me in my tracks, it took me down for a loss.”
After 12 rounds of chemotherapy, Conner was declared cancer-free. He returned for the 2016 season and rushed for 1,092 yards (5.1 average) and 16 touchdowns. His size fits the Packers’ mold and would fit the need for a between-the-tackles bruiser to complement Montgomery, though he is purely a north-and-south back dependent on his ability to get what’s there and then a little more. He’s not going to juke or spin past defenders, a la Lacy. Conner finished only 39th in PFF’s elusive ranking but his tackle-breaking and tackler-dragging style should improve as his battle against cancer disappears further in the rear-view mirror. Of concern, he ranked just 64th in PFF’s pass-protection metric. Conner fumbled only once — a remarkable feat after missing a season. He also showed value as a receiver, with 21 catches compared to a combined eight in 2013 and 2014.
Jamaal Williams, BYU (6-0 3/8, 212; 4.59 40; 4.26 shuttle): Williams set BYU’s career rushing record, beating a record that had stood for 54 years. Williams rushed for 1,233 yards and seven touchdowns as a sophomore in 2013. Big things were expected as a junior in 2014. However, he was suspended for the opener for underage consumption of alcohol and then the final four games with a knee injury. Then, with the 2015 fall camp under way, he left the team following another violation of team rules. The violation? He had a girl in his dorm room, he said with a laugh at the Combine. Williams returned as a senior and rushed for 1,375 yards and 12 touchdowns. Perhaps more impressive than the production was that his teammates voted him a captain. His career total: 3,901 yards (5.4 average) and 35 touchdowns on the ground and 60 receptions — 27 of which came as a freshman.
Williams ranks well above average in PFF’s key metrics: 15th in elusive rating and 25th in pass protection. Williams isn’t one to dilly-dally in the backfield. He is one cut and go, with the power and agility to maximize each attempt. Ball security (two fumbles as a senior and five for his career) is a plus, as should be the expectation for a back with 10-inch hands. He appears to be a good schematic fit for the Packers.
Wayne Gallman, Clemson (6-0 1/2, 215; 4.60 40; 4.28 shuttle): Junior. Gallman rushed for 3,416 yards in three seasons, including 1,514 yards (5.4 average) and 13 touchdowns in 2015 and 1,133 yards (4.9) and 17 touchdowns to help the Tigers win the national championship in 2016. He added 66 career receptions to give him a total of 3,902 yards and 36 touchdowns from scrimmage.
Gallman does everything well but nothing exceedingly well. He ranked 20th out of 70 in PFF’s elusive rating and 33rd out of 72 in pass protection. He doesn’t have great power, doesn’t have great speed and doesn’t have great elusiveness but he gets what’s there and usually a little more through effort and attitude. Ball security isn’t an issue with two fumbles in 2016 and five in his career. If Montgomery were a sure thing, Gallman would be a nice No. 2.
Marlon Mack, South Florida (5-11 3/8, 213; 4.50 40; DNP shuttle): Junior. Mack needed just three season to set the school career records for rushing yards (3,609), all-purpose yards (4,107) and touchdowns (33). Mack became the third FBS player in state of Florida history to rush for 1,000 yards in three consecutive seasons. In 2016, he rushed for 1,187 yards and 15 touchdowns while finishing 13th nationally with 6.82 yards per carry. He added a career-high 28 receptions.
The lack of a shuttle time won’t be of concern. Just flip on the film and you can see the change-of-direction agility that is the point of that test. In league circles, he is regarded much more highly than where we have him ranked. He just doesn’t seem like a great fit for Green Bay, where north and south is coveted more than east and west because of the number of bad-weather games at the end of the season. Mack loves to bounce runs outside. It worked in college — he ranked 12th in PFF’s elusive ranking and third in our Group of 16 with 3.9 yards per carry after contact — but it won’t work in the NFL, where everyone is fast. Mack is a superb receiving threat who wasn’t used often in protection. When he did stay into block, he did well, checking in at No. 21 in PFF’s pass protection metric (and fourth in our list of prospects). Mack fumbled four times as a junior and 11 times in three seasons. Mack likely will excel if drafted by a FieldTurf team.
Brian Hill, Wyoming (6-1, 219; 4.54 40; 4.32 shuttle): Junior. First, it must be noted that Hill might not be on Green Bay’s board at all. He’s got 8 7/8-inch hands. The smallest hands for any Packers draft pick belonged to DeShawn Wynn at 9 inches. Small hands and cold weather can lead to fumbles, though he fumbled only once last season and Wyoming isn’t exactly Bermuda.
Hill had a big sophomore season with a school-record 1,631 rushing yards (5.8 average) and six touchdowns. His encore was even better, with 1,860 yards (5.3 average) and 22 touchdowns. That gave him a three-year total of 4,287 rushing yards — 1,300 yards more than any other player in Wyoming history. Hill’s production, however, was more about opportunity that dominance. He ranked 50th out of 70 in PFF’s elusive rating and 38th out of 74 in pass protection. Hill runs with a nice blend of patience and power and could provide the between-the-tackles running game to complement to Montgomery. He caught 20 passes as a sophomore but only eight as a junior; that does not appear to be a strong part of his game.
Corey Clement, Wisconsin (5-10 1/8, 220; 4.68 40; 4.28 shuttle): Clement tallied career highs with 1,375 rushing yards and 15 touchdowns as a senior despite, by UW’s lofty standards, a terrible offensive line. Clement averaged only 4.4 yards per carry but 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.
Based on size and running style, he’s a great fit for the Packers. However, there are two major concerns. First, he was a nonfactor on passing downs, with the Badgers turning to senior Dare Ogunbowale. He caught 27 passes for his career, including just 12 as a senior. Plus, he ranked toward the bottom of PFF’s pass protection metric. Second, he fumbled five times as a senior. Coach Mike McCarthy covets three-down backs who can hang onto the rock. Clement wasn’t that player last year.
Christopher Carson, Oklahoma State (5-11 3/4, 218; 4.58 40; 4.28 shuttle): Carson spent two years at a junior college before arriving at Oklahoma State. As a junior, he led the Cowboys with 517 rushing yards (3.9 average) and four touchdowns and added 17 receptions for 170 yards. He was more productive as a senior. Carson rushed for 559 yards but averaged an explosive 6.8 per carry and scored nine touchdowns. He chipped in 13 receptions for 128 yards. He ranked No. 1 in PFF’s elusive rating, having forced a total of 34 missed tackles on just 96 touches, and third in our Group of 16 with 3.9 yards after contact per carry. Carson caught the ball well during workouts but was terrible in pass protection as a senior, ranking 67th out of 72. He fumbled once in each of his two seasons. Carson is a physical powerhouse but didn’t always run with the power belying his chiseled physique.
Justin Davis, USC (6-0 5/8, 208; 4.60 40; 4.30 shuttle): Davis rushed for 607 yards (5.5 average) and two touchdowns while catching 14 passes for 112 yards as a senior. He missed three games due to injury — right when he was hitting his stride with 126 yards vs. Utah, 123 vs. Arizona State and 92 vs. Colorado, the game in which he suffered a high-ankle sprain. His four-year total added up to 2,465 rushing yards and 19 scores. As a senior, Davis ranked ninth in PFF’s elusive rating, and his 4.0 yards after contact per carry ranks second among our top 16 prospects. The USC coaches lauded Davis for becoming a complete back — “The ball would bounce off his facemask when he first got here,” coach Clay Helton said — but he ranked dead last out of 72 backs in PFF’s pass-rushing metric. He fumbled three times as a senior and nine times in his career. He might be worth stashing on a practice squad to get him up to about 220 pounds so he can break more tackles and protect the passer.
Joe Williams, Utah (5-11, 210; 4.41 40; 4.19 shuttle): What a strange career. Two weeks into Williams’ senior season, he retired. After Utah’s running backs depth chart was slammed by injuries, he returned after a monthlong hiatus and rushed for 179 yards against Oregon State and a staggering 332 yards against UCLA. In the six games after returning to the team, he rushed for 1,110 yards and nine touchdowns.
According to PFF, he ranked 34th out of 70 in elusive rating and 44th out of 72 in pass protection. His 3.4 yards after contact ranked eighth in our top 16 backs. His shuttle time — the best among the backs at the Combine and among our top 16 — hint at some make-you-miss that didn’t always show up.Williams was a two-star recruit. He signed with UConn but was arrested and kicked off the team. From there, he attended Fork Union Military School and then moved onto ASA College, a junior college in New York. That got him to Utah for his final two seasons. The arrest and retirement raised plenty of questions. The five fumbles and five dropped passes are troublesome, too, considering he wasn’t with the team for a few games.
Potentially off the board: Tennessee’s Alvin Kamara (4.42 shuttle), Toledo’s Kareem Hunt (4.53 shuttle), Louisiana Lafayette’s Elijah McGuire (4.56 shuttle) and Michigan’s De’Veon Smith (4.75 40 and 4.56 shuttle) due to athletic ability. North Carolina A&T’s Tarik Cohen, N.C. State’s Matt Dayes, Coastal Carolina’s De’Angelo Henderson, North Carolina’s T.J. Logan, Boise State’s Jeremy McNichols, San Diego State’s Donnel Pumphrey and Kentucky’s Stanley Williams are all 5-foot-9 or shorter. Brandon Jackson (5-foot-9 7/8) is the shortest back drafted by Thompson. UTEP’s Aaron Jones (5-9 1/2) and West Virginia’s Rushel Shell (5-9 5/8) might be too short, too.
The bottom line: The Packers have a huge hole at running back — and that only is partially to do with Lacy’s size. Wouldn’t you love to be a fly on the wall if the Packers were on the clock with a chance to draft Mixon, McCaffrey or Cook? Beyond those three, there aren’t many perfect fits but there are a lot of talented prospects who could join Montgomery and give Green Bay a dynamic backfield.
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.