TEAM NEED: The Vikings are in a position they haven’t been in for a decade, having a running back situation in flux. Adrian Peterson has been the man for a decade and the team has never had to concern itself with using premium draft picks on running backs during that time. Not only is Peterson gone, but the Vikings haven’t re-signed Matt Asiata or Zach Line, creating even more vacancies. The hope is that Murray will bridge the gap, but don’t be surprised to see the Vikings use at least one draft pick on the deep and talented class of 2017.
POSITION ANALYSIS: With the recent emergence of players like Todd Gurley and Ezekiel Elliott, there is no longer the stigma of drafting running backs in the first round. This is a deep class of talented players that will likely see three players coming off the board – Leonard Fournette, Dalvin Cook and Christian McCaffrey –in the first round and more than twice that many going in Day 2. In a position that many scouts describe as the best they’ve seen in a long time, maybe ever, expect to see a lot of running backs coming off the board – early, late and every round in between.
THE CREAM OF THE CROP
Leonard Fournette, LSU, 6-0½, 240 – Third-year junior…In 32 career games, he rushed 616 times for 3,830 yards and 40 touchdowns and caught 41 passes for 526 yards and one TD…First-Team All-America and All-SEC in 2015…Extremely powerful back who looks more like a fullback than a running back, he doesn’t shy away from contract and will deliver the hit…Played in a pro-style offense that should allow him to hit the ground running at the next level…Has very good balance and will consistently keep moving on first contract to gain additional yardage…Is a willing and pretty effective pass blocker…Is not overly instinctive and will run into his own linemen and allow defenders to close ground on him…Has some fumbling issues…Durability may be a concern because he takes a lot of big hits because defenders feel obligated to go low on him to bring him down…Chose not to do a lot of the individual drills at the Combine, but ran a 4.51 40 with a 28½-inch vertical jump. PROJECTION: A huge runner who can be an NFL bell-cow running back, if he can stay healthy he will string together a lot of 1,000-yard seasons and shouldn’t be on the board once the top 10 picks are made. If someone outside the top eight picks wants him, they may have to move up to No. 5 to get him.
Dalvin Cook, Florida State, 5-10½, 210 – A third-year junior, in 38 games he rushed 687 times for 4,464 yards and 46 touchdowns and caught 79 passes for 935 yards and two TDs…In his final two seasons, he had rushing totals of 517-3,412-38 and receiving totals of 57-732-2…Set the FSU single-season rushing record in 2015 (1,691 yards) and then broke it in 2016 (1,765 yards)…A two-time First-Team All-America and two-time All-ACC selection…Had shoulder surgery in both 2014 and 2016…Has good explosion off the snap and hits the hole hard…Very productive, averaging 6.5 yards a carry for his college career…Is instinctive and decisive when picking the hole to run through…A good dual-threat runner/receiver who can take any play the distance…Is undersized for NFL featured backs and there will be questions as to whether he can be a long-term go-to back or will need to be part of a platoon…Has a bad history of fumbling, including six lost fumbles last season…Injury history may scare off some teams…Ran a 4.49 40 at the Combine with 22 reps of 225 pounds, a 30½-inch vertical jump and a 9-8 broad jump. PROJECTION: A highly productive college running back that didn’t miss time on the field, his surgical history and durability questions will make him a question mark to be a first-round pick. But, if he stays healthy, he could be an explosive featured back who could put up some big games and even bigger seasons. Perhaps the biggest roll of the dice of the first round.
Christian McCaffrey, Stanford, 5-11¼, 202 – Third-year junior…Two-year starter who had 590 carries for 3,622 yards and 21 touchdowns and caught 82 passes for 955 yards and eight TDs…Led FBS in yards from scrimmage each of the last two years – 276 yards a game in 2015 and 212 yards a game in 2016…Won a slew of honors in 2015, including AP Player of the Year, First-Team All-America, the Pac 12 Offensive Player of the Year and the Johnny Rodgers Jet Award, given to the top return specialist in college football…Has extremely good burst and gets to top speed in a hurry…A dual threat who is just as dangerous running the ball as he is catching it…Played in a pro-style offense and did everything well, from diagnosing holes to pass protection…Doesn’t have the bulk or strength to be a consistent between-the-tackles type runner in the NFL…Hasn’t missed a lot of time, but gets banged up during the season and there may be some durability questions…When defenders get their hands on him, he rarely gets away and gains additional yardage…Ran a 4.48 40 at the Combine with just 10 reps, a 37½-inch vertical jump and a 10-1 broad jump. PROJECTION: A jack of all trades type running back who can line up as a receiver and play the kind of role dual-threat backs like Brian Westbrook, Reggie Bush and Darren Sproles have played over the years. He won’t be a 20-carry-a-game back in the NFL, but will have a place waiting for him in the first round.
THE NEXT LEVEL
Samaje Perine, Oklahoma, 5-10¾, 233 – Third-year junior…Started 30 of 36 career games, rushing 685 times for 4,112 yards and 49 touchdowns and caught 40 passes for 321 yards and two TDs…Oklahoma’s all-time leading rusher – a list that includes Adrian Peterson, Billy Sims and DeMarco Murray – despite missing some time with injuries and in a time-share with Joe Mixon…Very muscular and has a nice combination of strength (see below) and speed…Runs with good instincts and is decisive when he hits the hole…Is very good in short-yardage and goal-line situations and consistently gets yards after initial contact…Doesn’t have speed to run east-west and get to the edge…Runs into his own offensive linemen too often and rarely shows instinctive improvisational skills…Wasn’t used much in the passing game, so he needs to learn to run precise routes and will need to improve his pass blocking…Ran a 4.65 40, blowing out the competition with a whopping 30 reps of 225 pounds with a 33-inch vertical jump and a 9-8 broad jump. PROJECTION: A very strong player who will make a career for himself running between the tackles. He likely will be a two-down back in the NFL and has the chance to be a productive pro, even though he tends to ride in the shadow of controversial teammate Joe Mixon.
Marlon Mack, South Florida, 5-11½, 213 – Third-year junior…Started all 36 games of his career, rushing 586 times for 3,609 yards and 32 touchdowns and caught 65 passes for 498 yards and one touchdown…Has very good speed and quickness to the hole…Has very good field vision and can hit holes hard or slide laterally when a crease is created…Runs with excellent balance and has the ability to add weight without losing speed…Is not as patient as he could be and will abandon a hole and bounce runs outside to try to hit the home run…Will need a lot of technique work on pass protection because he was too erratic in that area …Needs cut back on the bells and whistles and get the most out of plays, even if it’s for a short gain…Ran a 4.50 40 at the Combine with 15 reps of 225 pounds, a 35½-inch vertical jump and a 10-5 broad jump. PROJECTION: A player who doesn’t have great size but was extremely productive in college and has the ability to make plays. Ideally suited to be a speed part of a tandem backfield, he has a lot of upside and should come off the board on Day 2 of the draft.
Joe Mixon, Oklahoma, 6-0½, 220 – Third-year junior…Started nine of 25 career games, rushing 300 times for 2,027 yards and 17 touchdowns and caught 65 passes for 894 yards and nine TDs…Was suspended the entire 2014 season after a much-publicized altercation in a deli in which he punched a woman in the face…Has good burst off the snap and gets up to speed very quickly…Is very well-defined in terms of musculature and runs with good power…Very effective runner and receiver that can be a legitimate dual threat…His off-field concerns will cause several teams to devalue him or take him off their board completely…Is high cut and will be open to taking big hits…Has a bit of a fumbling history, which will infuriate coaches…Was not invited to the Combine. PROJECTION: Based strictly on his play, Mixon got a first-round grade from the NFL Advisory Committee. But his act of violence against women will likely push him well into Day 2 and he could be a player who has to wait a lot longer than his talent indicates.
THE BEST OF THE REST
Alvin Kamara, Tennessee, 5-10¼, 214 – Fourth-year junior who spent the 2014 season at Hutchinson (Kan.) Community College…In two seasons with the Vols, he rushed 210 times for 1,294 yards and 16 touchdowns and caught 74 passes for 683 yards and seven TDs…A dual threat who makes plays as both a rusher and receiver…Has extremely good balance and is difficult for one defender to bring down on his own…Can break long plays as a rusher, receiver and punt returner…Is undersized and will get engulfed by much larger men at the next level…Does not get extreme push between the tackles…Has a fumbling history, with one fumble for every 40 touches his last two seasons…Ran a 4.53 40 at the Combine with 15 reps, a 39½-inch vertical jump and a 10-11 broad jump. PROJECTION: He has big-play ability but seems destined to be a third-down or change-of-pace back. Still, iin the right system – one that needs a speed back in the Darren Sproles type of mold – he could make a big contribution.
D'Onta Foreman, Texas, 6-0¼, 233 – Third-year junior…One-year starter who rushed 323 times for 2,028 yards and 15 touchdowns in 2016…Won the Doak Walker Award in 2016, awarded to college football’s outstanding running back…Gigantic back who powers in between the tackles and plows out yardage…Has good field vision and picks his holes well…A true workhorse who had 30 or more carries in six of his last seven games, including one game with 51 carries…Takes too long to get to top speed and even then it isn’t elite speed…Wasn’t asked to be a receiver and isn’t expected to bring much to the table there…Is a strong pass blocker, but too often misses blitzers and is a step late reacting…Did not run or jump at the Combine, but did 18 reps of 225 pounds. PROJECTION: He has a small sample size, but what a sample size it is. He is a throwback to a bygone era of big power backs. In the current NFL, however, he is viewed as a two-down back whose role will be almost exclusively a between-the-tackles banger, which should drop him to the end of Day 2 or early Day 3.
Wayne Gallman, Clemson, 6-0½, 215 – Fourth-year junior…Started 37 of 42 career games, finishing his career with 676 rushes for 3,429 yards and 34 touchdowns and caught 65 passes for 473 yards and two TDs…A physical runner who hits the hole with a vengeance…Has very good instincts and vision and consistently finds the right hole to hit…Has good lower body strength and can power for extra real estate in goal-line and short-yardage situations…Runs too high and opens himself up to big hits…Is not an effective receiver and will need to improve his technique…Is not a technician when it comes to blocking and will need work…Ran a 4.57 40 at the Combine with 21 reps, a 29½-inch vertical jump and a 10-0 broad jump. PROJECTION: Playing second fiddle to Deshaun Watson and the Clemson passing game, he has a solid skill set and will have a place in the NFL, but has a future in the NFL as a role player, which should have him coming off the board late Day 2 or early Day 3.
Kareem Hunt, Toledo, 5-10½, 216 – Fourth-year senior…Started 33 of 44 games, finishing his college career with 782 carries for 4,945 yards and 44 touchdowns and caught 73 passes for 555 yards and one TD…An experienced four-year starter who averaged 6.3 yards a carry…Has quick feet and can accelerate quickly…Runs low and rarely is brought down by first contact…Played against marginal competition, so his numbers can seem to be a bit inflated…Does not have great long speed and will get caught from behind…Needs a lot of work in pass protection…Ran a 4.62 40 at the Combine with 18 reps of 225 pounds, a 36½ inch vertical jump and a 9-11 broad jump. PROJECTION: A small-college player with a lengthy resume and some holes in his game, he will be a sleeper pick who will become a priority on Day 3.
OTHERS TO WATCH
Corey Clement, Wisconsin, 5-10¼, 220
James Conner, Pitt, 6-1½, 233
Matthew Dayes, North Carolina State, 5-8¾, 205
Brian Hill, Wyoming, 6-1, 219
Elijah McGuire, Louisiana-Lafayette, 5-9¾, 214
Jeremy McNichols, Boise State, 5-8¾, 214
Donnel Pumphrey, San Diego State, 5-8¼, 176
Sam Rogers, Virginia Tech, 5-10¼, 231
Jamaal Williams, BYU, 6-0½, 212
Joe Williams, Utah, 5-11, 210