Red Zone

Rating the top running backs in the 2017 NFL Draft with an eye on Chiefs’ needs

Leonard Fournette was a star at LSU.
Leonard Fournette was a star at LSU. The Associated Press

Included in measurables are height, weight, age they turn this year (if available) and 40-yard-dash time. Grades and rankings are based on film study (at least six games worth, whenever possible) and proprietary reporting. Quotes are harvested from conference calls, individual interviews and television broadcasts. Grades are intended to convey a general sense of the draftee’s value, and where he might be selected.

1. LEONARD FOURNETTE, Louisiana State

Measurables: 6-0, 240, 22, 4.51

Bio: Three-year starter who rushed 129 times for 843 yards (6.5 ypc) and eight touchdowns in an injury-shortened 2016 season. Also caught 15 passes for 146 yards and zero touchdowns. Three fumbles (lost three). Missed five games with a nagging ankle injury and sat out the bowl game to prepare for the Draft. Declared for the Draft after his true junior season.

Strengths: Team captain in 2016. Big, stout back with an ready-made NFL frame who can carry the mail. Reminds NFL Network draft analyst Daniel Jeremiah of Jamal Lewis. Runs with outstanding power; can lower his shoulder and bull through defenders. Has good field-speed and burst. Short-stepper who is light on his feet for a big man; shifts his weight, jump cuts and plants and burns like some smaller backs. Sees the hole and hits it most of the time. Does a nice job bending to the corner but is at his best between the tackles, where he can use his balance and power to churn ahead. Scheme-versatile runner who can slip defenders one-on-one on the edge or be effective running inside zone or a man/gap power scheme. Almost always falls forward after contact and is tough to wrangle in the open field with one man due to his unique combination of size, explosion and power. Runs with good patience on the edge; allows his blockers to engage before exploding past them. Has receiving skills; shows some burst out of his cuts and possesses functional hands and run-after-the-catch ability. Diligently sells play-action fakes. Doesn’t relish the dirty work as a pass protector but has the size and strength to do it and generally gets the job done. Has some kick-return ability, which he did as a freshman. “He is what everyone knows he is — a big power back,” ESPN draft analyst Todd McShay said. “I think he’s likely going to be a top-15 pick.”

Weaknesses: Showed up to the Combine at a heavy 240 pounds (though he dropped 12 pounds for his Pro Day). Only vertical-jumped 28  1/2 inches, a potential indicator of lower-body explosiveness. Also hasn’t been timed in important agility drills like the three-cone and 20-yard shuttle. Not a burner; has field speed and can take it the distance against some teams but won’t sprint away from every defender at this level. Isn’t an elite creator and needs a few steps with the rock to build up to top speed, so he can be corralled in the backfield if the blocking is poor. Needs to show he can be an effective downhill runner out of different backfield alignments. Was more productive as a sophomore, when he rushed 300 times for 1,953 yards and 22 touchdowns.

Grade: 7.4

Games I watched before grading him: Alabama 2015, Wisconsin 2016, Mississippi State 2016, Auburn 2016, Ole Miss 2016, Arkansas 2016

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Measurables: 5-11, 202, 20, 4.48

Bio: Two-year starter who rushed 253 times for 1,603 yards (6.3 ypc) and 13 touchdowns in 11 games in 2016. Also caught 37 passes for 310 yards and three touchdowns. One fumble in 2016, two in 2015. Declared after true junior season in which he missed a game with an unspecified injury. Skipped the Sun Bowl to start preparing for the Draft. Father is three-time Super Bowl champion Ed McCaffrey, who starred at receiver for the Giants, 49ers and Broncos.

Strengths: Is young for a prospect. Has excellent football bloodlines. Was among the Combine’s top testers at his position in the 40, vertical (37  1/2 inches), three-cone (6.57 seconds), 20-yard shuttle (4.22) and 60-yard shuttle (11.03). Tough, decisive runner who must be wrapped up. Runs through second-level arm tackles and shows very good burst out of his cuts. Has quick feet; is shifty and elusive through creases and can slip defenders one-on-one in space with his go-to jump cut. Very patient and did a nice job setting up blockers on Stanford’s power-run plays. Generally secures the football; has a good fumble-to-touch ratio. Tremendous versatility will be attractive to all teams. Has returned a punt and a kick for a score in his career and has logged 82 catches the last two years. Aware and willing pass blocker who generally carries out his assignment and flashes physicality when necessary. Natural receiver who runs good routes, both out of the backfield and as a slot receiver, and can generate separation with his burst and technique. Matchup nightmare in the running back route tree and will, at the very least, be a tremendous third-down back and part-time slot receiver and return man. “McCaffrey’s a match-up guy — he’s a chess piece,” Mayock said. “He’s an outstanding pass catcher. He’s bigger and tougher than people think he is. And he’s also a return guy.” Some draft analysts think McCaffrey’s production, versatility and athletic testing scores make him a surefire mid-first round pick — at the very least. “He’s not going to be there in the late first — it’s just not going to happen,” ESPN draft analyst Mel Kiper, Jr., said. “His character’s off the charts,” McShay said. Occasional wildcat quarterback.

Weaknesses: Average overall bulk. Only did nine bench-press reps at the Combine. Isn’t a sledgehammer inside runner and might not run through a ton of tackles in the NFL unless he gets in space. Has very good, but not elite, long speed. Has home-run ability and can take it the distance but can be tracked from behind by some. Handled a monster workload the last two years, logging 314 touches in 2016 and a staggering 434 in 2015. Despite that durability, some scouts wonder whether he can keep it up in the NFL. “Athletic, versatile and flexible — can catch and has great vision,” a scout said. “I think he has to prove he can be an every-down back, though.”  

Grade: 6.9

Games I watched before grading him: Kansas State 2016, Southern California 2016, UCLA 2016, Washington 2016, Oregon 2016, California 2016

3. DALVIN COOK, Florida State

Measurables: 5-10, 210, 21, 4.49

Bio: Two-year starter who rushed 288 times for 1,765 yards (6.1 ypc) and 19 touchdowns in 13 games in 2016. Also caught 33 passes for 488 yards and one touchdown. Six fumbles. Declared after true junior season. Was twice arrested as a juvenile (once for robbery, the other for possession of a weapon at a school event), though the charges were either dropped or abandoned. Was charged with criminal mischief in 2014 due to his involvement in an alleged shooting with a BB gun. Was found not guilty of punching a woman outside a Tallahassee bar in 2015.

Strengths: Is young for a prospect. Low, compact build with some bulk. Home-run threat with good speed, quickness and burst. Shifty with good feet; can create something out of nothing. Has a second gear through the hole; all he needs is a crease. Tough enough to handle goal-line carries and run inside — he’ll bounce off and run through arm tackles — with the speed to hit the big play outside. Can make a man miss 1-on-1, both in the backfield and in the open field. Is adept at running outside — has a great feel for the outside zone — and is scheme friendly. Excels at setting up blocks and is also good with pulling linemen in front of him. Generally falls forward after contact. Patient runner who can speed upfield after spotting the cutback lane and run away from most defenders. Capable receiver who can help in the passing game; has solid hands, despite the occasional focus drop, with upside as a route runner and run-after-the-catch ability. Has also flashed the ability to track the deep ball. Occasionally throws his body around as a lead blocker. Pro Bowl-type talent could obscure off-field character concerns. “I think he’s the real deal,” one scout said.

Weaknesses: Possesses adequate bulk but might not be a long-term workhorse in this league. Isn’t a “truck stick” kind of back and needs to keep his feet moving at all times, though he’s still tough and will some tackles. Has very good, but not elite, long speed; there are guys in the league fast enough to track him down from behind on big runs. Will throw his body at people in pass protection but isn’t especially physical, often absorbs the blow and can be overpowered. Needs to do a much better job securing the football; Had six fumbles in 2016 and 13 for his career. Has some off-field concerns that NFL teams have been trying to vet. He’s also had hamstring issues and multiple shoulder surgeries in college. He’s a first-round talent, but the medical, off-field and fumbling issues make him a risky proposition, affecting his grade. “Has some shoulder issues, some fumbling issues and some stuff to dig through off the field, but on the field I think his tape was probably even more impressive than Fournette’s or anyone else’s in the class,” McShay said.

Grade: 6.9

Games I watched before grading him: Clemson 2015, North Carolina 2016, Miami (Fla.) 2016, Clemson 2016, Florida 2016, Michigan 2016

Kansas City Chiefs coach Andy Reid spoke at the NFL's annual meeting on Spencer Ware's potential role in 2017.

4. ALVIN KAMARA, Tennessee

Measurables: 5-10, 214, 21, 4.56

Bio: One-year starter at Tennessee who rushed 103 times for 596 yards (5.8 ypc) and nine touchdowns in 11 games in 2016. Also caught 40 passes for 392 yards and four touchdowns. Five fumbles. Missed two games with a knee sprain. Transferred from Alabama in 2014 after two suspensions for behavioral reasons and was arrested for driving with a suspended license a month later. Landed at a juco and returned to the SEC, via Tennessee in 2015. Declared after his redshirt junior season in which he missed two games with a knee injury.

Strengths: Team captain in 2016, despite arriving in Tennessee less than a year before. Tested well in the vertical jump (39  1/2 inches) and broad jump (131 inches), which are indicators of the lower-body explosion that checks out on tape. Has very good initial quickness and burst. Elusive in space; will dart around a guy with plant-and-go juice. “His explosiveness just jumps off the tape,” ESPN draft analyst Todd McShay said. Not a traditional power guy but flashes the ability to consistently run through second-level arm tackles; always keeps his legs moving and finishes touches with toughness. Flashes potential as an inside and outside runner. Could be a nice fit in a zone scheme but also looked good in the Vols’ gap-blocking concepts. Hasn’t carried a big workload and should have plenty of tread on his tires. Good receiver out of the backfield, flashes consistent hands with burst out of his breaks and run-after-the-catch ability. Has a nice feel for screens. Has upside as a classic West Coast Offense back who can also handle a large role on passing downs. Has juice as a returner; returning 19 punts for 184 yards (9.6 ypc).

Weaknesses: Was never a bell cow in college; only logged 20 or more touches in a game one time in 2016, and didn’t become the starter until Jalen Hurd transferred. Some see that as a good thing, though. “Big picture I think it’s probably a little bit more of an asset because you know the ability is there,” McShay said. Others, however, doubt he’ll be able to do it in the NFL. “I’m not as high on him as others,” Kiper said. “I think he’s more of a situational man, return man.” Forty-yard dash time isn’t ideal for a “speed” back. Occasionally makes some curious decisions as a runner; needs to continue to work on his vision. Isn’t a hammer in the backfield and won’t consistently push an NFL pile. Needs to do a better job securing the rock (five fumbles in 2016 in only 143 touches). Largely willing blocker but he doesn’t have much “oomph” for his size and his technique needs work. “They may be a couple bumps in the road in terms of learning and improving his technique in pass protection, but he’s tough, man,” McShay said. “For a guy who’s not the biggest back, he sticks his nose in there.”

Grade: 6.7

Games I watched before grading him: Virginia Tech 2016, Georgia 2016, Texas A&M 2016, Alabama 2016, Kentucky 2016, Vanderbilt 2016.  

5. JOE MIXON, Oklahoma

Measurables: 6-1, 226, 20, 4.5

Bio: Part-time starter the last two years who rushed 187 times for 1,274 yards (6.8 ypc) and 10 touchdowns in 12 games in 2016. Also caught 37 passes for 538 yards and five touchdowns. Five fumbles. Declared after redshirt sophomore season. Was suspended for the entire 2014 campaign after punching a female student in the face (and breaking her jaw) after she slapped him that summer. Was not invited to the Combine due to the incident. Was also suspended in November for angrily approaching a parking attendant who issued him a parking attendant and ripped it up in her face.

Strengths: Is young for a prospect. Prototype height-weight-speed prospect with the frame to withstand the rigors of being a No. 1 back and juice with the rock on his hands. Has a little Adrian Peterson in him; pairs borderline elite initial burst and quicks with very good long speed — broke off a ton of long runs in college. Can make a man miss in short spaces but also has enough power and balance to run through ’em, too. Side-step juke is for real. Flashes an effective stiff arm. Scheme-versatile runner who can cut across the grain, make something out of nothing and be effective in many systems. Tread is low on his tires; split plenty of carries and reps with fellow soon-to-be draft pick, Samaje Perine. Has real promise as a receiver; can make tough, one-handed catches on the move and shows ability and comfort as a route runner in one-on-one situations. Fits the profile of a true three-down back, provided he can adequately pick up NFL blitzes. Also has some special-teams ability; returned 21 kicks for 494 yards and a touchdown and four punts for 25 yards in 2016. Excitable, enthusiastic on-field demeanor. First-round talent (7.0, at the very least) whose grade is affected by his off-field issues. “If it wasn’t for the off-field issue, he’d be a first-round pick,” Kiper said, and McShay agrees. “It’s a tough situation because the bottom line is, he’s probably gonna be a third-round pick and he’s, I think, the second-most talent back in this class and likely would have been a top-15 pick had he been clean and had no issues off the field,” McShay said.

Weaknesses: Doesn’t slip initial contact between the tackles quite as much as you would expect for a man with his size and natural ability. Height and upright running style will make him an appeasing target for defenders. Doesn’t consistently punish defenders like others his size; is more of an elusive back at this point. Put the ball on the ground too much in 2016; must secure the football. Didn’t see him do much pass protection in 2016 but seemed to show more physicality as a blocker in the 2015 game that was viewed. Teams have understandably dug into his character significantly; he must convince them of his remorse if to coerce them to take the initial public relations hit his selection will cause.

Grade: 6.7

Games I watched before grading him: Texas Tech 2015, Texas Christian 2016, Texas Tech 2016, Baylor 2016, West Virginia 2016, Auburn 2016.

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6. SAMAJE PERINE, Oklahoma

Measurables: 5-11, 233, 21, 4.65

Bio: Three-year starter who rushed 196 times for 1,060 yards (5.4 ypc) and 10 touchdowns in 10 games in 2016. Also caught 10 passes for 106 yards and a touchdown. Two fumbles (lost one). Declared after true junior season in which he missed three games with a pulled muscle in his leg.

Strengths: Team captain in 2016. Pumped out 30 reps on the bench, among the most at his position. Also ran the 60-yard shuttle in 11.71 seconds, among the best times at his position. Has a strong lower body and trunk. Huge hands to catch and secure the ball (10 inches). Powerful one-cut back wedge. Has plus balance and always seems to keep his body square upfield. Explodes upfield after his initial cut and immediately gets downhill on you. Has enough juice to turn the corner on outside runs. Field speed is better than his timed speed; he’s broken a run of 60-plus yards every season. Scheme-versatile runner who should be attractive to lots of teams. Does an outstanding job keeping his legs churning and shedding tacklers. Relishes contact; willingly lower his helmet into defenders’ chests and always falls forward and fights hard for the extra yard. Flashes a nasty stiff arm. Should be a functional pass catcher out of the backfield. Tough guy who is aware in pass protection, looks for the kill shot and loves to drop his shoulder into rushers hard. Also sells out as a lead blocker in the running game by diving at the legs of defenders or bodying them up to get the job done. Emotional and competitive; will sometimes yap with defenders. Throwback, all-day player who plays his tail off. “If you want a destroyer running the ball … he’s a second-round pick,” Kiper said. Occasional wildcat quarterback.

Weaknesses: Ran a below-average 40 at the Combine. Has good burst at the second level but isn’t a traditional home-run threat or make-you-miss guy. Will need to be teamed with a speed guy to help throw defenses off balance. Was more productive as a freshman and sophomore; when he rushed for a total of 3,062 yards and 37 touchdown on 489 carries, though some of his reduced workload in 2016 had to do with the emergence of fellow stud Joe Mixon. Hasn’t been super-productive as a receiver and isn’t a sophisticated route runner. Plays so hard, and runs so physical, that you wonder how long he’ll be able to play that way.

Grade: 6.7

Games I watched before grading him: Texas Tech 2015, Baylor 2015, Texas Christian 2015, Clemson 2015, Baylor 2016, Auburn 2016


Measurables: 6-0, 233, 21, 4.45

Bio: One-year starter who rushed 323 times for 2,028 yards and 15 touchdowns in 2016. Also caught seven passes for 75 yards and zero touchdowns. Six fumbles. Declared after true junior season.

Strengths: Big, sturdy frame with a powerful lower body; can handle the NFL grind. Quick feet and excellent timed speed for a man his size. Decisive runner who shows the ability to bounce inside runs to the outside when necessary. Runs with power when he gets a head of steam and relishes bowling over defenders who don’t bring it. Keeps a nice job keeping his legs churning when swarmed by bodies. Is not a plodder; has enough second-level giddyup to separate from some defenders and put a bunch of long runs on tape this year. Rhythm runner who can wear a defense down as the game goes on. Displays the ability to run into the teeth of a defense, push the pile and get a tough yard. Should be attractive for inside zone and man/gap-blocking teams who need a capable power back with some big-play ability. Showed some ability as a receiver during his Pro Day. “Big, powerful back that can catch the ball a little bit,” McShay said.

Weaknesses: Almost all of his runs were inside, and the outside ones were because he bounced it out there, so outside-zone heavy teams might be uneven on him. Initial burst is only okay; you can corral him in the backfield if you get him before he gets going. “Kind of a monotone, one-speed guy,” Jeremiah said. NFL defensive backs should be able to track him down on long runs. Needs to do a better job securing the football; too many fumbles this year. Has very little in-game receiving experience (13 career receptions), which could limit his snaps early if he doesn’t pick it up right away. Should be a more physical pass blocker given his size and strength; doesn’t show any interest in it. Awareness in pass protection also needs to improve, as he needs to do a better job of keeping his head on a swivel. Can get a quarterback killed on this level if he doesn’t step it up in this area.

Grade: 6.5

Games I watched before grading him: Oklahoma State 2016, Oklahoma 2016, Kansas State 2016, Baylor 2016, West Virginia 2016, Texas Christian 2016

8. MARLON MACK, South Florida

Measurables: 5-11, 213, 21, 4.5

Bio: Three-year starter who rushed 174 times for 1,187 yards (6.8 ypc) and 15 touchdowns in 12 games in 2016. Also caught 28 passes for 227 yards and zero touchdowns. Four fumbles (lost three). Declared after his true junior season in which he missed one game due to a concussion.

Strengths: Posted a 125-inch broad jump at the Combine, among the best marks at his position. Solid 40 time will help him. Nice combination of size, athleticism and strength. Generally decisive runner with some shiftiness who can slip defenders one-on-one in space and break off a chunk play once he shifts it into overdrive. Showed the ability to break off the long run. Showed more power in 2016; bounces off some tacklers and is tough to wrangle once he gets going. Decent blocker who tries to get the job done. Split out wide a decent amount and can serve as a functional receiver in the passing game on screens and wheels, etc. Willing blocker who generally carries out his assignment. “I think he can do a little bit of everything,” Jeremiah said.

Weaknesses: Not a huge guy so long-term durability is always going to be a concern. Isn’t going to be an elite creator between the tackles. Doesn’t consistently run through or over tacklers. Inconsistent vision; sometimes tries to bounce it outside too much when nothing is there. Didn’t run a particularly sophisticated route tree, even for a running back. Needs to do a better job holding on to the ball (12 fumbles in three years).

Grade: 6.4

Games I watched before grading him: Temple 2015, Florida State 2016, Cincinnati 2016, Connecticut 2016, Navy 2016, UCF 2016

9. KAREEM HUNT, Toledo

Measurables: 5-10, 216, 21, 4.62

Bio: Three-year starter who rushed 262 times for 1,475 yards (5.6 ypc) and 10 touchdowns in 13 games in 2016. Also caught 41 passes for 403 yards and a touchdown. Zero fumbles.

Strengths: Posted a 36  1/2 -inch vertical, among the best at his position. Squat, nimble back with live feet, legit upfield burst and natural instincts as a runner. Has a powerful lower body and outstanding contact balance; is adept at squaring himself after a blow and continuing forward. Has a low center of gravity and is difficult to line up for a big blow. Runs hard and with some power in space; has an effective stiff arm and isn’t afraid to play the leverage game one-on-one (he often wins). Creative runner who can make something out of nothing and make defenders look foolish in the open field. Scheme-versatile runner who can be effective inside or outside in a zone or power scheme. Extremely reliable ball carrier who only fumbled once in his career. Has lots of production as a pass receiver; shows the ability to be elusive and make tough catches. Is aware in pass protection and generally carries out his assignment. “Has a chance to be a really good value pick on day two,” McShay said.

Weaknesses: Concerned some by checking in at a light 208 pounds during Senior Bowl weigh-in. Long-term durability due to general lack of size will always be a concern. Ran a below-average 40; field speed is good but he can get tracked down from behind toward the end of a long run. Is not big enough to run through people in close quarters without a head of steam. Technique in pass protection needs work; ducks his head into oncoming rushers too much and could stand to take advantage of his natural leverage and be a touch more physical.

Grade: 6.4

Games I watched before grading him: Temple 2015, Brigham Young 2016, Ball State 2016, Western Michigan 2016, Appalachian State 2016, Senior Bowl 2016


Measurables: 6-0, 215, 22, 4.60

Bio: Three-starter who rushed 232 times for 1,133 yards (4.9 ypc) and 17 touchdowns in 15 games in 2016. Also caught 20 passes for 152 yards and zero touchdowns. Two fumbles (lost two). Declared after a redshirt junior season in which he suffered a concussion in October but didn’t miss a game.

Strengths: Posted a 4.28 20-yard shuttle at the Combine, which was among the best at his position. Possesses good feet with some burst upfield out of his cuts; has some shake and can make people miss with his jump cut, even on inside runs. Is generally successful when he bounces it outside. Patient, high-motor runner who lowers his shoulder and run with power. Ran behind power blocking schemes and was trusted in goal-line and short-yardage situations. Could also be useful in a zone-based scheme. Reliable ball carrier who doesn’t fumble very much. Has the juice to bounce it outside and turn the corner. Functional receiver whose shiftiness and upfield burst are pluses after the catch and could be weapons on screens. Lacks sand in his pants and can be put on skates in pass protection but is tough, aware and gives great effort, even as a lead blocker. “Versatile and was really productive there,” McShay said.

Weaknesses: Overall bulk is only adequate for a runner with a “big back” mentality. Forty time is below average; one-speed runner who is more of a gilder than a burner. Doubles hitter who doesn’t bust a ton of long runs and isn’t a great creator, despite his shiftiness; needs good blocking ahead of him. Running style might not be as effective against NFL athletes; struggled to average 3 yards per carry in two games against Alabama. Yards-per-carry average was a half-yard better in 2015, despite taking on 49 more carries that year.

Grade: 6.3

Games I watched before grading him: Auburn 2016, Georgia Tech 2016, Florida State 2016, Wake Forest 2016, South Carolina 2016, Alabama 2016

OTHERS TO WATCH: Matthew Dayes, North Carolina Sttae; Brian Hill, Wyoming; Elijah McGuire, Louisiana-Lafayette; Jeremy McNichols, Boise State; D.J. Pumphrey, San Diego State; Jamaal Williams, Brigham Young; Joe Williams, Utah.


Chiefs’ need at this position: Medium. The Chiefs don’t need to make running back a priority, because Spencer Ware fared well in his first year as a starter and Charcandrick West is a fine complement to him. But while both are young, team-first guys, both will be free agents in 2018, and the Chiefs are still missing the big-play, every-down element Jamaal Charles gave them prior to his recent knee issues. The Chiefs do have a promising young back in Darrin Reaves in the mix, and they also signed veteran C.J. Spiller as a low-risk flier, so they don’t have to take a running back early unless they fall in love with a guy, but it would be wise to — at the very least — take a raw back with big-play speed somewhere in this draft and let him develop.

QB: Story/rankings

RB: Story/rankings

FB: Story/rankings, to come

WR: Story/rankings, to come

TE: Story/rankings, to come

OL: Story/rankings, to come

DL: Story/rankings, to come

EDGE: Story/rankings, to come

ILB: Story/rankings, to come

CB: Story/rankings, to come

S: Story/rankings, to come

The Terez A. Paylor All-Juice Team: 2017 (to come) | 2016 | 2015

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