NFL draft: Leonard Fournette, Christian McCaffrey will go high despite 2016 struggles

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The expectations for LSU’s Lenoard Fournette and Stanford’s Christian McCaffrey entering the 2016 college football season were sky-high. Alas, they were not met — mostly because of injuries and quarterback problems for the two programs. But now that both have declared for the draft (here are Dr. Saturday’s reports on Fournette and McCaffrey), the arrow is pointing back up again.

They’re completely different players, but both could be high picks. So which one will be the higher draft selection? Our initial gut says Fournette, whereas McCaffrey is viewed as more of a jack of all trades. Talent evaluators over the past year-plus have gushed about Fournette’s size-speed combination and say he can be a special back in a league that is slowly cycling back toward the run game.

“Size-wise, he’s a Jamal Lewis back, or [LeGarrette] Blount if you want a more recent [comparison],” one scout who has seen Fournette numerous times the past few seasons told Shutdown Corner. “He rolls off contact; those DBs [who] try to bite his ankles, forget about it. He takes on linebackers. And he can gear up [to full speed] fast. He just hits it and goes.”

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LSU's Leonard Fournette is expected to go high in the 2017 NFL draft. (AP)
LSU’s Leonard Fournette is expected to go high in the 2017 NFL draft. (AP)

The scout also pointed out that it appears Fournette has taken to some finer-point coaching, such as running with lower pads and being better in the passing game as a receiver and pass blocker. Having that three-down flexibility makes Fournette more appealing to teams that run no-huddle offenses.

“Like Green Bay when [Eddie] Lacy was rolling,” the scout said. “That’s what made them so dangerous, having him on the field and not having to sub in a quicker back. They can run every play in the book with the same personnel and beat you two ways and still go fast.”

Fournette’s injury-plagued final season is a concern. An ankle injury he suffered in August slowed him down for the first part of the season and forced him to miss multiple games. While he was out, backup Derrius Guice was so good he earned first-team All-SEC. (Fournette earned second-team honors for his seven-game season.)

Although Fournette was relatively quiet in the final three games of the season, including Alabama shutting him down for a second straight year, Fournette was electric in his first game back from injury. He diced up Ole Miss for 284 yards rushing and three TDs on a mere 16 carries, and even if it came against one of the worst run defenses in the country it was clear that Fournette had juice left in his legs.

McCaffrey was first-team All-Pac 12 on offense as a running back and honorable mention as a returner. Like Fournette, he was slowed down by an injury — a midseason one that was undisclosed — and missed one game. He wasn’t the same explosive player during a touchdown-less three-game span against Washington, Washington State (when head coach David Shaw said McCaffrey got “banged up”) and Colorado when he totaled 41 rushes for 176 yards, for 4.3 yards per carry, and eight catches for 61 yards.

But in his final five games, the multi-threat weapon was back to wrecking teams again. He totaled 1,121 yards from scrimmage, scored 12 touchdowns and had no fewer than 135 yards rushing in any of those games. Yes, Cal and Rice didn’t provide the stiffest of defensive tests in the final two games of the season against McCaffrey, but he roasted them for 484 yards rushing and five total TDs. His running, receiving and returning ability — as well as his underrated toughness — all will be highly sought after.

Both will cap their careers in fascinating bowl games where they might not be the main attractions, believe it or not. Fournette is playing second fiddle in terms of hype in LSU’s Citrus Bowl matchup against Louisville and expected Heisman Trophy winner, Lamar Jackson. Meanwhile, McCaffrey and Stanford face off in a Sun Bowl game against North Carolina and QB Mitch Trubisky, who is the draft flavor of the month, in what could be his final college game. Ratings for that game might be atypically high in cities such as Cleveland, San Francisco and Chicago where they have QB-needy NFL teams.

McCaffrey and Fournette should each end up firmly in the first round, with Fournette having a chance to go in the first 10 or 15 picks. There will be reservations about both, and the stigma of running backs going high remains a thing with some NFL teams that don’t place as high a positional value there.

But in the case of McCaffrey, there are teams that view him also as a possible slot WR candidate, and certainly a key returner on punts and kickoffs. With NFL teams opting to kick the ball off at or a yard or two deep into the end zone, returners who can squeeze the most out of kicks are more important than they have been in a few years. As we discussed last week with Ohio State’s Curtis Samuel, McCaffrey fits the mold of the Ty Montgomery/Tyreek Hill/Theo Riddick/Duke Johnson multiple-role offensive weapon.

Both Fournette and McCaffrey are rare athletes who should test well at the NFL scouting combine, too, so when it’s all said and done both — along with Florida State’s Dalvin Cook, perhaps our favorite back in the 2017 draft class — will be highly coveted prospects.

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Eric Edholm is a writer for Shutdown Corner on Yahoo Sports. Have a tip? Email him at edholm@yahoo-inc.com or follow him on Twitter!