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NFL draft: One evaluator says this might be best RB crop since 2008 draft

It’s hard not to get excited about the crop of running back talent in college football, much of which could be available for the 2017 NFL draft.

LSU’s Leonard Fournette is so good that people told him to skip his final season of eligibility. A late-game injury in the opening-game loss to Wisconsin made that advice sound prudent in retrospect.

LSU's Leonard Fournette might be the first running back selected in the 2017 NFL draft (AP).
LSU’s Leonard Fournette might be the first running back selected in the 2017 NFL draft (AP).

Stanford’s Christian McCaffery was a Heisman finalist last year and bailed out the Cardinal in the opener this year with a late score and a great all-around performance.

Florida State’s Dalvin Cook was purported to have a quiet game in the Seminoles’ wild win over Ole Miss — if 192 yards from scrimmage is considered “quiet,” then it merely only speaks to Cook’s greatness.

Georgia’s Nick Chubb looked back from knee surgery and explosive again in a 222-yard rushing game against North Carolina, even if he was contained in a weird game against Nicholls State. When healthy, he’s a star.

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A slew of next-tier backs, including Clemson’s Wayne Gallman, Oklahoma’s Samaje Perine, Oregon’s Royce Freeman and others, should not be overlooked either. Even a few prospects change positions (such as McCaffery or Tennessee’s Jalen Hurd) this is the best class of running talent to come out in years.

At first blush — our first mock draft of the fall isn’t going up until next week — we’ll predict that either Fournette (even if he’s nitpicked to death next spring, which feels inevitable) or Cook will be the first back off the board. Both have a good shot of going in the top 12 picks. After that, McCaffery (who is also an excellent slot receiver and return threat) could fit as a Reggie Bush-like chess piece in the middle to later parts of Round 1. If Chubb tests out favorably from a medical standpoint, he also very well could be a first-rounder.

Whenever we write about the position, it’s worth exploring how it seemingly has been devalued since a generation ago. After all, this is a pass-first league, is it not? Greater positional value league-wide appears to be placed on quarterbacks, wide receivers, offensive tackles, pass rushers and cornerbacks.

The draft stats speak loudly in this regard: There have been a mere three first-round running backs the past four drafts, and they’ve all come the past two years. The numbers bear out historically over a longer period, too. Since 1999 — a span of 17 drafts — there have been 44 first-round running backs taken. In the 17 drafts prior to that, there were 71 in Round 1.

But the overall number of running backs (fullbacks included) being drafted is actually slightly on the rise over a shorter span. In the past six drafts, from 2011 to 2016, an average of 23.7 were selected. In the six drafts prior to that, it the average was 22.2 — a difference of almost two backs per year.

What’s notable is that during that first six-year stretch there were far more first-rounders (18) than in the past six drafts (seven). Even in 2016, when Ezekiel Elliot was taken fourth overall by the Dallas Cowboys, the next back — Derrick Henry to the Tennessee Titans — didn’t go off the board until the 45th selection.

So backs were going less often overall but higher up in the draft. Why is that?

“I don’t have an answer for you on that,” one college scouting director told Shutdown Corner. “I honestly don’t know what it is. We chart the trends and [analytics] of the draft, and our numbers showed that you used to be able to get those lower-round [values] at the position.

“But I do know that if you look, you’ll see a lot more top-50 [picks] up there [among the leading rushers] than you realize. If they fall past that it’s likely because they came into the league with something, like medical [concerns].”

The numbers seem to back this up. Of the 12 leading rushers in 2015, eight were taken in the first or second round. The four who were not: Chris Ivory (undrafted), Latavius Murray (sixth round), Devonta Freeman (fourth) and Frank Gore (third). Indeed, Ivory had a litany of injuries in college, which has transferred over to the NFL. Gore missed a season in college with a torn ACL. Freeman’s concerns were non-medical, but he always shared the ball at Florida State. Murray had two major injuries in college (ACL, shoulder) and missed his rookie season in the NFL after an ankle injury.

The college director balked at making any predictions about how many backs could end up in the top 50 “because it’s too early, we don’t know who’s coming out and chances are a few of them will get hurt anyway. It’s the nature of the position.” But he did state that this could be the best crop of backs to come out, depending on which underclassmen declared, since 2008.

That group included five first-rounders, two second-rounders and three thirds. All told, 10 backs went in the first 73 picks — and many of them paid off. Darren McFadden (fourth overall) and Jonathan Stewart (13th) have had good, albeit injury-prone careers. Felix Jones and Rashard Mendenhall, the 22nd and 23rd picks respectively, have to be called busts. Chris Johnson (24th) and Matt Forte (44th) paid off in spades, as did Ray Rice (55th) prior to his domestic abuse incident. Jamal Charles was a steal at No. 73 overall.

The late rounds that year provided a few surprise performers (Justin Forsett, Tim Hightower), and the undrafted ranks even bore unexpected fruit with BenJarvus Green-Ellis, Danny Woodhead and Mike Tolbert.

There appears to be both top-level talent and depth in 2017, the way things are going. An injury or two, or a surprise decision to stay in school, could affect that notably. But as things stand, we could have as strong a crop of running backs as we’ve had in several years.

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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!