NFL draft RB rankings: Leonard Fournette, Christian McCaffrey lead excellent crop

More than 61 percent of NFL plays in the regular season were pass attempts, and the league clearly has trended toward the passing game steadily over the past decade. It’s a quarterback’s league — and running backs just seem to inhabit it, right?

Perhaps. But that should not dissuade teams from considering one of the deepest and most talented groups of backs to enter the NFL in years. There’s star power for sure, but the 2017 NFL draft RB class also features great depth and diversity.

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Strong rookie seasons the past two years by top-10 picks Todd Gurley (even with his Year 2 struggles) and Ezekiel Elliott have reminded teams of the power of a potent run game, following the debacle of former No. 3 overall pick Trent Richardson, who flamed out of the league almost as quickly as he entered it.

LSU’s Leonard Fournette is our top-ranked back in the 2017 NFL draft. (AP)
LSU’s Leonard Fournette is our top-ranked back in the 2017 NFL draft. (AP)

The 2017 class also has this going for it: Several of the top backs also excel as pass catchers, so teams that still rely more heavily on their quarterbacks won’t feel cheated by drafting a two-down option high. Still, our top-rated back this year — LSU’s Leonard Fournette — is a physical marvel who might just be the best two-down back to enter the league since Adrian Peterson.

And with depth that should reach well into Day 3, this running back group has the chance to be one of the best to enter the league since 2008, which featured Chris Johnson, Matt Forte, Jamaal Charles, Ray Rice, Jonathan Stewart, Darren McFadden and Tim Hightower.

Positional grade: A-minus

It’s a very strong class — one of the strongest we’ve had in years. But just wait: Next year, we’ll be comparing the 2018 class (Saquon Barkley, Derrius Guice, Bo Scarbrough, Royce Freeman, Nick Chubb, Sony Michel) and ensuing in a pretty good debate. Early gut here is that next year’s crop might be even more special. But this year’s class is darned good in its own right.

Shutdown Corner’s Top 10 running backs for 2017

1. Leonard Fournette, LSU — 6-foot, 240 pounds — Even with limitations in the passing game and injury concerns, he’s a rare size-speed prospect who seeks to blast through defenders at full steam
2. Christian McCaffrey, Stanford (also WR) — 5-11, 202 — Reggie Bush clone who runs routes like an NFL receiver already, has good rushing instincts and will be a strong return threat as well
3. Dalvin Cook, Florida State — 5-10, 210 — Might not be transcendent talent, lacking elite athleticism and prone to ball security issues, but the tape reveals Cook’s strong balance, burst and vision
4. Alvin Kamara, Tennessee — 5-10, 214 — Low-mileage, multi-tool back who could be better pro than in college (Full scouting report)
5. Joe Mixon, Oklahoma — 6-1, 301 — Major character questions already have him off some teams’ boards, but skill level is exceptionally high; has star-level talent, but can he stay out of trouble? (Full scouting report)
6. Curtis Samuel, Ohio State (also WR) — 5-11, 196 — A poor man’s McCaffrey perhaps but with a similar skill set, lower mileage and terrific foot speed (Full scouting report)
7. D’Onta Foreman, Texas — 6-0, 230 — Big and fast, maybe faster than we realized, and could be great complementary runner
8. Marlon Mack, South Florida — 5-11, 213 — Does everything well or very well, but fumbling a bit of a concern
9. Samaje Perine, Oklahoma — 5-11, 233 — Remember Michael “The Burner” Turner? That’s whose game Perine reminds us of
10. Kareem Hunt, Toledo — 5-10, 216 — Turned career around after injuries, suspension and has become decisive power runner

Sleeper
James Conner, Pitt

Conner’s story has been well told. He has overcome Hodgkin’s lymphoma and a torn knee ligament to be one of the best runners in college football the past few seasons, and his physical style absolutely should translate on the next level in the right role. The 6-1, 233-pound Conner showed up to the NFL scouting combine looking absolutely shredded during the weigh-in, even stunning a few longtime scouts.

And what he lacks in athletic traits, he more than makes up for in his desire and work ethic. Conner just seems to love football and will do anything a team asks. He subbed as a late-game pass rusher against Virginia, registering a hurry in a handful of snaps there, and he spoke openly last season about wanting to be used more on special teams.

There are health concerns that must be vetted carefully, and Conner likely never will be a true feature back for whom defenses must alter their game plans. However, he’s a perfect complementary piece who can block, run with power, catch passes and be a great addition to the locker room as a serious-minded pro in waiting.

Small-school wonder
Tarik Cohen, North Carolina A&T

There’s worry about Cohen’s size (5-foot-6, 179 pounds) and heavy college workload (968 touches) as they relate to his NFL potential, and he doesn’t have blazing track speed and is very inexperienced as a returner. But he also dominated as a runner at the historically black college over the past four seasons and absolutely deserves a shot at the next level.

Cohen has a fascinating combination of elusiveness and compact power and could be used as a great change-of-pace back. He rebounded from an early fumble in a step up in competition against Kent State (24 rushes, 133 yards, TD; nine catches, 125 yards).

He made plays such as this:

North Carolina A&T RB Tarik Cohen making something … (Draftbreakdown.com, via YouTube)
North Carolina A&T RB Tarik Cohen making something … (Draftbreakdown.com, via YouTube)
… out of nothing. (Draftbreakdown.com, via YouTube)
… out of nothing. (Draftbreakdown.com, via YouTube)

And this:

Tarik Cohen shows his awareness against Kent State … (Draftbreakdown.com, via YouTube)
Tarik Cohen shows his awareness against Kent State … (Draftbreakdown.com, via YouTube)
… to make a spectacular play out of what could have been lost yardage. (Draftbreakdown.com, via YouTube)
… to make a spectacular play out of what could have been lost yardage. (Draftbreakdown.com, via YouTube)

Cohen should get a shot to be drafted on Day 3, despite his limitations.

Other 2017 NFL draft position rankings:

Quarterbacks

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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!

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