Ranking the NFL draft prospects: Running backs

Bob McGinn
Milwaukee Journal Sentinel
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LSU running back Leonard Fournette looks for a hole against the Badgers at Lambeau Field in the 2016 season opener.

The Journal Sentinel’s Bob McGinn assesses the top running backs in the NFL draft next week. Included is each player’s height, weight, 40-yard time and projected round.

Running backs

1. LEONARD FOURNETTE, Louisiana State (6-0 ½, 232, 4.52, 1): Third-year junior. “He’s a freaking beast,” said one scout. “I’m not saying he’s Earl Campbell but he’s got power. I’m not saying he’s Bo (Jackson) but when you see this guy roll at his size and strength, wow. Todd Gurley could hit it and he could run but this guy is more powerful. There’s nothing wrong with him until this year when he got the early ankle injury.” Injured in summer camp and played in just seven games resulting in an 843-yard season compared to 1,953 in 2015. “He’s rare with his size and speed and ability to run over people,” said another scout. “I worry about him long-term. He’s an erect runner and he’s going to take some punishment. He’s not elusive.” Grew up in New Orleans where his life was devastated by Hurricane Katrina. Picked LSU over Alabama, which limited him to 66 yards in 36 carries (1.8) the past two seasons. “The more I watched him, he can’t create at the line of scrimmage,” said a third scout. “The last guy that had that same issue was Darren McFadden. No, he just runs over people.” Finished with 616 carries for 3,830 yards (6.2) and 40 touchdowns; caught 41 for 526. “People keep glossing over that that other kid came in and ripped up the SEC,” said one scout of Fournette's backup at LSU, Derrius Guice. “He’s got more make-you-miss (than Fournette). I don’t really know what kind of grit he has to overcome anything. He’s been a god in Louisiana since his freshman year.” Scored 11 on the 50-question Wonderlic intelligence test. Terrible vertical jump (28 ½).

2. DALVIN COOK, Florida State (5-10 ½, 210, 4.50, 1): Third-year junior who broke Warrick Dunn’s 20-year FSU career rushing record. “He’ll be in the mode of (Devonta) Freeman,” said one scout. “I absolutely love that guy. He can take over a game. What makes him special is his first 10 yards. His acceleration rate is awesome. Good enough hands. People will try to kill his character, and to a degree he may slide.” Several scouts expressed major reservations about Cook's checkered past involving arrests for various incidents dating to high school at Miami Central. Has had three shoulder operations. Wonderlic of 11. “He’s a small back,” said another scout. “Ran 4.5, 30-inch vertical. Where’s the explosive dynamic? And he has questionable makeup.” Finished with 687 carries for 4,464 (6.5) and 22 TDs along with 79 receptions for 935. “He can score from any spot on the field,” a third scout said. “Pound for pound I think he’s the best all-around back I’ve ever done.”

3. CHRISTIAN McCAFFREY, Stanford (5-11, 203, 4.49, 1): “He’s the second-best back behind Fournette, who is head and shoulders above everybody,” said one scout. “He’s subtle with how good he is. Even though he’s had all the acclaim he’s still really good.” Comes from a family of distinguished athletes in suburban Denver; father, Ed, was a 13-year NFL receiver. His interview was compared by one scout to Tim Tebow’s. Put on a memorable receiving show at the combine. “Have you ever seen a guy catch the ball that good?” said another scout. “He’s a mismatch guy, and when they get in the league they make hay. If he moves out to the edge you might have your ‘sam’ backer on him. The other thing is, you don’t have to worry about that kid. He has been prepared for the NFL since he was born. When you get guys with dads that played in the league, they’ve been told all their lives to compete.” Third-year junior finished with 632 carries for 3,922 (6.2) and 21 TDs to go with 99 catches for 1,206. Broke Barry Sanders’ single-season record for all-purpose yards. Best year was 2015, when he was Heisman runner-up. “Everyone’s anointing him as the next great white (hope),” said a third scout. “I’m a little skeptical. He didn’t dominate as much as he did sophomore year. Why is that? What’s the value of a third-down back and return specialist?” Wonderlic of 21.

4. JOE MIXON, Oklahoma (6-0 ½, 228, 4.47. 1-3): Third-year sophomore was suspended all of 2014 for punching a woman in the face. “He’s my best back – by far,” said one scout. “He’s Adrian Peterson who returns kicks. Great receiver, not a good receiver. He can line up wide or as a slot. He’s a bigger, better Ezekiel Elliott. He can do more.” With classmate Samaje Perine having established himself, he and Mixon split time past two years. Finished with 300 carries for 2,027 (6.8) and 17 TDs to go with 65 catches for 894. Wonderlic of 12. “Someone who is succeeding with his style is the guy in Arizona (David Johnson),” said another scout. “This kid has power and speed, and he is really a quality receiver. He’s the type of guy you can leave on the field in pretty much any situation.” Will turn 21 on July 25, three years and a day from his life-altering night in Norman, Okla. “Pass protection is an area he will need to continue working on,” a third scout said. “It’s not from a lack of trying. Just technique. He’s a big, strong dude. He can do it.” From Oakley, Calif.

RELATED: NFL teams must weigh risk with Joe Mixon

5. ALVIN KAMARA, Tennessee (5-10, 213, 4.59, 2): Fourth-year junior. “This guy is in the Christian McCaffrey-type role,” said one scout. “McCaffrey has done it longer. Kamara has limited carries. He absolutely could be a starter in Green Bay. He’s a hell of a lot better than (Ty) Montgomery.” Redshirted at Alabama behind T.J. Yeldon and Derrick Henry in 2013, spent ’14 at a junior college and then started just eight of 24 games for the Volunteers behind Jalen Hurd. “He couldn’t even start on his own team,” said another scout. “But he’s talented.” Led top RBs in the Wonderlic (24), vertical jump (39 ½) and broad jump (10-11). Finished with 210 carries for 1,294 (6.2) and 16 TDs along with 74 catches for 683. “I’m not all in on Kamara,” a third scout said. “He’s a small back that ran 4.59. People keep glossing over that. He’s going to be a really good change-of-pace, third-down receiving option out of the backfield. I don’t see a guy that can carry the ball three downs.” From Norcross, Ga.

6. SAMAJE PERINE, Oklahoma (5-10 ½, 232, 4.61, 2-3): Third-year junior broke Billy Sims’ career rushing record. “He’s built like a brick (expletive),” said one scout. “He is an awesome kid. Awesome. Built low to the ground. He’ll be able to absorb punishment and be durable compared to some of these high-cut backs that run fast. They get a couple shots to their legs and they’re done. There’s questions about him as a third-down back, but if you want a big back he can be a workhorse for you.” Easily paced all RBs on the bench press with 30 reps. “He’s a big guy with really nice feet that has enough size to run tough inside but has enough quickness and lateral agility to bounce it outside,” another scout said. “Everybody loves this kid.” Finished with 685 carries for 4,122 (6.0) and 49 TDs to go with 40 receptions for 321. “He’s just kind of this plodder,” said a third scout. “He’s Eddie Lacy but not as explosive. He doesn’t run through you. Eddie had great feet for a big man. He doesn’t quite have that. Good in pass pro but isn’t a threat out of the backfield.” From Pflugerville, Texas.

7. D’ONTA FOREMAN, Texas (6-0, 234, 4.47, 3): Injury-ridden and without much production in first two seasons before breaking out for 2,028 yards as third-year junior in ’16. “Very similar to Perine except Foreman ran fast, which was a surprise,” one scout said. “But he’s not a starter.” The Longhorns’ first consensus All-American choice since RB Ricky Williams in 1998. “Plays in that (spread) offense,” said another scout. “Zone read, big holes. He’s just not an aggressive runner.” Finished with 433 carries for 2,782 (6.4) and 20 TDs with merely 13 catches for 146. “Straight-line guy,” said a third scout. “Can’t pass-block me.” From Texas City, Texas. “Don’t trust him,” a fourth scout added. “Is he David Johnson? Big guy, ran fast. He’s a big guy that thinks he’s a finesse running back. He’s got really nice feet. Poor in the passing game.”

8. KAREEM HUNT, Toledo (5-10 ½, 218, 4.59, 3-4): Third-year junior. “If he was playing at one of the SEC schools the whole world would know about him,” said one scout. “I didn’t have the guts to give him higher than a third-round grade given the competition. Seldom tackled by the first man. Effective receiver out of the backfield. Excellent balance.” Weight fluctuated wildly in the last 12 months (was 237 last spring). That and off-field issues require scrutiny. “He’s grown up where I’m comfortable with the kid,” a second scout said. “But he’s not special enough to be the guy.” Carried 782 times for 4,945 (6.3) and 44 TDs with 73 receptions for 555. Three-sport athlete from Willoughby, Ohio. “He’s a banger with the ability to drop his hips and move laterally,” said a third scout. “Weight may be an issue. Still trying to work through that. Really good in blitz pickup. Really showed well at the Senior Bowl.”

9. MATT DAYES, North Carolina State (5-8 ½, 205, 4.45, 3-4): Emerged as the best senior RB. “More of a specialty back,” one scout said. “He’s a one-cut speed guy. He tries to run hard but he doesn’t have any (expletive) behind him. He does have some receiving skills.” Poor vertical jump (28) and Wonderlic (12). Finished with 550 carries for 2,856 (5.2) and 34 TDs with 98 catches for 933. “He maximizes his talent but he’s not a very talented guy,” said another scout. “Small and not a lot of speed.” From Fort Lauderdale, Fla.

10. WAYNE GALLMAN, Clemson (6-0 ½, 213, 4.59, 4): Called “generic, herky-jerky” by one personnel man. Started 37 of 42 games, ending his career with a national title. “Upright runner,” another scout said. “Little bit of strength. Runs hard, but limited. Caught the ball well at pro day but I don’t think he’s a third-down back.” Hurt his chances with a slow 40 and marginal workout. Finished with 676 carries for 3,429 (5.1) and 34 TDs with 65 catches for 473. “Rangy, leggy runner,” a third scout said. “Tough, good vision. Good, not special.” From Loganville, Ga.

11. MARLON MACK, South Florida (5-11 ½, 212, 4.49, 4): Third-year junior. “More of a perimeter-space guy,” one scout said. “He doesn’t run real powerful inside. Kind of a third-downish kind of guy. Doesn’t play big.” Started all 36 games, carrying 586 times for 3,609 (6.2) and 32 TDs and catching 65 for 498. “Like a little jitterbug-type back,” said another scout. “It’s good he was in the spread offense. When he plays in the big-boy league and has to run between the tackles I don’t know how effective he’s going to be.” From Sarasota, Fla. “Not a fan,” said a third scout. “I think he runs out of bounds. He runs away from contact.”

12. DONNEL PUMPHREY, San Diego State (5-8, 176, 4.46, 4-5): Counting bowl games, he finished third in all-time rushing behind Ron Dayne and Tony Dorsett. “Well, everybody’s going to have doubts on his size, and I do, too,” one scout said. “I’ve never seen a 178-pound guy never get hurt. That guy is hard to tackle. Ask that big pretty guy from UConn (safety Obi Melifonwu) about the Senior Bowl when he planted his helmet right in his chest and ran over his (expletive). Might be the toughest guy in the draft. I don’t know what you do with him but I’ll be surprised if he’s there in the fifth (round).” Carried a phenomenal 1,059 times for 6,405 (6.0) and 62 TDs to go with 99 receptions for 1,039. Wonderlic of 21. Just five reps on the bench. “He’s a midget but is he exciting,” a third scout said. From Las Vegas.

13. JAMES CONNER, Pittsburgh (6-1 ½, 235, 4.64, 4-5): Fourth-year junior. In 2015, he suffered a season-ending MCL injury in Game 1 and two months later was diagnosed with Hodgkin’s lymphoma. After undergoing chemotherapy, he was declared cancer-free in May. Went on to start all 13 games and pick up 1,092 yards. “You obviously know the story, of which I am incredibly sympathetic,” said one scout. “Old-school bruising back. Pretty good hands. Like to have him.” Rushed 668 times for 3,733 (5.6) and 52 TDs and caught 30 for 412. “Even though he’s got a great story I would be afraid to draft him because of that cancer,” said another scout. “Supposedly, he’s cancer-free, but he’s not a good enough player to take a shot on. He’s a big guy without speed and he’s not real quick. There’s nothing special there.” From Erie, Pa.

OTHERS: Elijah McGuire, Louisiana-Lafayette; Dare Ogunbowale, Wisconsin; Joe Williams, Utah; Jamaal Williams, Brigham Young; Corey Clement, Wisconsin; Jeremy McNichols, Boise State; Brian Hill, Wyoming; T.J. Logan, North Carolina; De’Veon Smith, Michigan; DeAngelo Henderson, Coastal Carolina; Elijah Hood, North Carolina; Tarik Cohen, North Carolina A&T.


1. CONNOR HARRIS, Lindenwood (5-11, 242, 4.72, 4-5): Several teams have discussed converting him from middle linebacker, where he started all 48 games and established an NCAA all-division record of 633 tackles. “He definitely could because he also played running back in college,” said one scout. “Even though it’s a small (Division II) school he’s been productive when he’s been their starting running back. You look for guys like that that can help you depth-wise.” Rushed 50 times for 328 (6.6) and seven TDs; gained 188 and scored four TDs in one game. Wonderlic of 25 should ease the transition. From Lee’s Summit, Mo. Amazing resemblance to former LB Chris Spielman.

2. FREDDIE STEVENSON, Florida State (6-0 ½, 236, 6): Former LB from Bartow, Fla. “Tough, try-hard guy,” said one scout. “Not a violent in-line blocker. He wasn’t an earth mover. I saw a 214-pound linebacker jack him a couple times. He’s one of these West Coast fullbacks that tries to be a downhill guy and iso-lead guy but it’s not really their forte. He’s not a classic fullback. He’s one of these West Coast fullbacks you try to slip out in the flats.” Carried 25 times for 132 (5.3) and five TDs to go with 19 catches for 160.

OTHERS: Marquez Williams, Miami; Sam Rogers, Virginia Tech; Algernon Brown, Brigham Young.


Unsung Hero

Jamaal Williams, RB, Brigham Young: One of the hardest runners in the draft. Left as Cougars’ all-time rusher with 3,901 yards. Progress has been marred by injury and off-field problems. In fact, he withdrew from school and sat out the entire 2015 season before returning.

Scouts' Nightmare

Joe Williams, RB, Utah: Kicked out of UConn for credit card theft. First season at Utah (2015) was marginal before he exploded for 1,407 yards in just 10 games last year. Worked out great (4.45 at 209 pounds). Said one scout: “He can run like a scalded dog … just not very dependable.”

Packers' Pick to Remember

Chris Darkins, RB, Minnesota: Fourth-round draft choice in 1996. Suffered a dislocated shoulder two weeks into his first training camp and spent Super Bowl season on injured reserve. Played special teams in ’97 but never carried the ball. Converted to cornerback in ’98 but suffered two torn knee ligaments that August and was waived with an injury settlement Sept. 5. It was his last NFL contract.

Quote to Note

AFC personnel man: “Everybody keeps saying what a special running back draft this is. It’s been overhyped. There’s good players but next year’s class with the kid from Penn State (Saquon Barkley) and the backup from LSU (Derrius Guice) will be better.”

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