McGinn: Running backs headline 2017 NFL draft
Green Bay – Should the Green Bay Packers decide to make a clean break at running back this would be the draft to do it.
Running backs are in vogue again. The NFL standings tell you that. So does the success rate of ball carriers that have entered the league in the past two years.
The Packers’ decision to pay the position short shrift caught up with them this season. By ignoring the position in the draft since 2013 and veteran free agency throughout general manager Ted Thompson’s 12-year tenure, they’ll be lining up without an ideal option Sunday at Soldier Field in arctic weather fit neither for man nor beast.
As bad off as the Chicago Bears are overall, they did outfit themselves for just such an afternoon by drafting a running back in the middle rounds each of the past three years. If Indiana’s Jordan Howard has enough space to get his shoulders square on a consistent basis, the 235-pound rookie has the horsepower to dissuade tacklers and control the flow of the 194th meeting between the NFL’s oldest rivalry.
The Packers are left to counter with ex-wide receiver Ty Montgomery, a talented athlete whom coach Mike McCarthy hasn’t felt confident giving more than nine carries in a game; well-traveled Christine Michael, the mid-season waiver claim, and fullback Aaron Ripkowski.
Assuming the bulk of the underclassmen declare, some scouts view this class of running backs as the best in years. The position could be even better in 2018.
“There are a bunch of guys you look at and say, ‘He’ll start in the NFL,’” said an NFC personnel man. “I’m not talking about just starters. I’m talking about guys, if you use them to their ability, they’ll be high-end starters.”
An executive in personnel for an AFC team said the draft looks to be so deep in running backs that a starter probably can be found as late as the fourth round. Howard isn’t Dallas’ Ezekiel Elliott, the fourth pick in April, but with 883 yards he’s already paid major dividends as a fifth-round selection. If he plays an integral role in damaging the Packers’ playoff hopes, he’ll be a hero at Halas Hall.
Eddie Lacy was playing just fine when he broke down in October with an ankle injury that required surgery.
After participating in a weight-loss program during the off-season, Lacy looked trimmer in May and June. However, he appeared to be right back up near the 260-pound mark when his season ended.
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With the draft brimming with backs, Lacy isn’t expected to have much of a market if the Packers allow him to enter unrestricted free agency in March. The leverage rides with the Packers, who could either re-sign Lacy to a modest one-year contract or close the book on him entirely.
James Starks’ base salary increases from $1.1 million this year to $2.6 million next year. Based on money, age (31 in February) and performance, there’s little reason to have him back.
The jury’s out on Montgomery. The ever-resourceful McCarthy has made it work with Montgomery on a fill-in basis, but the litmus test of his future usefulness will come in the next few weeks.
Randall Cobb provided an occasional spark in his 46 snaps from the backfield, but he’s nothing more than a changeup there.
Seattle, Dallas and Seattle for a second time gave up on Michael, and for good reason. He doesn’t always follow his blockers and has a long history of unreliability. He shouldn’t be part of the future plan.
Two backs on injured reserve, John Crockett and Don Jackson, aren’t the answer, either.
The Packers understand the need for at least semi-balance on offense. They need look no further than New England, where the 1,029 yards and 14 touchdowns from veteran retread LeGarrette Blount (247 pounds) have proven to be invaluable in the Patriots’ 11-2 start.
McCarthy has keen interest if not overwhelming expertise in the run game, but there are those on his staff that should and they have an offensive line that could be an even more effective run-blocking unit given the opportunity.
They just need a running back to tie it all together.
After not one back was taken in the first round of the 2013 and ’14 drafts, Todd Gurley went 10th to the Rams and Melvin Gordon went 15th to the Chargers two years ago. That same class also produced David Johnson, Jay Ajayi and Thomas Rawls.
Besides Elliott, the NFL’s leading rusher for the 11-2 Cowboys, and Howard from this year’s draft, Derrick Henry has been a solid complement to DeMarco Murray for resurgent Tennessee. Free agents Thomas Kelley and Jalen Richard have been exciting additions for Washington and Oakland.
Scouts have been looking forward to this group of junior running backs since players like Leonard Fournette of Louisiana State and Dalvin Cook of Florida State became stars as freshmen.
“A lot of them played early,” said an NFC executive. “LSU has two guys, one (Fournette) obviously will be a starter in the NFL and I think the other one (Derrius Guice) will, too. The kid at Stanford (Christian McCaffrey) is phenomenal. Dalvin is a no-brainer.”
Of the top 14 backs expected to comprise this draft class, nine have gained at least 3,000 yards: Cook (4,319), Wyoming’s Brian Hill (4,194), Oregon’s Royce Freeman (4,146), Oklahoma’s Samaje Perine (4,036), McCaffrey (3,922), Fournette (3,830), Clemson’s Wayne Gallman (3,298), Boise State’s Jeremy McNichols (3,159) and Wisconsin’s Corey Clement (3,021).
Massive D’Onta Foreman of Texas leads the nation in rushing this season with 2,028. North Carolina’s Elijah Hood rushed for 1,463 in 2015. Ohio State’s Curtis Samuel might be as electrifying as all of them.
“There’s a bunch of them next year, too,” said another personnel man.
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Guice, who is expected to declare for the 2018 draft, has been productive for two seasons as Fournette’s backup. Other big names in that class would be Penn State’s Saquon Barkley (2,378 yards), Alabama’s Damien Harris (1,178), Georgia’s Nick Chubb (3,282), Washington’s Myles Gaskin (2,641) and Arkansas’ Rawleigh Williams (1,580).
The proliferation of spread offense in football at all levels has forced coaches to find pass rushers at all costs to defend the passing. Today, defense has begun to catch up and quarterbacks are paying more of a physical price.
“It’s always a cycle,” one scout said. “Now that everybody’s seeing the quarterback getting the hell knocked out of him, it’s, ‘Let’s run the ball again.’
“What’s the best way to control a pass rush? Get a dominant running game. Look at Dallas this year. When you have a dominant run game and you can control the tempo, you back the pass rush off. You can run at that big pass rusher and wear his (expletive) down.
“Now teams are getting gashed by the run.”
The Packers have their own choice in every round and should gain one compensatory pick for the free-agent losses of Casey Hayward and Scott Tolzien.
They have many other needs besides running back. Tight end, cornerback, wide receiver, defensive front seven and center-guard all need reinforcement.
Perceptions of every player on the roster will be altered to some degree Sunday and over the remainder of the season. If the final record is 10-6, 7-9 or falls somewhere in between, the front office probably will be influenced subconsciously as well.
McCarthy enjoys talking about the importance of his beloved “December football.” He knows better than anyone how much more enjoyable it is when you have a running back.
Here is a look at how the National Football League draft for 2017 is shaping up based on interviews with several executives in personnel for NFL teams in the last week. Underclassmen have until Jan. 16 to declare for the draft, which is scheduled April 27-29 in Philadelphia.
In the last six drafts just two tight ends, Cincinnati’s Tyler Eifert (21st pick) and Detroit’s Eric Ebron (10), were first-round selections. The picture appears unchanged this year.
“Below average,” said one scout. “There’s four or five players. It’s probably as bare as it’s been the last four years.”
Unlike many of the other prospects, Alabama’s O.J. Howard (6-6, 255) and Michigan’s Jake Butt (6-5, 250) played in pro-style offenses and are comfortable working from a three-point stance.
“His upside is through the roof,” another scout said, referring to Howard. “He’s a phenomenal human being and a great worker. At Alabama, you’re a blocker first and a receiver second. He’s grown as a blocker from a toughness and effort standpoint, and as a receiver he’s still a little untapped.”
As for Butt, another senior, one scout said, “He’s more of your traditional tight end. He’s tight in his hips and shoulders. I see him in the third round.”
South Alabama’s Gerald Everett (6-3, 242) and Mississippi’s Evan Engram (6-3, 235) are receiving tight ends that probably will never be effective as in-line blockers.
“Everett fits the mold of a Jordan Reed,” said one scout. “He’s rare post-catch. Eric Ebron had a little bit of that. He can be a mismatch weapon.
“Engram, like Everett, has got to be a move or flex guy. He’s more of a true big receiver like Marques Colston. He’ll never be a point-of-attack guy but he does have outstanding receiving potential and skills.”
Look for three or four players from a solid class of wide receivers to go in the first round. The top names are Washington’s John Ross (5-11, 190), Clemson’s Mike Williams (6-3, 225) and Southern California’s JuJu Smith-Schuster (6-2, 215).
One scout said Ross had excellent hands and projected as a top deep threat. Of Williams, another said, “He’s a big body like Dez Bryant. He fits that profile well.”
Williams, a junior, already declared for the draft.
Smith-Schuster has “good hands, route-running skills and can separate,” said one scout. Western Michigan’s Carey Davis (6-3, 215), who has 91 receptions for 1,427 yards (15.7), and another senior, Oklahoma’s Dede Westbrook (5-11, 178), who has 74 catches for 1,465 yards (19.8), are on the cusp of the first round.
Ohio State junior Curtis Samuel (5-11, 200) could be drafted as a wide receiver or running back.
“I think he’ll come out but I don’t know where to play him,” one scout said. “He’s a slot receiver who can play running back. He’s really quick and really fast.”
The streak of at least four offensive linemen being taken in the first round of the last 10 drafts might be in jeopardy.
“As a whole it’s below average this year,” one scout said. “There may be only one first-round tackle in this draft.”
Junior left tackle Cam Robinson (6-6, 310) of Alabama probably will be the first lineman selected but there are concerns about his inconsistency.
“He’s talented but he gets lazy,” said one scout. Added another: “His issues are technical. He is aggressive, big and physical, but he’ll whiff every now and then. All that can be corrected.”
Probably the next left tackle is Wisconsin junior Ryan Ramczyk (6-5, 315), who stunned scouts by playing extremely well against Louisiana State in his major-college debut. He played for UW-Stevens Point in 2013-’14 before red-shirting at UW last year.
“LSU has good edge guys and I was saying, ‘Who the heck is the left tackle?’” said another scout. “He matches up with people stride for stride athletically. I was shocked.”
Ramczyk, according to teams, will undergo arthroscopic surgery to repair a torn labrum in his hip after the Badgers’ bowl game.
“It’s a four-month (injury),” said one scout. “He’s very talented. I think he will come out. He’s deciding that right now.”
The next-best candidates for the first round would be tackle Garett Bolles (6-5, 300), a junior from Utah, and Florida junior Roderick Johnson (6-6, 308).
“Bolles is a second-round player but he may go (first) because he’d be artificially pumped up there,” said one scout. “He’s more of a traditional mauler.”
Tackle Zach Banner (6-9, 360) of USC is the son of Lincoln Kennedy, a three-time Pro Bowl right tackle for the Raiders. “He’s a right tackle only,” said one scout. “He’s 360 but he (moves) effortlessly.”
Among the pure guards and centers, there doesn’t seem to be a sure-fire first-round choice. Indiana’s Dan Feeney (6-4, 308) and Pittsburgh’s Dorian Johnson (6-5, 300) look like the best guards.
“Feeney’s the old-school, run-blocking guard who needs to work on his pass pro,” said one scout. “Johnson will struggle in pass pro at times because of his body control. But he’s a bigger body with enough athleticism to play the position.”
LSU’s Ethan Pocic (6-6, 315) and Ohio State’s Pat Elflein (6-2, 300) are the best of a middling group of centers.
“Pocic is extremely intelligent,” one scout said. “He’s tough and strong. He’s not elite physical talent, obviously, but he does have elite size for guard or center.”
Another scout compared Elflein to Green Bay’s Corey Linsley, a former Buckeye drafted in the fifth round in 2014. “That’s exactly how he plays,” he said. “Third round. He’s the best center.”
Fifteen times in the last 16 drafts a quarterback has been chosen among the first three picks. At this point, the leading candidates would be an undeclared junior, North Carolina’s Mitch Trubisky (6-3, 220), and a pair of declared underclassmen, Clemson junior Deshaun Watson (6-2, 215) and Notre Dame sophomore DeShone Kizer (6-4, 230).
“Kizer and Trubisky have all the talent but we’ve had a lot of those guys come and go,” said one scout. “It depends on where they go and who’s there to develop them. Even Deshaun Watson, someone truly has to have a plan for him. They all have legitimate questions but they all have the talent to be starters.”
Trusibsky threw just 125 passes in his first two seasons before compiling an NFL passer rating of 113.7 this season.
“He’s a one-year guy,” said one scout. “Athletic. Can sling the ball. But his feet get a little happy under pressure. I think he’s coming out.”
Watson, a three-year starter, has a career rating of 108.5. One scout compared him to the Vikings’ Teddy Bridgewater, giving Watson the edge as an athlete, Bridgewater the edge as a field general and declaring their arms comparable.
“His whole key is when he interviews how well he is able to talk about coverages,” said another scout. “He’s got arm talent. He’s not a great runner. The question is, does he have quick decision-making skills?”
Kizer left Notre Dame after a 4-8 season. His career rating is 98.6.
It’s a crapshoot after that with names like Nathan Peterman (6-2, 225) of Pittsburgh, Chad Kelly (6-2, 224) of Mississippi, C.J. Beathard (6-2, 215) of Iowa and junior Patrick Mahomes (6-3, 230) of Texas Tech.
Kelly blew out his knee Nov. 5 and is regarded by some teams as a character risk. Mahomes’ decision is complicated by recent wrist surgery.
This could be the first draft since 2008 in which more than three running backs were taken in the first round.
“I think there’s a running-back resurgence going on,” said one scout. “These kids are moving back to running back. These elite athletes that probably want to be pass rushers or edge guys, they just go where the money’s at.”
LSU’s Leonard Fournette (6-1, 230) remains No. 1 despite a junior season in which a high-ankle sprain suffered in August limited him to seven games and 843 yards in 129 carries (6.5).
“He’s got everything you want,” said one scout. “He’s massive, he’s got good feet and he’s got speed. Top-15 pick.”
Florida State junior Dalvin Cook (5-11, 205) hasn’t declared but that’s regarded as a mere formality. One scout compared him to Atlanta’s Devonta Freeman.
Already declared is Stanford’s Christian McCaffrey (6-0, 202), a two-year starter whose 99 career receptions leads the top prospects.
“He’s a jack of all trades guy,” one scout said. “He can catch, be your returner and give you 15 snaps a game. He’s not a workhorse. I would think second round.”
Last week, Nick Chubb surprisingly announced he was returning to Georgia. Moving up were two declared juniors, Texas’ D’Onta Foreman (6-1, 250) and Clemson’s Wayne Gallman (6-0, 215), and undeclared juniors Brian Hill (6-0, 220) of Wyoming, Boise State’s Jeremy McNichols (5-9, 212), Oklahoma’s Samaje Perine (5-10, 235), Oregon’s Royce Freeman (5-11, 230) and North Carolina’s Elijah Hood (5-11, 220).
Perhaps the top seniors are San Diego State’s Donnel Pumphrey (5-8, 180) and Wisconsin’s Corey Clement (5-10, 225).
Of Pumphrey, one scout said: “He’s (tiny) but is he exciting.”
Of Clement, another scout said: “He’s got quick feet and some burst. He could be that guy after a couple games if he popped off a few runs in a reserve role and your starter went down. Like Jordan Howard did this year in Chicago.”
Right now, it appears fairly safe to say that Texas A&M junior Myles Garrett (6-4, 268) will be the first end selected and Alabama senior Jonathan Allen (6-3, 291) will be the first tackle. They might be gone in the first five picks.
“Garrett is the best player in the draft,” said one scout said from a 3-4 team. “He’s an outside backer. He’s a freak. He can do anything he wants to. This guy is bigger and longer than Von Miller.”
Allen, who considered coming out last year, is regarded as a much better prospect than ex-teammate A’Shawn Robinson, who went 46th to the Lions last year.
“It’s not even a comparison,” said one scout. “A’Shawn is still a big project and this kid starts from Day 1. He’s damn near unblockable in a lot of games. He’s not a special athlete but he’s extremely strong and an outstanding technician. He just looks like a pro.”
Tennessee junior Derek Barnett (6-3, 270) had the most sacks (12) this season of the top linemen. “He plays hard when it’s time to rush the passer,” said one scout.
Another end with first-round probability is Missouri’s Charles Harris, who already declared. “He’s a first-rounder,” one scout said. “He’s long, got get-off, athletic.”
Auburn junior Carl Lawson (6-2, 253) is a “talented DPR (designated pass rusher),” said one scout. “He’s a leader once he walked through the door there. If you’re looking for that Trent Cole-Brandon Graham kind of guy, he fits.”
Michigan’s Taco Charlton (6-5, 272) made significant improvement as a senior and figures as a top-25 pick, according to one personnel man.
In an excellent class, there could be half a dozen more ends in the top 75 picks.
The picture isn’t nearly as rosy inside, where Michigan State’s declared junior Malik McDowell (6-5, 275) and Michigan’s Chris Wormley (6-5, 300) fit somewhere behind Allen.
“McDowell has first-round talent,” said one scout. “I like him as a 5-technique. We have Wormley as a 3-technique. Second round. He’s got quickness.”
Perhaps the best senior nose tackle is Clemson’s Carlos Watkins (6-3, 315). “Good, solid college football player,” said one scout. “Nothing dynamic. He won’t ever be able to consistently win a one-on-one against an NFL guard. He’s strong and can occupy, but he’s just not that guy.”
The thin class of nose tackles would improve considerably if two Washington players, junior Elijah Qualls (6-1, 320) and sophomore Vita Vea (6-4, 330), decide to come out.
It’s a terrific year at inside linebacker with Alabama’s Reuben Foster (6-1, 228), Florida’s Jarrad Davis (6-1, 238) and LSU Kendell Beckwith (6-2, 247). According to one scout, they all can play every down and might all go in the first round.
“They play the way you want to see linebackers play,” he said. “They’re violent tacklers. They all can run. They can all play in any scheme.”
Two scouts said Foster is about on par with C.J. Mosley, the former Crimson Tide ILB who went 17th to Baltimore in 2014.
“Reuben is a machine, man,” said one. “He lost about 15 pounds this year but he has been above 250. Broad-shouldered, tapered, thick trunk, thick-legged guy. He can fly. He’s got rare trunk and core explosive power where he can just unload on people. And he can cover.”
Junior Zach Cunningham (6-3, 230) of Vanderbilt was compared by one scout to Seattle’s K.J. Wright in style of play. “He’s a modern inside backer,” said another scout. “He’s an athlete. He’s pretty (expletive) good but it’s not even close to Foster.”
Another first-round candidate would be Ohio State’s Raekwon McMillan (6-1, 240) if he declares.
Two more players from top-ranked Alabama, Tim Williams (6-3, 252) and Ryan Anderson (6-2, 255), head a shorter list outside.
“Williams is a dynamite pass rusher,” said one scout. “He gets off the edge … Anderson is a very steady, good football player. He doesn’t look pretty but he makes plays.”
Senior Vince Biegel (6-3, 245) of Wisconsin is headed for the mid-rounds, according to one scout. “He may be too small,” said a scout for a 3-4 team, “but he plays hard.”
His teammate, junior T.J. Watt (6-5, 247), should be taken a round over two ahead of Biegel if he declares. “He should stay in,” one scout said. “He needs to get bigger and stronger.”
“We’ve got a lot of corners,” one personnel man said. “Maybe three in the first (round). And this is a great year for safeties.”
Michigan junior Jabrill Peppers (6-0, 205) is expected to come out. In 2015, he played primarily as a slot cornerback before spending most of this season as a hybrid linebacker.
“I think he’s overrated,” one scout said. “He’s more of a safety than an outside linebacker because of size. He doesn’t have a position. Average punt returner.”
None of the leading underclassmen at cornerback have declared. If, as expected, they all come out, Alabama’s Marlon Humphrey (6-0, 201), Ohio State’s Marshon Lattimore (6-0, 191), Florida’s Teez Tabor (6-0, 201), Ohio State’s Gareon Conley (6-0, 195) and Florida’s Quincy Wilson (6-1, 210) all have chances for the first round.
Humphrey’s father, Bobby, was a Pro Bowl running back for Denver 25 years ago after a career at Alabama.
“He’s the most complete corner I’ve seen come out of there,” said one scout. “He’s as violent I’ve ever seen a corner be. I guess a little of that comes from the dad and he just carried it over. He can be a big-time player but he’s got to get some eye discipline.”
As for the Florida cornerbacks, one scout said, “Wilson’s bigger and a little more physical. He’s not quite as fast as Teez. Teez is a true mano-a-mano, down-the-field, ball-skills type guy. They both have size and speed.”
Other cornerbacks with top-60 potential are Washington’s Sidney Jones (6-0, 181) and Kevin King (6-3, 192), Michigan’s Jourdan Lewis (5-10, 185), USC’s Adoree’ Jackson (5-11, 185), LSU’s Tre’Davious White (5-11, 192), West Virginia’s Rasul Douglas (6-1, 208) and Iowa’s Desmond King (5-10, 203).
“Lewis is little so he gets discounted for me,” said one scout. “Second round. He’s a very good player … We moved (Desmond) King to safety. He can’t run.”
Depending what position Peppers is drafted at, LSU’s Jamal Adams (6-0, 211) figures as the No. 1 pure safety. His father, George, played six seasons as a running back after being the Giants’ first-round pick in 1985.
“He’s a thumper,” one scout said. “He defines the position of strong safety.”
The next group includes juniors Marcus Williams (6-0, 195) of Utah, Josh James (6-2, 215) of North Carolina State and Budda Baker (5-10, 195) of Washington as well as seniors Marcus Maye (5-11, 216) of Florida, Colorado’s Tedric Thompson (6-0, 205), Texas A&M’s Justin Evans (6-0, 205), Alabama’s Eddie Jackson (6-0, 195) and Connecticut’s Obi Melifonwu (6-3, 215).
“People are excited about this safety group,” one scout said. “Getting some starter-quality players. With Peppers, I guess it depends what you think of his coverage skills.”