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2017 NFL Draft: Who is the top running back?

Who is the 2017 NFL draft’s top running back?

NFL: Combine
Brian Spurlock-USA TODAY Sports

Do you prefer ice-cream, frozen yogurt, or gelato? How about flavor; cookies & cream, rocky road or mint chocolate chip? Me personally, I’m a mint chip gelato guy. If you prefer Rocky Road ice-cream, though, and we sit down in a café together, who wins the debate over the best order? Which of us made the “better choice” and, gut-check time dear reader, whose side are you on?

The truth is it’s a dumb debate, both are sweet, and it obviously comes down to personal choice and what your taste buds enjoy. So it is with the 2017 NFL draft and who the Tampa Bay Buccaneers should draft.

Between now and April 27th you are likely to hear a great deal about Leonard Fournette, Christian McCaffrey and Dalvin Cook. Everyone who has ever seen a college football game is going to have an opinion over which one of them is the best.

The rub with deciding who is the best in this case is that who the best is depends on which NFL franchise you are and what you want do with a running back. While this is somewhat true for every position—a 340lbs nose tackle is always more valuable to a 3-4 team than a 4-3 team—my usual workaround doesn’t apply in this case. Even among running backs a team heavy on zone-read run blocking will rank vision higher and a man-blocking scheme will rank balance higher.

Normally in order to rank “all things equal” I assume the position of an imaginary expansion franchise without a single player yet on the roster. In this unique case that test fails to adequately serve as a measuring stick because all 3 are top notch elite talents and all 3 bring a radically different skill set. I can make a rational case for each of these 3 players being ranked the #1 RB. So rather than the traditional strengths/weaknesses for each player and measurables, allow me to present you with the following approach.

NCAA Football: Orange Bowl-Michigan vs Florida State
Dalvin Cook turns the corner against Michigan
Steve Mitchell-USA TODAY Sports

Dalvin Cook

5’10”, 210lbs, Florida State

You should place him #1 if: You run the zone stretch play as a foundation of your offense. Think the Atlanta Falcons and Tevin Coleman or Devonta Freeman cutting around the corner, but Cook would do it better. He’s got unparalleled change of speed and explosion when he becomes vertical.

There is some hesitancy on inside running but more than sufficient vision to compensate, so if you wanted him in a man scheme that could work as well, with Cook a deadly option on toss plays with pulling guards.

Cook also has enough power in the upper body to grind out some needed first downs but don’t expect it on each and every run. He also brings some ability to split out wide and clearly is a receiving threat out of the backfield despite some concentration drops.

His best attribute: Acceleration.

Best attribute no one talks about: Versatility. On plays with and without a lead blocker he’s equally effective.

Might keep him off the field: Fumbling. His ball protection has got to get better.

NCAA Football: Louisiana State at Arkansas Brett Rojo-USA TODAY Sports

Leonard Fournette

6’0”, 240lbs, LSU

You should place him #1 if: You want to run a man-blocking scheme and have a feature back. If this was the football game of the 1980’s Leonard Fournette should absolutely be your #1 back. In fact, if you were one of the few teams in the NFL who still uses a fullback as a lead blocker out of the I-formation, this should be a hands-down end of sentence conversation.

Fournette has elite top-notch balance and power at the point of attack, his vision isn’t in the elite category, but his ability to break arm tackles and drag defenders is second to none. He’s an old school battering ram of a back that can handle 20-25 carries a game. If you want to be a run first team or need to be because of your QB situation, this is your guy.

His best attribute: Balance

Best attribute no one talks about: Ball security. Has learned to wrap the ball up in a crowd.

Might keep him off the field: Pass protection. We did not see enough of this in his time at LSU, plain and simple. He was working against a loaded box on most occasions. He’s not a natural enough pass catcher to do more than work checkdowns, and if you are not a threat as a wide receiver you need to make sure the defense cannot 100% assume it’s a run.

NCAA Football: Rice at Stanford
Diving for the goal
Kyle Terada-USA TODAY Sports

Christian McCaffrey

5’11”, 202lbs, Stanford

You should place him #1 if: You have an elite QB and want to throw the ball more than you run it. Christian changes your opponent’s game plan and forces the defense to respect both the pass and run. While Cook can split out into the slot, McCaffrey is better in the slot than many of the NFL’s current slot receivers as a route runner.

McCaffrey not just elite in terms of pass catching for a running back, he’s a legitimate NFL slot receiver on a day to day basis even if he couldn’t serve as runningback. He brings versatility also in terms of man or zone blocking schemes, but from a pure running perspective is a bit of tweener, having the better agility for man scheme to make guys miss but not enough power, and the vision for a zone scheme but not the elite change of pace.

One thing is for certain, if he’s covered by a LB out of the backfield that’s a loser for the defense, and probably a big loser. His punt return ability certainly brings in some sizzle, but I have to think creative offensive coaches will love having this as kid as their weapon.

His best attribute: Agility

Best attribute no one talks about: Acceleration between the tackles. He’s not a powerful guy but if he gets past the line he’s not a dancer but a finisher.

Might keep him off the field: Size and upright style. Unless he starts running lower and protecting himself better at the second level it’s probably best to limit him to a dozen carries from the backfield.