With the 2017 NFL Scouting Combine upon us, Bucky Brooks is ranking the top prospects at key positions. Today's focus: running backs.
Strengths: Old-school runner with a no-nonsense running style. As a downhill runner with nifty feet and a violent finish, Fournette is built to play in a power-based offense that features power, isolations and toss sweeps from a "dot" position (directly behind the QB in the pistol or I-formation). He displays extraordinary strength and power running through contact, yet he is nimble enough to avoid defenders with a little wiggle at the second level and has the speed to take it the distance. With Fournette also displaying the grit, toughness and stamina to carry the ball 20-25 times per game as a collegian, the LSU star is the ideal workhorse to build a power-based offense around.
Weaknesses: In today's NFL, running backs are expected to play a prominent role in the passing game. Despite showing soft hands and decent route-running skills (screens and check-downs), Fournette is an unknown commodity as a receiver out of the backfield due to his lack of reps at LSU. In addition, Fournette shows questionable technique and blocking skills in pass protection. He has to perform better in the passing game to have a chance of being a three-down player in a traditional pro-style offense.
Strengths: Dynamic runner with outstanding burst and acceleration. Cook has rare zero to 60 speed but also displays exceptional lateral quickness and pitter-pat. He is best described as a slip-and-slide runner with sneaky power and home-run potential. To that point, Cook excels on off-tackle runs (counter and stretch) that allow him to use his speed, quickness and stop-start ability to gash the defense on the edges or on cutbacks between the guards. He flashes surprising pop at the ends of runs, which allows him to pull through contact on the way to moving the chains. As a receiver, Cook is a natural pass-catcher with soft hands and polished route-running skills. He is versatile enough to create mismatches out of the backfield or out wide as a designated playmaker in the passing game.
Weaknesses: Cook's struggles with ball security will concern teams looking for a dependable ball carrier in the backfield. He coughed the ball up seven times (five lost) over the past two seasons (445 touches), which is too much for an RB1 at the next level. Scouts also worry about his ability to thrive as a workhorse based on his size (6-foot, 214 pounds) and running style. Evaluators question whether he can close out the game as the "finisher" in a four-minute offense.
Strengths: Triple-threat playmaker capable of delivering splash plays as a runner, receiver or returner. McCaffrey might be the most complete back in the draft from a skills standpoint, but he is ideally suited to play as a complementary player at the next level. As a runner, he displays a patient running style that will remind some of Le'Veon Bell due to his discipline and stop-start acceleration. Despite his diminutive size (6-foot, 197 pounds), McCaffrey excels on inside runs, particularly the power between the guards. As a receiver, he is an explosive pass catcher with soft hands and dynamic route-running ability. He creates chaos in the passing game on screens, swings and rail routes but also has the potential to move into the slot or out wide in spread or empty formations to exploit a matchup. In the return game, McCaffrey is like an MLB centerfielder with exceptional tracking skills. He fields the ball cleanly running to either side and flashes big-play potential when evading defenders in traffic. With few returners capable of rivaling McCaffrey's skills as a return man, the Stanford star could be a difference maker as a three-way player at the next level.
Weaknesses: Despite McCaffrey's stellar career résumé, there are plenty of concerns about his ability to thrive as an RB1 at the next level. Skeptics question whether he can handle a heavy workload and the responsibility of being the "bell cow" as a slender back. Sure, he repeatedly toted the rock 30-plus times during his tenure at Stanford, but the NFL grind is much different than the collegiate hustle. In addition, scouts want to see McCaffrey regain the burst and explosiveness that appeared to disappear during his final season.
Strengths: Electric playmaker with dynamic skills as a runner, receiver and returner. Kamara is one of the most explosive ball carriers in the draft, as evidenced by his 6.2 yards per attempt and 16 rushing scores during his two seasons at Tennessee. As a runner, he excels on the edges on sweeps and stretches to the perimeter. Kamara not only flashes outstanding burst and acceleration, but he shows terrific stop-start quickness and cutback skills. Those same skills make the Tennessee standout a nightmare to defend in the passing game, as well. He displays cat-like quickness in space and polished receiving skills out of the backfield. Kamara runs precise routes from his traditional halfback position but also shows the potential to thrive as a route runner from the slot. Considering how teams are beginning to use more running backs as slot receivers in the passing game, Kamara's versatility and receiving skills could make him a game-changer in some systems.
Weaknesses: Durability concerns cloud Kamara's evaluation. He has never logged more than 18 rushing attempts in a game, which is well below the standard workload for a feature back. Without an extensive history as a "bell cow," the questions about his ability to fill a void as an RB1 are certainly valid. Not to mention, Kamara's shifty running style and limited power lead to additional concerns about his ability to fill a role as a grinder at the end of games.
Strengths: If not for character concerns, Mixon would probably rate as the top running back in the draft, based on his natural skills as an explosive runner-receiver. The Oklahoma standout is a productive inside-outside runner with elite vision, burst and cutback ability. He can slither in and out of holes with snake-like quickness and body control. In addition, Mixon shows sneaky power and pop running through defenders at the ends of runs. As a receiver, he is the most polished route runner in space, exhibiting outstanding timing, patience and body control, shaking defenders at the top of routes. Mixon is a natural in the passing game as a slot receiver or out wide. He can run any route from anywhere in the formation, which makes him a dynamic threat in the mold of David Johnson. With that in mind, teams looking for a multi-faceted playmaker out of the backfield will be intrigued by Mixon's talents.
Weaknesses: Mixon's transgressions overshadow his immense talents on the field. He committed a heinous act during the summer prior to his freshman year, and his character concerns will make him a tough sell in meeting rooms around the league, particularly given an incident with a traffic attendant during the fall that led to a one-game suspension for Mixon.