The NFL draft grows in popularity with each passing year, and it's easy to see why. It's one of the few portions of the NFL calendar filled with unbridled optimism, as each team acquires an influx of talented youngsters whom they believe can lead them to a championship. There are injuries, crippling losses, or other bleak bombshells frequently dropped on fans during the ecstasy and agony of a typical NFL season. NFL draft season is the season of hope and dreams.
With that in mind, I turned my fantasy football dreams to the running back position and concocted perfect team-player pairings for the draft's most talented rushers. Weighing opportunity, scheme fit, talent, and more, I tried to lock the likes of Leonard Fournette, Christian McCaffrey, Dalvin Cook and several others into teams where they could rack up fantasy points with reckless abandon. Disagree? Let me know on social media to keep the conversation going. I'm far from infallible in these dream scenarios, and I firmly believe most of the players included below could find success on a number of NFL franchise. But for fun, here's where I'd love to see them land.
Leonard Fournette -- Oakland Raiders
There's almost no chance Fournette falls to the Raiders at the 24th pick in the first round, but this is a "dream" fits piece so indulge me. The Raiders offensive line is a mauling bunch capable of moving mountains, yet Latavius Murray averaged a mediocre 4.0 yards per carry in 2017 (both Jalen Richard and DeAndre Washington averaged 5-plus). While Murray might have a faster timed speed, Fournette's playing style and tape would indicate he'd be an upgrade on Murray in most categories, including play speed, power and tackle-breaking. Nine of Murray's 12 rushing touchdowns came from inside the 5-yard line in 2017. Assuming Fournette would see the lion's share of opportunities near the end zone (as Murray did), he'd at worst have an RB2 floor in Oakland. And with Murray's 228 touches up for grabs now that he's in Minnesota, it wouldn't be difficult to tell a story where the bruising rookie ended up as a top-10 or top-12 fantasy back in the silver and black.
Christian McCaffrey -- Indianapolis Colts
The draft's best running/receiving combo package, McCaffrey could fit in almost anywhere as the type of dynamic matchup nightmare offensive coordinators covet. However, from a fantasy standpoint what we want for McCaffrey are opportunities, and few places would offer him more than Indianapolis. Yes, the ageless Frank Gore will be back for one more campaign, but he turns 34 in May and is coming off a 301-touch season with over 3,500 career touches under his belt (including playoffs). McCaffrey could slowly ease into a featured role by mixing in with Gore regularly on the ground, while immediately giving Andrew Luck the best pass-catching option out of the backfield he's ever seen in his career. Playing on the fast track in Lucas Oil Stadium would also suit McCaffrey's off-the-charts athleticism and further be a thorn in the side of defensive coordinators trying to stop him. The Colts average 107 targets per year to backs since 2013, and I wouldn't be surprised at all if that number rose with a playmaker like McCaffrey in the mix.
Joe Mixon -- Green Bay Packers
Mixon is one of the most polarizing prospects in the NFL draft, so finding a home for him is a difficult practice. Green Bay under Ted Thompson has a long history of avoiding prospects with off-field concerns like the plague, so it's highly unlikely they'd actually draft Mixon given his well-documented past that includes a ghastly assault (captured on video). However, this piece isn't steeped in reality but rather the whims of a fantasy writer with a wild imagination, so in this scenario, it is the Packers who give Mixon a chance in the NFL. Mixon brings an impressive combination of raw speed/power and finesse to the table, and he could immediately slide in as the Packers' de facto No. 1 runner. Sure, Ty Montgomery is still there and has already won over the hearts of many fantasy enthusiasts, but he's still a converted wide receiver with limited carries to his name. If given a chance in Green Bay, Mixon could thrive from a fantasy perspective.
Dalvin Cook -- Philadelphia Eagles
If Cook's draft stock suffers from a subpar NFL Scouting Combine performance, a team like the Eagles (and by proxy, fantasy owners) could truly benefit. While Cook's athletic profile is worrisome, his tape and college production are highly encouraging. A dual-threat who is smooth in the open field, Cooks has drawn a wide range of pro comparisons, including Jamaal Charles. The Charles comp makes sense, as does pairing Cook to the Philadelphia Eagles where he could be the featured back in Doug Pederson's offense (Charles' former offensive coordinator). The Eagles backfield right now is led by the oft-injured Ryan Mathews, the soon-to-be 34-year-old Darren Sproles, and second-year Wendell Smallwood. Cook arriving in Philadelphia would hurt the fantasy stock of each member of that bunch, but with plugged-in beat reporters already theorizing Mathews could be a salary cap casualty, drafting Cook makes more sense. Cook's ability to handle a featured back workload would jell with Pederson's past running back usage, and Cook would give Carson Wentz a reliable ground game to take the pressure off his arm to carry the offense. Any way you cut it, this would be a great fantasy fit.
Alvin Kamara -- Los Angeles Chargers
Count me among those who don't understand the hype with Kamara. I think he's a talented back, but these whispers of him being drafted in the first-round seem insane. Yes, he crushed his workouts at the NFL Scouting Combine, but with a career-high 143 touches last year at Tennessee, it's entirely fair to wonder if he is capable of a featured back workload. That's why I'd like to see him land on a team like the Chargers. Melvin Gordon is entrenched as the workhorse, but the volume of touches he received last year (24.3 per game prior to Week 13 when he was injured). Kamara's best assets are his hands (40 receptions in 2016) and ability in space, which would make him a nice Danny Woodhead-lite complement to Gordon. In the perfect fantasy scenario, Gordon remains a workhorse and keeps his touchdown volume up, but Kamara swings in enough to have flex appeal in PPR formats and larger standard leagues. With so many players getting healthy, the Chargers offense could be extremely potent in 2017, so an ancillary piece like Kamara could still hold fantasy relevance without sapping from the production of the incumbent stars too heavily.
D'Onta Foreman -- Carolina Panthers
The Carolina Panthers could very well take Leonard Fournette with the eighth overall pick later this month, and honestly, that'd be a pretty stellar fantasy fit as well. However, in this dream scenario, I've already paired Fournette with the Raiders, which means the Panthers are able to wait for a few rounds before selecting a power back to take pressure of Cam Newton from running as often. Foreman's production from 2016 was one of the few bright spots for the Longhorns, as the big back rumbled for 2,028 yards and 15 touchdowns. Foreman wasn't able to perform at the combine because of an injury but logged an impressive 4.45 40-yard dash at the Texas pro day after weighing in at a beefy 234 pounds. That's a pretty ridiculous size-speed combination (the 96th percentile to be exact, per FantasyGuru.com's Graham Barfield), as no running back weighing more than 232 pounds has run that fast in modern combine history (since 2003), per NFL Network's Gil Brandt.
That pedigree would be an excellent match for Carolina's offense that mixes traditional power running concepts with zone-read plays. Current starter Jonathan Stewart just turned 30, hasn't played 16 games since 2011, and has missed a combined 26 contests due to injuries in that span. Foreman would create a nice 1-2 punch with Stewart for now before eventually taking over lead duties. His size could also make him a preferred goal-line option for the Panthers, as despite what some believe, the team has been using Newton less in that space. Over the last two years, Stewart has carried the ball 25 times inside the 5-yard line compared to Newton's 16. From 2011 to 2014, Newton out-carried Stewart in that area 31 to 15. My point is, especially with Mike Tolbert out of the picture (signed with the Bills in free agency), goal-line carries could be up for grabs and a back like Foreman could inherit plenty of scoring opportunities.
Samaje Perine -- Tampa Bay Buccaneers
Doug Martin's future with the Bucs seems to be uncertain at this point, but what we do know is he'll serve a four-game suspension to open the season for violating the league's policy on performance-enhancing drugs. That creates a need for an early-down back for the Bucs, as Charles Sims can handle third-down duties. The team did re-sign Jacquizz Rodgers, who played well last year but he broke down under a heavy workload in a short span. Perine isn't a game-breaker in terms of speed or agility, but he's a powerful back with good balance who could be a perfect early-down hammer for Dirk Koetter's offense. The Bucs need bodies in the backfield, but Perine offers more than that. Given a chance, he could be a nice late-round fantasy flier if he lands in a spot like Tampa Bay.
Jeremy McNichols -- New York Giants
It feels as if we've been in search of a backfield hero in the Big Apple for the better part of a decade (in reality it's been since 2012). The Paul Perkins acolytes will tell you this is his year, but the jury is still out on last year's fifth-round pick. McNichols flashes a featured back skill set on his Boise State tape, but likely won't hear his name called until Day 3 of the draft. I like the fit for him in New York where he can compete with Perkins and Shane Vereen for a big-time role. The team needs a between-the-tackles runner, which McNichols could handle, but he also offers the versatility to catch passes out of the backfield and stay with the team on third downs. He likely wouldn't take the job from the outset but could be this year's Jordan Howard -- a late-round selection who earns a large, valuable fantasy role before the halfway point.
*-- Alex is a fantasy writer/editor for the NFL and a HUGE fan of the "Fast and Furious" franchise. He's seeing "The Fate of the Furious" tonight, so you can expect his review (and bad football takes) to appear on Twitter @AlexGelhar or his Facebook page. He'd appreciate it if you followed one or both of those pages and be part of his "family." *