While prolific passing games are all the rage in football today, there's a renaissance brewing at the RB position in college football. In fact, this year's junior class at the position has the potential to be an all-timer.
Four of college football's six leaders in rushing yards last fall return for their junior seasons: Dalvin Cook (Florida State), Leonard Fournette (LSU), Royce Freeman (Oregon) and Christian McCaffrey (Stanford). Talented toters like Nick Chubb (Georgia), Wayne Gallman (Clemson), Elijah Hood (North Carolina), Jalen Hurd (Tennessee), Marlon Mack (USF) and Samaje Perine (Oklahoma) will also be testing defenses all over the country.
After reviewing the top running back classes in NFL draft history, it's not difficult to see this year's group of juniors one day jockeying for position in the pantheon. Here's my ranking of the top five RB draft classes of all-time.
Notables: Ollie Matson (first round, No. 3 overall, Chicago Cardinals); Ed Modzelewski (first round, No. 6 overall, Pittsburgh Steelers); Hugh McElhenny (first round, No. 9 overall, San Francisco 49ers); Frank Gifford (first round, No. 11 overall, New York Giants).
Three Pro Football Hall of Fame running backs were selected in the first 11 picks of the 1952 draft, making it the only class ever with the ability to claim three RB honorees. Matson, McElhenny and Gifford were named Pro Bowlers a combined 20 times. And they weren't just ball carriers, either. All three had more than 3,000 yards and 20 touchdowns receiving in an era in which passing wasn't as prolific as it is today.
Notables: Paul Hornung (first round, No. 1 overall, Green Bay Packers); Jon Artnett (first round, No. 2 overall, Los Angeles Rams); Jim Brown (first round, No. 6 overall, Cleveland Browns).
Any class including the player many consider to be the best of all-time, Brown, is going to be in this conversation. The Syracuse star was named an All-Pro in eight of his nine seasons, and Brown is the only player in NFL history to average more than 100 yards rushing per game for his career. The Packers selected a different Hall of Famer, Hornung, as a running back instead of a quarterback, the position at which he starred at Notre Dame. Rams fans are probably wincing at the fact their team picked "Jaguar Jon" Arnett ahead of Brown with the second overall pick, but "Jaguar Jon" was a five-time Pro Bowler as a dangerous rusher/receiver/return man in his own right.
Notables:Darren McFadden (first round, No. 4 overall, Oakland Raiders); Jonathan Stewart (first round, No. 13 overall, Carolina Panthers); Felix Jones (first round, No. 22 overall, Dallas Cowboys); Rashard Mendenhall (first round, No. 23 overall, Pittsburgh Steelers); Chris Johnson (first round, No. 24 overall, Tennessee Titans); Matt Forte (second round, No. 44 overall, Chicago Bears); Ray Rice (second round, No. 55 overall, Baltimore Ravens); Kevin Smith (third round, No. 64 overall, Detroit Lions); Jamaal Charles (third round, No. 73 overall, Kansas City Chiefs).
There might not be any all-time greats in the 2008 running back class, but it's probably the deepest class in NFL history. It was clear the group was going to be fantastic when you considered that seven of the top eight rushers in college football in 2007 were picked in the top three rounds of the following spring's draft. The 2008 group has produced more than 50,000 career rushing yards, seven backs with 5,000 yards each, five Pro Bowlers and 323 touchdowns scored -- and that's just among those selected in the first three rounds. And they're not done yet! Forte, Johnson, McFadden and Stewart ranked among the top 17 rushers in the league last season.
Notables: Eric Dickerson (first round, No. 2 overall, Los Angeles Rams); Curt Warner (first round, No. 3 overall, Seattle Seahawks); James Jones (first round, No. 13 overall, Detroit Lions); Gary Anderson (first round, No. 20 overall, San Diego Chargers); Roger Craig (second round, No. 49 overall, San Francisco 49ers).
The 1983 draft is rightfully known for the six quarterbacks selected in the first round, including three Pro Football Hall of Famers (John Elway, Jim Kelly and Dan Marino). But Dickerson, a 2,000-yard rusher in 1984, also has a bust in Canton. Many people believe the 49ers' all-purpose threat, Craig (8,189 career rushing yards and 4,911 receiving yards), a bargain at the 49th slot in that year's draft, should also be enshrined in Canton. A hardship case in this class was Warner, Penn State's stud back who was picked one slot after Dickerson. Warner looked to be a star in the making as a rookie (1,449 yards), but knee injuries shortened his career.
Notables: O.J. Simpson (first round, No. 1 overall, Buffalo Bills); Larry Smith (first round, No. 8 overall, Los Angeles Rams); Ron Johnson (first round, No. 20 overall, Cleveland Browns); Calvin Hill (first round, No. 24 overall, Dallas Cowboys); Ed Podolak (second round, No. 48 overall, Kansas City Chiefs); Mercury Morris (third round, No. 63 overall, Miami Dolphins); Larry Brown (eighth round, No. 191 overall, Washington Redskins).
Simpson is one of the top backs of all-time. The Hall of Famer reached the 2,000-yard mark in just 14 games in 1973, but might have had a better season in 1975 (1,817 yards, 16 scores rushing; 426 yards, seven scores receiving). Morris helped the Dolphins reach unmatched heights in their undefeated 1972 season, while Hill was also an important part of the Cowboys' surge to the top of the league in the early 1970s.
1972: Franco Harris (first round, 13th overall, Pittsburgh Steelers); Robert Newhouse (second round, 35th overall, Dallas Cowboys); Lydell Mitchell (second round, 48th overall, Baltimore Colts); Lawrence McCutcheon (third round, 70th overall, Los Angeles Rams).
1997: Warrick Dunn (first round, No. 12 overall, Tampa Bay Buccaneers); Antowain Smith (first round, No. 23 overall, Buffalo Bills); Tiki Barber (second round, No. 36 overall, New York Giants); Corey Dillon (second round, No. 43 overall, Cincinnati Bengals); Duce Staley (third round, No. 71 overall, Philadelphia Eagles).
2001: LaDainian Tomlinson (first round, No. 5 overall, San Diego Chargers); Deuce McAllister (first round, No. 23 overall, New Orleans Saints); Anthony Thomas (second round, No. 38 overall, Chicago Bears); LaMont Jordan (second round, No. 49 overall, New York Jets); Travis Henry (second round, No. 58 overall, Buffalo Bills); Rudi Johnson (fourth round, No. 100 overall, Cincinnati Bengals).