After the seasons Ezekiel Elliott and Jordan Howard had as rookies in 2016, running backs are once again the trendy position in the NFL. Elliott ran for 1,631 yards and 15 touchdowns as he helped the Cowboys win the NFC East. As a fifth-round pick, Howard rushed for 1,313 yards and six touchdowns for the Bears.
There is no lack of options in the 2017 NFL Draft for teams looking to improve their backfield. With the Scouting Combine set to take place Feb. 28-March 6, here are the top five running back prospects with the draft still two months away.
1. Dalvin Cook, Florida State
There have been a number of running backs that have made their way through Tallahassee throughout the years, but Cook could be the most talented of the bunch. In all three seasons for Florida State, Cook rushed for more than 1,000 yards as he kept getting better with each season.
In 2016, Cook rushed for 1,765 yards and 19 touchdowns on 288 carries. He also showed his ability as a receiver out of the backfield with 33 catches for 488 yards and a score.
Cook is exactly the type of running back that teams are looking for in today’s NFL. He has the quickness to make cuts on a dime while having excellent vision to see the hole and explode through it.
The one concern teams may have about Cook is ball security. During his three seasons at Florida State, Cook fumbled the ball 13 times. Also, Cook isn’t the best blocker in passing downs, but he can improve on that.
Cook has the potential to have the same type of impact Ezekiel Elliott had as the No. 4 overall pick last year. While at Florida State, Cook was a big game player as he performed well when the lights were at their brightest. Don’t be surprised if Cook is the 2017 AP Offensive Rookie of the Year.
2. Leonard Fournette, LSU
Fournette has all the intangibles to become one of the best running backs of all time. The 6-foot-1, 235-pound All-SEC player, showed flashes of his greatness with the Tigers.
He was at his best as a sophomore when he rushed for 1,953 yards and 22 touchdowns on 300 carries. Last season, Fournette injured his ankle in the season opener and re-aggravated it later, as he was limited to 843 yards and eight touchdowns in just seven games.
Fournette is built like a bruising, between-the-tackles back, but he possesses the speed and explosiveness of a game-breaking receiver. Not only can Fournette run away from defenders, but he also loves to dish out contact to would-be tacklers.
His play in big games is a bit of a concern as he averaged less than 50 rushing yards and had just one touchdown in three games against Alabama. Fournette needs a lot of work in pass protection and when it comes to catching the ball out of the backfield.
Fournette doesn’t have the vision of an Adrian Peterson when he came out of Oklahoma, but he does have the same physical gifts. If he can remain healthy with his violent running style, Fournette should be one of the best players in this year’s draft, regardless of position.
3. Joe Mixon, Oklahoma
There’s no doubt about Mixon’s ability to play in the NFL, but his past could be the reason he isn’t an early-round draft pick.
On the field, Mixon is the complete package as he is an excellent runner, receiver and he can even contribute on special teams. Last season for Oklahoma, Mixon rushed for 1,274 yards and 10 touchdowns on 187 carries. He also chipped in 37 receptions for 538 yards and five more scores.
Mixon has exceptional vision and the patience to wait for his blockers to open the hole for him so he can burst through it. He doesn’t have breakaway speed to outrun defenders and ball security also is a concern.
But the biggest factor working against Mixon is history. In 2014, Mixon was redshirted after he was suspended for the season after striking a woman in a Norman, Oklahoma, restaurant. The woman suffered a broken jaw and cheek in the incident. Mixon was charged with a misdemeanor and had to complete community service but was not kicked off the team.
Because of Mixon's violent history, he was not invited to the scouting combine. Any player with a misdemeanor or felony conviction involving violence or use of a weapon, sexual offense or assault and domestic violence will not get an invitation to Indianapolis for the week-long event.
Mixon has first-round talent, but he was not invited to the Combine and it remains to be seen if he will be drafted at all given his history. Even if he goes undrafted, Mixon will end up in someone’s training camp and likely be on a roster this fall.
4. Alvin Kamara, Tennessee
Coming out of high school, Kamara was highly recruited as he enrolled at Alabama. In 2014, Kamara transferred to Hutchinson (Kan.) Community College where he was the conference player of the year. Then in 2015, he transferred to Tennessee.
As a redshirt sophomore that season, Kamara rushed for 698 yards and seven touchdowns as a reserve. In 2016, Kamara missed time with some injuries, but still managed to run for 596 yards and nine touchdowns on just 103 carries.
At 5-foot-10, 215 pounds, Kamara isn’t the biggest running back, but he has incredible top-end speed. In his last year at Tennessee, Kamara caught 40 passes for 392 yards and four touchdowns, so he should be able to contribute as a receiver out of the backfield. He also has value on special teams as he returned punts for the Volunteers, taking one back for a touchdown.
Kamara doesn’t have the best vision as a runner, and teams will probably be a little cautious in evaluating him because of his lack of experience (24 games played at Tennessee). But what Kamara does possess is plenty of raw talent. If he shows well at the Combine, some team could take a chance on him as early as the second round because of his tantalizing upside and the fact he didn’t get a heavy workload in college.
5. Christian McCaffrey, Stanford
Despite being hampered by injuries, McCaffrey had another big season for the Cardinal in 2016, rushing for 1,603 yards and 13 touchdowns on 253 carries. He was the Heisman Trophy runner-up in 2015 after breaking Barry Sanders’ NCAA single-season record for all-purpose yards with 3,864.
McCaffey is the epitome of a do-everything running back. Besides rushing for nearly 4,000 yards in three collegiate seasons, he also recorded more than 1,200 receiving yards and an additional 1,859 as a kickoff and punt returner.
McCaffrey may lack the ideal size (he’s 6-0, 200) of an NFL running back so he may be best suited as a complementary ball carrier rather than a workhorse, but the league has pretty much shifted to a running back by committee approach so that shouldn’t be a huge concern.
In the right system, McCaffrey could emerge as a consistent contributor as a rookie. He may never be an All-Pro or even make the Pro Bowl, but there’s little question he belongs in the NFL.
Other running backs to keep an eye on: D’Onta Foreman, Texas; Donnel Pumphrey, San Diego State; Jamaal Williams, BYU, Samaje Perine, Oklahoma; Curtis Samuel, Ohio State; Kareem Hunt, Toledo; Elijah McGuire, UL Lafayette
— Written by Antwan Staley, who is part of the Athlon Contributor Network and has extensive experience covering Florida sports teams. Staley has written for Bleacher Report, the Miami Herald and the Palm Beach Post and is a reporter for Pro Player Insiders. Follow him on Twitter @antwanstaley.