LSU's Fournette leads a loaded running back class in this year's NFL draft

Third in a series

No position has been ignored more in the first round of recent drafts than running back.

In 2013 and 2014, not a single running back was taken in the first round. Last year, Ezekiel Elliott was the only runner taken in first round.

But this year will be different, with more ball-carrying talent than any class since 2008, when five runners went in the first round and Matt Forte went to the Bears in the second round, 44th overall.

At the top of this class is LSU's Leonard Fournette, whose only real weakness is that he doesn't have a twin brother. Fournette has been compared to Ezekiel Elliott, Adrian Peterson and Herschel Walker.

Fournette said it best himself as to what makes him the best offensive player in this draft and a potential franchise player with power, speed, explosiveness, toughness, etc.

"I'm blessed by God to have this ability and talent, and I work hard," he said. "My attributes to the game, my love for the game, I just love football."

Fournette rushed for "just" 843 yards last season as a junior, playing on a badly sprained ankle, but he still averaged 6.5 yards per carry. The 2015 season was a better indication of his talent, as he rushed for 1,953 yards and 22 touchdowns.

Specifically, what the 240-pound Fournette does best is explode downhill and hammer a defense.

"It's a God-given ability," he said. "It's something I work on in practice. My motto is 'Never let one man take you down.' That's my whole purpose."

It wasn't at first. But early in his high school career at St. Augustine in New Orleans, a coach explained to him that he had a gift.

"It came fast," Fournette said. "Not for a second in my mind did I think I'd be in the NFL coming up from New Orleans, out of the hood, 7th Ward.

"(But) my coach (David Johnson) sat me down and told me I had great ability, a great talent to play this game. From there on in, I took it serious. It's been a dream, a blessing."

While Fournette was rushing for 1,953 yards in 2015, Stanford's Christian McCaffrey was rushing for 2,019 yards, while catching 45 passes for 645 yards on. He also tossed 2 TD passes. Add in his punt- and kickoff-return yards and McCaffrey's 3,864 all-purpose yards added up to an NCAA record.

McCaffrey weighs about 40 pounds less than Fournette, and he won't be a workhorse in the NFL. But, if used creatively, McCaffrey can hurt a defense in more ways than any other player in the draft, although Ohio State WR-RB Curtis Samuel is a close second.

In addition to his running, receiving and returning, McCaffrey has NFL bloodlines. His father, Ed, had a 13-year NFL career as a wide receiver and played on two Super Bowl. Older brother Max is a Green Bay Packers wide receiver.

The Stanford junior also has elite intangibles. In his NFL Draft 2017 Preview draft analyst Nolan Nawrocki writes that McCaffrey: "Lives and breathes the game and has a dedicated, professional approach in every phase - weight room, practice, film study, training table/nutrition, recovery. Versatile and can line up all over the field and run, catch and return.

Character concerns are the only thing keeping most teams from grading Oklahoma's Joe Mixon in the first round. He has taken ownership for punching a female student in the face in 2014, causing multiple facial fractures, apologized and served a one-year suspension. But there are teams that, understandably, have removed him from their draft board.

In two years, Mixon averaged 6.8 yards on 300 carries and caught 65 passes, averaging 13.8 yards per catch, showing excellent hands and route-running. He's almost as big as Fournette and faster, though he doesn't run with quite as much power.

Next up: Linebackers

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NFL draft: Top 10 running backs

<b>Name, school Ht. Wt. 40-time</b>Leonard Fournette, LSU 6-0.4 240 4.51

Rare acceleration for a big man. Punishing runner who finishes strong. Franchise runner can carry an offense.

Christian McCaffrey, Stanford 5-11.2 202 4.48

Multi-dimensional threat as a RB, WR, KR. May not be an NFL workhorse but could still be a difference-maker.

Dalvin Cook, Florida State 5-10.3 210 4.49

Character concerns, fumbles, injuries mean bust potential, but big-play threat could be offensive ROY.

Joe Mixon, Oklahoma 6-0.6 228 4.46

First-round talent punched out OU female student in '14. After 1-year suspension averaged 6.8 yards/carry.

Alvin Kamara, Tennessee 5-10.2 214 4.62

Explosive but not stopwatch fast. Has never been a bell cow; as a result has low miles. Quality receiver.

Samaje Perine, Oklahoma 5-10.5 233 4.59

No-frills, no-nonsense hammer. Not creative as a runner but can be his own blocker. Did 30 bench reps.

D'Onta Foreman, Texas 6-0.0 233 4.50

Breakout 2016 included 2,028 rush yards but lost 6 fumbles. Athletic for size with quick feet for big man.

James Connor, Pittsburgh 6-1.4 233 4.64

Overcame Hodgkin's lymphoma in '15. Tough, punishing runner who creates his own running room.

Jeremy McNichols, Boise State 5-8.5 214 4.49

Productive, agile runner/receiver with 3,972 scrimmage yards, 53 TD's last 2 seasons. Marginal size, power.

Marlon Mack, South Florida 5-11.3 213 4.51

Lacks power but slippery and elusive and plays faster than 40-time. Had 6 TD's of 43 yards or longer in '16.

*Under "Ht." the number following the period refers to eighths of an inch.

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