Deep class fuels running back resurgence

(Associated Press)

JACKSONVILLE, Fla. – On Thursday we could see three running backs selected in the first round of the NFL Draft for the first time since 2012. After running backs failed to go in the first round in 2013 and '14, LSU's Leonard Fournette, Stanford's Christian McCaffrey and Florida State's Dalvin Cook could be selected on Thursday.

All three prospects owe a debt of gratitude to Ezekiel Elliott. Last season Elliott ran for 1,631 yards and 15 touchdowns last season for Dallas, becoming the first rookie since Edgerrin James in 1999 to lead the league in rushing.

"It was a good thing for us coming in right now," Cook said. "Zeke did a great job of catching the ball out of the backfield, protecting Dak (Prescott) at quarterback, and running very well behind a good offensive line."

Elliott's success came the year after the Rams' Todd Gurley became the first rookie in league history to rush for 125 yards or more in four straight games. Both were also voted NFL Offensive Rookie of the Year.

With pick No. 4 on Thursday, the Jacksonville Jaguars could go in a number of different directions. Tom Coughlin has a history of building teams along the offensive and defensive lines. If that trend continues prospects such as Stanford defensive end Solomon Thomas and Alabama defensive end Jonathan Allen would make a lot of sense.

However, several mock drafts have the Jaguars selecting a running back at pick No. 4. Last season Jacksonville ran for 1631 yards which ranked 22nd in the NFL. A lot of the Jaguars offensive struggles have fallen on the shoulders of quarterback Blake Bortles. One thing Bortles hasn’t had during his first three seasons is a consistent running game. Only the New York Giants had fewer rushing scores (6) than the Jaguars (8) last season and three of Jacksonville’s rushing touchdowns came from Bortles.

Senior Bowl executive director Phil Savage, who was Browns general manager from 2005-08, says teams can find a back in every round this year.

Many believe Fournette will be the first taken. He rushed for 2,045 yards and 22 touchdowns in 2015, but played in only seven games last year due to an ankle injury. Despite the limited playing time he gained 873 yards and scored eight touchdowns.

Fournette is more of a traditional back with a punishing running style. He had only 40 receptions in three seasons at LSU and was not counted on much to block.

"He is more of an I-formation back. Put him behind the quarterback and hand it to him in order to get his momentum going as a downhill runner," Savage said. "I thought LSU took away from his talent when they had him as a back in the shotgun. You're not playing to his strength when you offset him."

If the Jaguars pass on Fournette at No. 4 or trade down they have other options at running back including McCaffrey and Cook.

Savage believes McCaffrey has the best hands of anyone in the draft, including receivers and tight ends. McCaffrey led FBS in all-purpose yards the past two seasons, including averaging 211.5 yards per game last year, and led the Pac-12 in rushing yards (1,603) last season

There are some though, including Savage, who wonder if McCaffrey can be an every-down back or if he is better suited for a backfield by committee. With T.J. Yeldon and Chris Ivory currently on the Jaguars roster this wouldn’t be as big of an issue in Jacksonville.

During the combine, McCaffrey said he felt he was being a little disrespected in this year's class because of his versatility.

"I don't think there's anyone else that can do all the things I can as far as running between the tackles, outside pass protect, play X, Z, slot, and do a lot of things in the return game as well," he said.

Cook is considered one of the more elusive backs and averages 4.2 yards after contact, according to Pro Football Focus. He rushed for 1,765 yards last season but also excelled catching the ball out of the backfield, averaging 14.8 yards on 33 receptions.

"If a running back gets put in the right system, you put him in the right place, he can do a great amount of things for a team. I feel like if I can get put in the right system I can do the same things that Zeke did," Cook said.