I don’t begin a close look at the 2017 NFL Draft class until after the Pittsburgh Steelers’ regular season is through. But even a casual observer should recognize at least one thing about this upcoming class. The running back group could be as good as it’s ever been. For the Steelers, whose long-term outlook at the position is now cloudy as a puff from Le’Veon Bell, that’s the best news of a bad situation.
The list is extensive: LSU’s Leonard Fournette may be the most well known to the casual fan, a powerful back who dominated the SEC with nearly 2000 yards rushing on 6.5 yards per rush. He’s received comparisons to a better version of Derrick Henry, less rigid than Henry and someone who can create behind the line of scrimmage.
Stanford’s Christian McCaffery broke the 2000 yard rushing barrier and chipped in 45 catches for another 645 yards, leading the NCAA in yards from scrimmage last season. He was named a consensus All-American.
Some believe Dalvin Cook could have the best NFL career. He rushed for over 1600 yards and a whopping 7.4 yards per carry with Florida State last season. That per carry stat was the 2nd highest in the NCAA of running backs with at least 100 carries. He’s regarded as more explosive and dynamic than Fournette and McCaffery.
It was Georgia’s Nick Chubb who recorded the highest YPC last year, a whopping 8.1, but his season was cut short after a severe knee injury. It’s unclear what kind of player he’ll be when he returns but if he’s back at full health, expect him to be one of the top backs off the board.
Oregon’s Royce Freeman will only be a junior but if he declares, will be a top option. At 230 pounds, he rushed for 1838 yards and 17 touchdowns with the Ducks last year.
Wisconsin’s Corey Clement had his 2015 campaign cut short, appearing in just five games after sports hernia surgery, but averaged 6.5 yards per tote in 2014. I remember watching him specifically and coming away feeling like he was a better prospect than Melvin Gordon. Of course, Badgers’ running backs will get knocked for a bad track record – fairly or not – and the benefit of playing in a power offense. Clement will be a senior and definitely in next year’s class.
James Conner is another senior with a story you probably already know. He’s beaten cancer and now looks to attack the football field the same way. He rushed for nearly 1800 yards and 26 touchdowns two years ago. Of course, the Steelers know him well, sharing the same practice facility. Conner will be a popular name among fans.
North Carolina’s Elijah Hood and Clemson’s Wayne Gallman are two other names to watch on but they will be underclassmen, like so many on this list. To be clear, of the names here, only Clement and Conner are seniors.
It’s unclear who of the mix will declare. Some may opt to play out another year and hope for a weaker class, leveraging their value. But at least some of them, maybe most, will enter early as so many underclassmen do. And it will give the Steelers plenty of Day Two options to pick from.
Given the long-term instability at running back, Bell officially can’t be trusted, another big investment is necessary. Mike Tomlin has taken a running back in each of the top three rounds: Rashard Mendenhall in the first, Bell in the second, and Dri Archer in the third. And you can likely add another name to that list next summer.