The 2016 NFL Draft saw a running back (Ezekiel Elliott) go in the top five for the first time since 2012. This could be a signal of teams moving back to valuing running backs higher due to the volume in which they are featured in an offense. If this is the direction of the league, next year's draft is a perfect year for teams to reshape their offensive identity. With possible underclassmen declarations, the 2017 NFL Draft class could be a historic year for the halfback. Here are some of the names (in no specific order) to keep an eye out for in the next year.
Nick Chubb, Georgia
If not for a horrific leg injury during the season, I would be confident in saying Chubb is the safest pro running back prospect in college football. Chubb has incredible size and strength, but is also very nimble with excellent footwork. He runs hard with excellent pad level, and his vision allows him to create plays out of nothing. Hopefully Chubb will see a full recovery because he has the talent to be a lead NFL back.
NFL Comparison: Jonathan Stewart, Carolina Panthers
Dalvin Cook, Florida State
I have never seen a player destroy angles like Dalvin Cook does. His combination of burst and long speed is like nothing I have ever seen. Not only does Cook have straight-line jets, he can cut on a dime without losing speed and he has decent power to match. He is a lot more than just a fast guy too because he has very good vision and can create offense. His speed also makes him a valuable asset as a receiver. However, Cook has some serious questions about his off the field and maturity that will need to be addressed in the next year. If he can prove he has changed from when did something horrific his freshman year at FSU, he could be going very early in the NFL draft.
NFL Comparison: Edgerrin James, Indianapolis Colts
Leonard Fournette, LSU
It wasn't so long ago that people were talking about Fournette being able to make the jump straight from high school to the NFL. While that was a massive overreaction to his talent, Fournette is still one of the best backs in college football. At 6-1, 230 pounds, you would expect a lumbering power back, but Fournette has speed for days. His acceleration and top gear are incredibly impressive and he outran everyone last season. Fournette also has hulk strength and runs like his hair is on fire, making it a serious business decision to try to tackle him, especially at full speed. Fournette isn't perfect, though. He has issues creating behind the line of scrimmage and his lateral agility is below average. Now, this is nitpicking for a running back who is so good in the most important dimension (moving forward), but it's always good to point out the little things with potential top prospects.
NFL Comparison: Turbocharged Steven Jackson, St. Louis Rams
Royce Freeman, Oregon
Oregon gets the reputation for being a finesse team on offense, but Freeman is far from a purely finesse player. He is a huge back at 5-11, 230 pounds and runs with all of his weight behind his pads. Freeman runs angry has no issues running through players. Though he is more of a power back, Freeman has excellent agility and burst. He can also contribute on third down as a blocker and receiver. Oregon is reloading on offense at a lot of positions, so it's likely Freeman is going to have to be the whole offense next season and he will have plenty of opportunities to showcase his skill.
NFL Comparison: Marshawn Lynch, Seattle Seahawks
Christian McCaffrey, Stanford
Stanford's Heisman finalist is one of the most dynamic players in college football. He has a weird build for a running back at 6-1, 200 pounds, but he is electric in all facets of the game. His speed, agility and nonstop running style made the Stanford offense go. He has the vision to work behind the line of scrimmage and once he is in the open field, his moves are devastating for defenses. Not only is he so good as a running back, he might even be better catching the football. He can do everything! Including being a dynamic special teams player. Though he isn't the most powerful player in the class, his dynamic athletic ability should make him a star in the NFL.
NFL Comparsion: Brian Westbrook, Philadelphia Eagles
Samajae Perine, Oklahoma
There are few things I like more than fat running backs. There is something almost poetic about a 5-9, 245 pound person moving at high speeds, dancing around defenders. My love of hefty halfbacks will likely turn into an obsession with Samajae Perine during next season. Be is built like a cannonball but can somehow move like a ballerina. His agility is mind-blowing for a person with his build and he has insane burst. Of course, as a big back, he has great power and his height gives him good natural leverage to break tackles with. Perine is an absolute beast and should continue to bowl over Big 12 defenders next season.
NFL Comparison: Doug Martin (after a big Thanksgiving dinner), Tampa Bay Buccaneers
Other backs to keep an eye on next year...
Elijah Hood, UNC
NFL Comparison: Demarco Murray, Dallas Cowboys
James Conner, Pitt
NFL Comparison: Brandon Jacobs, New York Giants
Elijah Maguire, LA-Lafayette
NFL Comparison: Latavius Murray, Oakland Raiders
Jalen Hurd, Tennessee
NFL Comparison: Quicker, but slower Derrick Henry, Tennessee Titans
Wayne Gallman, Clemson
NFL Comparison: Matt Forte, Chicago Bears
Kareem Hunt, Toledo
NFL Comparison: Ryan Mathews, Philadelphia Eagles