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The first round running back: still not worth the risk

The view from the middle of the first isn’t much different than from the top

Mississippi v LSU Photo by Jonathan Bachman/Getty Images

The success of Ezekiel Elliot has revitalized the notion of drafting a running back early. It shouldn’t. Elliot was “the best running back prospect since Adrian Peterson” since the last “best prospect since Adrian Peterson:” Trent Richardson. One success story doesn’t guarantee another (and equally, one bust doesn’t guarantee another as well).

But the Eagles aren’t drafting in the top five, and there is no running back drawing “best since” comparisons. But drafting one in the middle of the first round isn’t any better. Running backs taken in picks 11-32 in the past ten drafts run the full range, just like any other position, but there’s more than their fair share of disappointments and busts.

Marshawn Lynch and Chris Johnson are clear cut successes. Mark Ingram, Ryan Mathews, Doug Martin and Jonathan Stewart have had successful seasons but have been disappointments for a 1st rounders. Jahvid Best, Donald Brown, Felix Jones, Rashard Mendenhall, Knowshon Moreno, Beanie Wells and David Wilson were busts. And the jury is still out on Melvin Gordon but with him unable to crack the low threshold of 4.0 yards per carry in either of his two seasons, it’s not looking good.

Two bonafide starters out of fourteen 1st (mid-to-late) rounders is a terrible return on investment.

The 2017 draft doesn’t have that “best since” kind of guy, but it does have a lot of depth, both in the later rounds and in the first. There are three running backs seen as 1st round talents, at least seen that way in January: Leonard Fournette, Dalvin Cook, and Christian McCaffery. With running back becoming increasingly devalued in draft, two and possibly all three will be on the board when the Eagles draft at 14 or 15. In the past five years, only three running backs have been drafted in the top 14 picks.

All have something to offer, and all have their drawbacks.

Dalvin Cook

Pros: Would fit the Eagles scheme well as both a strong runner and receiver. Cook is terrific in open space, both as elusive runner and a pass catching option out of the backfield. He could not only improve upon Ryan Mathew’s carries, but lessen the load for Darren Sproles, which could make Sproles more effective. And while he’s seen as a first round talent, he might be available in the second.

Cons: Has battled through injuries, the Combine medical evaluation will be important for him. He can struggle in short yardage situations, which would keep the Eagles lacking in that area. There’s some off-field concerns as well, having been suspended in 2015 for punching a woman in the face at a bar, though he was later acquitted and the Eagles have shown they’re not afraid to draft players with red flags.

Leonard Fournette

Pros: Big, powerful and not afraid to show it. He’s a nasty between the tackles runner with breakaway speed in the open field. He’s going to draw comparisons to just about every great power back in recent memory, and rightfully so.

Cons: Maybe runs too hard and had a huge workload in college, which increases the chance of injury. Power back isn’t the best scheme fit for the Eagles, and he’s the least accomplished and least gifted receiver of the three. Might not be available when the Eagles pick anyway.

Christian McCaffery

Pros: Tremendous versatility, excelling as a runner, receiver and kick returner, so the Eagles would have no problem finding ways to get him the ball. Like Cook, he’s outstanding in space and will present matchup problems as a receiver.

Cons: Huge workload in college, with 724 touches in his two seasons as a starter, which is more than Fournette’s entire career (681) and almost as much as Cook’s three year career (766). Despite that, he might not be an every down player in the NFL, which is a reach for a first round pick.

Should one be available to the Eagles, and it’s extremely likely that at least Cook and McCaffery will be, there will also very likely be other outstanding prospects at other positions available as well. Should a scenario where the Eagles add veteran help at wide receiver for Carson Wentz to throw to play out, there’s some justification to getting him a running back to hand off to and give him a more complete offense to work with. But they should probably address other areas in the first. All of these guys are good prospects, but none of them are can’t miss, if they were they wouldn’t be available to the Eagles in the middle of the 1st.

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