With the NFL Draft just weeks away and the New York Jets in full rebuild, would a first round RB be an appropriate building block?

The running back position has become a devalued commodity over the past several seasons. With the career-span of a running back being as short as three years, teams prescribe to the notion that the risk to draft a first round running back outweighs the reward.

Ezekiel Elliott could have changed that mindset for some NFL teams. His 2016 campaign was eye-opening after being the fourth pick in the 2016 NFL draft. Elliott finished the season compiling over 1,600 rushing yards and 16 touchdowns. The totals earned him First-Team All-Pro status and his first trip to the NFL Pro Bowl.

Not all first-round running backs pan out like Elliott and their contributions can be limited by not being prepared to the length and rigors of the NFL season. The second running back taken in the 2016 draft was not selected until midway through the second round. Derrick Henry, the 2015 Heisman Award Winner produced stats that paled in comparison to Elliot’s, as he split carries with DeMarco Murray for the Tennessee Titans.

The New York Jets, over the past 10 years, have followed suit when it comes to first round running backs. In fact, the Jets have only drafted a running back in the first three rounds of the NFL draft once over the past decade, Shonn Greene in 2009.

The Jets plan of finding a “diamond in the rough” has yet to pay off during the Woody Johnson tenure. Tommy Bohanon, Terrance Ganaway, the late Joe McKnight and John Conner never panned out as a long term solution for the Jets. Currently, Bilal Powell and the former Leon Washington both had roles that implemented them into the game plan, but not as feature backs.

It would be ill-advised to believe that the Jets for once roll the dice on a feature back in the first round, since the running backs that have starred in their offense have been obtained by free agency. Woody Johnson has not been shy about paying proven running backs such as Ladanian Tomlinson, Thomas Jones, Chris Ivory and Matt Forte.

However, the Jets seem to just miss that “prime” window for the player to have special moments with the Jets. Perhaps, Johnson would like to capture the lightning in the bottle that Leon Hess obtained with Curtis Martin, after he was obtained from the New England Patriots.

The 2017 edition of the NFL Draft features two prominent running backs that are projected to be first round picks. There are comparable options in each round, so let’s review the top two running backs in each round:

Round 1: Leonard Fournette, RB, LSU vs. Dalvin Cook, RB, Florida St.

There are really three first round talents at running back in the 2017 NFL Draft. Leonard Fournette, Dalvin Cook and Joe Mixon could all be considered from a talent perspective. However, off the field issues for Joe Mixon will most certainly make him a second or third day option.

Leonard Fournette is the overwhelming favorite to be the first running back off the board on the first day of the draft by most prognosticators. Fournette may have only played in seven games in the 2016 season, yet still almost amassed 1,000 total yards. A number he had doubled in the 2015 season.

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Fournette is the type of running back that a ground and pound offensive coordinator would drool over. A bruising back that can catch out of the backfield, but whose strength primarily comes from the punishment he can apply when rushing between the tackles.

Not to be outdone, Dalvin Cook is also a fine option looking to select a running back in the first round. Cook is a more versatile running back who can not only be shifty in the running game, but can be an explosive receiving option in the short passing game.

Dalvin capped his 2016 season and Seminole career garnering over 2,200 total yards and finishing with 20 touchdowns in back to back seasons. A mediocre performance at the NFL Combine should not affect where he is selected in the draft, as his versatility is unmatched among the available prospects.

Who should the Jets select:

Leonard Fournette. In their successful years, the Jets ground and pound accompanied with a strong defense has been the catalyst to multiple post-season trips.

Round 2: Christian McCaffrey, RB, Stanford vs. Joe Mixon, RB, Oklahoma

As discussed prior, during the Woody Johnson era of New York Jets history, running back has not been a coveted position in the first few rounds of the draft. The second round of this year’s draft may offer some “ideal” changing options.

Christian McCaffrey, son of former NFL player Ed McCaffrey, will be a player that many teams could use as a “Weapon X.” McCaffrey’s abilities out of the backfield and as kick/punt returner make him a desirable prospect looking to bolster different roles.

With 4,000-plus yards over the past two seasons, McCaffrey has been shifty in the running game, dangerous in the slot and automatic in the red zone. McCaffrey ran a 4.48 in the 40 at the NFL Combine, a time that could push him up into the first round.

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There is no denying the ugliness of the incident that involved Joe Mixon and a young lady during his freshman year. An incident that caused Mixon to miss the entire year. He’s made the most of his opportunity when he’s been on the field though, becoming an undeniable talent in both rushing and receiving.

The big question with Mixon is character. Humility, responsibility and self-awareness sometimes outweigh talent. In the case of Mixon, he will need to show NFL teams, that the incident that will haunt him for virtually his entire career, was a life altering lesson, as well.

Who should the Jets select:

Christian McCaffrey. A dynamic runner, receiver and returner in one. Mike Maccagnan could check a lot of boxes with this one selection.

Round 3: Brian Hill, RB, Wyoming vs. D’Onta Foreman, RB, Texas

Running backs that are selected in the first two rounds are normally from the most prestigious college football programs. Schools such as, Alabama, Ohio State and Oklahoma have produced Pro-Bowlers and Hall of Famers throughout the decades. That doesn’t mean a “rose among the thorns” isn’t out there to be had.

Wyoming’s Brian Hill is a poor man’s Leonard Fournette. At 219 pounds, Hill is a punishing runner between the tackles but lacks some explosiveness to get out on the edge consistently. Hill garnered 1,800 yards and 22 touchdowns during the 2016 season for the Cowboys.

Hill’s biggest impact in the NFL as a rookie may be based on his blocking ability in the passing game. This allowed for standout quarterback, Josh Allen to hit the NFL radar this past season. This is a skill that not many rookie running backs are able to efficiently pick up in their first season. Displaying the ability to block will get Hill on the field, his running ability may keep him.

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D’Onta Foreman is that prototypical Texas Longhorns running back. The Doak Walker Award winner led the nation in rushing during the 2016 campaign. For his size, Foreman is an agile runner who can either take it up the middle or get out on the edge.

Foreman has great NFL size for a ground and pound offense. If he can add some strength, he could be the answer for the Jets long term. D’Onta projects to be an early down back and a great solution in goal line scenarios, a desirable trait to a run heavy offense.

Who should the Jets select:

Brian Hill. If Gang Green is to rebuild a once stout defense and rely on a running game to grind out games, a “push the pile” back like Hill could compliment Forte and Powell.

Round 5: Corey Clement, RB, Wisconsin vs. Kareem Hunt, RB, Toledo

Big Ten running backs get the benefit of showcasing their skills around the country week in and week out during nationally televised games. Madison, Wisconsin produces a particular type of back, one that can compile yards throughout the season, and grind down defenses during the colder months.

Corey Clement is no exception to this rule. After a down 2015 season, Clement put together his best campaign in 2016, finishing with 1,500 yards and 15 touchdowns. In a Big Ten Title game loss, Clement amassed 164 yards and a touchdown to cap off his inconsistent collegiate career.

Clement will be used as a bulk carry or short yardage back in the NFL. For a team looking to add that bruising back to compliment a more versatile back, Clement makes sense. Asking Clement to lead the charge as a three down back may be asking too much early in his career. The risk will be if he has the drive to become that complete back.

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The NFL Combine week is sometimes a make or break event for some of the mid-tier prospects. One prospect that hoped to “turn heads” during the combine, was Kareem Hunt. Hunt is a speedster from Toledo, and had all intentions to make that known to scouts. Unfortunately that did not happen.

Hunt ran a 4.66 in the 40 yard dash, for a prospect with an extensive track background, this was crushing. He will get another attempt in about a week at Toledo’s pro-day, but any time not sub-4.5 will make Hunt a third day selection.

Who should the Jets select:

Corey Clement. With Matt Forte and Bilal Powell both being aging versatile backs, Clement could become that mentored change-of-pace back that the Jets have historically utilized.

Round 6: James Conner, RB, Pittsburgh vs. Matt Dayes, RB, N.C. State

Pittsburgh’s James Conner has gone from “feel good story” to real NFL Draft Prospect after his sensational senior season. Conner a Stage 2, Hodgkin Lymphoma survivor, was one of the best running backs in the nation before a knee injury ended his 2015 season. The knee injury may have saved his life, as his cancer was found during rehab.

The return to the field in 2016 was a productive one for Conner, as he gained over 1,000 yards on the ground, 300 yards in the air and reached the end zone, 20 times. Conner seems to be returning to his 2014 form, the year he was named ACC Player of the Year. For a player to have walked the path that Conner has, they would need to display the character and determination Conner has.

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N.C. State’s Matt Dayes may not have had to face the adversity that Conner has faced, but as a prospect, he may be just as appealing. Though he may lack the explosion of a first round running back, Dayes relies on his great hands to set himself apart from other running backs.

For the New York Jets, Conner and Dayes offers them something they already have on the roster, but much younger. Matt Forte and Bilal Powell could be the perfect mentors for either Conner or Dayes if selected on the third day. While Dayes gets the edge due to a clean injury history, Conner’s undoubtedly a first round talent if he regains his 2014 form.

Who should the Jets select:

James Conner. With the heart and courageousness of a lion, the Pitt Panther’s skill set is that of a first rounder.

Round 7: Donnel Pumphrey, RB, San Diego St. vs. Jahad Thomas, RB, Temple

More and more athletes seem to be panning out when selected in the seventh round or are signed as undrafted free agents. Take a guy like Danny Woodhead. Woodhead, who will be returning to the NFL after an injury ended his 2016 season with the Chargers, has been a productive running back since joining the New York Jets in 2008.

Woodhead, who is considered undersized and did not attend a prestigious Division 1 school, has been able to carve out a role in the NFL by being a “jack of all trades.” This is the case for many players of this ilk. Having a specific set of skills that translate into the NFL game can lead to a long, fruitful career.

Two players that will either be selected in the final round or signed to an undrafted free agent contract will be, Donnel Pumphrey and Jahad Thomas. Both running backs have had productive careers at two schools that are by no means considered football “powerhouses.”

At 5-foot-9, 176 pounds, Donnel Pumphrey, spent his 2016 becoming the FBS Division 1 all-time leading rusher, passing Ron Dayne. Like Woodhead, DJ does not have the ideal measurables to become the flashy durable back teams covet. What he does do, is contribute, and in the case of his San Diego State career, contributes immensely.

Temple Owl, Jahad Thomas, like Pumphrey, also has the ability to contribute on many different fronts. During his time with the Owls, Thomas played running back, where he had great ability, receiving out of the backfield. He also contributed on special teams, and was an exceptional punt returner. If that isn’t enough, Thomas was utilized at defensive back on occasion in Matt Rhule’s defense.

Who should the Jets select:

Donnel Pumphrey. Danny Woodhead was one that got away from the Jets after just a few seasons. Pumphrey could be Woodhead 2.0.

 NEXT: Brett Hundley, the Jets Future Starting QB? 


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