theScore’s Pick Your Prospect series takes an in-depth, head-to-head look at some of the top players leading up to the 2017 NFL Draft.
QB – Watson vs. Trubisky
RB – Fournette vs. McCaffrey
WR – Davis vs. Williams (Apr. 11)
TE – Howard vs. Njoku (Apr. 13)
DL – Garrett vs. Thomas (Apr. 18)
S – Adams vs. Hooker (Apr. 20)
Fournette vs. McCaffrey
With Dalvin Cook’s very poor showing at the scouting combine, Leonard Fournette and Christian McCaffrey emerged as the top two running backs on many draft boards. They are wildly different physical specimens, with Fournette outweighing McCaffrey by nearly 40 pounds, and their skill sets and running styles differ in key aspects, too.
How do the two prospects stack up? We broke it down:
McCaffrey’s 40-yard dash time of 4.48 seconds narrowly edged Fournette’s time of 4.51 at the combine, but the latter’s clocking is more impressive because he did it at a much heavier weight. While neither runner is a burner in the mold of Chris Johnson, each has the breakaway speed to take it to the house any time he finds open space at the second level.
McCaffrey’s 37.5-inch vertical jump score (nine inches better than Fournette’s) suggests he’s a more explosive athlete, but perhaps it would be more accurate to describe the different ways they express their explosiveness.
Fournette’s running style is like a heavyweight boxer’s uppercut; the force of the blow lifts you off your feet and all you can do is gaze through blurry eyes at the screaming crowd as your lifeless body falls in slow motion to the floor.
McCaffrey’s more like a lightweight and lightning-quick MMA fighter; by the time you realize you took a punch to the gut, he’s already thrown a combination punch and a kick to your head, and the referee is diving in to stop the fight.
Which will teams prefer? That will be largely dependent on scheme fit.
Fournette is powerful (oh so powerful) and plenty fast, but he’s not necessarily quick. That’s an awkward distinction to make, but an important one.
Fournette runs like he’s shot out of a cannon, which means it can be difficult for him to slow down, change direction, and accelerate back to top gear. That’s not to say he can’t plant a foot and cut, but he struggled a little in this area in his final season of college ball (while battling a persistent ankle injury, it must be noted).
McCaffrey has none of those issues. He cuts on a dime with shocking quickness, leaving linebackers grasping at air as he romps downfield.
McCaffrey’s vision may be the best in this class, while Fournette’s is only average.
A tailback’s vision can improve in the pros, and Fournette’s running style is such that he probably won’t ever be asked to make complicated reads with his eyes (he’s much more of a see-it-and-hit-it power runner), but it’s unlikely Fournette will ever become the type of back who extends runs with vision.
“Man among boys” is a trite, yet apt description of how Fournette looked against linebackers and defensive backs in college. Fournette routinely embarrassed would-be tacklers, literally throwing them to the ground with a devastating stiff-arm or violently driving them backwards to churn out extra yards at the end of his many highlight-reel runs.
NFL defenders are bigger and stronger, but not that much bigger. There’s little reason to believe Fournette won’t continue manhandling his opposition in the pros. It shouldn’t surprise anyone if he’s the NFL’s most physically dominant runner from Day 1.
Conversely, McCaffrey will likely never be viewed as a physical runner, but the talk of him not being able to hold up to a three-down workload may be overblown. We’ve seen players of a similar stature and skill set, like Ray Rice, handle 300-touch seasons without wearing down.
McCaffrey is a willing blocker, but will probably never match Fournette’s upside in that aspect of the game because of their size disparity. Like most rookies, both prospects’ pass-blocking skills need refinement.
As a receiver, the clear edge goes to McCaffrey, who caught a combined 80 passes over his final two seasons at Stanford and took them for an average of nearly 12 yards per reception. McCaffrey has excellent hands and the route-running skills to line up as a slot receiver on any given play, two assets that are highly sought in today’s pass-first NFL.
Fournette has shown some ability as a receiver, but isn’t a natural catcher and wasn’t asked to contribute much in the passing game at LSU.
Teams seeking a running back in the draft will have to decide whether they prefer McCaffrey’s well-rounded skill set, which is perfectly suited to a pass-first offense, or would rather chase Fournette’s truly rare physical upside. It won’t be an easy decision.
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