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A Revolution At Running Back?


INDIANAPOLIS -- Howie Roseman used the word "historic" to describe the quality and depth at the running back position in the 2017 NFL Draft. Just three years ago, no running backs were selected in the first round. This year, NFL Network analyst Daniel Jeremiah said there are four running backs who he has given first-round grades to - Leonard Fournette, Dalvin Cook, Christian McCaffrey, and Alvin Kamara. The league's leading rusher in 2016 was a rookie - Dallas' Ezekiel Elliott, the fourth overall pick. The No. 2 rusher was also a rookie in Chicago's Jordan Howard. Unlike Elliott, however, Howard was a fifth-round choice. Will the Eagles select a running back in this year's draft? Here are some of the storylines to follow with the running backs.

1. Cook, Fournette: A Friendly Rivalry

Cook and Fournette met at a Nike camp in high school, and have become good friends ever since.

At Florida State, Cook had three 1,000-yard seasons. He was a first-team All-America this past season, gaining 1,765 rushing yards, good for fifth in the nation. He has had three shoulder surgeries since high school, so there will be medical questions to answer in Indy. Plus, he's had a couple of off-field run-ins with the law.

Meanwhile, Fournette was considered the top recruit coming out of high school and generated Heisman Trophy buzz with 1,953 yards and 22 touchdowns in his sophomore season. An ankle injury limited him in 2016, but at 240 pounds he said he's expected to run the 40-yard dash in the 4.4-second range which would be very impressive for a player at that size.

The two believe that their friendship has helped bring the best out of each other. And they know that their position group can make an immediate impact on the field in 2017.

"With the RBs we've got in our class and next year's running backs, a lot is going to change," Fournette said. "With this group a lot of these players are going to succeed in the NFL and contribute as soon as they get there."

2. The Next Darren Sproles?

The most accomplished running back in Indianapolis is Donnel Pumphrey, who set the all-time FBS rushing record with 6,405 yards. He gained 2,133 this past season, while scoring 17 touchdowns on the ground. He finished his collegiate career with 99 rushing and five receiving scores.

Why is not considered a first-round pick? Size. He is 5-8 and 176 pounds.

With his versatility, and big-play ability, Pumphrey can look toward a Philadelphia Eagle as proof that the biggest don't always win on the field. Sproles is listed at 5-6, but 190 pounds.

"I feel like I'm kind of like a Darren Sproles, maybe not size-wise, but that's how my game is, how I'd fit in at the next level," Pumphrey said.

Sproles has earned three Pro Bowl trips since he was acquired by the Eagles in a trade with the New Orleans Saints - twice as a returner, and this past season as a running back.

"I feel like guys like me, I'm able to be very versatile," Pumphrey said. "I'm able to catch the ball out of the backfield. I'll be able to create a big mismatch in the game. There will be linebackers and safeties on me, so if I'm able to make that a mismatch, I'll fit right into the NFL."

3. James Conner Worked Out With Carson Wentz

The best story of overcoming the odds is that of running back James Conner.

Conner was rehabbing from a knee injury when it was discovered in 2015 that he had Hodgkin lymphoma. Conner had a role model in Kansas City's Eric Berry, who returned to the field after overcoming the same disease. Conner underwent chemo and returned in 2016 to earn All-ACC first-team honors, gaining 1,092 yards and 16 touchdowns.

Now, he is in Indianapolis for the Combine just days after receiving a clean bill of health from doctors.

"I really just had that goal to be an NFL player, so during treatments, this was on my mind, getting closer to my dream," Conner said.

Prior to the Combine, Conner said that he worked out with Carson Wentz, among others, in California. The two share the same representation. Wentz threw passes to him and helped him with film study to improve his understanding of pass protection schemes.

4. Is There Anything McCaffrey Can't Do?

A Heisman Trophy finalist in 2015, McCaffrey battled through injury to earn first-team Pac-12 and second-team All-America honors for the Cardinal this past season.

McCaffrey rushed for 1,639 yards in 2016. He set the NCAA record with 3,864 all-purpose yards in his near-Heisman campaign with 2,019 yards on the ground, 645 receiving, and another 1,070 on kickoff returns. He also won the Paul Hornung Award as the nation's most versatile player.

He's not the biggest back. He's 5-11, 202 pounds, which has drawn comparisons to former Giants running back Tiki Barber.

"I think it's important just to show everything I can do. It's something I pride myself on, being extremely versatile and I feel like I can do that stuff," McCaffrey said. "To show coaches I can play running back, I can play receiver. I can do all the return game stuff, that's important to me."

McCaffrey's father, former wide receiver Ed McCaffrey, provided some poignant advice to aid in the draft process.

"Enjoy it. It's a once in a lifetime process. Everybody that I've talked to has told me to enjoy the process. Smile. Be happy. It's so true," McCaffrey said. "You can easily get very tense and tight in situations like this, but this is such an amazing process, it's such a dream come true to even be here and just blessed and fortunate I get to go out here and compete."

McCaffrey's ability to do many things can be found off the field as well. McCaffrey can play the piano, as well as the harmonica.

"There's a lot I can't do. Don't let me fool you up here, there's a lot I can't do," he said. "I can't sing."

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