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021517DalvinCook Lynne Sladky/AP

Dalvin Cook is an awesome player, buuuuut...

February 15, 2017

Would the Eagles draft Dalvin Cook (or any running back) in the first round?

Last offseason, before the Eagles traded up from the 13th-overall pick to the eighth spot, and then from eight to two, there was a spirited debate as to whether or not the Philadelphia Eagles should select Ohio State star running back Ezekiel Elliott, who is now with the Dallas Cowboys.

A similar debate is beginning to emerge this offseason about Florida State running back Dalvin Cook, who has become a popular choice for the Eagles in mock drafts. Here, we'll take a pro vs. con look at Cook, as well as the differing philosophies of drafting running backs early. 

Pro

Dallas hit big with a running back at fourth overall in 2016: Those who advocate for drafting a running back in the first round can point to the success of Elliott in his rookie season, as he led all NFL rushers with 1,631 yards in 2016. Elliott was as complete a back as there's been in recent memory coming out of college. He runs with speed, power, and elusiveness, in addition to being a very good receiver out of the backfield and a trustworthy blocker in pass protection. He has outstanding traits, and very little (if anything) in the way of holes in his game. He was as big a reason for the Cowboys' success last season as anyone.

Help for Carson Wentz: When we think of getting help for Wentz this offseason, that is typically attributed adding competent receivers to the Eagles' offseason. However, there is also a strong argument to be made that a strong rushing attack would help take some pressure off the second-year quarterback.

Dalvin Cook is really goodIn the 2015 NFL Draft, the Seminoles lost QB Jameis Winston, RB Karlos Williams, C Cameron Erving, OG Tre' Jackson, OT Bobby Hart, WR Rashad Greene, and TE Nick O'Leary. Cook was the focus of opposing defenses, and he still ran for a ridiculous 7.4 yards per carry.

In 2016, Cook continued to pile up big numbers:

 Dalvin CookRushYards YPC TD 
 2014170 1008 5.9 
 2015229 1691 7.4 19 
 2016288 1765 6.1 19 
 TOTAL687 4464 6.5 46 


He also had 34 catches for 488 yards (a lofty 14.8 YPC for a running back) and 1 TD in 2016.

Cook is a near-complete back, who has speed and some power, as well as the ability to make plays in the passing game out of the backfield. Perhaps his best strength is his combination of vision and lateral quickness to find (and hit) open holes, which is on display in the highlight reel below:


So many of those above runs just look so effortless.

Con

The lifespan of an NFL running back is short: Last year, when we wrote about the potential for the Eagles to draft Elliott, we noted that only five of the NFL's projected starters at running back were 30 years of age or older. Additionally, at the time, the average age of the running backs above was 25.5 years old. By comparison, the average starting age of NFL quarterbacks at the time was 29.4.

Here were the projected starting running backs with birthdays before 1987 last year. Please note that the ages listed were as of last March:

Player Team Birthday Age 
Frank Gore Colts 5/14/1983 32 
Adrian Peterson Vikings 3/21/1985 30 
Rashad Jennings Giants 3/26/1985 30 
Justin Forsett Ravens 10/14/1985 30 
Matt Forte Jets 12/10/1985 30 
Jamaal Charles Chiefs 12/27/1986 29 
Jonathan Stewart Panthers 3/21/1987 28 
Ryan Mathews Eagles 5/1/1987 28


There's a very good chance that five of those players won't be with their team in 2017:

  1. Adrian Peterson is very likely to be released by the Vikings this offseason, and is expected to find a complementary role with his new team.
  2. Rashad Jennings was released by the Giants this offseason.
  3. Justin Forsett was released by the Ravens initially at final cutdowns last season, and then again in October after resigning with the team. He eventually landed in Denver as a backup.
  4. It is highly speculated that the Chiefs will release Jamaal Charles this offseason.
  5. The Eagles are a near 100 percent certainty to release Ryan Mathews.

Cook will turn 22 in August. Even if he is a good player in the NFL, the odds say that his productiveness will cap out at around eight years. Some might say, "Eight years of quality running back play? Sign me up." While I wouldn't necessarily put up a huge fight disagreeing, it should certainly be noted that most other positions in the NFL have much longer shelf lives.

Running backs drafted highly can be busts, just like any other position: Again, like we mentioned last year, there's a notion that drafting certain positions highly will more often produce a bust than a star player. That's true, and it's kind of the nature of the NFL Draft in general. Running back is no different. Here is a list of all the running backs taken within the first 20 picks since 1995:

Year Player Team Pick number 
1995Ki-Jana Carter Bengals 
1995Tyrone Wheatley Giants 17 
1995Napoleon Kaufman Raiders 18 
 1995James Stewart Jaguars 19 
 1996Lawrence Phillips Rams 
 1996Tim Biakabutuka  Panthers 
 1996Eddie George Oilers 14 
 1997Warrick Dunn Buccaneers 12 
 1998Curtis Enis Bears 
 1998Fred Taylor Jaguars 
 1998Robert Edwards Patriots 18 
 1999Edgerrin James Colts 
 1999Ricky Williams Saints 
 2000Jamal Lewis Ravens 
 2000Thomas Jones Cardinals 
 2000Ron Dayne Giants 11 
 2000Shaun Alexander Seahawks 19 
 2001LaDainian Tomlinson Chargers 
 2002William Green Browns 16 
 2002T.J. Duckett Falcons 18 
 2005Ronnie Brown Dolphins 
 2005Cedric Benson Bears 
 2005Cadillac Williams Buccaneers 
 2006Reggie Bush Saints 
 2007Adrian Peterson Vikings 
 2007Marshawn Lynch Bills 12 
 2008Darren McFadden Raiders 
 2008Jonathan Stewart Panthers 13 
 2009Knowshon Moreno Broncos 12 
 2010C.J. Spiller Bills 
 2010Ryan Mathews Chargers 12 
 2012Trent Richardson Browns 
 2015Todd Gurley Rams 10 
 2015Melvin Gordon Chargers 15 
 2016Ezekiel Elliott Cowboys 


There is a whole lot more buyers' remorse in that list above than there were teams who were happy with their selections. In other words, no player is ever a sure thing, and that includes Dalvin Cook.

Cook is not Elliott: As noted above, it was very difficult poking holes in Elliott's game coming out of OSU. With Cook, there are three significant concerns:

  1. He fumbles a lot. In 2016, Cook had six fumbles. During his college career as a whole, he had 12 fumbles. In the NFL, defenders do a far better job of ripping the ball out than college kids, so a high fumble rate at a lower level is a serious concern. That must improve.
  2. He has had surgery on his right shoulder twice since 2014. He also injured his left shoulder in high school.
  3. Cook has negative off-the-field history, which also has to be seriously considered and thoroughly investigated by any team drafting him.

The 2017 running back class is stacked: Speaking at the Senior Bowl, Eagles Vice President of Player Personnel (and the guy who will be setting the Birds' draft board) Joe Douglas was asked what positional groups were strong in the 2017 NFL Draft. 

"I think this is a deep draft at tight end, running back, corner, and wide receiver," he said.

The notion that this is a stacked class at running back is a very common one. For example, NFL Network analyst Daniel Jeremiah ranked five in his top 40 overall prospects:

  1. Leonard Fournette, LSU (ranked 7th overall)
  2. Dalvin Cook, Forida State (11th)
  3. Christian McCaffrey, Stanford (21st)
  4. Alvin Kamara, Tennessee (26th)
  5. Curtis Samuel, Ohio State (39th)

But this class isn't just talented at the top of the draft. It's also very deep. CBS Sports, for example, currently has 15 running backs with at least fourth-round grades.

Verdict

At the Senior Bowl, when posed with the question of the value of running backs and the appropriate place to the draft them, Douglas played both sides of the fence.

“If you get a great running back it changes things,” he said. “You saw that with Dallas this year. I think you can get not only get running backs, you can get great players at every level of the draft.”

As noted above, Elliott led the league in rushing in 2016. You know who was second with 1313 rushing yards? That would be the Bears' Jordan Howard, who Chicago drafted in the fifth round while Douglas served as their Director of College Scouting during the 2016 NFL Draft.

In fact, here is a list of running backs drafted by the Ravens and Bears while Douglas was employed with each team. Bolded players made at least one Pro Bowl:

Year Team Player Round Overall 
2000 Ravens Jamal Lewis  5
2001 Ravens Chris Barnes 161 
2002 Ravens Chester Taylor 207 
2003 Ravens Musa Smith 77 
2006 Ravens P.J. Daniels 132 
2007 Ravens Le'Ron McClain (FB) 137 
2008 Ravens Ray Rice 55 
2009 Ravens Cedric Peerman 185 
2011 Ravens Anthony Allen 225 
2012 Ravens Bernard Pierce 84 
2013 Ravens Kyle Juszczyk (FB) 130 
2014 Ravens  Lorenzo Taliaferro138 
2015 Ravens Javorius Allen 125 
2016 Bears Jordan Howard 150 


As you can see above, you have to go all the way back to 2000 to find a first-round draft pick, when doing such a thing was much more common. In those days, Douglas was a low man on the totem pole, with unenviable responsibilities such as being "the Turk," or the guy who tells players to grab their playbooks and go see the head coach to have their dreams shattered:


What you'll also see in the graph above is that over the last 10 years, teams that employed Douglas drafted five running backs that made at least one Pro Bowl, none of whom were drafted in the first round. While Douglas was not the GM during those drafts and his level of involvement in the war room is unclear, he has seen plenty of later-round running backs have success.

In my view, while Cook is an outstanding talent, the Eagles are probably best served drafting another position in the first round, where oh by the way, they'll still get a great prospect, and then counting on Douglas to find a gem in later rounds.


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