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2017 NFL Draft running back watch list: Leonard Fournette, Christian McCaffrey, others to watch

The 2017 NFL Draft is a long way off, but with college football getting started in a couple weeks, it is time to figure out who we should be watching. We start with the running backs. 

The San Francisco 49ers are only midway through their 2016 preseason schedule, leaving them two preseason games and 16 regular season games until we reach the next offseason. While the NFL season is only just beginning, it is never too soon to start draft coverage! We will continue to put together weekly prospect reports for college games on a given weekend, keeping an eye on games 49er scouts attended throughout the season (Scouting 49ers Scouts), and will also do some work with prospect rankings later in the season.

To kick things off we will start with a preseason watch list for each of the main positions on both sides of the ball. We still don't even know what the 49ers roster will look like in two months, let alone next offseason. However, some folks (draft nuts) are already going to be looking at next year's draft. And so, we wanted to get started with some top prospects at each position.

Jake Narayan and I will alternate over the next several days offering up position watch lists. Keep in mind the list of names is not meant to be all-inclusive, but rather some of the big names to help get things started. Additionally, this depends on some of the players declaring for the draft, so again, it is just looking at some potential top options at each position. I'll start things off at running back.

We start with a position that is locked up this year, and ideally is locked up for the foreseeable future. Carlos Hyde is signed through 2017, and although there are some questions on durability, the 49ers are financially primed to extend Hyde in what is expected to be a standout year for the running back. Backing up Hyde is a musical chair fest of uncertainty. Shaun Draughn (2016) looks to be the part, but durability is also creeping in. DuJuan Harris (2016), and notably Mike Davis (2017), have shown some impressive running in preseason, but ball security has been a major kick to the nether region. Sixth round rookie Kelvin Traylor has yet to impress, and could be a likely candidate for the practice squad. Nevertheless, Chip Kelly loves to run, so the bolstering of the running back position could be in play in 2017. Moreover, the 2017 Draft will likely be the resurgence of the running back, so best to take advantage of the quality potential talent at hand. And so, we start here!

Leonard Fournette

No. 7 | Junior | LSU Tigers
Height: 6'1" | Weight: 230 lbs. | Age: 21
2015 Rushing Stats: 300 Att, 1,953 Yds, Avg 6.5, 22 TD
2015 Receiving Stats: 19 Att, 253 Yds, Avg 13.1, 1 TD
Consensus First-Team All-American in 2015

Strengths: A Louisiana native, and one of the most highly recruited players coming out of the state, Leonard Fournette is a dynamic runner with a perfect combination of size, strength, and speed. The junior bestows amazing vision, sound instincts, and a bruising downhill running style rumbling between-the-tackles like a runaway freight train with impressive long-speed and agility. A freak of an athlete, the junior squats 528 pounds and cleans 352, with a blazing 4.42 40 speed. Already the fourth-leading rusher in school history, Fournette is a workhorse out of the backfield with an excellent work ethic and versatility to be a dominant running back at the next level.

Weaknesses: Although Fournette is a valuable workhorse out of the backfield with tremendous production, a possible concern is a lot of mileage. Fournette already amassed a combined 487 carries over two years and there appears to be no drop off this coming season. Moreover, additional areas he could improve upon are in his route-running and in pass protection. Lastly, Fournette suffered an ankle injury a little over a week ago and is sporting a walking boot, so monitoring his health throughout the season will be key.

Round Projection: 1st

Dalvin Cook

No. 4 | Junior | Florida State Seminoles
Height: 5'11" | Weight: 206 lbs. | Age: 21
2015 Rushing Stats: 229 Att, 1,691 Yds, Avg 7.4, 19 TD
2015 Receiving Stats: 24 Att, 244 Yds, Avg 10.2, 1 TD
All-ACC First-Team and Jim Brown Award Winner in 2015

Strengths: Rated the No. 1 prospect in Florida and the No. 2 running back in the nation out of high school, Dalvin Cook quickly emerged as a dominant threat for the Seminoles becoming the fastest player in FSU history to reach 1,000 yards in just his 20th career game, as well as becoming FSU's all-time single-season leader in rushing (1,691) and all-purpose yards (1,935) in 2015. Cook displays a smoothness to his game with excellent instincts, versatility, and big-play waiting to happen at any time threat. His vision and feel for the game is tremendously impressive, showcasing a nice suddenness in traffic with elite tackle-breaking slippery skills similar to a snake sliding through the grass, and the capacity to hit the home run whenever he touches the ball. Arguably one of the best college running backs in the nation, Cook's amazing talent, determined work ethic, and desire for continued improvement will bode well for him at the next level.

Weaknesses: An area of concern with Cook are injuries. He's coming off shoulder surgery performed on his right back labrum during this past Spring in order to clean up some stuff that was bothering him (he had surgery on the right front labrum two years ago). Cook also played through nagging hamstring and ankle injuries throughout the season, and although he showed grit playing through the injuries with no lack in production, is health will definitely need to be monitored throughout the season.

Round Projection: 1st

Christian McCaffrey

No. 5 | Junior | Stanford Cardinal
Height: 6'0" | Weight: 202 lbs. | Age: 20
2015 Rushing Stats: 337 Att, 2,019 Yds, Avg 6.0, 8 TD
2015 Receiving Stats: 45 Att, 645 Yds, Avg 10.2, 5 TD
2015 Kick Return Stats: 37 Att, 1,070 Yds, Avg 28.9, 1 TD
Associated Press Player of the Year in 2015

Strengths: The Bay Area darling and son of San Francisco 49ers and Denver Broncos Super Bowl winning wide receiver Ed McCaffrey, Christian lit up the nation in 2015 when he smashed Barry Sanders' all-purpose yardage record with 3,864. A true versatile player, Christian bestows a perfect blend of athleticism, explosion, balance, foot quickness, and agility, combined with tremendous patience and vision that would make Frank Gore proud. A dynamic threat in all offensive facets of the game, Christian showcases a home run threat whenever he touches the ball displaying great speed (gets to full speed in a hurry), impressive hands (natural pass catcher), and the elusiveness to step-out of and break tackles consistently. Moreover, he's adept at running downhill with excellent pad-level and suddenness, and the superb vision and patience to find the cutbacks on zone runs. Brings promising value in the return game.

Weaknesses: Christian will need to add some bulk to his game in order to run with a bit more power fighting through contact at the next level. Plus, bulking up in strength in order to aid him in pass protection, where the extra strength and improving his technique should work wonders for him in this area.

Round Projection: 1st

Samaje Perine

No. 32 | Junior | Oklahoma Sooners
Height: 5'10" | Weight: 235 lbs. | Age: 20
2015 Rushing Stats: 226 Att, 1,349 Yds, Avg 6.0, 16 TD
2015 Receiving Stats: 15 Att, 107 Yds, Avg 7.1, 1 TD
All-Big 12 First-Team in 2015

Strengths: If you are looking for power and strength, Samaje Perine is your man. After exploding onto Oklahoma's backfield in 2014 receiving the Big 12's Offensive Freshman of the Year Award, Perine continued to look good during his sophomore campaign, powering through defenders like a bulldozer. Perine displays solid vision and balance making consecutive moves in a short area getting low and through the cracks with impressive pad-level hitting the hole angrily with amazing physicality pin-balling and rumbling through tackles. A very powerful man, Perine benched 225 pounds 100 times in one session (10 sets of 10 in about a half an hour); moreover, according to Oklahoma head coach Bob Stoops, Perine can broad jump more than 10 feet and runs the 40-yard dash in the 4.5 range.

Weaknesses: Perine does not possess ideal speed for the next level, showing only decent explosion and speed, and not much acceleration. Durability could also be a concern, since he's coming off surgery on his left ankle to fix ligament damage he suffered during the Orange Bowl (surgery performed January 2016).

Round Projection: 2nd

Royce Freeman

No. 21 | Junior | Oregon Ducks
Height: 5'11" | Weight: 230 lbs. | Age: 20
2015 Rushing Stats: 283 Att, 1,838 Yds, Avg 6.5, 17 TD
2015 Receiving Stats: 26 Att, 348 Yds, Avg 13.4, 2 TD
Second-Team All-American in 2015

Strengths: A powerful runner with great balance, Freeman is the only FBS player nationally to accumulate more than 100 yards from scrimmage in every game, as well as breaking LaMichael James' single season school rushing record with 1,836. Another big back with an excellent combination of size, speed, power, and vision, Freeman is a downhill runner displaying the suddenness in short areas (good feet), the patience to let plays develop, a great feel with sound instincts, and impressive burst behind power making him quite a load to bring down. Moreover, Freeman displays soft hands as a pass catcher and is adept in finding the holes in the defense, as well as being solid in pass protection, a valued necessity for the next level. A big powerful Oregon running back that can pass block, could be a perfect marriage for Chip and the gang. Dipping into the Oregon inkwell three years in a row?

Weaknesses: At times Freeman can be indecisive as runner, looking to juke with elusiveness or bounce out rather than finishing off with power, which is his bread and butter. He lacks elite break-away speed, but has good speed and elusiveness to be a home run hitter.

Round Projection: 2nd