Eagles draft targets at No. 14: Stanford RB Christian McCaffrey

Eagles draft targets at No. 14: Stanford RB Christian McCaffrey

Christian McCaffrey, RB, Stanford

Height: 5-foot-11
Weight: 202 lbs.

40-yard dash: 4.48 seconds
Bench press: 10 reps
Vertical jump: 37.5 inches
Broad jump: 121.0 inches
3-cone drill: 6.57 seconds
20-yard shuttle: 4.22 seconds
60-yard shuttle: 11.03 seconds

2016: 253 ATT, 1,603 YDS, 6.3 AVG, 13 TD
2015: 237 ATT, 2,019 YDS, 6.9 AVG, 8 TD
2014: 42 ATT, 300 YDS, 7.1 AVG, 0 TD

While splitting carries for his first four NFL seasons, it was often said Brian Westbrook was too slight to be an every-down back. Finally, in 2006, the Eagles couldn’t hold the third-round pick from Villanova back any longer. Westbrook rushed for 2,550 yards and 14 touchdowns total in '06 and '07, tacking on another 1,470 yards and nine scores through the air. Only Hall of Fame running back LaDainian Tomlinson had more yards from scrimmage during that two-year window.

Westbrook was already 28 by then, and his body began to betray him not long after, so we’ll never know what might have been. Yet, if the Eagles learned anything from that experience, it's not to assume a smaller running back can't handle a full workload.

That, in a nutshell, is the debate over Christian McCaffrey right now.

Arguably the best all-purpose back in the 2017 NFL draft, McCaffrey's skill set is like that of Westbrook reincarnated. What the consensus All-American lacks in burst and pure speed, he makes up for with a smooth, patient running style and tremendous vision. He's an elite receiver out of the backfield, with 82 receptions for 672 yards and 8 touchdowns over the past two seasons alone. McCaffrey even returns punts and kicks, with a touchdown doing each.

The case could be made the Eagles will not find a better running back to fit the West Coast offense. If his ceiling is Westbrook, his floor is probably Darren Sproles. McCaffrey will hang around the NFL for years because he's intelligent and versatile, with the ability to take a handoff or line up as a wide receiver.

Although, if McCaffrey is more Sproles than Westbrook, it's difficult to justify using the No. 14 pick on such a situational player. For much of his NFL career, Sproles has been more receiver than rusher. He was never afforded the same opportunity as Westbrook. Sproles' greatness is undeniable, but if you could go back and redo the 2005 draft, he probably isn't a first-round pick, much less top 15.

McCaffrey isn't nearly as diminutive as Sproles (5-6, 190), so perhaps a direct comparison is not apt here. The point is the number of touches McCaffrey can handle at the next level -- specifically as a ball carrier, between the tackles -- is central to whether he can be a consideration for the Eagles.

Honestly, there's very little evidence to suggest McCaffrey can't do it. After all, the 2015 AP Player of the Year registered over 750 total touches between rushing, receiving and returns over the past two years alone. He did miss two games with an undisclosed injury last season and may have been slowed by the ailment for longer, but McCaffrey finished the '16 campaign strong, averaging 26.6 carries for 198.2 yards per game over the final five outings of his collegiate career.

McCaffrey's combine performance received some unwarranted attention when he managed just 10 reps on the bench press. Still, that doesn't necessarily speak to durability.

Plus, McCaffrey shined in other aspects of the combine. His 40- and 20-yard shuttle times ranked fourth among running backs, while his three-cone drill was far and away the best at the position -- a true indicator of what a dangerous threat he can be in the open field.

Westbrook didn't blow anybody away at the combine. He just did that on the football field. And while he probably would've achieved success anywhere in the NFL, Westbrook thrived in Andy Reid's version of the West Coast offense, especially once the Eagles stopped limiting his touches. It's a testament to how important finding the right fit is.

McCaffrey might not be worth the No. 14 pick to just any team, especially with more explosive runners like Leonard Fournette and Dalvin Cook in the mix. To the Eagles, with Reid disciple Doug Pederson running the show, McCaffrey might be the most sensible choice as far as backs are concerned.

 

Other Eagles draft targets at No. 14:
Florida State RB Dalvin Cook
LSU RB Leonard Fournette

Eagles draft targets at No. 14: Florida State RB Dalvin Cook

Eagles draft targets at No. 14: Florida State RB Dalvin Cook

Dalvin Cook, RB, Florida State

Height: 5-foot-10
Weight: 210 lbs.

40-yard dash: 4.49 seconds
Bench press: 22 reps
Vertical jump: 30.5 inches
Broad jump: 116.0 inches
3-cone drill: 7.27 seconds
20-yard shuttle: 4.53 seconds

2016: 288 ATT, 1,765 YDS, 6.1 AVG, 19 TD
2015: 229 ATT, 1,691 YDS, 7.4 AVG, 19 TD
2014: 170 ATT, 1,008 YDS, 5.9 AVG, 8 TD

There is no denying Dalvin Cook has the talent and versatility the Eagles are seeking at running back. Florida State's all-time rushing leader, Cook gained 3,456 yards and scored 38 touchdowns on the ground over the past two seasons alone. The first-team All-American posted 79 receptions for 935 yards and 2 touchdowns during his college career as well.

Cook is a true dual threat, and a perfect fit for the Eagles. He has the ability and skill set to follow in the footsteps of Brian Westbrook and LeSean McCoy, who made their names in the west coast offense.

At the same time, Cook represents a huge risk with the No. 14 pick in the 2017 NFL Draft. Ball security is a serious issue, more so than most prospects. Durability is a concern as well, with a history of shoulder injuries that required surgery. Cook, who will turn 22 in August, has also run afoul of the law on numerous occasions, though the charges were either dropped or he was found not guilty in all instances.

Fumbles, injuries, arrests -- each taken individually might be easy to overlook. The combination of the three, on the other hand, is a lot to digest.

Problems with ball security are not uncommon coming out of college, even around the NFL these days. It's an area that can be an improved upon, and is often overlooked if the back is talented enough. Still, with 13 career fumbles, Cook is worse than most. He put the ball on the carpet 6 times in 2016 alone, or once in every 63.8 touches, according to CBSSports.com. That's roughly every 2.5 games.

Keep in mind, fumbles cost the Eagles last season. Ryan Mathews coughed up the rock while trying to put away a win over the Lions. Two weeks later, Wendell Smallwood gave life to the Cowboys with a second-half turnover. The Eagles led both teams with under four minutes to play in the fourth quarter, and both games ended up as losses. It matters.

Cook's shoulders warrant closer inspection, too, which is no doubt why the Eagles reportedly had the ball carrier to the NovaCare Complex for a visit. Three operations to repair torn labrums -- once in high school, on his left shoulder; and twice at Florida State, one each on the front and back side of the right shoulder, per CBS -- should raise questions as to whether his body can endure the punishment of an NFL workload.

Even if Eagles doctors give Cook a clean bill of health, this is a red flag. We’re not talking about a random or fluke injury here. It's been a recurring theme, requiring surgery as recently as last April.

Far more difficult to quantify will be Cook's character and discipline, which could make or break the evaluation. Two of his arrests were seven or more years ago in high school, and the charges were dropped in each case, according to NFL.com. However, Cook was found not guilty of misdemeanor battery in 2015 after allegedly punching a woman outside a bar.

What actually happened is unclear. Regardless, Cook was involved in some type of altercation, and the Eagles must ask themselves whether these are the types of situations a young man will find himself again in the future. It's not unimportant, either, especially considering the scrutiny the franchise faced after Nigel Bradham and Josh Huff were in the news for the wrong reasons.

On the field, Cook needs work in pass protection, which along with his fumbling problem, are serious knocks on a prospect at No. 14. Otherwise, there may not be a more gifted running back in the draft. That's not hyperbole, either. In 2015, Cook was named the Jim Brown Award winner for best running back in the nation.

Unfortunately, it doesn't matter how good a player is if he’s never on the field for one reason or another, or giving wins away when he is. The questions with Cook are more about the finer points than fit or ability, and without clear answers, it's difficult to conclude that he's worth the risk.

 

Other Eagles draft targets at No. 14:
LSU RB Leonard Fournette
Stanford RB Christian McCaffrey

Eagles draft targets at No. 14: LSU RB Leonard Fournette

Eagles draft targets at No. 14: LSU RB Leonard Fournette

Leonard Fournette, RB, LSU

Height: 6-foot-0
Weight: 240 lbs.

40-yard dash: 4.51 seconds
Vertical jump: 28.5 inches

2016: 129 ATT, 843 YDS, 6.5 AVG, 8 TD
2015: 300 ATT, 1,953 YDS, 6.5 AVG, 22 TD
2014: 187 ATT, 1,034 YDS, 5.5 AVG, 10 TD

It's kind of ironic. The same NFL that is constantly looking for the next Adrian Peterson in the draft has been hesitant to give actual Adrian Peterson a job this offseason. To be fair, Peterson turned 32 on Tuesday and missed 13 games in 2016, yet fear he’s in decline and a steep price tag aren't the only factors keeping the seven-time Pro Bowl selection unemployed. For many teams, there's also the question of fit.

The concerns surrounding Peterson are not entirely unlike the questions the Eagles must ask themselves with regard to LSU running back Leonard Fournette. When healthy, Fournette is an extremely dangerous ball carrier. But can the 22-year-old develop into a weapon in the aerial attack and an effective pass protector? Will he demonstrate improved ball security at the next level? Is the ankle injury that limited him to seven games during the '16 campaign a thing of the past?

Is Fournette a fit for the Eagles offense?

Peterson was such a gifted runner, the Vikings were able to overlook the shortcomings in his game. Now an aging, unknown quantity, NFL teams must take into account the possibility he can no longer handle a full 300-carry workload, or should probably come off the field on third downs, anyway.

Fournette is a full 10 years younger, but there's no guarantee his ability as a ball carrier will be enough to transcend all other skills at the next level, as it once did for Peterson. If the Eagles are to use the No. 14 pick or consider trading up for Fournette in the 2017 NFL Draft, the decision must be based on how he checks those other boxes, for such a lofty investment should produce a three-down back.

When the Cowboys took Ezekiel Elliott No. 4 overall last year, they weren't just getting a Peterson clone. In many ways, Elliott is better, or more complete. He's an incredible runner who can also contribute in the passing game, as both a blocker and a receiver -- a true every-down player.

Can Fournette make a similar jump?

The evidence is promising. Fournette recorded 34 receptions for 399 yards in 19 games over his sophomore and junior seasons at LSU, so while clearly not where he shines, he's not uncomfortable catching passes, either. And while Fournette wasn't called upon in protection as much, scouting reports describe a willing blocker, which is half the battle there.

The Eagles reportedly had Fournette in the NovaCare Complex for a visit and should now be up to date on his health. As for ball security, it's not an uncommon gripe for players coming out of college, and therefore not an area that is likely to change many minds.

Yet, even as Fournette appears to check all the boxes, he still doesn't look like the prototypical running back for Doug Pederson's version of the Eagles west coast offense. Think Brian Westbrook during the Andy Reid years, or Jamaal Charles in Kansas City, versatile backs who were every bit the threat in the passing game that they were on the ground, if not more so. That may never be Fournette, a bruising, between-the-tackles runner who took most of his handoffs behind a fullback -- a position which currently does not exist in the Eagles offense.

Then again, the Eagles may have the perfect mentor for Fournette in running backs coach Duce Staley, who played in Reid's offense for five seasons. Listed at 5-11, 242 pounds, Staley wasn't necessarily the prototypical west-coast back, either, and still managed to flourish, twice eclipsing 1,000 yards rushing and 1,500 yards from scrimmage.

With the right coaching, Fournette might just be able to work in Pederson's offense. Of course, the next challenge is landing the consensus All-American, who's likely to hear his name called in the top 10 on April 27.

 

Other Eagles draft targets at No. 14:
Florida State RB Dalvin Cook
Stanford RB Christian McCaffrey