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SportsColumnistsBob Glauber

NFL Draft: Three running backs could go early in first round

Stanford running back Christian McCaffrey (5) stiff-arms Arizona

Stanford running back Christian McCaffrey (5) stiff-arms Arizona linebacker Paul Magloire Jr. during the first half of a college football game in Tucson, Ariz., on Oct. 29, 2016. Photo Credit: AP / Rick Scuteri

The devaluation of NFL running backs has been a persistent theme in recent years, with many top-flight tailbacks barely seeing the light of day in the first round of the draft. In fact, in the previous four drafts, only three running backs combined were selected on Day 1.

But there’s a very good chance commissioner Roger Goodell will call the names of three running backs in the first round, something that hasn’t happened since 2012. And if top prospects Leonard Fournette of LSU, Christian McCaffrey of Stanford and Dalvin Cook of Florida State are chosen in the top 20, it will be the first time since 2005 that three runners were drafted that high.

By any measure, this class of running backs is one of the deepest in years. And while no one can predict how their NFL careers will shake out, they at least offer encouraging signs that the running game is still alive and well in a league that has been increasingly dominated by the passing offense.

“This is a deep group, we know that,” said Panthers general manager Dave Gettleman, who has the eighth overall pick and may wind up taking either McCaffrey or Fournette.

“What’s a little different is the depth of the running back position, which hasn’t been real deep in recent years,” Steelers general manager Kevin Colbert said. “It looks like this is shaping up to be a real strong running back class.”

Oklahoma running back Joe Mixon might be the most gifted of this year’s draft-eligible runners, but it’s unlikely he will be taken in the first round because of concerns about his off-field behavior. He pleaded guilty to a misdemeanor assault charge in October, 2014 for punching a woman in the head on July 25, 2014. The incident was recorded on a security camera at a café in Norman, Oklahoma. Mixon was suspended for the entire 2014 season, and last week settled a civil suit filed by the woman he hit.

The NFL has placed an increased emphasis on domestic violence awareness since the league’s botched handling of the Ray Rice incident in February, 2014, when the former Ravens running back knocked out his then fiancée in the elevator of an Atlantic City hotel. Goodell eventually instituted a stricter set of guidelines and punishments for any NFL employee who violated the league’s enhanced personal conduct policy, and Mixon’s case will likely result in him being passed over in the first round. But he is expected to be drafted, nonetheless, and he may go as high as the second round.

Several NFL teams, including the Broncos and Lions, have met with Mixon.

Cook’s draft status may also be negatively impacted by off-field issues, including an arrest as a juvenile for robbery in 2009, an arrest for illegal possession of a weapon and a charge of misdemeanor battery for allegedly punching a woman in 2015 outside a Tallahassee bar. A jury found Cook not guilty, and Cook has no convictions on his record.

With an abundance of so many top running back prospects from which to choose, the pendulum may swing back at least part of the way from the pass-happy league the NFL has become. Some of the credit goes to Ezekiel Elliott, last year’s No. 4 overall pick who produced a superb rookie season for the Cowboys and ran for 1,631 yards and 15 touchdowns. Paired with rookie quarterback Dak Prescott, who replaced the injured Tony Romo, Elliott helped the Cowboys to an unexpected NFC East divisional title.

“Zeke did pave the way for us,” Cook said. “He did a great job of catching the ball out of the backfield, protecting Dak at quarterback, and running very well behind a good offensive line, so he paved the way for us. It was a good thing for us coming in right now.”

Fournette and McCaffrey appear a cut above the rest of this year’s class, and it’s anyone’s guess which player will go first. But with top 10 teams like the Jaguars and Panthers in the market for running backs, both names likely will be off the board early.

McCaffrey, son of former Broncos and Giants receiver Ed McCaffrey, may be the most versatile back in this year’s class. He’s a terrific inside runner, but also has great hands and can run routes from the backfield and the slot.

“I play with a chip on my shoulder, always,” McCaffrey said. “I feel like a lot of people don’t give me credit for my skills and talents. I don’t feel like I’m crazy disrespected, but I have a chip on my shoulder at all times. That’s been my whole life.”

There almost certainly will be plenty of respect paid to him on Day 1 of the draft, because he’ll hear his name called early. Same with Fournette, who had 40 rushing touchdowns at LSU, but was limited by an ankle injury last season. He said he’s now at full strength and ready to make a big impact.

“I know my talent and hard work is going to pay off,” Fournette said. “I know what I’m capable of doing.”

He’ll soon get a chance to show it. As will a host of other soon-to-be NFL running backs in one of the most promising classes in years.

A look at the top running backs in the 2017 draft

* Leonard Fournette, LSU. 6-1, 230. In three seasons, had 3,830 yards and 40 TDs. Was limited to seven games last season (843 yards, 8 TDs) because of an ankle injury.

* Christian McCaffrey, Stanford. 6-0, 201. Rushed for a combined 3,622 yards and 21 touchdowns the past two seasons. A strong pass-catcher out of the backfield, adding 10 receiving TDs.

* Dalvin Cook, Florida State. 5-11, 213. Had 1,765 yards and 19 rushing TDs last season, and added 33 catches for 488 yards and a touchdown.

* Joe Mixon, Oklahoma. Had 1,274 yards and 10 TDs last season, adding 37 catches for 538 yards and 5 TDs. Suspended for the 2014 season after being charged in connection with the assault of a woman at a restaurant in Norman, Oklahoma.

* Alvin Kamara, Tennessee. 5-10, 214. A slashing type runner with good pass catching skills to be an every-down back. Modest stats with 596 rushing yards, but had 40 catches on an offense that didn’t rely heavily on one back.

- Bob Glauber

New York Sports