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Leonard Fournette vs. Dalvin Cook: Who Should You Build Your Franchise Around?

NFL.com’s Lance Zierlein joins ‘The Ringer NFL Show’ to discuss the best running backs in the 2017 NFL draft

Florida State running back Dalvin Cook, left, and LSU running back Leonard Fournette at this month’s NFL draft combine. (AP Photo)
Florida State running back Dalvin Cook, left, and LSU running back Leonard Fournette at this month’s NFL draft combine. (AP Photo)

On Tuesday’s Ringer NFL Show, NFL.com draft analyst Lance Zierlein joined Robert Mays to preview the top running backs in the 2017 class. Mays and Zierlein discussed whether LSU’s Leonard Fournette or Florida State’s Dalvin Cook was a better running back to build a franchise around, and whether Leonard Fournette will fall in the first round. Listen to the full podcast here. This transcript has been edited and condensed.

Leonard Fournette vs. Dalvin Cook: Who Ya Got?

Robert Mays: I wanted to start with [running backs Dalvin] Cook and [Leonard] Fournette … two guys at the top. Who would you prefer?

If Fournette is in a power-based offense where there [are] a lot of seams and he’s got to hit it hard, I think that he can be really successful. If he’s going to play in an outside zone offense where he [has to] have a ton of vision and be shiftier, that may be more problematic. You’re not comparing them in a one-to-one way, but if you’re looking at both of these guys, and you say, "I’m building a team," which one would you say is the [running back] you’d rather have?

Lance Zierlein: I would probably go Fournette, but … I look at this through a different lens.

Physically, I’m not worried about the high ankle sprain issue [Fournette] had last year. I know that Dalvin Cook is the more talented, pure runner. I think Dalvin Cook is maybe the most talented pure running back in this draft when it comes to being able to do something for you on all three downs, and [the] vision and elusiveness combined with [his] burst. But Leonard Fournette, if you get him in the right system where you let him go downhill, he’s got some rare acceleration for a big, physical, powerful guy. I know he’s gonna create for himself through power and through speed. To me, when he gets back down to about 232 pounds, 230 pounds, I think you’re gonna see an even faster player. I would build around the guy who physically can dominate a game. I think that’s Leonard Fournette.

Once you get past Fournette and Cook, though, it really gets interesting to me. I think those two are clearly the 1–2. You can have a different taste, in terms of [Tennessee’s] Alvin Kamara or [Stanford’s] Christian McCaffrey — and I’m going to leave [Oklahoma’s] Joe Mixon out of this particular conversation, because I don’t think there’s any chance he goes before any of those four running backs strictly because of the off-field stuff. To me, this is clearly [about asking] what kind of runner do you like? Do you like the Fournette kind? Or do you like the Dalvin Cook kind? Because they are two very different type[s] of running backs, but they’re clearly [nos.] 1 and 2.

Mays: It’s really interesting because, obviously as a running back, your main goal is to make life easier on your offensive linemen and on yourself. And I think both of these guys do that. They allow themselves to create out of nothing, and they’re gonna make their lines look better. They just do it in completely disparate ways. Fournette’s going to run people over, he’s gonna get yards after contact, [and] he’s gonna be a monster. Cook sets things up extremely well. His vision is fantastic.

I’ve really dug into these guys over the last 24 hours for the first time. Every time you watch a guy for the first time, you chew on his tape. I always try to say, "All right, who does he remind me of?" And with Fournette, it’s difficult because, like you said, his physical traits and the combination of them are so rare. With Cook, what I saw — and maybe this is just a bias because I saw the same guy in the same uniform — he reminds me of a slightly bigger Devonta Freeman. Just the way he moves and what his vision looks like.

So, what do you want? Do you want a battering ram or do you want a guy that’s going to be able to make your team better in different ways? I don’t know the answer to that. I just think that, in my mind, Cook can be successful in a bigger variety of schemes than Fournette can.

Zierlein: Yeah, I would say Leonard Fournette is [like] a big piece … of ribeye, where you know exactly what you’re getting, [and] it’s gonna feed a lot of people, but you want something more nuanced — you want something with some layers of flavor. That’s Dalvin Cook. And I think Dalvin Cook can fit more schemes, frankly — more palates, if you will, of general managers. But the old, reliable steak is physical traits, and that’s what Leonard Fournette has. Especially rare physical traits.

But when it comes to watching the tape, I’m with you: I saw a young Clinton Portis from the Denver Broncos when I looked at Dalvin Cook. I think he’s got some of that same explosive, one-cut ability. Look, his 4.50 or 4.49 at the combine — Dalvin Cook plays even faster than that. When he hits the gas, he’s got a second speed going around the corner that is really impressive. He saves his very best games for the biggest games. He usually play[ed] well in games against Florida, in games against Clemson, in games against Miami.

But he reminds me of Clinton Portis. Clinton was an explosive, one-cut runner who could hit the home run at any point when he was coming out of Miami and playing for Alex Gibbs in Denver. I see the same thing, honestly, in Dalvin Cook. I think he has that same ability, and I think Dalvin Cook flips switches at various times.

Now, I don’t love that — I don’t love that he has to turn it on and off, because I think Fournette plays [with] the same general urgency level. But Dalvin Cook — when he wants to hit his switch, it’s pretty impressive. He has some impressive, impressive qualities to him, and he’s been doing it for three years. We have three years of really consistent tape with him.

Fournette was physically impressive his freshman year, but … he [was] supposed to be better than everyone. The second year I thought was awesome, and this [past] year [was] obviously filled with injuries, so you didn’t get a great feel for what he could do this year.

Will Fournette Fall in the Draft?

Zierlein: Don’t be shocked if Leonard Fournette falls [in the NFL draft] because teams — this is not their taste. A team [might prefer] what Christian McCaffrey brings to the table, and [what] Alvin Kamara [brings], two guys who can catch [the ball] and who can be very effective on third downs.

We always talk about subpackages: "Well, this is a subpackage league, so playing an odd or even front is irrelevant" or "linebackers aren’t as important." Well, if it’s a subpackage league, then you start running backs that you need to play on subpackage downs, [or] on three-wide-receiver downs. If that’s the case, you may have teams say, "You know what? McCaffrey and Alvin Kamara, and even Cook — we would rather have that in the late-first [round]," or [teams might] even trade back into the early parts of the second round to get something like that, as opposed to spending an early, top-eight draft pick to add a guy like Fournette, who we’re not really super sure about on third downs.