Previously this offseason we explained why Stanford running back Christian McCaffrey should be considered the front-runner for the Heisman Trophy, as a result of his all-around ability as a runner, pass-catcher and kick returner. No offensive player was more productive overall last season, and he should have an excellent 2016 campaign.
But he is far from the only elite running back returning to college football this season, and there are two players in particular who warrant consideration as the best pure runner in the nation: LSU’s Leonard Fournette and FSU’s Dalvin Cook.
Both players performed extremely well in 2015, and are showing up on preseason Heisman watch lists. But which is the better rusher?
When we went back to compare the two, Cook made an impressive case, but Fournette came away with the clear advantage. Here’s why:
No runner broke more tackles in 2015 than Fournette
There’s no question that Cook was one of the most difficult running backs to tackle in college football last season. He averaged 4.0 yards per rush after contact in 2015, the third-highest average in the nation and over half of his 7.4 yards per carry average. He also finished fifth in the nation in elusive rating, which is PFF’s measure of how effective a running back is at generating yards independent of his blocking. (The Seminoles produced an average overall run-blocking grade in 2015, slightly lower than LSU’s.)
Fournette ranked just behind Cook in yards after contact per attempt at 3.8 (of his 6.5), but actually earned a better elusive rating, ranking tied for third with Oregon’s Royce Freeman. (Here is why Freeman is poised to push McCaffrey for the title of the Pac-12’s top running back.)
But where Fournette really distinguished himself was in his ability to break tackles. He had 85 forced missed tackles as a runner alone (he added 10 more as a receiver) — the highest number in the nation. To put into perspective just how good that is, Heisman winner Derrick Henry of Alabama had 76 as a runner – on 96 more attempts than Fournette.
The LSU star racked up that total on the strength of a lot of runs like this one versus Auburn:
Cook ranked an impressive 13th in the nation with 56 forced missed tackles (he added 12 more as a receiver), but that certainly pales significantly in comparison to Fournette’s output.
Cook might be the best breakaway threat in college football — but Fournette isn’t bad, either
The biggest argument for picking Cook over Fournette as the best running back in the country is his big-play ability. Cook ranked sixth nationally in total rushing yards with 1,696, trailing Fournette and his 1,916 total yards, among others.
But no back in the nation earned more yardage off of runs of 15 yards or more than Cook, with his 1,066. This run against South Florida provides us an excellent example of Cook’s breakaway ability:
If Cook repeats this level of big-play prowess in 2016, there’s no doubt he’ll find himself in the mix for the Heisman and the title of nation’s best running back. But Fournette isn’t exactly a slouch when it comes to breakaway runs, either. His 834 yards on breakaway runs ranked fifth nationally, and his combination of speed in the open field and power to shed tackles both at the line of scrimmage and downfield makes him a threat to go the distance at any time.
Fournette is better than Cook in the passing game
This article is about which player is the better pure runner (because neither comes close to McCaffrey’s production as a pass-catcher out of the backfield), but it’s worth noting that as a receiver and pass protector, Fournette measures out better than Cook.
Here is how each player ranks nationally in yards per pass route run and pass-blocking efficiency:
An area of improvement for both players is drop rate: Cook ranked 61st among 72 eligible running backs after dropping four of 28 catchable passes, while Fournette fared even worse, ranking 70th with four drops on 23 catchable passes.
Fournette graded better on an overall basis, including some monster games
Only McCaffrey earned a higher overall grade among running backs this season than Fournette, and no RB earned a higher rushing grade. Cook was impressive as well, earning the 10th-best overall grade and seventh-best rushing grade. But Fournette was in a class of his own as a runner for most of the year, in part due to some exceptional individual game performances. His game grades in Weeks 3 and 4 against Auburn and Syracuse were off the charts, and he was similarly excellent against Florida in Week 7 and in the Tigers’ bowl win over Texas Tech. He only had one negative grade all season, Week 12 versus Ole Miss, compared to two from Cook (versus NC State and in FSU’s bowl loss to Houston).
None of this is meant to poke holes in Cook’s game — he is one of the best returning players in all of college football, and deserves to be considered a Heisman contender right up there with McCaffrey and Fournette. But there isn’t a more unstoppable force when running the football entering the 2016 season than Fournette, and if the Tigers can get good play out of returning starting QB Brandon Harris and their new-look defense, he should have them in the SEC title and playoff races.