View from the O-Zone: Cook, Fournette at No. 4 not absurd

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INDIANAPOLIS – Dalvin Cook answered with a smile, cool and confident.

If it wasn't the best answer Thursday on Day One of 2017 NFL Scouting Combine player interviews in the Indiana Convention Center, it was maybe the most honest.

"How fast do you think you'll run?" came the question.

"I think I'll run fast," came the reply.

Indeed he will, and Leonard Fournette will, too. They'll also be the center of attention during on-field drills Friday, just as the 2017 NFL Draft's two best running backs were the center of attention when they introduced themselves to the NFL world during Combine media appearances Thursday.

Both are certain to impress here, as Cook did at Florida State and Fournette did at Louisiana State the past few seasons.

Will they impress enough to be part of Jaguars' future? We're a long way from that – nearly two months away, anyway – and Jaguars General Manager David Caldwell as expected gave nothing away in that area when he appeared on Jaguars.com LIVE from the Combine Thursday.

"They're very good prospects, excellent prospects," Caldwell said with a smile.

And yet …

Well, while Cook and Fournette indeed are excellent prospects, because of their position there very definitely is an "and yet" in their pre-draft stories. And because of their position, they are the subjects of what has become an annual pre-draft debate: whether or not a running back –any back – should be selected in the Top 5 or Top 10.

The debate stems from a gradual devaluation of the positon in recent years. The go-to, No. 1 NFL back now is rare, with many teams opting for a rotation at the positon. And late-drafted running backs routinely make a huge impact in the league. Thus, a theory increasingly has taken hold that no matter how good a running back may be you simply don't take it in the Top 10.

Not everyone holds the theory. Most notably and most recently, Ezekiel Elliott was selected No. 4 in the 2016 NFL Draft by Dallas and was a key figure as the Cowboys finished with the NFC's best regular-season record last season.

Cook was asked Wednesday if he believes Elliott's success would help his draft status. He said he believed it will.

Fournette echoed that sentiment.

"It helped us completely," Fournette said. "It showed he's not just a running back. He can help in the passing game. He can run and block. He led a great way for these running backs coming out right now."

The question for this website – and it's a significant question – is just how much this issue will have to do with the Jaguars come late April. The answer may be very much.

There is a theory growing among Jaguars observers that running back might be the team's selection at No. 4 overall. The team wants to get tougher and improve the running game. Offensive coordinator Nathaniel Hackett believes in the importance of a strong running game. Ditto for Head Coach Doug Marrone, and he and Hackett had a heavy focus on the run when working together in the same capacity in Buffalo in 2013 and 2014. The Bills in 2013 led the NFL in rushing attempts – and the Jaguars, remember, rushed for more than 200 yards in Hackett's first game as coordinator last season. This is a duo that believes in the ground game as a basis for an offense.

With Jaguars Executive Vice President of Football Operations Tom Coughlin sharing a similar affection for toughness and the run – and with him having selected the best running back in franchise history, Fred Taylor, No. 9 overall in 1998 …

Well, of such collective histories are draft theories made.

It's also not hard to see what the Jaguars have done thus far this offseason, add in what they could do next week in free agency and assume that it all adds up to a mammoth focus on a run-oriented offense. The pending trade for Dolphins left tackle Branden Albert has a let's-focus-on-the-run look, and potential free-agent guard targets such as Kevin Zeitler of Cincinnati and Larry Warford of Detroit have a similar feel.

The thought here is that ultimately the Jaguars won't go Fournette or Cook. No. 4 truly is early for a running back, and this year's draft is deep at the position. And the idea that you can get productivity at the position late in the draft is more than idea; it's an oft-proven absolute fact.

Still, the idea isn't absurd. Neither is the idea that the next time Cook or Fournette speak to the NFL world from behind a podium, they could be doing so in Philadelphia in a Jaguars cap.

Yes, Cook and Fournette will impress here. There seems little doubt about that.

And maybe, fiercely held theories aside, one of them will impress this week just enough to be a major part of the Jaguars' future.

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