PFF Dream Team: Building the ultimate run game roster

If you could assemble the perfect college football roster, who'd make the cut? Steve Palazzolo shares his picks for this special run-first team.

| 2 months ago
(Photo by Andy Lyons/Getty Images)

(Photo by Andy Lyons/Getty Images)

PFF Dream Team: Building the ultimate run game roster


Last week, we put together the best passing team in college football. It was constructed of the best passer, receivers, pass-rushers and coverage players, as the goal of the roster was to throw the ball and stop the pass. This week we flip it over to the run game.

We’re building the best possible team that will run the ball and run block on offense and compiling the best group of run stoppers in the nation for the defense. The one position where we cheat is at wide receiver, where the goal is to find the pass deep threats to stretch the field on play action as a complement to our run-heavy approach.

Here’s the roster for the very first run-first Dream Team.

Quarterback

Lamar Jackson, Louisville

Who else would it be? Jackson is the most dynamic runner in the nation and his bi-play ability in the designed running game is unmatched. He has the quicks to make defenders miss and the speed to alter tackling angles, so he’s engineering our run-first attack. Jackson has rushed for 564 yards on 69 designed runs (8.2 yards/carry) and just the threat to pull the ball in the option game keeps defenders on a string and opens up the run and pass game for the entire team.

Running backs

Dalvin Cook, Florida State

After a slow start on the ground, Cook has gotten back to form in recent weeks and he adds yet another speed element to our rushing attack. He now ranks third in the nation with 785 rushing yards though he’s not picking up the breakaway runs as often as he did last year when 63 percent of his yards came on 15-plus yard runs. However, he still has the ability to take the slightest crease and turn it into a long touchdown, so Cook is our home-run hitter on the run-heavy Dream Team.

Leonard Fournette, LSU

Between injuries and LSU’s disappointing season, Fournette has fallen off the radar in college football but he still remains one of the nation’s most dangerous runners. He forced more missed tackles than any runner in the country last year and while he hasn’t been off to a dominant start, he still has plenty left in the tank to run over and around pending tacklers. Fournette added more wiggle to his game in 2015 and that helped to take his game to the next level.

Wide receivers

Amba Etta-Tawo, Syracuse

Etta-Tawo was our deep threat on the pass-first Dream Team and he’ll fill the same role in our play-action attack. It’s been a breakout season for the Maryland transfer as he’s leading the nation with 11 receptions for 472 yards on deep passes and ranks second with five touchdowns. He’s shown the speed and ball skills to win down the field, a perfect fit for our offense.

James Washington, Oklahoma State

When Washington has been isolated against cornerbacks he’s been running by them all season long, and he ranks second behind Etta-Tawo with 346 yards on deep passes. He has the speed and body control to make difficult catches while also turning it into a big gain after the catch. Washington pairs with Etta-Tawo to give us the two downfield threats we need to make the offense tick.

Tight end

George Kittle, Iowa

We highlighted Kittle before the season as one of the best all-around tight ends in the nation and he’s done little to disappoint in his first year as starter. He has the nation’s top run-blocking grade among tight ends at 82.4 and he’s capable to lining up at a traditional “Y” tight end spot along the line of while also showing the ability to play off the line and make blocks on the move.

O.J. Howard

We’re running a two tight end set and Howard will complement Kittle on the other side with his run-blocking ability and speed to stretch the seam of the defense. He has the No. 6 grade as a run blocker at 78.5 and while we’d love to see him get more targets in Alabama’s passing game, he brings a lot of value to run game as he continues to improve as a blocker.

Offensive tackles

Connor Williams, Texas

Yes, Williams was our Dream Team starter for the pass-first team, but he’s taken his run blocking to a new level this season and has earned a spot on this team as well. He gets into good position in the run game, showing the strength to sustain blocks but he also moves very well to the second level and he packs a punch when he gets there.

Connor Williams pancake

Garrett Bolles, Utah

Bolles has the nation’s top run-blocking grade among offensive tackles at 82.5 as he leads the way in Utah’s power scheme. He creates good movement at the point of attack and has rarely lost blocks this season, making him a good fit to play right tackle on our team.

Guards

Quenton Nelson, Notre Dame

Nelson is capable of moving interior linemen at the point of attack or blocking on the move so he’s a good fit for any scheme. After a slow start this season, he still has a strong 81.8 run blocking grade as he’s been one of the few bright spots in a disappointing season for the Irish.

Josh Boutte, LSU

Boutte has been outstanding in recent weeks, particularly in Week 5 against Missouri which was a dominating effort in the run game. Like Nelson, he has the power to block at the point of attack and the ability to find defenders on the move, giving us two versatile guards for our running game.

Center

Frank Ragnow, Arkansas

Ragnow has had an excellent season, even playing some guard. He has the top run-blocking grade among centers at 84.9 and he’s shown capable of making the variety of blocks necessary to make Arkansas’ pro-style scheme run. Ragnow simply hasn’t lost many blocks this season, and he brings value as a center who will always be in the run position.

Edge rushers

A.J. Jefferson, Mississippi State

Jefferson leads all edge defenders with his 90.2 grade against the run as he’s been a disruptive force all season. He’s rarely blocked out of plays and he’s yet to miss a tackle, leading to a solid presence on the outside. 

Derek Barnett, Tennessee

While his run defense isn’t the best in the nation this season, Barnett’s three-year sample has been outstanding. He stepped in as a true freshman in 2014 and immediately became one of the best run defenders in the country and his ability to play stout at the point of attack and use his hands to shed blocks is invaluable in the run game. 

Defensive interior

Ed Oliver, Houston

It’s been an incredible start to Oliver’s career as the true freshman is tied for the national lead among interior defensive linemen with a run stop percentage of 14.2 percent. He also leads with 29 solo tackles, so he’s making plays all over the field. True freshman rarely make this kind of impact along the defensive line in the run game, but Oliver has lived up to his five-star billing to this point.

Greg Gaines, Washington

One of the secret superstars of the Washington defense, Gaines has the No. 3 grade against the run among interior defensive linemen. He’s been both a disruptor and a playmaker as he ranks second in the Pac-12 with 16 stops. It’s not fluke for Gaines who was excellent against the run last year and his two-year sample on 285 run snaps is as good as it gets in the country.

Linebacker

Zach Cunningham, Vanderbilt

The first thing that stands out about Cunningham is his hand usage as he attacks and strikes blockers as well as any linebacker in the country. He could still stand to finish plays better as a tackler, but he’s once again been a disruptive force for Vanderbilt and he leads all linebackers with 41 stops.

Zach Cunningham

Reuben Foster, Alabama

Foster doubles up as he was on the passing team as well, showing just how good he has been. He can shed blocks with his agility and his power, often disrupting the point of attack and finishing well when he gets into the play (only two missed tackles this season). Foster’s all-around game has him rated as the top linebacker in the country.

Jarrad Davis, Florida

Another linebacker making both teams, Davis brings too much energy and power to the defense to ignore his work in the run game. He looks to destroy blockers and open up plays for his teammates, and his 84.6 run defense grade will be a good fit on our squad

Cornerbacks

Desmond King, Iowa

Our No. 3 cornerback against the run last season, King has continued that strong play in the run game with an 81.8 mark this season. He is one of the nation’s surest tacklers, missing only six tackles on 163 attempts over the last three years. King is a strong zone cornerback and his work against the run is a big part of it.

Minkah Fitzpatrick, Alabama

While he plays the “star” slot role at Alabama, Fitzpatrick has the skills to play outside so we’re really going to stack the box with run defenders. This also opens up our defense to add another outstanding slot defender (see below). Alabama requires their slot cornerback to rush the passer and play the run as well as he covers, and Fitzpatrick fits the bill with his 79.5 run grade.

Jabrill Peppers, Michigan

It’s now the third position for Peppers on the Dream Team as he’s made the team as a linebacker and safety on previous iterations. It’s really all semantics as he’s going to see the field in some capacity, but in this case, we’re playing him in the slot where he can be a disruptive force off the edge with his 86.5 grade against the run.

Safeties

Marcus Williams, Utah

The nation’s top-graded safety against the run, Williams’ all-around game has been outstanding as he’s yet to miss any of his 33 tackle attempts and his 84.1 run grade ranks second in the country. His forced fumble and recovery against Southern Utah in Week 1 shows the kind of playmaking ability he’s bringing to the Dream Team defense.

Marcus Maye, Florida

Maye is one of the best box safeties in the country, working downhill and packing a punch on ball carriers once he gets there. We can line him up as a strong safety in cover-3 or as a free safety in quarters and tap into his ability to read the run and make plays near the line of scrimmage where he has 16 stops on the season.

| Senior Analyst

Steve is a senior analyst at Pro Football Focus. His work has been featured on ESPN Insider, NBC Sports, and 120 Sports.

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