CHARLOTTE, N.C. -- There was little to no debate before the NFL draft that LSU's Leonard Fournette was the top-rated running back.
Cook? He fell all the way to Minnesota at No. 41 in the second round.
But the real measuring stick comes on the field. Nothing will be decided on Thursday night when the Panthers face the Jaguars in Jacksonville, but it opens the door for debate: Who will have the better rookie season?
Fournette won't play for the second straight week because of a foot injury. But he looked good in the first preseason game, rushing for 31 yards (on nine carries) and a touchdown against New England.
McCaffrey has rushed 10 times for 66 yards and a touchdown in two games. He also has two catches for 39 yards.
They likely will be battling for the NFL Offensive Rookie of the Year Award.
NFL Nation reporters David Newton and Mike DiRocco are here to make a case for what to expect from each:
Newton on McCaffrey: No disrespect, but the Panthers likely would have selected Christian McCaffrey over Leonard Fournette even if both players were available at No. 8. The Panthers believe he offers that much in terms of what they want to accomplish offensively. That they signed 30-year-old lead back Jonathan Stewart to a one-year extension through 2018 before the draft strengthens that case.
As special as Fournette is, he is in many ways a younger version of Stewart. McCaffrey may not be the lead back that Fournette will be with the Jaguars, but he could be on the field more. He's going to play running back, slot receiver and wide receiver. He's going to line up behind the center in the Wildcat formation. He's going to return punts, and he can return kickoffs if the Panthers need him. He's going to be a workhorse, just not in the traditional sense that Fournette will be. McCaffrey will be on the field with Stewart, not instead of him.
Fournette may rush for more yards, but McCaffrey will have more all-purpose yards. Remember, in 2015 this kid broke Barry Sanders' NCAA record for all-purpose yards, recording 3,864. Look for him to get 20-25 touches per game, if not more. McCaffrey also will mean more to Carolina's offense in the sense that he'll take pressure off quarterback Cam Newton and provide a threat at the slot receiver that Newton hasn't had. McCaffrey has brought the screen pass back to Carolina's offense and showed how effective that can be with a 38-yard catch and run in Carolina's preseason loss to Tennessee on Saturday.
As Stewart said early in training camp, “I can tell you now there's not going to be anybody in this league that can cover him one-on-one.'' McCaffrey will get more one-on-one opportunities because of his position flexibility, because the offense will be designed to put him in those situations.
McCaffrey also will benefit from Carolina having a better defense than the Jaguars. Thus, he will have more opportunities to rack up yards and score.
Both players are special, but McCaffrey will have a more special rookie season.
DiRocco on Fournette: There's no question Leonard Fournette will be the Jaguars' main back in 2017, even with 2015 second-round pick T.J. Yeldon and 2016 free agent-signee Chris Ivory on the roster. Before we go any further, let's get this settled: Fournette will get at least 250 carries this season. That's 15.6 per game, and the 6-foot-1, 228-pound Fournette is more than capable of handling that (he averaged 19.3 per game in three seasons at LSU).
The distribution of those carries will be interesting to watch. Ivory, who led the AFC in rushing in 2015 with 1,070 yards, is a physical runner like Fournette, and coach Doug Marrone has had Ivory starting with the first team throughout camp and the preseason – the coach wants the rookie to earn the starting spot. It's safe to say he will at some point, but don't be surprised if it's Ivory as the starter for the first few weeks.
The Jaguars drafted Fournette fourth overall to play ball-control offense and pound on teams to wear them down and minimize the amount of work quarterback Blake Bortles has to do. Don't be surprised if the Jaguars opt to give Fournette the bulk of his carries in the second half of games -- provided the games are close and the Jaguars are trying to run clock to salt away a lead or wear the opposing defense down.
Fournette may not be the polished receiver that McCaffrey is, but he will be a factor in the passing game, too. The knock on him coming out of LSU was that he wasn't a good receiver, but he's proved that to be wrong by catching almost everything thrown his way in camp.
Former Jaguars running back Fred Taylor called Fournette a “beast,” and another former Jaguars back, Maurice Jones-Drew, said he believes Fournette will continue the tradition of backs the Jaguars have had. That's high praise since Taylor is the team's all-time leading rusher and a borderline Hall of Famer and Jones-Drew is right behind him.