INDIANAPOLIS – Leonard Fournette has known Dalvin Cook for a long time, going back to 2013, when both were prized recruits competing at The Opening, a prestigious camp sponsored by Nike.
Fournette went to LSU, and Cook went to Florida State, but the two stars traded phone numbers and kept in touch, building a friendship around their shared paths to stardom.
Now, the pair find themselves battling for the title of best running back in the draft, a coveted spot at the top of the deepest group of prospects the position has produced in years.
Fournette was reluctant to declare himself the best back in Indianapolis on Thursday.
"At the end of the day, it speaks for itself. I’m not going to put everything on me because there are a lot of great running backs here," Fournette said. "It’s not my decision. I know my talent and hard work is going to pay off and show for itself."
Cook, citing his all-around ability as a runner and pass-catcher out of the backfield, took a different approach.
"I feel like I am the best back in this draft," Cook said, but resisted the idea of a rivalry with Fournette later in the interview session. "Definitely not competing. ... We’re going out and having fun. We’re here now embracing the moment. It’s something that we didn’t see a couple years ago, but now that we’re here, we’re going to embrace the moment.”
Whoever ends up being the first running back off the board will reap the benefits of a league that has started to use top-10 picks on running backs again in recent years after a two-year drought when no backs were taken in 2013 and 2014.
Todd Gurley broke the trend first, rewarding the Rams for taking him with the No. 10 pick and earning Rookie of the Year in 2015.
Then Ezekiel Elliott blew the doors wide open. Drafted by the Dallas Cowboys with the No. 4 pick a year ago, Elliott led the NFL with 1,631 yards rushing as a rookie and sparked an incredible turnaround, spearheading an offense that lifted the Cowboys to a 13-3 record and the No. 1 seed in the NFC.
"It helped us completely," Fournette said. "He showed he's not just a running back, he can help in the passing game, he can run routes and block. He led a great way for those running backs coming out now."
Fournette's task at the NFL scouting combine is to prove he can be that kind of all-around back, which might be the key in his battle for primacy against Cook.
Cook, at 5-foot-10, 210 pounds, doesn't possess Fournette's freakish power; his reputation is built around an all-around game.
Fournette, on the other hand, has a reputation as a bruising back, in part because of the way he ran over defenders in college, highlights that made him look like a superhero going through hapless bad guys. When he weighed in at the combine at 240 pounds on Wednesday, he was the heaviest back in the class, adding further credence to those who believe he's all brawn and no finesse.
"It was surprising," said Fournette, who plans on playing at 235 pounds. "I drank a lot of water before I weighed in; it's water weight, it went away completely."
Fournette's weight wouldn't be a problem for some teams.
A lot of teams consider that kind of size an asset in a league that requires feature backs to take a pounding, although Fournette admitted that after a junior season plagued by injury, he may learn to pick his spots to deliver bruising blows in the NFL in order to stay healthy.
"Big running backs are nice," Dave Gettleman, the general manager of the Carolina Panthers, the team that holds the No. 8 pick, said on Wednesday. "They tend to run people over better than 180-pound running backs."
Fournette said the debate is a moot point.
For all of his strength, Fournette also had a history of breaking big-time runs in his three seasons at LSU, and he's hoping to run the 40-yard dash somewhere in the 4.4's in the opening of on-field testing Friday.
A number like that would open the eyes of anybody who thinks Fournette is all thunder, no lightning. Fournette must also prove he has the hands to contribute in the passing game. LSU's run-heavy offense produced just 41 catches for Fournette, far below Cook's total of 79, but the LSU standout remains confident in his all-around ability.
"A lot of people think I'm just strong," Fournette said. "Some people say I lack speed, lack burst. Tomorrow will show it all."
If Fournette can prove he has Cook's speed and versatility in addition to his size, a spot in the top 10 — where the New York Jets at No. 6 and Carolina Panthers at No. 8 both need running backs — could be his reward.
Not that he's looking at the situation like that.
"No, there’s not a rivalry," Fournette said. "Dalvin is a great player and a great running back. He’s going to do great things, too."
The only question is where each of them will end up playing, and when they get picked.