If you're thinking this running back class could become the best ever, well, me too
Let's have some fun with rookie running back numbers
The 2017 NFL Draft class was always supposed to be loaded with running backs. After just a single week, this group of rushers is delivering in a big way, making history and climbing leaderboards. There could be much more history to come.
That is not to say this will feature the greatest rushers of all time from a single class. Just that it could be the best statistical and impactful year by a group of rookies in NFL history.
As it stands after one week, three of the top five leading rushers in the NFL are rookies. Kareem Hunt, the Chiefs third-round pick, leads the league with 148 rushing yards. Dalvin Cook, the Vikings' second-round pick, is second with 127 yards. Leonard Fournette, the Jaguars first-round pick, is fifth with 100 yards.
According to NFL Research, this is the first time that three rookie running backs busted out for more than 100 yards on the ground since 1979 in the first week.
Week 1 Rushing Yards
1979 Rushing Yards
1979 Carries / YPC
St. Louis Cardinals
331 / 4.8
239 / 4.3
194 / 3.6
The key to looking at the greatness, in totality for this class, is seeing how the group ended up. The 1979 trio was the best ever after one week (until now; I would take the Hunt/Cook/Fournette triplets over Anderson/Andrews/Eckwood even with the short sample size). And while Anderson ended up with a monster year, this wasn't even close to the best rookie running back season in terms of total production.
Even 2016 -- which featured Ezekiel Elliott and Jordan Howard as the Nos. 1 and 2 rushers in the NFL -- would eclipse the 1979 production. There are lots of other strong seasons by rookie running backs in terms of combos (2007 had Marshawn Lynch and Adrian Peterson) but only 64 rookie backs have ever crossed over 1,000 rushing yards in their first season.
And only four times ever has the NFL seen a trio of rookies rush for 1,000 yards in a season. The 1993 season featured Jerome Bettis (1,429 yards), Reggie Brooks (1,063) and Ronald Moore (1,018), The 1995 class saw Curtis Martin (1,487), Terrell Davis (1,117) and Rashaan Salaam (1,074) top the mark, in 2001, LaDainian Tomlinson (1,236), Anthony Thomas (1,183) and Dominic Rhodes (1,104) crossed the century mark and in 2008 Steve Slaton (1,282), Matt Forte (1,238) and Chris Johnson (1,228) hit the number.
This year it feels like, after just a single week, we could easily see four guys beat the century mark. It would make this class historical, obviously, and it would happen at a time when passing has been more popular than ever. I'm not the only one who thinks this. Tomlinson himself believes we could be looking at the best rookie running back class in quite some time.
"I think it's safe to say that one of these rookies will be winning the FedEx Air and Ground Award sometime this year, multiple awards," Tomlinson told CBSSports.com. "I think this possibly could be one best rookie running back classes we've seen in some time. The thing that I like is they all, or most of them, they can do multiple things. You look at guys like Kareem Hunt, obviously, but Christian McCaffrey, Joe Mixon, Leonard Fournette -- all those guys are great runners, but they can also add value out of the backfield too. So that's what I like and I can't wait to see these guys progress as their NFL careers go along."
(PSA: Fans can vote on the FedEx Air and Ground players of the week at NFL.com/FedEx. For each quarterback/running back who wins, FedEx will donate $2,000 to the USO per player per week.)
Part of the problem for some of these guys (more below) in terms of hitting 1,000-yard rushing mark might very well be that they're TOO versatile. As Tomlinson noted, Marshall Faulk really kickstarted the whole "feature back who is a great receiver trend" and saw it take off when LT was with the Chargers.
"For some reason, over the last five years it wasn't as prevalent in the National Football League. You had guys switching in and out, guys who could run the football in one situation, then when you needed to throw the football you had guys who could come in that can catch the football," Tomlinson said. "Now I think we're going back to having guys who can do a little bit of everything. And to me, that really adds value to the position, more so than just the team. Because at the end of the day, a lot has been talked about the running back position being devalued. But now with guys being able to do multiple things, it adds value to that position."
The group below are all extremely versatile, as they showed on Sunday in Week 1. Let's look at the candidates to make this an all-time draft class.
If you watched Inside the NFL Tuesday evening, you could hear Chiefs running backs coach Eric Bieniemy walk over to Kareem Hunt during the game and tell him at one point to "catch your breath" because because "we're about to feed your ass." They did just that and ultimately Hunt ended up setting the record for most yards from scrimmage by a rookie in his debut, blasting into the fantasy football orbit with a 40-plus point performance that featured three touchdowns and Hunt being deployed all over the place.
He was electric.
Reminder: This is Kareem Hunt's first NFL game. pic.twitter.com/ydnzxff5iF— Kansas City Chiefs (@Chiefs) September 8, 2017
Hunt forced more missed tackles (8) in Week 1 than any other running back, per Pro Football Focus, and was the fastest ball carrier in Week 1 at 20.84 MPH while managing 246 total yards from scrimmage, a rookie record.
Hopefully you listened to our Dave Richard and drafted Hunt; Spencer Ware injury. (And you should subscribe to the Fantasy Football Today podcast -- Jamey Eisenberg stumped for Hunt as someone worth taking in the early rounds, even with the rookie risk, following Ware's injury.)even before the
It's hard to imagine the Chiefs utilizing Hunt in a 300-carry situation. He's so explosive and diverse in his skillset that it might not matter. He'll still end up having a big season with minimal carries and at 148 yards on just 17 carries already, it would be a major upset if Hunt didn't cross the 1,000-yard mark.
It's not difficult to imagine the Jaguars utilizing Leonard Fournette in such a manner as 300 carries might be low for the LSU rookie. He's the definition of a workhorse back and the Jags are going to treat him as such in an effort to minimize the damage Blake Bortles can do.
Even if that means pounding him into a loaded box -- he saw eight or more defenders a whopping 57.8 percent of the time according to Next Gen Stats -- and hoping he eventually softens up the defense and breaks a long run.
Fournette carried the ball 26 times in Week 1. That pace would get him to 416 carries over a 16-game season. That's not happening, but 350 feels realistic in a do-or-die season for Jacksonville, assuming the defense can keep games close. If he gets 350 carries, he only needs 2.8 yards per carry to hit 1,000 yards. 4.3 yards a carry will get him to 1,500. He's going to have a big season.
The biggest regret in my preseason awards might be not taking Cook to win Offensive Rookie of the Year. Saints defense, breaking Adrian Peterson's rookie record for rushing yards in a Vikings debut ... while AP watched on the other sideline.and he showed how much he liked the fit on Monday night when he carved up the
Cook is sooooooo explosive when he gets to the edge. If you give him that corner he's going to take it and he's going to leave you in the dust. Cook had two of the six fastest runs as a ball carrier on the week, including a 33-yard run to close out the game where he topped 20 MPH.
The offensive line is a concern, but Cook is going to produce. He runs inside and outside zone like he's done it a million times, because he kind of has: Jon Gruden said those Cook called those his favorite runs in the playbook and he excelled at them while playing at Florida State. He'll bust out a counter or two as well, and is better with his hands in the passing game than people think.
There's no doubt that McCaffrey has the ability to end up as a 1,000-yard rusher in his rookie season. In fact, he's not that far off pace: after a 14-carry, 47-yard effort against the 49ers, McCaffrey is on pace for 752 rushing yards this season. If he rips off a couple big plays this week against Buffalo, all of a sudden he's right back on pace.
The only issue for McCaffrey might be his usage. Ron Rivera said after Week 1 he wanted to try and limit the number of snaps and plays that featured McCaffrey on the field, but that could be just something you say after using him a bunch in Week 1.
There is also the matter of McCaffrey not being a featured back like the three guys above. He got 14 carries to Jonathan Stewart's 18, and the Panthers even designed plays where McCaffrey's primary purpose was pulling away defenders to open up wholes for Stew.
Don't count out McCaffrey after a slightly disappointing Week 1, however. He was put in positions to succeed by Carolina; the Panthers simply didn't put their foot on the gas from an offensive standpoint. It might be a dogfight for 1,000 yards, however -- if McCaffrey averages 4.5 yards per carry and gets 190 carries, that's just 855 yards.
What's the record for yards per rushing attempt? Asking for a friend named Tarik Cohen, who is currently 10th in the NFL in rushing yards despite having only FIVE CARRIES. Cohen, known as the Human Joystick at NC A&T, certainly justified his nickname against the Falcons on Sunday.
At his current pace, Cohen would need all of 76 carries to blast past the 1,000-yard marker. That feels ... unsustainable. He's also in a situation where he's going to deal with Jordan Howard getting plenty of carries as the Bears feature back.
But his Chicago teammates made it clear they absolutely love this kid after the game; a CSN Chicago report and comments from players indicate that the Bears purposely hid Cohen's abilities during the preseason so as to unleash him in surprise fashion when Week 1 rolled around.
Assuming the Bears are going to give him somewhere between five and 10 touches per game, he's fully capable of crossing the 1,000-yard barrier. But like McCaffrey, his involvement in the passing game might be too substantial for him to really make an impact as an actual runner.
A disappointing start to the season for the controversial Bengals rookie has him pretty far off the radar of someone who might run for 1,000 yards. That's fair, especially with Jeremy Hill (six carries, 26 yards) and Giovani Bernard (seven carries, 40 yards) getting plenty of run. But it's also possible Mixon ran up against a really tough defense too.
Mixon absolutely has the talent to put up massive numbers, but it's possible he's held back by a bad Bengals offensive line and a crowded backfield. If you're interested in a buy-low fantasy opportunity, he should be sticking out like a sore thumb right now.
You can also add Marlon Mack on this list, although it's going to be tough to pile up big rushing yards with Andrew Luck on the sideline and the unstoppable Frank Gore sharing time in the backfield. Alvin Kamara shouldn't be ignored either; it sure did look like he could be the preferred back for Sean Payton's Saints offense by the end of the season.
My gut says three of these guys are going to hit the 1,000-yard mark by the end of the season. If one more back joins them, it's going to be a history-making season. If a couple more things break right, it could easily be an all-time year for rookie running backs.
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