With summer right around the corner, that means football season isn’t far behind. The 2017 NFL season already has people buzzing with anticipation and for good reason. There were trades, free agent moves, and interesting draft decisions that are sure to make an impact. But whether those impacts are positive are negative is still yet to be seen.
Many of those draft decisions involved teams selecting running backs as 26 were drafted and many others signed as undrafted free agents. Even though the game has shifted to more of an aerial attack, this position is still very important to the overall success of a team. Teams that draft running backs in the first round are hoping for an Ezekiel Elliott-like performance from their rookie ball carrier while late round rookies are just hoping to make the final roster. Speaking of Elliott, he was just one of two rookie running backs to crack 1,000 yards last season (Jordan Howard was the other). That shows you that sometimes opportunity is just as important as ability when it comes to whether or not a back can break 1,000 yards.
This year’s class of running backs is much deeper than last year’s with star potential from numerous players. However, there are also quite a few backs drafted that have ‘bust potential’ written all over them. We will sort out the good from the bad as we present the 8 NFL rookie running backs who will rush for 1,000 yards in 2017 and 7 who won’t.
15. Will: Samaje Perine – Washington Redskins
The NCAA’s single-game rushing leader may look like he’s 35, but he’s just 21. He does, however, have that old man strength and his power is evident on film. He has the ability to drag would-be tacklers for extra yards and is running style (and body) is reminiscent of former Atlanta Falcon, Michael Turner. Redskins coach Jay Gruden has already raved about Perine’s work ethic and his chief competition for carries is a guy nicknamed “Fat Rob.” Robert Kelley acquitted himself nicely last season but most Redskins reporters are already calling Perine the favorite to start Week 1. Perine might not do much on 3rd downs and out of the backfield as a receiver, but as a pure runner only Leonard Fournette may be a better back. Unlike former Sooners back Joe Mixon, I predict that Perine will get enough carries to crack 1,000 yards as a rookie.
14. Won’t: Joe Mixon – Cincinnati Bengals
In terms of pure ability, Joe Mixon is perhaps the only player that could challenge Christian McCaffrey as the best all-around back in the 2017 draft. Because of his versatility, Mixon won’t be used as just a 300-carry running back and the Bengals plan on using him out of the backfield in addition to kick returner. He is more talented than incumbents Jeremy Hill and Giovani Bernard; but those guys know the Bengals’ scheme better and both have been 200-touch guys so they will still have a role. With Mixon taking snaps from both of those veterans, he should reach 1,000 yards if you combine his rushing and receiving.
If I played in a dynasty fantasy football league, Mixon would be a good pick-up for 2017 and a great pick-up beyond that. Hill is a free agent after this season and that is when Mixon should seize command of the Bengals’ backfield and start a string of 1,000 yard rushing seasons.
13. Will: Marlon Mack – Indianapolis Colts
It shouldn’t be long until the Mack Attack overtakes Frank Gore and becomes Andrew Luck’s long-term backfield mate. 20 years ago Mack would have likely been a 2nd round pick, at worst, but with today’s game de-emphasizing the running back position; Mack slipped to the 4th round. At South Florida he set the school’s all-time rushing record in just three seasons and showed the explosiveness needed to excel at the next level. Frank Gore is an all-time great, and may even end up in the Hall of Fame one day; but he has failed to reach 4.0 yards per carry in each of the past two seasons.
Gore still has a place in this league, but it is as a backup. The Colts have ranked among the four oldest rosters in the NFL in each of the past three seasons and passing the torch from Gore to Mack is one way to get some more youth and athleticism on the field.
12. Won’t: D’Onta Foreman – Houston Texans
Foreman won the Doak Walker Award last season as the nation’s best running back, but that has no correlation with his future pro success. It’s been 16 years since the Walker Award winner then had 1,000 rushing yards as a rookie and that was the incomparable LaDainian Tomlinson. Foreman will stay close to home as the former Texas Longhorn will join the Texans as Lamar Miller’s backup. Miller is one of the most durable backs in the league and prior to last season, he had never missed a game due to injury in his five-year career. At 250 lbs, Foreman is a different kind of ball carrier than the 215 lbs Miller and will initially be used just to spell Miller and in short-yardage situations. Foreman overcame a lot while at UT; but it may take a couple of years before he can ascend to a starting-caliber back.
11. Will: Kareem Hunt – Kansas City Chiefs
The Chiefs didn’t trade three draft picks to move up and select Hunt just so he could sit on the bench and redshirt as a rookie. In the 19 years that Andy Reid has been a head coach, he’s only drafted two other running backs higher than Hunt and that was when he was in Philadelphia. Kareem Hunt is considered one of the best rookie running backs in space and has elite agility and short-area quickness.
According to Pro Football Focus, last year Hunt finished second among all NCAA running backs in missed tackles and he did it at a sturdy 215 lbs. He can also hold his own in the passing game and is a true three-down running back. Last year Spencer Ware was nothing more than a placeholder for the Chiefs at running back and Hunt has every advantage over Ware, outside of experience. Hunt doesn’t possess the track-star speed that former All-Pro Jamaal Charles had, but he can offer up similar production once he takes the reins in Kansas City.
10. Won’t: Christian McCaffrey – Carolina Panthers
McCaffrey’s placement on this list as a “won’t” isn’t an indictment on his ability but rather his opportunity. If you remember, when McCaffery was drafted he was announced as a wide receiver as a running back. While he will undoubtedly line up as both, it’s hard to envision him receiving enough carries to crack 1,000 yards.
His best NFL comp is the New Orleans version of Reggie Bush and I could foresee McCaffrey having just as many receiving yards as rushing yards. Also, Jonathan Stewart is still in the fold for Carolina and he should still lead the team in total carries. Cam Newton will also siphon some carries from both backs, particularly around the goal line.
Lastly, the Panthers drafted a poor man’s version of McCaffrey in the second round when they selected RB/WR Curtis Samuel out of Ohio State. Both Samuel and McCaffrey will see snaps all over the field but not enough at running back to rush for 1K.
9. Will: Joe Williams – San Francisco 49ers
The 49ers traded up in the draft to select Williams so they clearly have high intentions for him. Williams had a star-crossed college career as he played at three different schools and also briefly retired last season. But he came back and ended up rushing for over 1,400 yards at Utah and being named an All-Pac-12 honorable mention. Per MMQB’s Peter King, Williams was hand-picked by new 49ers’ coach Kyle Shanahan even though GM John Lynch had taken him off the board. Williams is exactly the kind of running back that Shanahan likes to employ in his offense while the Niners incumbent starter, Carlos Hyde, is not.
Hyde is a plodding, power-back who was drafted by the Jim Harbaugh regime and he’s also struggled with injuries in his career. He also happens to be in the last year of his contract and the team should transition from Hyde to Williams unless Williams overtakes Hyde from Day One.
8. Won’t: Donnel Pumphrey – Philadelphia Eagles
It still feels weird typing it, but Donnel Pumphrey is the FBS’ all-time leader in rushing yards. Unfortunately, Pumphrey’s football career has likely already peaked as he measured as the smallest running back in the draft and was also one of the most unathletic. Pumphrey may have had a scant role as a rookie had the Eagles not signed LeGarrette Blount; but now he may just be limited to special teams. He is listed fourth on the depth chart to Blount, Wendell Smallwood, and Darren Sproles; so Pumphrey can consider it a success if he makes the weekly active roster. The good news about being in Philly is that Pumphrey can learn from one of the best tiny-backs of this generation, Darren Sproles. Sproles has previously said that he will retire after the 2017 season so, perhaps, Pumphrey can redshirt behind Sproles this year and then assume his role in 2018.
7. Will: Wayne Gallman – New York Giants
Some players with the “will” designation are there because of their ability; others, like Gallman, are there because of their opportunity. Gallman will likely enter Giants camp as the third-string running back, but he should finish the season as the starter. Atop the depth chart for NYG is last seasons’ 5th round pick, Paul Perkins. Perkins didn’t show anything special last season with a 4.1 rushing average and isn’t known for his toughness which won’t play well in New York. Second on the depth chart is passing-back Shane Vereen who is as brittle as they come and may have gotten injured while I was typing this sentence. Vereen tore his triceps muscle twice last season and he’s had serious injuries in 3 of his 6 NFL seasons. Perkins’ ineffectiveness and Vereen’s inability to stay on the field should pave the way for Gallman to unseat the veterans as the starter.
Gallman isn’t the sexiest of runners, but he was the starting running back on the national champion Clemson Tigers so he’s used to the big stage. Of all of the backs I project to rush for 1,000 yards, I expect Gallman’s yards per carry to be the lowest…but 1,000 is 1,000.
6. Won’t: Tarik Cohen – Chicago Bears
Remember Dante Hall of the Kansas City Chiefs AKA “The Human Joystick”? Well, Cohen is considered the running back version of Hall due to his shiftiness and start-stop ability. At 5’6” he may be the only NFL player that Darren Sproles can post-up in a pick-up game of basketball but Cohen has similar ability as a rusher/receiver/returner. As a 4th round pick out of the MEAC, Cohen was drafted before many FBS running backs so the Bears obviously think highly of him. But the fact that Jordan Howard ran for 1300 yards as a rookie in 2016 tells us that he is the Bears’ long-term answer at that position while Cohen will likely be a gadget player this year. I’m expecting to see Cohen on lots of deception plays such as reverses, end-arounds, and jet sweeps similarly to how the Chiefs used Tyreek Hill last season. But what I’m not expecting from The Human Joystick 2.0 is a 1000 yard rushing season as a rookie.
5. Will: Aaron Jones – Green Bay Packers
The biggest surprise among rookies that will crack 1K next season is Aaron Jones who was one of three running backs drafted by the Packers this year. We know all about the Packers’ backfield last season as the team used converted wide receiver Ty Montgomery as their bell cow after a string of injuries. Montgomery is still listed as the first team running back but he’ll face stiff competition from the trio of rookies the Packers brought in. Even though Jones was the second of those running back rookies drafted, he is easily the most talented. He broke UTEP’s all-time rushing mark and racked up nearly 1800 rushing yards last season as a redshirt junior. Jones ranked as an elite athlete at the combine as he posted the second best SPARQ (Speed Power Agility Reaction Quickness) among all running backs. He is a true big-play threat and led the NCAA in 40+ yard touchdown runs in 2016.
4. Won’t: Alvin Kamara – New Orleans Saints
Count me as among those who were shocked that the Saints traded their 2018 second round pick to select Kamara in the third round. Not only had the team just signed Adrian Peterson days before the draft, but Kamara also wasn’t that productive while in college. I should say ‘colleges’ as he attended three different ones and outside of a JUCO stint, he never even totaled 1,000 yards from scrimmage in any college season. Playing behind a former Heisman winner in Mark Ingram and a future Hall of Famer in Peterson; there won’t be much meat left on the bone for Kamara and he will be fighting for touches. The one thing he does do better than the two veterans is catch the ball out of the backfield and playing on third downs will likely be his initial role as a rookie.
As the fifth running back drafted this year, the Saints rookie may not return dividends much in his rookie season; but, perhaps the team is grooming him to be the replacement to Ingram and/or Peterson.
3. Will: Dalvin Cook – Minnesota Vikings
While other players on this list school rushing records at places like UTEP and South Florida; Dalvin Cook broke the all-time rushing mark at Florida State University, one of the preeminent football programs in the country. And he did it in just three seasons!! With Cook we’re talking about a guy who could be a future rushing champion so 1,000 yards might be attainable by October. He ran a sub 4.5 40-yard dash at the combine and graded out as the most elusive back in college football last season. Opportunity won’t be an issue for Cook as Adrian Peterson’s departure created a canyon-sized crater in Minnesota’s backfield. Cook’s only competition will be Latavius Murray who only averaged 4.0 yards per carry behind Oakland’s road-grating offensive line last season.
Murray is also coming back from ankle surgery so he may have ceded his starting position to Cook by the time the two arrive at training camp. If Cook can solve his fumbling woes, he should be one of the frontrunners for Offensive Rookie of the Year.
2. Won’t: James Conner – Pittsburgh Steelers
The Steelers didn’t have to venture outside of their own complex to select Conner, an Erie native who played at the University of Pittsburgh. After overcoming Hodgkin’s Lymphoma as a junior in college, Conner returned to the field last season and rushed for over 1000 yards in route to being named to the All-ACC team. Conner’s grit and determination is remarkable and it shows through on his game tape; but he will be playing behind, perhaps, the best running back in football, Le’Veon Bell.
Due to injuries and suspensions, Bell has had trouble staying on the field the last two seasons but he says all of that is now behind him. Conner will also be behind him and something catastrophic would have to happen for him to usurp Bell as the starter. But with the Steelers not re-signing DeAngelo Williams, the door is open for Conner to win the number two job and perform for his hometown fans.
1. Will: Leonard Fournette – Jacksonville Jaguars
When your athletic comparisons are Bo Jackson and Herschel Walker, you know you’ve reached freak status. In a league that is further de-emphasizing the role of a running back; Fournette was drafted 4th overall and only 3 running backs since 2000 have been drafted higher. At 240 lbs. with 4.51 speed, Fournette will make quite a few defensive players make ‘business decisions’ when he squares up. It’s hard to believe that a Jaguar hasn’t cracked 1000 yards since Maurice Jones-Drew did so in 2011 and it will be even harder to believe that Fournette won’t end that drought this season. Coach Doug Marrone has done his coach-talk by saying that Fournette will have to ‘earn’ his starting role but the Jags organization tipped their hand with the 2017 draft. Fournette ran behind a fullback most of the time at LSU but the Jags didn’t even have a fullback on their roster last year. But they were one of the three NFL teams to take a fullback in the 2017 draft and then signed another in free agency. They are tailoring their offense to Fournette’s strengths and, combined with his talent, that gives him the best chance to rush for 1000 yards as a rookie.
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