By Michael Hurley, CBS Boston
BOSTON (CBS) — It’s become a common saying to call the NFL “a quarterback league.” Yet with a series of highly drafted quarterbacks either turning into full-on busts or at least providing underwhelming performances, perhaps the momentum is shifting toward the running back position.
While running backs have always been important, the idea of drafting a running back high in the draft had fallen out of favor with NFL front offices. From 2007-15, only two teams used top-five picks to draft running backs: the Oakland Raiders with Darren McFadden and the Cleveland Browns with Trent Richardson. McFadden was disappointing but decent; Richardson was an utter failure.
But last year, the Cowboys decided to buck the trend and take Ezekiel Elliott out of Ohio State with the No. 4 overall pick. Elliott went on to lead the NFL in rushing yards (1,631) while scoring 15 rushing touchdowns and adding 32 receptions for 363 yards and another score.
The success of Elliott in his first pro season rejuvenated some enthusiasm for the position, leading to another top-five pick (Leonard Fournette) and just the eighth top-10 pick at running back (Christian McCaffrey at No. 8) since 2007. In total, 26 running backs were drafted, the highest number in a single draft since 2005. From 2006-16, an average of 20 running backs were drafted each year.
And though we’re just about 6 percent into a long NFL season, the results from several rookie running backs look like the decisions are paying off.
Kareem Hunt (Third round, 86th overall)
While the Chiefs didn’t necessarily go out on a limb to spend a third-round pick on the running back out of Toledo, they sure look smart right about now.
Though Hunt got his career off to an inauspicious start by fumbling on his first carry, he more than made up for it with an unbelievable performance on national television in the league’s season-opening game. Hunt ran for 148 yards and a touchdown on just 17 carries, good for 8.7 yards per attempt. He also caught five passes for 98 yards and two touchdowns.
As a result, Hunt finished Week 1 as the NFL’s leading rusher and the NFL’s seventh-leading receiver. That won’t carry through the whole year, of course, but suffice it to say Hunt has made his presence known after just 60 minutes as an NFL player.
Dalvin Cook (Second round, 41st overall)
Another rookie running back making his debut on national television, the 22-year-old who tore it up at Florida State looked more than ready to serve as a lead NFL back.
Cook was handed the ball 22 times on Monday night against the Saints, running for 127 yards. Just 5-feet-10-inches tall, Cook may not look the part of a workhorse. But Jerick McKinnon had just three carries and Latavius Murray had just two.
College football fans have known Cook well for three years, as he ran for 4,464 yards and 46 touchdowns in his three seasons as a Seminole, while also catching 79 passes for 935 yards and two touchdowns. NFL fans are now well-aware of his abilities, too.
Leonard Fournette (First round, Fourth overall)
The top running back drafted in 2017 brought the pain while running in Week 1, backing up his comments from the preseason about the NFL not being too fast or too difficult for him.
In his debut against a Texans team that had the 12th-best rushing defense last year, Fournette ran for an even 100 yards on 26 carries. He barreled his way into the end zone from the 1-yard line for his first career touchdown to double the Jaguars’ lead before halftime, and he proved capable of making some tough runs against defenders much bigger and stronger than the ones he ran into in the SEC. His burst and elusiveness was also on display:
Tarik Cohen (Fourth round, 119th overall)
Fourth-round picks out of North Carolina A&T are not generally expected to make impacts in their Week 1 debuts, but Tarik Cohen was solid for the Bears against the Falcons.
The 5-foot-6 back made the most of his five carries, picking up 66 yards on the ground. He was more of a threat in the passing game, as he caught eight passes for 47 yards and a touchdown. He led all Bears in receptions and receiving yards, and he was the leading rusher despite getting eight fewer carries than Jordan Howard.
Impressively, Cohen actually leads all rookies in receptions, period. He caught two more passes than Titans receiver Corey Davis, three more passes than 49ers tight end George Kittle, and four more passes than Lions recevier Kenny Golladay and Giants tight end Evan Engram.
Cohen, really, was flat-out spectacular on a number of plays:
Cohen had previously shined in the Bears’ second preseason game, when he ran for 77 yards on 11 carries against the Cardinals. But doing it in the regular season is a whole different monster. Cohen tackled it like a guy who spent his Saturdays playing big-time college football over the past three years, instead of playing against the likes of St. Augustine’s College, Hampton, Norfolk State and Delaware State, among others.
Christian McCaffrey (First round, Eighth overall)
McCaffrey was solid if not spectacular in his NFL debut, as he essentially split carries with Jonathan Stewart out of the backfield (McCaffrey, however, played 18 more snaps than Stewart). In total, McCaffrey ran for 47 yards on 13 carries while also catching five passes for 38 yards.
McCaffrey picked up a first down with a 15-yard reception on a third-and-12, keeping alive a drive that ended with a Carolina field goal. He later picked up 16 yards on another third-and-15 to move the chains on another drive that ended with a field goal. And he picked up 11 yards on the ground on a third-and-5 in the fourth quarter that allowed the Panthers to drain the clock and mercifully bring the game to an end.
McCaffrey did, however, lose a fumble.
Last year, the Panthers’ offense finished 19th in yards and 15th in points scored. McCaffrey figures to be an important piece in getting that unit back into the top 10.
Chris Carson (Seventh round, 249th overall)
The Seahawks didn’t have much to feel good about offensively after their nine-point output in Green Bay. But rookie Chris Carson was certainly a bright spot.
Only four players were drafted after Carson this year, yet he ended up playing more than 50 percent of the Seahawks’ offensive snaps in Week 1. He gained a modest 39 yards on six carries, but that was tops among Seattle running backs on the day. (Russell Wilson ran for 40 yards on two carries.) Carson also caught a pass for 10 yards to pick up a first down on a third-and-1. He picked up most of his rushing yardage with a 30-yard run midway through the third quarter.
The duo of Eddie Lacy and C.J. Prosise combined for 14 yards on nine carries, so the seventh-rounder out of Oklahoma State was all the Seahawks had to feel good about in their backfield. Carson accounted for nearly 18 percent of the Seahawks’ total yardage for the day.
Alvin Kamara (Third round, 67th overall)
The statistical showing — 18 rushing yards, 20 receiving yards — weren’t impressive, but his usage might have revealed something about how the Saints coaching staff views his potential.
Kamara was on the field for 50 percent of the Saints’ offensive snaps. His 30 snaps were more than Mark Ingram (26) and Adrian Peterson (9). Kamara led the team in carries (7) and was the most-targeted running back from Drew Brees. Kamara also drew a facemask penalty on a second-and-15 run up the gut to move the chains on the Saints’ first drive, one that ended with a field goal.
Again, it was a modest debut, but keep an eye on his role in a Saints offense that could very well need him to contribute early.
To reiterate, this is just one week of a 16-game NFL season. The veterans are sure to catch up some ground on the youngsters before long.
But after the one week, three of the top five rushers in the NFL are rookies, and one more is a second-year player. The age of the young running back may already be upon us.