The deadline just passed for NFL teams to decide whether or not to pick up the fifth-year option on their first-round selections from 2017. This is a great time to evaluate the entire draft class as a whole, especially with a majority of the players hitting free agency next year. What will make this draft class go down in history is the fact that 14 running backs from this draft class alone have starting job or have a large part in a running back committee. Two of those running backs Christian McCaffrey and Austin Ekeler have already received long term extensions from their respective teams. Here is what could happen to the other running backs from this draft class after this season.
Leonard Fournette-Jacksonville Jaguars-First Round: 4th Overall
The first running back taken in the 2017 NFL Draft was Leonard Fournette, the star running back out of LSU. Fournette was a large part of why the Jaguars made it to the AFC Championship in his first year in the league. He literally carried the offense on his back that year. Since then the Jaguars have declined as a team and unfortunately, Fournette has been at the center of it.
The window for Fournette to take that step into the elite tier is closing and his constant ankle injuries have not done him any favors either. With Jacksonville starting a rebuild and selling off veterans left and right, Fournette may not have a future with the team. The window for him to be a contributor for a contending Jaguars’ team is about over. The team even realized that when they declined his fifth-year option.
What will happen: Jacksonville will ride the year out with Leonard Fournette after failing to receive a trade offer they liked for him. Depending on how this year’s running back class turns out and how they feel about their other needs, Jacksonville could franchise tag Fournette to keep him around for another season while they try to address other needs on their roster and Fournette remains productive. If Fournette misses time due to injury or does not get over 1,000 yards rushing Jacksonville might move on from him altogether.
Dalvin Cook-Minnesota Vikings-Second Round: 41st Overall
The third running back taken in the 2017 Draft and fist of the second round was Dalvin Cook. The Minnesota Vikings traded up seven spots with the Cincinnati Bengals to draft him. After letting go of Adrian Peterson the Vikings drafted Cook to be the team’s new workhorse running back.
Dalvin Cook has played well early in his career, but injuries have kept him off the field early in his career. Cook only played in 15 games in his first two seasons. Even this past year when Cook seemed to be finally healthy he got hurt and missed two games.
Cook was one of the top two leading rushers until his injury and made a case to be considered one of the elite running backs in the league. But injuries are a huge red flag that Cook can’t seem to shake. The Vikings even drafted Alexander Mattison in the third round last year to prepare for if or when Cook got hurt again.
What will happen: Cook is way too good of a running back when healthy to let walk in free agency, Minnesota knows that. If they are to extend Cook it has to be an incentive-based deal based on games played. Minnesota showed that they can rely on Cook to carry the offense when necessary this past season. The Vikings offense needs a Pro Bowl type running back in order to be a contender in 2020 and beyond. However, if Cook faces another major leg injury in 2020 the Vikings might have to move off Cook all together and make Alexander Mattison the team’s starter for the foreseeable future.
Joe Mixon-Cincinnati Bengals-Second Round: 48th Overall
After trading down seven selections in the second round to the Minnesota Vikings that way they can select their starting running back in Dalvin Cook, the Cincinnati Bengals took theirs in Joe Mixon.
Since 2013, the Bengals have selected three running backs in the second round Giovanni Bernard (2013), Jeremy Hill (2014) and Joe Mixon (2017). Bernard is one of the league’s highest-paid back up/chance of pace running backs and Hill has been off the team since 2018. Mixon has been the lead back in Cincinnati since that time.
Mixon has played well since entering the league. But when he was supposed to reach his peak this coming season he disappointed. He rushed over 90 yards only once and under 20 yards four times before week 10. He finished the season strong with over 1,100 yards rushing and eight overall touchdowns. Now that the Bengals are moving off Andy Dalton and AJ Green (likely after this season after drafting Tee Higgins) and into the Joe Burrow era, they must decide if Joe Mixon if a part of that or not.
What will happen: Rather than use a valuable draft pick on a new running back the Bengals will keep Joe Mixon in house. Unlike many running backs that are getting ready for a second contract, Mixon will only be 24 when he starts his new contract and doesn’t show signs of wear and tear. Mixon has about 5-6 years left until he is expected to decline, that should be enough time for Joe Burrow to develop and the two could be the future of the Cincinnati Bengals offense and could lead them back to the playoffs.
Alvin Kamara-New Orleans Saints-Third Round: 67th Overall
The New Orleans Saints traded away their 2018 second-round pick (traded to take Dante Pettis) to the San Fransisco 49ers to select Alvin Kamara. The pick was confusing to many at first because the team already had Mark Ingram and Adrian Peterson. But the pick was a fantastic one because once the team traded away Peterson, who was not playing well for them and Kamara popped off. Since then Kamara has gained a bigger role in the offense by the year.
Kamara has been a threat running and receiving, but his best trait is his ability to find the end zone. Believe it or not, Kamara has never had 900+ yards receiving or rushing in a single season, however, had 38 total touchdowns in his first three seasons (including returns on special teams). That is almost 13 touchdowns a year. In 2019-20 Kamara had a down year with 1,330 total yards and six touchdowns in his first year as the Saints’ workhorse back. He missed two games due to injuries, but had a major drop off from what he did the year before when he had 1,592 yards and 18 touchdowns in 15 games.
An interesting note was there were rumors of the Saints explored bringing in another running back to complement Kamara and take some of the load off of his shoulders like Mark Ingram in previous years. There was also rumbling about the Saints considering trading away Kamara before the draft. Jonathan Taylor was a supposed target in the first round.
What will happen: As important as Alvin Kamara’s touchdown production is to the Saints, Kamara’s peak production could only be in Sean Payton’s explosive offense in New Orleans. If the Saints are unwilling to make Kamara the highest-paid running back in the league, the Saints will use the franchise tag to buy them more time to get a deal done or find a replacement.
Kareem Hunt-Cleveland Browns (Drafted & Released by the Kansas City Chiefs)-Third Round: 86th Overall
The Kansas City Chiefs traded up in the third round of the 2017 NFL Draft to select Kareem Hunt. Hunt was supposed to share a backfield with Spencer Ware to fill the void left by the recently released Jamaal Charles. Instead, Hunt took over the entire backfield and became a large part of the offense right away. In his first game, Hunt had 246 scrimmage yards and three touchdowns (Rushing:148 yards, 1TD; Receiving:98 yards, two touchdowns).
Hunt finished his rookie season leading the league in rushing with 1,327 yards and had 11 touchdowns overall. His second year in the league Hunt also led the league in rushing with 824 yards and had 14 total touchdowns through eleven games. Hunt was released 11 games into the season after a video of him surfaced assaulting a woman. The general manager who drafted him in Kansas City John Dorsey decided to take a chance on him with his new team the Cleveland Browns. After his eight-game suspension Hunt shared a backfield with Nick Chubb and brought a much-needed spark to their offense. Hunt ended the year with 464 scrimmage yards and three touchdowns.
After the season the Browns decided to put a second-round tender on Kareem Hunt keeping him on the team for another year. A full season with the team should get Hunt more involved in the offense and show that he is the running back he was in Kansas City, though he will be sharing time with Nick Chubb. It is also possible that the Browns trade Hunt because he is a luxury with Chubb already on the roster and the coach and GM who brought him in are gone. GM Andrew Berry and head coach Kevin Stefanski might not feel that Hunt could carve enough of a role in this offense and would rather have the draft pick that they would receive for him in a trade.
What will happen: Hunt’s future is extremely dependent on his play and his role in the team’s offense this year. Under a new head coach and offense, there is no knowing what Hunt will be asked to do. An educated guess based on Kevin Stefanski’s background is he will be used in an extremely run-heavy offense and then will be on the field for passing downs instead of Nick Chubb. If Hunt has a bad year the Browns they’ll just let him walk in free agency.
However, if he proves to be a valuable piece to the offense the Browns will likely franchise tag Hunt. If Hunt shows he is the running back he was in Kansas City he is going to want a long term contract and a payday. The Browns won’t be willing to make that kind of long term commitment to Hunt with Nick Chubb hitting free agency the next offseason. Unless there are major changes to the Browns offense, they might commit to Hunt short term because they are going to prepare for Nick Chubb long term.
James Conner-Pittsburgh Steelers-Third Round: 105th Overall
With the 105th pick in the 2017 NFL Draft, the Pittsburgh Steelers got a local kid in James Conner. Conner’s first year in the league he was a back up to Le’Veon Bell. However, in year two Conner was thrust into the starting role when Bell held out for a new contract. Conner surprised the league by playing at a near-elite level early onto his first season as a starter.
Conner had five 100+ yard rushing games in the first nine weeks (eight games). After that, he started to slow down and missed three games due to injury. This past season Conner had a rough start to the year not having more than 60 rushing yards or 100 scrimmage yards until week 6. His first and only 100+ yard rushing game came in week 8. After that Conner could not get healthy missing six of the next nine games due to injury. By the end of the year when Conner played he seemed to be a part of a committee rather than the starting back he once was.
What will happen: It doesn’t seem to be plausible for the Steelers to have James Conner in their long term future unless it is at a discount. Conner is going to be 26 by the start of the 2021 season and seems to have already peaked and already declining. Even if Conner has a great season the Steelers could possibly keep him around for one more year on a franchise tag at most. The Steelers are likely going to let Conner walk in free agency. No matter what the Steelers will address the running back position in the first three rounds of next year’s draft.