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What to do with the Historic 2017 Running Back Class pt.2

Austin Ekeler

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 that 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.

Tarik Cohen-Chicago Bears-Fourth Round: 119th Overall

Tarik Cohen
After this season will the Bears recognize Tarik Cohen as a running back or just a returner               (Photo by Norm Hall/Getty Images)

Tarik Cohen was drafted to be a complement to Jordan Howard in the Chicago Bears’ backfield. However Cohen at times made Howard look like the complement. He has played a Darren Sproles type role for the Bears since joining the team. In 2018 Cohen made the Pro Bowl and was named to the All-Pro team for his return ability.

Like Darren Sproles, Tarik Cohen has never put up any outstanding numbers in every category. But has been a player defenses and teams always have to take note of and is explosive as a runner and a receiver. In first two seasons he had no less than 1,500 scrimmage yards and four touchdowns (including special teams).

Cohen will be an interesting free agent to evaluate because he is a gadget player and there seems to be little to no chance that any teams would play him like a starting running back. But he does have a lot of value to a team. Chicago might not even let Cohen leave the building. However if Cohen wants running back money he might be out of Chicago considering they are expecting David Montgomery to be the Bears’ running back of the future.

What will happen: The Chicago Bears will try to extend Cohen before the midseason deadline. Finding a reasonable price for Cohen shouldn’t be that hard because he should understand he is a gadget player and will make around between $4-5 million a year. The real question will be how long of a deal will Cohen receive. He will likely want a four or five-year deal and some long term commitment considering he will not be making much. If a deal does not get agreed upon by that point and Ryan Pace and Matt Nagy are fired, the new administration might very well likely let Cohen walk and make David Montgomery their workhorse running back. 

Jamaal Williams-Green Bay Packers-Fourth Round: 134th Overall

Jamaal Williams
Jamaal Williams is much more than end-zone dances and funny postgame interviews (Photo by Dylan Buell/Getty Images)

The first of the three Green Bay Packers running backs from the 2017 NFL Draft is Jamaal Williams. Out of BYU, many saw a lot of potential that Williams might be a late-round steal and could be a major contributor to an offense. That is what Williams has been for Green Bay as a change of pace back that makes an impact whenever he is on the field.

Willams has been buried behind Ty Montgomery and Aaron Jones since arriving to Green Bay, but has still had some valuable on playing time. Williams has managed to carve out at least 450 rushing yards and 200 receiving yards in each of his first three seasons. Williams has also started a few games in each season (2017: 7 games, 2018: 8games, 2019: 2 games).

What will happen: After drafting A.J. Dillon in the second round this year, Jamaal Williams fate was sealed. The Green Bay Packers will try to trade Williams to a team in need of a back up, complementary committee member or change of pace running back for a Day 3 pick. They will be fielding calls from now to the trade deadline. There is not enough room for the Packers to have a role for Williams in this offense past this year. If somehow Williams finishes the year with the team, he will sign elsewhere in 2021 for a team in need of a running back to play the role Williams had in Green Bay before this upcoming season. 

Marlon Mack-Indianapolis Colts-Fourth Round: 143rd Overall

Marlon Mack
Marlon Mack has stepped up and turned the Colts into a run first offense when Andrew Luck retired

The Indianapolis Colts drafted Marlon Mack in the fourth round to help fill the void left at running back after the Trent Richardson experiment failed and Frank Gore left the team. Mack did just that. In 2018, Mack took over and became the Colts feature running back that they have been lacking for some time.

Mack followed his first year in the league putting up good back up numbers with over 900 yards rushing and nine touchdowns in 12 games. This past season Mack seemed to show his full potential before dealing with injury. Even after missing two games and dealing with a lingering injury, Mack set a career-high in rushing with 1,091 yards.

Mack seemed like an obvious extension candidate after what he has meant to the Indianapolis Colts and their offense in recent seasons. However in the second round of this year’s draft the Colts drafted Jonathan Taylor, the running back out of Wisconsin. Now Mack’s extension or future with the Colts will be dependent on Mack and Taylor’s play.

What will happen: Mack has been a fan favorite of the Indianapolis Colts and fantasy football owners since 2018. His underdog story working his way into a feature running back role is a great one. But the part of the story where Mack plays for the Indianapolis Colts will be over in the 2021 offseason. Indianapolis traded up a couple of selections in the draft to guarantee they selected their guy in Taylor. The logic behind drafting Taylor with Mack already in house makes sense.

The Colts have either the best or second-best offensive line in the entire league depending on preference. Their O-Line definitely contributed a good amount to Mack’s success. Not to take anything away from him, but Mack might not be the running back he is today if not for their line. So by getting a running back like Taylor with a much higher ceiling behind that offensive line, Taylor can contribute more to the offense than Mack ever could. Also when there are doubts about the reason why a running back like Marlon Mack outplayed his draft pick it makes it harder to extend him, considering extending a running back that solely runs between the tackles to a second deal is as hard as it is.

Aaron Jones-Green Bay Packers-Fifth Round: 182nd Overall

Aaron Jones
Aaron Jones was unleashed this year and showed the league that he has what it takes to be a feature running back (Vernon Bryant / Staff Photographer)

The second running back the Green Bay Packers drafted in 2017 was Aaron Jones. Many were confused by the Packers decision to select a running back in back to back rounds. Like Jamaal Williams, Jones contributed to the Packers’ offense right away finishing only behind Williams in rushing his rookie season. However he led the team with four rushing touchdowns.

Jones showed potential to be a starting running back his second season and became the lead back in the Packers’ committee. But in year three Jones asserted himself as the Packers workhorse and showed by he deserved a majority of the teams carries.

There is case to say that the Packers don’t go 13-3 without Aaron Jones, because of how poor Aaron Rodgers played this year compared to previous ones. Jones had over 1,000 yards on the ground and led the league with 16 rushing touchdowns. New Packers’ head coach Matt Lafleur turned Jones into a star in his first full season as a starter.

What will happen: Jones’ case with the Packers is not as open and shut as Jamaal Williams. Lafleur seemed to really enjoy using Jones in his offense this past season. He could feel that second-round pick AJ Dillon is a better scheme fit and can play better than Jones if given the starting job. Jones will sign elsewhere to a team where he won’t have to split carries 50/50 and he could be a team’s workhorse or lead back (in a committee). This is as long as Jones is taking a majority of snaps for the Packers this season and plays well with them. 

Chris Carson-Seattle Seahawks-Seventh Round: 249th Overall

Chris Carson
Chris Carson has been the running back the Seattle Seahawks have needed since Marshawn Lynch retired (the first time).  (Michael Zarrilli/AP Images for Panini, via AP) ORG XMIT: NYOTK

The last of the Seattle Seahawks’ draft picks in 2017 was running back Chris Carson. Coming into his rookie season Carson was the sixth running back on their depth chart. It is expected of a seventh-round pick to be extremely low on the depth chart or a part of the team’s practices squad.

But Carson was a part of the Seahawks running back rotation in his rookie season and had a solid season. In four games Carson had over 200 yards rushing on 49 carries. Since then Carson has taken over the Seahawks starting running back role. He has rushed for over 1,100 yards and had nine total touchdowns in both 2018 and 2019.

Even though Carson missed one game in 2019-20 he still finished fifth in the league in rushing and was named a Pro Bowl alternate. Next season will be very important for Carson, as long as he stays healthy and Rashaad Penny doesn’t become the running back Seattle drafted him to be, he should get an extension.

What will happen: Carson has been one of the most consistent running backs of the 2017 class. Barring anything crazy happening the Seattle Seahawks will extend Carson to a long term deal. How Carson recovers from his fractured hip from last season will definitely play a factor in how comfortable the Seahawks are extending Carson long term. Seattle won’t make Carson the highest-paid running back in the league, but will feel comfortable giving him a 3-4 year contract earning between $8-9 million a year. Seattle treats their most consistent players well, especially the ones that outplayed their draft pick. Carson should be the next Seahawks draft steal to get paid.

Matt Breida-Miami Dolphins (Signed & Traded by San Fransisco 49ers)-UDFA

Matt Breida
Matt Breida can take it to the house on any given play. He is one of the best home-run threats in the league

Matt Breida is one of two undrafted free agent running backs from the 2017 draft class to earn a starting job early in their career (Austin Ekeler). Breida worked his way into a role for the San Fransisco 49ers’ offense. Breida did not start a single game his rookie year, but he was the change of pace back to Carlos Hyde. Breida finished his rookie year with 645 scrimmage yards and three touchdowns.

After Jerrick McKinnon tore his ACL, Breida competed with Alfred Morris for the feature back role in the 49ers backfield and eventually won it. In his first season seeing a majority of the team’s snaps, Breida finished the year with over 1,000 scrimmage yards and five touchdowns.

This past season Breida got buried behind Tevin Coleman and Raheem Mostert. The 49ers placed a second-round tender on Breida keeping him in house. However, after McKinnon gets healthy it would be likely that Breida would be the team’s fourth running back in their rotation/depth chart. The 49ers attempted to move one of their running backs during this year’s draft and Breida was the one who was traded. He got traded to the Miami Dolphins for a fifth round pick. He will be splitting snaps with recently signed running back Jordan Howard this season.

What will happen: It is hard to predict what Matt Breida’s role will be in Miami, but he will likely be the team’s passing down or outside runner, while Howard runs between the tackles. This duo is an upgrade over what they had last season, but the Dolphins will not rely on that backfield duo for long. The Dolphins have too many assets to rely on two running backs who will be on their second contracts in 2021. Miami will likely evaluate this year’s draft class at the running back position and take one in the earlier rounds to join the other young talent on the roster. This will leave Breida to sign with a team as a speedster, home run threat and passing-down back. Unless Breida has a break out year in Miami, he will be a committee member come 2021.

First Half

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