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Rookie running backs making an impact

09/13/2017, 12:00am EDT

Dazzling debuts by Cook, Hunt force teams to rethink draft strategy

Kansas City’s Kareem Hunt, right, a standout at the University of Toledo, had the top rushing yardage total among all NFL rookies in Week 1. ASSOCIATED PRESS

OBJECT1f7470c0-d685-4be7-9ab2-6765322eb37bNEW YORK — Adrian Peterson stewed on the sideline Monday night in Minnesota, the place he once ruled. He watched Dalvin Cook gash the New Orleans Saints for 127 yards, breaking Peterson’s team record for yards in a career debut, as if to rub in it.

Peterson could only watch and learn what everybody else had learned about running backs in Week 1 of the NFL: The position belongs to rookies. Week 1 might be telling lies. If it told any truth, 2017 could be the year of the rookie running back.

After one week, three of the top five leading rushers are rookies. Cook rushed for 127 yards on 22 carries, validating the Vikings’ choice to take him in the second round out of Florida State.

The only man who rushed for more yards in the opening week was former University of Toledo standout Kareem Hunt, who erupted for the Kansas City Chiefs in the season’s opening game Thursday night. The third-round pick racked up 148 yards and a touchdown on 17 carries and five receptions for 98 yards and two scores in an upset at New England.

Between Thursday and Monday, rookie running backs burst into the league, expected and surprising.

The Carolina Panthers made eighth overall pick Christian McCaffrey the centerpiece of their offense, handing him the ball 13 times for 47 yards and throwing it to him five times for another 38.

The Jaguars leaned utterly on fourth overall pick Leonard Fournette, who gained 100 yards and scored a touchdown on 26 carries — most in the NFL — and also caught three passes for 24 yards.

Tarik Cohen, a 5-foot-6 dynamo taken out of tiny North Carolina A&T in the fourth round, ran five times for 66 yards and caught eight passes for 47 yards and a touchdown. Cohen was no fluke: the Chicago Bears plan to make him a key part of their offense, and his skills catching the ball and quickness make him an ideal fit for a modern passing offense.

The debuts reinforced the recent shift of how NFL teams value running backs. For a time, convention dictated running backs were fungible and therefore not worth wasting a high pick. In 2013 and ’14, no running backs were taken in the first round. The flop of 2012 third overall pick Trent Richardson helped poisoned the notion of taking backs early.

The league has reconsidered and flipped that wisdom. This year, teams took two running backs in the first round, with Fournette and McCaffrey becoming the first pair of backs selected in the top 10 since 2005. Teams took eight running backs in the first three rounds.

As Richardson became the talisman for avoiding running backs early, former Ohio State standout Ezekiel Elliott has revived the position. If you can find an effective one, rookie running backs actually present some of the best value in football.

Quarterbacks and offensive linemen develop slowly, usually over several years. Receivers tend to start slow and make enormous strides in their second and third years.

But running back is less complicated to learn and more punishing on a body. They enter the league near or at their peak, then decline by the time their rookie contract runs out.

If teams can find a good running back in the draft, they can expend the best years out of a player while paying them a minimal salary. 

Hunt saved his most impressive accomplishments for last. He caught two passes for 82 yards in the fourth quarter, and his 78-yard touchdown catch put the Chiefs ahead for good. He added 76 yards on six carries down the stretch, helping salt away the win. The ability to finish strong impressed Chiefs coach Andy Reid.

“For him to be able to do that, the pass probably takes more out of him than the run game the way it looks,” Reid said. “For him to feel that way was good.”

The opening carry of Hunt’s professional career was about the only forgettable one for him: On the team’s first offensive play, Hunt fumbled the ball away to the Patriots. Hunt finished his college career with the Rockets with 855 offensive touches and just one fumble — and he recovered it.

“He was upset, he was really upset,” Reid said. “He came to the sideline angry but we told him to calm down and to carry the ball the next play, and he carried it the next play and did a nice job.”

Hunt reeled off a 9-yard gain. Reid’s faith in him restored Hunt’s own faith in himself. “He stuck with me,” Hunt said. “He was just like, ‘Don’t get down on yourself, you’re going to be all right.’ ”

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