The 2017 Running Back Class Is Peaking

Photo: © Bob Donnan-USA TODAY Sports

In the 2017 NFL Draft, running backs were drafted. These are them:

Of course, that's not all of them. In the full draft, 26 running backs were selected, including seven in the first three rounds and two in the Top-10.

Those two in the Top-10 are Jaguars running back Leonard Fournette and Panthers running back Christian McCaffrey, the current leaders among running backs in total touches during the 2019 season. McCaffrey is second only to the Los Angeles Chargers' Austin Ekeler (an undrafted running back from the 2017 class) in receptions among running backs, bringing new meaning to the modern bellcow with his 136 total touches. Fournette has also built his 2019 on an involvement in the passing game -- though his recent receiving success is a far more surprising development than that of McCaffrey, who's been a slot receiver since college -- with 30 targets and 20 receptions over the first five games of his season. Both are the largest numbers over any five-game stretch of Fournette's career.

The third running back in total touches this year? That would be Minnesota RB Dalvin Cook, the fourth back selected in the 2017 NFL Draft, viewed by many as the top on-field talent despite bringing fumble and off-field concerns to the table. In fact, four of the top five and eight of the top twelve running backs in touches through the first games of 2019 come from the 2017 class: Chris Carson, Marlon Mack, Alvin Kamara, Austin Ekeler, and Aaron Jones round out the cohort.

This much volume in just one year's class is rather unprecedented. The 2015 class included Todd Gurley, Melvin Gordon, David Johnson, and Jay Ajayi, and they all shared the Top-10 in touches in only one season: 2016. Injury had a lot to do with that, but that's the nature of the running back position: the higher the opportunity to run, the higher the opportunity to get hit, and accordingly, the greater chance of injury incurred.

The conceptions around running back volume, the performance drain after significant injury, and the performance drain of simple aging all contribute to the discussion around running back value -- especially when a second contract approaches, as it is for members of the 2015 (Melvin Gordon) and 2016 (Ezekiel Elliott) classes. Players that are looking at an expensive second contract are invariably older, more worn down, and often more injured than their rookie alternatives -- who will be signed to significantly cheaper deals.

Remarkably, the very same character which makes the 2017 class so impressive -- its depth -- is what leaves it exposed as it approaches contract time. High school athletes flow into the running back position, as most high school programs don't have the talent at quarterback to run a balanced passing attack, and subsequently rely on rushing attacks to power their offense. Those athletes stay at running back into college, and they stay at running back into the NFL: that's how talents like Alvin Kamara and Kareem Hunt fall into the third round; Tarik Cohen and Marlon Mack in the fourth; Aaron Jones in the fifth and Matt Breida out of the draft altogether.

There are too many running backs.

So James Conner supplanted Le'Veon Bell and Alvin Kamara made Mark Ingram expendable. Austin Ekeler foiled Melvin Gordon's contract bid and Tarik Cohen muscled Jordan Howard out. And already, their teams have added Benny Snell, Justin Jackson, and David Montgomery -- late-rounders who may only represent insurance policies at this juncture, until they get a window of opportunity following an injury or a holdout.

And even if they remain nothing but backups and special-teamers, it's lookin' like a special running back class in 2019 -- and if some of the underclassmen return, boy it's gonna be special in 2020. Ineligible sophomores and freshmen are going to rise, small-schoolers are going to blossom. Running back talent will never be wanting.

So the 2017 class has seven of the top eight running backs in terms of usage rate -- that's special, because single classes aren't typically that talented. But every generation of running back spins on the same wheel of time, and each class spends a glorious moment at the apex. 2017's is brighter than mosts, and some of the studs may indeed survive the oncoming tumble. But no matter how talented they remain, they're going to get older, and they're going to be more expensive than the next talented player.

We're watching a special group at a towering peak -- a group that, unlike most NFL Draft projections, actually became that which we hoped they could be, and even more. Enjoy that, but don't waste it. It will likely be as fleeting as it is brilliant. Coordinators and coaches will change philosophies, tire tread will wear down, timeshares will ride hot hands. If 2017 breaks the cycle, it might be through their receiving ability, through a new CBA, through injury luck -- but it will more likely ride it out, and in three years, we'll be reading this very same article about D'Andre Swift, Travis Etienne, and Jonathan Taylor. Such is the running back life cycle.

Written By:

Benjamin Solak

Director of Special Projects

Director of Special Projects and Senior NFL Draft Analyst for The Draft Network. Co-host of the Locked On NFL Draft Podcast. The 3-Wide Raven.

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