Now that the 2017 NFL Draft has concluded, the analysis continues in projecting these prospects to the next level, especially during their rookie years. I’m building a series looking at the five biggest early impact contributors at each position group, including a focus on a talented, albeit top-heavy running back class today.
A couple things to keep in mind as we go through this exercise: Early impact doesn’t necessarily mean a good impact (although it often will at non-quarterback positions).
Think of Darron Lee last season with the Jets. He had an obvious opportunity to contribute and make a mark right away when you looked at New York’s linebacker situation, but the results were pretty ugly during his rookie season.
The players in these groups will get playing time, starting roles and opportunity, what they do with it remains to be seen. Also, these players are listed in order from the most to least impactful rookies among each position group.
It’s splitting hairs in some cases, but I figured it will give us another fun element to look back on when the season ends.
1. Dalvin Cook, RB, Minnesota Vikings
Cook enters Vikings camp light years beyond any of his fellow running backs in the talent department, and his receiving skills should immediately impress in Pat Shurmur’s West Coast offense. An Andy Reid disciple, Shurmur will want a back who is dynamic with the ball in his hands and knows how to maximize the elongated run game with short passes and the ability to pick up yards after the catch.
That’s Cook exactly, who gels perfectly with the new implementation of some zone concepts into what has traditionally been a more power-based scheme in Minnesota.
Of course, all this is dependent on Cook staying healthy, out of trouble and in possession of the football after struggling with fumbles in college. Latavius Murray will likely be used as a short-yardage, depth back, while Jerick McKinnon serves the occasional third down purpose to spell Cook.
But the Florida State superiority to both backs in every way gives him a terrific shot at receiving a heavy dose of targets and carries as a rookie.
2. Leonard Fournette, RB, Jacksonville Jaguars
Fournette was the first running back off the board, so maybe this is an easy prediction to make, but he’s got a great shot at being a bell-cow, 200-carry back in Jacksonville as a rookie.
Fournette’s ceiling isn’t very high this year in my opinion, but Jacksonville’s offensive line should be improved this season. Doug Marrone and Tom Coughlin will undoubtedly want to take pressure off Blake Bortles by running the football more. Fournette can handle a heavy workload, and should do well in the Jaguars power/gap scheme rushing attack.
Of course, making an impact as a receiver will be an area of uncertainty for Fournette, who wasn’t targeted often at LSU. None of Jacksonville’s backs appear primed for a third-down role in the offense, although T.J. Yeldon has been utilized heavily as a receiver the past two seasons despite unimpressive results. How Fournette develops in that area of the game will be key to his snap totals, but expect him to get the lion’s share of the carries in the Jaguars new offense.
3. Christian McCaffrey, RB, Carolina Panthers
I’m a little less certain that McCaffrey will be highly productive right away than a lot of other analysts seem to be, but his well-rounded skill set should put him on the field often enough to eventually be a high volume option.
McCaffrey is a terrific route runner who can play in the slot as easily as he comes out of the backfield, and his skill set would seem to lend itself beautifully to Mike Shula’s diverse run game.
But Jonathan Stewart is still in the fold, and McCaffrey will likely at least split carries with the longtime Panthers back for a good portion of the season. Then there are carries for Newton to think of, and an offense that will still look to get Greg Olsen and Kelvin Benjamin heavily involved, while Curtis Samuel eats up some reps in the slot, outside and perhaps even in the backfield on occasion.
McCaffrey is fully capable of being the most productive year one back in the draft, but there will be a lot of competition for touches in the Panthers offense.
4. Joe Mixon, RB, Cincinnati Bengals
Mixon is hands down the most talented back in Cincinnati, and one of the top talents in the entire 2017 class. But the Bengals don’t typically start rookies, and Giovani Bernard and Jeremy Hill are still on the roster.
Mixon will wrestle away the starting spot by mid-season at the very latest, but the Bengals offensive line is in shambles compared to where the unit has been the past several seasons, and that could be very difficult for a rookie running back to overcome.
Mixon’s ability to impact as a receiver will still be on display however, as the Bengals undoubtedly try to split him outside and use him like the Steelers do Le’Veon Bell. The number of touches Mixon will receive is hard to predict, but what he’ll do with them isn’t. An explosive athlete with great hands and elusiveness in the open field, Mixon will add a dimension to Cincinnati’s offense that is impossible to overlook – even for Marvin Lewis’ traditional method of bringing along rookies slowly.
5. Samaje Perine, RB, Oklahoma
I was tempted to go with Kareem Hunt here, because I could see him eventually beating out Spencer Ware in Kansas City, and he’s a superior talent to Perine. But the Oklahoma back has a simple path to the starting spot, with only Rob Kelley and Chris Thompson standing in his way.
Perine will likely spend most of his career as a complementary back, but Washington’s offensive line and run game scheme is terrific, they just need a consistent back to maximize their efforts. Perine isn’t explosive, elusive or a breakaway threat, but he runs behind his pads and has the vision to quickly find the correct hole and get to the second level. He might be the most reliable back on Washington’s roster, which could give him the opportunity for a nice workload until the Redskins upgrade the position.