On one side of the field was Dalvin Cook, a month after his 22nd birthday, slicing through the New Orleans Saints‘ defense for 127 rushing yards. On the other side was the man he replaced. Adrian Peterson, 32, stood impatiently on the Saints’ sideline for all but nine of his team’s 62 offensive snaps, unable on this night to forestall the narrative that his career as a feature back is over.
The contrasting scenes Monday night at U.S. Bank Stadium capped a trend that has been growing for years. Rookie skill players, in particular running backs, produced at historic levels in Week 1 of the 2017 season. What we saw Monday night — Cook compiling one of three 100-yard games by a rookie, while Peterson was spending his spare time “communicating” with Saints coach Sean Payton — offered a paradigm of what we can expect leaguewide this season.
It’s quite early, of course. But if Week 1 was any indication, young runners could produce one of the top storylines of 2017. The foundation is in place. Eight running backs were selected in the top three rounds of the draft, while the Dallas Cowboys‘ Ezekiel Elliot (22 years old) and the Los Angeles Rams‘ Todd Gurley (23) remain prominent.
As the chart shows, in fact, four of the top five leading rushers in Week 1 are 22. Fifteen rookies got at least one carry, and some of the most promising prospects — including the Cincinnati Bengals‘ Joe Mixon — were relatively quiet. The strong start came one year after the NFL’s top two rushers were both rookies: Ezekiel Elliott and the Chicago Bears’ Jordan Howard.
The reasons for this surge aren’t difficult to figure out. On average, NFL running backs reach their peak production by age 27. The constant pounding of the position shaves years off their careers. The average age of the 160 running backs on league rosters this week was 25.1, a full year younger than the average for all NFL players.
In many cases, rookies earn as much or more money than veterans in their second or third contracts. Cook, for example, will take in about $ 3.4 million in cash this season as a second-round draft pick, including his signing bonus and base salary. Peterson’s 2017 compensation from the Saints is $ 3.5 million.
It all adds up to a stronger slant toward young players — and rookies, at least in 2017 — at running back more than at any other position. Overall in Week 1, rookies combined for 1,361 yards from scrimmage and 10 touchdowns. Both figures were the highest totals for rookies in an opening week since the 1970 NFL/AFL merger, a record set despite the last-minute postponement of the Tampa Bay Buccaneers–Miami Dolphins game because of Hurricane Irma.
Meanwhile, Cook joined the Kansas City Chiefs‘ Kareem Hunt (148 yards) and the Jacksonville Jaguars‘ Leonard Fournette (100) as rookies to reach 100 rushing yards. It was the second time since 1970 that as many as three rookies hit that mark in Week 1. Hunt, in fact, set an NFL record for total yards from scrimmage (246) in a debut and was the PPR fantasy points leader across the league as well.
In total, rookie runners from the heralded 2017 draft and undrafted free-agent class combined for 621 rushing yards. That’s the second-highest total since 2001 and a (very) early pace that could make them the most productive ground gainers as a group during that time period.
Since the start of 2001, the best season for rookie runners came in 2008, according to research by John McTigue of ESPN Stats & Information. That was a year that included 1,000-yard seasons from rookies Steve Slaton (1,282 yards for the Houston Texans), Matt Forte (1,238/Chicago Bears) and Chris Johnson (1,228/Tennessee Titans) and a total of 9,226 rushing yards from rookies.
If you extrapolate this year’s Week 1 production over 17 weeks — a large projection, I know — you get a number (10,557) that far exceeds the best such figure we have on record. There is a long, long way to go. But by January, it’s possible that we’ll be able to mark the long-developing transition at this position with a season like never before. Hold on tight.