Roger Craig was drafted in the 1983 NFL Draft, considered one of the all-time best running backs. Led by Eric Dickerson, Curt Warner and Craig, six full backs in this class combined for 17 Pro Bowls and 19 1,000-yard seasons.
With that in mind, Craig was asked to compare the running back class of 1983 to the talented class of 2017. In fact, four of the six recently named Pro Bowl backers are from the 2017 Draft, including Vikings’ Dalvin Cook.
âI’ll take the one from 2017,â said Craig, who played in the NFL from 1983 to 1993 and played four Pro Bowls with San Francisco before later playing his last two seasons for Minnesota. âGuys are more versatile. There is more depth. I think the 2017 running back class is probably one of the best classes in league history. This is probably the best group of guys that has come out.
At the start of this season, eight running backs selected in the 2017 Draft had combined for 14 1,000-yard seasons. While injuries have hit several key members of the class this year, Cincinnati’s Joe Mixon (1,159 yards) and Cook (1,067) have already passed the milestone, each for the third time.
Mixon, the NFL’s runner-up runner-up, was recently named to the AFC Pro Bowl roster. And for the NFC, the three selected running backs are from the 2017 draft class: Cook, James Conner of Arizona and Alvin Kamara of New Orleans. Mixon and Conner are tied for third in the NFL with 16 total touchdowns, while Conner is second with 14 rushing touchdowns and Mixon third with 13.
Add the last four places in the Pro Bowl and the eight running backs from the 2017 Draft who combined to form 15 Pro Bowls, one of which includes Tarik Cohen of Chicago, who was successful in 2018 as a returner.
âDefinitely the pride to be part of this group,â said Cook, selected for his third consecutive Pro Bowl. âI think we were one of the best to come out, this class. There are guys in the league who always start, who always produce. â¦ Just happy to be one of those guys, that little fellowship right there.
Cook missed last Sunday’s 30-23 loss to the Los Angeles Rams while on the COVID-19 reserve list, but will return for Sunday night’s game in Green Bay. And Cook will face a team of Packers that includes another notable running back from the 2017 class.
Aaron Jones had seasons of 1,084 rushing yards in 2019 and 1,104 in 2020, leading the NFL with 16 rushing touchdowns in 2019 and making the Pro Bowl in 2020. Jones, who got bogged down in November with an injury knee and recently shared tasks with teammate AJ Dillon, is 723 yards this season and likely won’t reach 1,000. But he’s had quite a career to be a fifth-round pick.
âI was the 19th running back taken, and seeing so many running backs taken before me, I was kind of like ‘Wow’,â Jones said. âAnd then to get into the league and be five and see all those running backs that were in my class still really good, I think the depth is one of the best, if you ask me, in the history of draft. But I’m a little biased because I was in that class.
Jones isn’t even the least-drafted running back in this class to have achieved significant success. That accolade goes to Chris Carson of Seattle, who was selected in the seventh round with the No. 249 pick, who was fifth in the last.
Carson had seasons of 1,151 on ground in 2018 and 1,230 in 2019 before injuries hampered him in each of the past two seasons. He has been lost after just four games this season with a neck injury.
Injuries have hit members of the 2017 class hard this season, with a number of backs missing significant playing action. Along with Carson, the hardest hit was Cohen, absent all year with a knee injury; Kareem Hunt, who has only played eight games for Cleveland, and Christian McCaffrey of Carolina, who has only played seven games with a hamstring injury and then an ending ankle injury in season. It happened after McCaffrey only appeared in three games in 2020 due to injury.
McCaffrey, caught with the No.8 pick overall, seemed early in his career as if he had to be the best running back in the class. He ran for 1,098 yards in 2018, then in 2019 was named to the first team of professional athletes after producing 1,387 yards rushing and 1,005 receiving yards.
McCaffrey became only the third running back in NFL history to have both 1,000 rushing and receiving yards in the same season. Craig was the first, doing it for the 49ers in 1985, and Marshall Faulk the second, for the St. Louis Rams in 1999.
McCaffrey wasn’t the most drafted backer of 2017. That honor went to Leonard Fournette, who was taken by Jacksonville with the No.4 pick.
Fournette had seasons of 1,040 rushing yards in 2017 and 1,152 in 2019, although he was considered a disappointment due to his high draft status and attitude issues. He was abandoned by the Jaguars after the 2019 season.
Fournette, however, began to resurrect his career last season with Tampa Bay when he played in a 93-yard playoff rushing game against Washington and gained 89 yards in the Buccaneers’ Super Bowl victory over Kansas City. XL. Fournette this season looked tied for another 1,000-yard campaign as he had 812 yards before sustaining a hamstring injury in Game 14, ending his regular season.
McCaffrey and Fournette were the only running backs taken in the first round of this draft. After that, Mixon and Cook went to the second round. The two likely would have gone in the first if it hadn’t been for problems off the field, Mixon in Oklahoma and Cook in Florida State.
The versatile Kamara, who was named to five consecutive Pro Bowls and tied an NFL record with six touchdowns against the Vikings on Christmas Day 2020, was a steal in the third round. Hunt, who was taken out by Kansas City and led the NFL to rush as a rookie and made the Pro Bowl, and Conner, selected by Pittsburgh, also made it to the third round. After four years with the Steelers, including his first place in the Pro Bowl, Conner signed before this season with the Cardinals.
The fourth round included the Bears selecting Cohen and Indianapolis taking on Marlon Mack. Mack totaled 1,091 rushing yards in 2019 before struggling with injuries and then losing his job after the Colts called Jonathan Taylor in the second round of the 2020 Draft. Taylor leads the NFL rushing with 1,626 yards and is an MVP candidate.
Jones and Carson then went on to later rounds. A total of 27 running backs were selected in the 2017 draft.
âIf you look at this class, especially in this modern age where you don’t have that many running backs in the first round, the talent is at the borderline of history,â said draft analyst Dane Brugler. âYou look at the full-backs who didn’t go in the first round who could very well take a step back with Alvin Kamara and Dalvin Cook. It’s just a remarkable class.
Brugler said the depth of the 2017 draft is what really sets him apart.
âThe biggest surprises were Chris Carson and Aaron Jones, the guys who got overlooked,â Brugler said. âJones was buried in that class and the Packers found a good deal with him. He falls into the category of a guy who maybe fell because he went to a little school.
Jones, who played at Texas-El Paso, played 116 and 154 yards against the Vikings in 2019. He was injured in Green Bay’s last two games against Minnesota, and that may have played a role. in the Packers’ 28-22 loss in November 2020 at Lambeau Field and 34-31 last month at US Bank Stadium. In the upheaval at Lambeau Field, Cook ran for 163 yards and had four touchdowns, three on the ground and one in the air.
“(Jones) is definitely one of those stars you didn’t expect,” said Cook, who has missed four games this season but is third in the NFL with an average of 97 rushing yards per game. . âExceeded expectations. He went into the draft later, but I think Green Bay definitely did a good deal with AJ. Just playing him over those years he’s become a friendship.â¦ AJ is definitely the one. one of those guys who puts the class (2017) among the best.
More than five seasons will be needed before the place in the history of the 2017 running back class can be fully assessed. But the riders are clearly off to a good start despite a few injuries.
Ahead of the 2017 Draft, NFL.com ranked the top five draft classes in history, and the top two finishers have both claimed multiple Halls of Fame. The 1952 class included three, Ollie Matson, Hugh McElhenny, and Frank Gifford. And the class of 1957 had two with Jim Brown and Paul Hornung.
The third class was the 2008 class, which featured six 1,000-yard rushers in Darren McFadden, Jonathan Stewart, Rashard Mendenhall, Chris Johnson, Ray Rice and Jamaal Charles. Fourth place was the 1983 squad, which featured 1,000-yard rushers Earnest Jackson, Gary Anderson and Craig James in addition to Dickerson, Warner and Craig. And fifth was the 1969 class, with five 1,000-yard rushers to OJ Simpson, Ron Johnson, Calvin Hill, Mercury Morris and Larry Brown.
Tony Dungy, 66, Hall of Fame coach and NBC Sunday Night Football studio analyst, has attended numerous draft classes. Dungy, a former University of Minnesota quarterback and Vikings defensive coordinator, said he would pit the 2017 class against any other.
âI don’t remember such a deep class with so many good backs, I certainly can’t,â said Dungy. “Sometimes you can find these guys in the draft who for some reason go a little bit later, but it’s rare to see so many good full backs in a class.”