The 2017 NFL Draft class at running back was talked about as one of the best draft classes at the position in history, even before last April’s draft. It certainly lived up to that, and maybe even more. According to Pro Football Focus, nine rookie running backs ranked in the top 35. That list does not even include Dalvin Cook, Aaron Jones or Chris Carson, who all had PFF ratings of 80+ but did not play enough to qualify.
One of my first articles for Packers Talk, I examined the rookie seasons for Packers running backs, Jones and Jamaal Williams. If Jones can improve his pass protection, he has the clear edge. The former UTEP standout ran for 448 yards and four touchdowns on 81 carries for a 5.5-yard average. He only had 13 carries in a game four times, but ran for 131 and 125 yards in two of those games.
Like I mentioned above, Jones did not actually qualify to be among the leaders, according to PFF. However, if he did have enough to qualify, he would have ranked 15th with a rating of 82.7, in between Philadelphia’s Jay Ajayi and fellow rookie, Cincinnati’s Joe Mixon.
This running back class stepped up in a big way, and it was not just at the top. Jacksonville’s Leonard Fournette was the top running back off the board, and he rushed for 1,040 yards and nine touchdowns in helping lead the Jaguars to the AFC Championship game. At the other end of the spectrum, Philadelphia’s Corey Clement was an undrafted free agent out of the University of Wisconsin who had 108 total yards in the Super Bowl to help the Eagles bring home their first Lombardi Trophy.
The class of this running back group so far are New Orleans’ Alvin Kamara and Kansas City’s Kareem Hunt, who ranked second and third, respectively, in PFF rankings last year. Christian McCaffrey and Joe Mixon are not far behind, ranking 11th and 15th, respectively. All in all, there were nine rookies in the top 35 at running back, like I mentioned. Even players like New York’s Wayne Gallman, Chicago’s Tarik Cohen and Indianapolis’ Marlon Mack made the top 35, as well as Clement. Not bad.
Of the rookie running backs, Jones would have ranked fourth, according to PFF. Among those he ranked ahead of were Fournette and Mixon. That is why it was confusing to me why many thought the Packers should have addressed running back in the draft. They already have a really good starting running back. His name is Aaron Jones.
Among all running backs with at least 75 carries, the Packers rookie ranked second in yards per carry, only behind Kamara, a fellow rookie. Overall, he ranked third, as Seattle quarterback Russell Wilson also averaged more. Jones also had six carries of more than 20 yards in his first season, which tied for 11th in the league. Among the players in front of him, only Kenyan Drake of the Dolphins had fewer than 170 carries to get their 20+-yard runs. Also, 21 of his 81 runs went for first downs, an impressive 26 percent.
Jones was unable to stay on the field last season, as he rushed the ball only 81 times in 2017 and only a combined 19 times after the bye week (nine weeks). But, if he stays healthy and receives the bulk of the carries, watch out! The Packers running back had a 5.5-yard average last season, and most of that was done without Aaron Rodgers under center. In the game he did start when Rodgers started and finished, he ran for 125 yards on 19 carries in the win over Dallas.
With No. 12 under center and taking pressure off the ground attack, Jones could find many holes to run through. My prediction is that Jones will stay healthy and run for 1,100 yards, emerging as one of the top running backs in the league. Only seven running backs ran for that many yards in 2017, but I believe Jones has the ability to do just that.——————
Jonathon Zenk is a writer for PackersTalk.com. He is a huge Packers fan, and a graduate of The University of Wisconsin - Green Bay. You can follow Jonathon on Twitter at @jzenk42