Kareem Hunt's Rookie Season Was Something Special

Hunt announced his arrival on the opening night of the 2017 season, and he finished the year as one of the NFL's top backs, both by counting stats and our metrics.

If you subscribe to the thought process that running back value can be obtained outside the first round of the NFL Draft, you probably feel validated by the rookie season of Kansas City Chiefs running back Kareem Hunt.

The 86th pick of last year's draft may have entered camp as a backup, but in the aftermath of Spencer Ware's preseason PCL tear, Hunt was thrust into a featured role right from the start. While many pundits were high on his talent, the jury remained out as to how he'd perform at the next level with such a substantial workload.

And then opening night happened.

The Journey Begins

Hunt made his debut in Week 1 as the Chiefs hit the road to take on the defending Super Bowl champion New England Patriots. It's safe to say his career didn't start out the way he would have liked as the former Toledo Rocket fumbled away his first NFL carry. While such a demoralizing moment could shatter the confidence of a young player, this did not prove to be the case for the 22-year-old Hunt.

He was brilliant from then on, getting back in the game and carrying his team in an upset win over the Pats. Hunt produced a stunning 246 total yards and 3 touchdowns on 22 touches as the Chiefs throttled the dynasty of the 21st century by a score of 42-27, and thus, one of the more impressive rookie seasons in recent memory was underway.

Hunt's scintillating play continued as he became the first player in league history to rack up 100 total yards in each of his first seven professional contests. While the rookie did endure a frustrating mid-season swoon, he went bonkers once more from Week 14 through Week 16, racking up an insane 450 total yards and 4 touchdowns during that span.

And he even punctuated the season by taking his only carry of Week 17 to the house for a 35-yard score, clinching the rushing title. When the dust had settled on 2017, Hunt's 1,782 yards from scrimmage ranked third in the NFL, and he earned his very first Pro Bowl berth.

Rookie Landmarks

So how impressive was Hunt's historic year in comparison to his rookie predecessors? The short answer is very. In fact, he ranks in extremely exclusive company.

His 1,782 yards from scrimmage check in as the fifth-most of any rookie back over the last 20 years.

PlayerYearTeamTouchesScrimmage Yards
Edgerrin James1999Indianapolis4312,139
Ezekiel Elliott2016Dallas3541,994
Doug Martin2012Tampa Bay3681,926
Clinton Portis2002Washington3061,872
Kareem Hunt2017Kansas City3251,782

What's even more impressive is that all but one of the four backs who bested him in total scrimmage yards received at least 29 more touches than he did, with the only exception being Clinton Portis. But perhaps the most incredible accomplishment is the fact that Hunt's 1,327 yards on the ground made him the first rookie runner selected outside the first round to lead the league in rushing since 1968.

There's no question that Hunt's counting stats were terrific, but that's only one element of his spectacular production.

An Advanced Stats Darling

Taking historical context out of our analysis and fixating merely on the present, Hunt's efficiency ranks up there with the very best, particularly as it relates to our Net Expected Points (NEP) metric.

NEP is the metric we use to track the efficiency of both teams and players. A three-yard run on 3rd and 2 is wildly different than a three-yard run on 3rd and 4, and NEP helps account for that by tracking the expected points players add to their team's total over the course of a season. You can read more about NEP in our glossary.

It's important to note that the league average Rushing NEP per play in 2017 was -0.05, so anything above zero is a lot better than you might think. Focusing on running backs who received 100-plus carries this season, here's where Hunt ranks in terms of Rushing NEP per play.

Player Carries Yards Rushing NEP Per Play
Alvin Kamara 120 728 0.28
Dion Lewis 180 896 0.16
Matt Breida 105 465 0.05
Kareem Hunt 272 1,327 0.05
Mark Ingram 230 1,124 0.04
Alfred Morris 115 547 0.04
Alex Collins 212 973 0.04
Todd Gurley 279 1,305 0.04
Ezekiel Elliott 242 983 0.04
Devonta Freeman 196 865 0.03

Most people expect Alvin Kamara to be named Offensive Rookie of the Year, and that's understandable since he had a truly special campaign. But it feels as though Hunt's incredibly successful season is being swept under the rug a bit.

Of all the runners on this list, Hunt did the best job maintaining his superb per-play efficiency despite a huge workload as he's tops in Rushing NEP per carry among backs with 200-plus attempts. Had guys like Kamara, Dion Lewis and Matt Breida handled as much volume as Hunt did, their efficiency almost certainly would have declined.

Speaking purely of his running, Hunt was also more productive, per our metrics, on a per-play basis than MVP candidate Todd Gurley, which is notable because Hunt and Gurley had very similar workloads.

What's Next?

With the 2017 season now behind us, the landscape in Kansas City may be about to change.

While Alex Smith just produced the best season of his career, the Chiefs have first-round pick Patrick Mahomes waiting in the wings. Early offseason speculation indicates that KC is willing to listen to offers for Smith while preparing Mahomes to take the job next fall.

It seems hard to fathom a team moving on from a quarterback playing at such a high level, but Smith's trade value has likely never been higher, and the franchise didn't surrender two first-round selections and an additional third-rounder to move up for Mahomes with the intention of leaving him on the bench for a long stretch of time.

Whoever opens the season at quarterback will have no shortage of dynamic players surrounding him. Tyreek Hill is one of the league's elite big-play threats, Travis Kelce remains one of the premier tight ends in the game, and wideout Chris Conley is dripping with athletic upside.

All of this is promising for an explosive player like Hunt, as this multi-dimensional attack will should keep defenses from selling out to stop the Chiefs' running game. Yes, former offensive coordinator Matt Nagy is now the head coach of the Chicago Bears, but this offense should still keep humming into the future, as it remains loaded with talent.

With that said, the only impediment to Hunt's continued success could be his workload going forward. After all, the aforementioned Spencer Ware should be back in action in 2018 and likely won't be completely relegated to the sidelines. The coaching staff seems to like him, and he was expected to have a meaningful role in 2017 prior to getting hurt.

Furthermore, Charcandrick West remains under contract through 2018, and he siphoned a fairly significant third-down role for much of the season. Indeed, the backfield might be a little more crowded next season, but based off what he did this past year, Hunt should remain firmly entrenched as the top option.

The Bottom Line

Kareem Hunt had one of the most sensational seasons a rookie runner has had in recent NFL history, winning the rushing title and rating out well by our advanced metrics. He showed he is one of the more complete backs in the game.

Practically every measurable indicates he is a special player. Yes, there were moments where his usage and production were frustrating, but by and large, his rookie season was a smashing success. As the lead back in one of the NFL's most prolific offenses, there is plenty of reason to expect more big seasons from one of this year's breakout stars.