Two weeks into the 2017 NFL season, it seems that some of the top running back talent from 2016 has disappeared.
Last year's rushing leader, Ezekiel Elliott, currently ranks 18th with 112 yards, while 2016's No. 2 man, Jordan Howard, has dropped to 40th, and Le'Veon Bell, who finished fifth, is currently tied at No. 13. Meanwhile, unheralded rookie Kareem Hunt has stormed into the top spot, joined in the top five by two other rookies (Dalvin Cook and Leonard Fournette) and two veterans who've never reached the 1,000-yard mark before (C.J. Anderson and Carlos Hyde).
Of course, with just two games in the books (or less, in the case of the Dolphins and Buccaneers), it's extremely early to begin drawing solid conclusions from yardage totals. One bad game by an offensive line, say, or one unfortunate defensive matchup can heavily skew a running back's numbers. Consider the finals rankings of the top five rushing leaders through two weeks last season:
So it's not outlandish to predict that this year's top five will look a lot different by season's end than it does now. Who will make the final cut? In the interest of sorting through the early season madness, I thought I'd predict exactly that. Do any of today's leaders have staying power? Which missing stars will work their way back to the front of the line?
My predicted top five rushing leaders are below:
1) Jay Ajayi, Miami Dolphins
Predicted yardage total: 1,500.
Current rank: No. 10 (122 yards).
Ajayi is dinged unfairly in today's standings because Hurricane Irma robbed him of his first game. Notably, he's already made the top 10 despite getting half as much work as most of the rest of the league. Last season, Ajayi didn't even start until Week 5 and still finished with 1,272 yards, helped in large part by three 200-yard games. This season, he'll play an even bigger role in the Dolphins' offense, as Miami does not want quarterback Jay Cutler to carry the load. Ajayi is a tough, instinctive runner with outstanding vision, a shorter Eddie George lookalike who will take advantage of his opportunity to pile up yards.
2) Le'Veon Bell, Pittsburgh Steelers
Predicted yardage total: 1,450.
Current rank: No. 13 (119 yards).
Bell doesn't look as quick as he did last year -- it seems like he might be showing the effects of his preseason absence. His current yards-per-carry mark of 3.2 would be a career low if it held for the season. There's little reason to think it will, though. He's agile, quick and has a good offensive line to run behind. I'm aware of the past history of guys struggling or getting hurt after preseason absences, and that's a concern here, as is Bell's own track record of missing time. But if Bell plays a full 16-game season (which, of course, he's done just once before), he should run wild. After all, he made the top five in 2016 despite playing just 12 games. He's simply a very good player.
3) Ezekiel Elliott, Dallas Cowboys
Predicted yardage total: 1,300.
Current rank: No. 18 (112 yards).
This prediction is obviously tied to Elliott's availability, as his six-game suspension could still go into effect in 2017, depending on what happens in court and when. But if he's able to play all 16 games, I think you can pencil him into the top five. It's hard not to worry a little bit when a guy gets 8 yards on nine carries, as Elliott did Sunday, but for now, it's safe to chalk that up to a bad day for the Dallas offense against a strong Denver defense. Yes, he appeared to give up after a pair of interceptions against the Broncos, but that would concern me much more if Elliott had previously shown a lack of competitiveness as a runner.
4) Kareem Hunt, Kansas City Chiefs
Predicted yardage total: 1,250.
Current rank: No. 1 (229 yards).
Hunt is not a one-week wonder -- he's performed in the past, averaging 6.3 yards per carry at Toledo, where he never lost a fumble in 855 touches. He also currently leads the NFL in yards per carry (7.6) and yards per carry after contact (2.8). Hunt has the skills that are most needed for success as a running back: vision, quickness and power. He's with a team that likes to run and is part of a loaded offense that will prevent defenses from ganging up on him. He'll likely slow down -- rookies used to the shorter college campaigns tend to hit a wall around the 12th or 13th game of their first pro seasons. But I like him to accumulate enough yardage along the way to stick here.
5) Carlos Hyde, San Francisco 49ers
Predicted yardage total: 1,125.
Rank: No. 4 (169 rushing yards).
Like his father, Mike, 49ers coach Kyle Shanahan likes to run, and he's got a good system for it. Hyde has outstanding size and explosive power, and as he showed against the Seahawks, he can be a chunk runner -- to rack up 124 yards against Seattle's stout defense is impressive. San Francisco's offense has struggled otherwise, but Hyde looks great in this attack. If he were on a better offense, Hyde would have a chance to lead the league. His numbers could suffer if San Francisco is always playing from behind, but his talent and the expected heavy workload suggest he'll still be in the top five by season's end.
WHO WILL DROP OUT?
C.J. Anderson, Denver Broncos
Current rank: No. 2 (199 yards).
Anderson's off to a fast start, but he's a middle-of-the-road type runner who lacks enough positive traits to finish in the top five. He runs hard with good balance and can power through arm tackles, but he's not exceptionally elusive. He also has to share carries with Jamaal Charles and (when he returns to health) Devontae Booker. Thus, while I think he'll continue to perform and be an important contributor in Denver, Anderson will finish with somewhere between 800 and 900 yards.
Dalvin Cook, Minnesota Vikings
Current rank: No. 3 (191 yards).
The No. 5 spot above is something of a toss-up at this point. If I could guarantee that quarterback Sam Bradford will be healthy and on the field for the bulk of the season, I'd put Cook down for 1,100-plus yards and slide him into Hyde's position. But that remains a question mark. Vikings coach Mike Zimmer likes to run the ball, and the team has improved its offensive line. With a fully functioning offense, Cook could pick up 75 yards per game. But if Bradford misses a chunk of time and leaves the passing game stuck in the mud, it'll be too easy for opponents to key on Cook and slow him down.
Leonard Fournette, Jacksonville Jaguars
Current rank: No. 5 (140 yards).
Fournette ran for 100 yards in his first NFL game and will remain the focus of a Jaguars team that lacks additional consistent weapons on offense. He's a very explosive runner who will be physical and tough. Like Herschel Walker, the more carries you give him, the better he'll run. Fournette will have some short gains, but over the course of a game, he'll pick up more and more yards, with the occasional chunk play tossed in. Ultimately, his numbers will suffer because of some lousy quarterbacking, and I think he'll finish with around 900 yards. That said, you could, as with Cook, easily put Fournette in that fifth spot instead of Hyde, as all three players project similarly right now.