The NFL is full of undeniably special players. Athletes of pro football accomplish feats that seem impossible to us mere mortals as we watch the games unfold from the comforts of our living rooms or tucked away in the stands. With so many unique entities inhabiting the football universe, it's hard to truly decipher who the truly transcendent players are. Oddly enough, sometimes we understand it best with what disappoints us, rather than what impresses us.
On Monday there was that sense of foolish disappointment looking at the box score for Chiefs running back Kareem Hunt. Wait, he only tallied 101 rushing yards in Kansas City's 29-20 victory over the Redskins? No 50-yard runs or end-zone trips? We'd come to expect more, after all, from the player who took his first 47 career carries for 401 yards and scored six total touchdowns.
It's in the moments when you realize that a workhorse-like 25-touch, 121 total-yardage game internally registers as a letdown that reality sets in. Hunt is in the middle of a truly special season.
The NFL just witnessed a transcendent season from a rookie running back last season. Drafting Ezekiel Elliott with the fourth-overall pick, and the subsequent selection of Dak Prescott, changed the trajectory of the Dallas Cowboys. Elliott was a tone-setter for the 2016 Cowboys, an engine for their drive to the NFC's No. 1 seed while quickly becoming the story of the season. Through four games, it's not outrageous to suggest that Hunt, a third-round draft pick, is set to have an even better campaign.
All running backs are products of their environment. No rusher can truly function without proper blocking and even great backs -- see Todd Gurley's 2016 -- can be foiled when planted in a poisonous offensive soil. The mark of a good back is being able to succeed in well-established conditions and getting the yards blocked for them. The great backs are the ones who create yards beyond just what they're given.
Hunt has been the best back this season at creating on his own. Through the first four games, he's gained an average of 6.1 more yards after a defender closes within one yard of him (NFL average is 3.6), leading the NFL among running backs with more than 25 carries.
For comparison's sake, Elliott in 2016 averaged 4.4 yards after defenders closed within a yard of him. He ranked third in that category among backs with more than 200 carries. Elliott is a special player in the open field, a threat to break tackles and take any run for six. So far, Hunt looks like Elliott's equal in that regard.
In his first few games it was easy to say that Hunt's stats were boosted by big runs. Indeed, plays like the 69-yard run against the Chargers to close out a Week 3 contest did boost his overall statistical finish.
However, what we saw out of Hunt against Washington was a more sustaining runner. While the massive highlight reel runs didn't come in waves, he consistently gained positive yardage, going down for a loss on only two carries. Hunt stacked steady run after steady run, before eventually breaking two 15-plus yard plays.
These types of consistent, offense-sustaining brand of games are what will really solidify Hunt as one of the best backs in the NFL. We all love big plays and they often flip the field to differentiate winners and losers. However, in close games when the offense needs to build up drives as the clock runs, a performance such as Hunt's latest is exactly what an NFL team looks for.
Hunt was that player Monday, and he improved as an individual runner as the game went on. While he averaged 3.0 yards after a defender closed within a yard during the first two quarters, he improved to a 3.4 average in the second half. True feature backs get better as the game goes on.
One area where Hunt does appear to have an edge on Elliott is in the passing game. Hunt has made several big catches in the early portions of his rookie campaign, whereas Zeke was less of a factor with less than 40 catches back in 2016. Hunt averaged 3.5 air yards per target, a notably high rate for running backs. Slot receivers like Randall Cobb and Jarvis Landry sit at 5.9 and 5.6 on the season, for comparison.
Of course, if Hunt is to sustain such a special pace and truly enjoy a rookie-of-the-year campaign on par with Elliott's 2016, he'll need two more accompanying notes.
The first is what all running backs need, as mentioned earlier: a little help from his friends. Elliott's blending with the Cowboys fabled offensive line made for the ingredients to an ideal dish. Elliott averaged 0.6 yards before a defender closed within a yard of him, doubling the league average of 0.3. The Next Gen Stats help to quantify the dominance of Dallas' 2016 and also help show that their decline this year is dragging Elliott back to mere mortal levels of production.
Through four games, the argument can be made that Hunt enjoys an even better cast of characters opening lanes for him. The rookie back averages a whopping 1.3 yards before a defender closes within a yard of him this season. He's making the plays on his own once he gets to the second-level, so there's nothing to take away from him, but the Chiefs system and his offensive line are plowing lanes for him to show his best work.
Additionally, now that the spotlight is firmly on him, Hunt will need to show he can still excel even when defenders are keying in on him. Elliott thrived in epic fashion when put to this test last season. The Cowboys and Zeke saw a stacked box (eight-plus defenders) on 28.9 percent of his carries in 2016 but it carried little weight. Elliott averaged 4.7 yards per carry on those plays, the fourth-highest among backs with 200-plus rushes.
Hunt has consistently drawn that extra attention this year, seeing a stacked box on 32.4 percent of his carries. Through the first month of the 2017 campaign, it's been no damper to his ability. Hunt averages 8.0 yards per carry when facing stacked boxes this year, second-highest among backs with 20-plus carries. However, it's worth noting that Washington gave him the most trouble thus far in his NFL career. The Redskins stacked the box on 38.1 percent of Hunt's carries and he averaged just 1.9 yards per carry on those plays. Again, if this is truly going to be an Elliott 2016-type season for Hunt, Hunt will need to produce closer to his previous level in this regard.
The NFL is full of surprises, but it's hard to come up with a bigger shock than the dominance of Hunt through the quarter mark of the 2017 regular season. No matter your expectations, he's exceeded them. As taken aback as we all were when Elliott took the league by storm as a rookie, it's even more outrageous to see a player drafted 82 spots later the following year do the same. It's all the more impressive that through four games, it's not outlandish to assert that Hunt is doing what Elliott did, and just might outdo him.