The NFL Draft is a beautiful time. Not only because of the theater and intrigue of a group of young men realizing their dreams in epic fashion, but it's one of the few moments on the calendar when NFL teams cannot lie to us.
During the 2017 NFL Draft, the Kansas City Chiefs stood on the world's stage and made it plainly apparent just how much they liked Kareem Hunt. The organization traded up for the rights to take the Toledo product at the 86th overall pick, no small change considering the state of the running back market today. In their stunning win over the New England Patriots tonight, we all understood just why their affections ran so deep.
In place as the clear-cut starter after a preseason injury took Spencer Ware out of the equation, Hunt took off on a fine run on the first carry of his newfound pro career. Just before the end of the play, the rookie back committed an error that often sends teams into a hysteria. Hunt fumbled the ball on his inaugural NFL rush. Again, many rookies might find themselves in the early doghouse after such a mistake. Yet, harkening back to the statement their moves made on draft night, it was clear for Kansas City this is no ordinary rookie.
Hunt bounced back from his early fumble with authority, ripping off 148 yards on 17 carries, catching five passes for 98 yards and scoring a combined three touchdowns. In the era of the committee backfield, Hunt looked like something we see so rarely in the league today; a true engine of his team's offense powered from the backfield. He threatened the Patriots from sideline-to-sideline as a rusher and consistently ripped off big runs:
As Hunt's Next Gen Stats carry chart shows, New England never managed to tackle him for a loss at any point during the game. The rookie back was nearly impossible to bring down, breaking tackles and making defenders miss at a rate that was simply astonishing. Hunt gained 88 yards after a Patriots defender came within one yard of him on run plays, averaging 5.2 yards per carry. The NFL average for running backs in 2016 was 3.7 yards per carry. Simply put, Hunt looked special as a tackle-breaker in tight quarters and an elusive ghost who could make plays in space.
While a running back's primary job is to carry the ball on the ground and be a tone-setting rusher, we all know that in today's NFL the best backs are also expected to chip in in the passing game. On Thursday night, Hunt didn't just contribute, he thrived.
It's one thing for a running back to take on his share of dump-offs for positive yardage and keep the chains moving. Hunt checked that box but offered so much more. He averaged 6.3 air yards per target, operating far more downfield than running backs typically do, as running backs who saw 20 or more targets last year averaged a mere 2.3 figure. His most notable catch came on a beautiful throw from Alex Smith that resulted in a 78-yard score. On that play, Hunt had just 1.8 yards of separation from the defender covering him, not only running a wide receiver-type route but making the vertical play in close quarters before bolting the rest of the way to the end zone. For context, Hunt's average separation on his targets tonight was 6.0, showing that second touchdown reception was a truly special play.
It's hard to imagine a better debut for a rookie than what Kareem Hunt enjoyed tonight. On the national stage in the home of the NFL's reigning Super Bowl champion, the third-round pick sliced through their ground defense on the way to powering through tackle attempts with ease, and showcased the pass-catching prowess that not only keeps players on the field for all three downs, but earns them featured roles.
Who knows what the rest of his career holds, but make no mistake: We saw something special from Hunt tonight. The Next Gen Stats lend credence to what our eyes could already inform us was no ordinary running back performance. The Chiefs knew they saw something unique to make that draft-day move. Now we got to see it, too.