The 2017 running back class will go down as one of the greatest in NFL history. What began as a pair of generational talents at the top turned into a deep pool of talent that has staying power even as the position’s value has declined.
Entering next season, 11 players from this class are currently on an NFL roster. That number grows to 12 if we include Austin Ekeler, who was undrafted out of Western Colorado University. All of these backs have carved out significant playing time at some point in their career. But as Dalvin Cook is learning, everyone’s time comes to an end.
Cook’s future with the Minnesota Vikings has been in limbo throughout the offseason. The regime that signed him to a five-year, $63 million contract is no longer in place, and the current regime prefers the younger and cheaper strategy that has become the standard in today’s NFL.
From Cook’s standpoint, he’s looking to make every penny possible as his career enters its final years. But compared to his classmates, Cook isn’t alone as each team handled the class of 2017 differently.
For most teams, handling a running back is like deciding to upgrade to a new car. Like the AstroVan you’ve been driving since college, running backs rack up wear and tear with each mile. Eventually, it doesn’t make sense to keep dumping money into the AstroVan, and it’s taken to the car lot for a newer and more productive model.
That decision gets complicated when you’re driving a BMW. The quality of the machine creates an illusion that you can get more out of it than the average car. In the case of the 2017 class, the overall talent suggested they were a player their franchise couldn’t live without and put pressure on teams to pay up.
The Carolina Panthers were one of the teams caught in this situation after drafting Christian McCaffrey with the eighth-overall pick. A running back who can also thrive in the passing game, McCaffrey had more value than most of the players in this class. But he also suffered the same decline we’ve seen from other backs.
McCaffrey signed a four-year, $64 million extension with the Panthers in the summer of 2020. However, he immediately suffered ankle, shoulder and thigh injuries the following year. After straining his hamstring and rolling his ankle during the 2021 season, Carolina decided to rebuild and traded McCaffrey to the San Francisco 49ers for a haul of draft picks.
Joe Mixon was in a similar position as he signed a five-year, $48 million extension with the Cincinnati Bengals before the 2020 season. Mixon wasn’t the receiver that McCaffrey was. However, he was just as effective on the ground with back-to-back 1,000-yard seasons in 2018 and 2019. The Bengals reached the Super Bowl with Mixon in the backfield in 2021, but the return on their investment hasn’t been great.
Mixon was limited to six games with shin and ankle injuries during the 2020 season and missed three games this past season with a concussion. He has averaged 3.9 yards per carry since signing his extension, and the Bengals drafted Chase Brown in the fifth round of this year’s draft.
While McCaffrey and Mixon aren’t out of the league, they’re not the same players they were when they got paid. That leads some teams to not even consider paying their running backs.
That’s what happened in Leonard Fournette‘s case.
Fournette had hype dating back to high school and the Jacksonville Jaguars took him with the fourth-overall pick. He ran for 1,040 yards and nine touchdowns during his rookie season. However, he was limited to eight games while battling a hamstring injury in 2018. Although Fournette rebounded and ran for 1,152 yards in 2019, he managed only three touchdowns and the Jaguars released him in favor of undrafted rookie James Robinson.
Fournette’s career had a second act with the Tampa Bay Buccaneers that included a Super Bowl ring in 2020. Still, it never reached the stardom he was projected for coming out of college. In many ways, the Jaguars dodged a bullet until Urban Meyer selected Travis Etienne in the first round of the 2021 draft.
A similar story played out for James Conner, who emerged as the starting running back for the Pittsburgh Steelers. Conner was a local product coming out of Pittsburgh and took over the starting job when Le’Veon Bell sat out the 2018 season. Conner made the Pro Bowl with 973 yards and 12 touchdowns, but he never had a 1,000-yard season and averaged only 4.1 yards per carry.
The Steelers let Conner walk in free agency, and he signed with the Arizona Cardinals before the 2021 season. Conner scored 18 total touchdowns for the Cardinals, imploring them to sign him to a three-year, $21 million extension last offseason. But Conner only played in 13 games in the first year of that deal, running for 787 yards and three touchdowns.
If you’re keeping score at home, that’s four running backs who teams have extended, and all four led to a negative result. But not all running backs turned out to be disasters after signing their extensions.
Alvin Kamara has been an exception who continued to remain productive throughout his career. Like McCaffrey, Kamara provides value in the receiving game in addition to his success on the ground. He’s never had a 1,000-yard rushing season. But he caught over 80 passes in each of his first four seasons, and Sean Payton successfully utilized him with a power back to manage his workload.
Kamara’s five-year, $75 million deal hasn’t turned out to be terrible, but it could have long-term consequences. The Saints have been masters of kicking the can down the road and Kamara holds cap hits of $18.8 million in 2024 and just over $29 million in 2025. While it makes the most sense to cut Kamara and save $18.9 million in 2025, the Saints have also signed up for a void year in 2026 when Kamara will count just over $6 million toward the salary cap.
The final example comes from the Green Bay Packers, who double-dipped in the class by selecting Jamaal Williams and Aaron Jones. The Packers deemed Williams as replaceable and let him sign with the Detroit Lions. However, they agreed to a four-year, $48 million extension with Jones just before the start of free agency.
The contract was designed to give Jones two more seasons in Green Bay and he delivered while being mixed in with fellow running back A.J. Dillon. The Packers will also have to foot the bill on three void years after Jones is playing but it at least seems like they made a solid investment based on Jones’ production.
There are other outliers in this class. Green Bay and Detroit declined to pay Williams before he signed a three-year, $12 million contract with the Saints. And Kareem Hunt would have gotten a massive extension from the Kansas City Chiefs if he weren’t for kicking a woman during an incident in 2018. However, compared to the rest of the class, the Vikings may be the one team that benefitted the most.
Since signing his extension before the 2020 season, Cook ranks first among running backs in the class of 2017 with 3,889 rushing yards and 30 rushing touchdowns. He also ranks second with 4.7 yards per carry. Cook has run for 1,000 yards in each of the three seasons since signing his extension, and while Cook has missed six games due to injury, he played in all 17 games in 2022.
Cook’s success didn’t lead to team success, but he was available and productive throughout the life of the deal. If this is the end of Cook’s time in Minnesota, it will be disappointing that the Vikings weren’t able to achieve more. But compared to the rest of the class, the Vikings were the one team that didn’t get stung by paying their running back.