Looking back at the historic 2017 NFL RB draft class

By: Toby Martin-Kohls

All statistics in this article came from Pro Football Reference. You can find more information here.

The 2017 RB class stands out as one of the best RB draft classes of recent memory, and perhaps all time. When you count the amount of Pro Bowl RBs from each draft class in the 2010s, 2017 clearly stands head and shoulders above the rest.

That 2017 RB draft class produced more Pro Bowlers than any other class during the 2010s with 8 players eventually making it. The next closest was the 2015 class, which produced 4 Pro Bowl RBs.

Two RBs were selected in the first 8 picks of the draft, with Leonard Fournette being the 4th overall pick and Christian McCaffrey the 8th overall pick. 

Fournette has been underwhelming, considering the hype he had around him coming out of college. His most significant moment has arguably been his performance during the 2020 playoffs, as his Tampa Bay Bucs would go on to win the Super Bowl that year. This earned him the nickname “Playoff Lenny.”

His playoff stats from 2020 are shown below:

Besides that, Fournette has been inconsistent, injured, or inefficient for most of his NFL career. He has had two separate 1,000 yeard seasons, but Fournette has one of the lowest career yards per carry of the class.

The other RB selected in the first round was Christian McCaffrey at 8th overall. By 2019, he had showed the league why he was worthy of a top-10 pick. He earned first team All-Pro, with eye popping numbers as both a runner and a receiver. His incredible vision, quickness, and decisiveness made him one of the best offensive players in football.

However, his large usage rate and his smaller frame has made him miss quite a bit of time over his career. If he can stay healthy, McCaffrey should be able to remain as one of the top backs in the league for a few more years. Since being traded from the rebuilding Panthers to a playoff contender in the 49ers, he has showed that 2019 season form again.

The second round also saw two RBs selected, Dalvin Cook coming out of FSU, and Joe Mixon from Oklahoma.

Cook was electric from the gun, and broke the Vikings record previously held by Adrian Peterson for rushing yards in a rookie debut. He rushed 22 times for 127 yards in a 29-19 victory over the New Orleans Saints.

However, the magic couldn’t last and the injury bug struck. Cook went on to tear his ACL after just 4 games his rookie year and a hamstring injury the following year kept him from playing throughout the season. 

By 2019, Cook emerged as one of the best pure runners in the NFL with over 1,100 yards and 13 touchdowns. He improved upon that statline in 2020, finishing only 2nd to Derrick Henry in rushing yards. Since then, Cook has been solid, making 3 consecutive Pro Bowl appearances.

He currently leads this loaded class of RBs in total rushing yards, with 5,993.

Second on that list? The other RB taken in the second round, Joe Mixon. Mixon was graded as a first round talent, but fell to the second round likely due to off the field issues. By 2018, Mixon had emerged as one of the better young RBs in football, with the 4th most rushing yards in the league and the most in the AFC. By 2021, Mixon had earned a bid to his first Pro Bowl after posting over 1,500 total yards and 16 total touchdowns. 2021 capped off a 3 out of 4 year run where Mixon was in the top 10 in the NFL in rushing. 

The 3rd round is where this draft really starts to be great. 3 out of the 4 RBs taken in the third round of this draft have turned into Pro Bowl caliber players. 

67th overall pick Alvin Kamara had the best rookie season of any player that year. He was a big threat in the receiving game for Drew Brees, as well as putting up insanely efficient numbers as a runner, posting a crazy 6.1 yards per carry. It is one of the greatest rookie seasons of all-time, and he went on to win 2017 Rookie of the year. 

Kamara started his career so hot, he made the Pro Bowl in his first five season as an NFL starter and he leads this class of RBs in total touchdowns. 

19 picks later was another rookie sensation, Kareem Hunt. Not only did he lead all rookies in rushing yards in 2017, but he also led the entire NFL, only accomplished by a few before him. Hunt had an amazing two year stretch in Kansas City, before his infamous off the field incident that sort of derailed his career. 

Since then, he’s still been a good back paired along with Nick Chubb in Cleveland but he’s definitely fallen off from his first two years in the NFL

Near the end of the 3rd round, the Steelers drafted local Pittsburgh star, James Conner. He grinded his way to the starting job for the Steelers by his second year in the NFL, and he was solid. He had nearly 1,500 total yards and 13 total touchdowns in his first year as a starter. 

Conner is more of an old school, between the tackles type of runner. His career hasn’t been as explosive as Alvin Kamara or Kareem Hunt’s but he’s been a consistent short yardage and goal line threat, boasting two double digit touchdown seasons in 2018 and 2021. This helped him earn two Pro Bowl appearances.

Once you get to the 4th round, it’s already Day 3 at the NFL Draft, where the vast majority of these players are backups, special teamers, or players that don’t last long in the NFL. When it comes to the 4th round specifically, 2017’s class is nothing too crazy, but it does have three names that stand out. 

The 119th overall pick was Tarik Cohen, who was never going to be more than a gadget guy because he’s only 5’6”. However, he was a beast for 3 years as the Bears Swiss Army Knife, especially as a return man and a receiver out of the backfield.

He was named 1st team All-Pro in 2018.

15 picks after Cohen, the Packers drafted Jamaal Williams who has always been a short yardage back due to his bruising play-style. He hasn’t exactly been a dominant statistical player in his career. 

In his 6th season, despite only starting 9 games, he led the entire NFL in rushing touchdowns at a whopping 17. This was more than his previous 5 years combined. Everything considered, Williams has been a solid short yardage RB considering his draft position.

9 picks after Williams, came Marlon Mack. Mack developed into the Colt’s main starter in 2018 and 2019, peaking with an 1,000 yard season and 8 touchdowns. Again, this is pretty good value for a 4th round RB pick.

Overall, the 4th round of the 2017 NFL RB class was a great value round for teams, in comparison to other years in the decade. 

Now with the last three rounds of the draft (5-7) as a GM, you are really just trying to hit on at least a rotational player. If you find a gem and get extremely lucky, you’ll find a Pro Bowler. 

109 RBs were drafted in rounds 5-7 from 2010-2019, and just 6 of them have developed into Pro Bowl level players. The best of all these players came in 2017 and that was 5th round selection, Aaron Jones. 

Aaron Jones has become a massive success, first boasting a 1,500 total yard and 19 total touchdown campaign in 2019. He continued his success with three 1,000 yard seasons in four years, along with a Pro Bowl appearance in 2020. 

As it currently stands, his career yards per carry is 5.1, which among backs with at least 750 carries puts him 6th all time with elite company such as Jim Brown.

The best 7th round RB pick of the decade was also in the 2017 draft class. From 2010-2019 39 RBs were selected in the 7th round of the NFL draft and only 2 of them ever became a majority starter for at least a season.

2017’s Chris Carson was a special 7th rounder. In 2018 and 2019 he rushed for at least 1150 yards and 7 touchdowns. His excellent 2019 campaign ranked him in the top 5 in NFL rushing yards, and looking at that year a little closer, you’ll find that 7 of the top 12 rushing yards leaders that year were from the 2017 class.