By now, I’m sure you have recovered from the food coma you indulged in over Thanksgiving dinner, right?!
In my own personal opinion, I don’t think Thanksgiving gets the respect that it rightfully deserves as a traditional American holiday. I think it’s because of all the Christmas craziness that surrounds us and begins, well before we even sit down to give thanks to each other and celebrate the only day that includes all of food, family, and football. I mean, what more is there to be thankful for? As the late, great John Madden once said…
So, now, as the calendar flips to December, we enter the final stretch of the football season. Our focus shifts to the teams battling for playoff positioning that are still in the hunt; or, for those already well eliminated from contention and looking to next year – draft season. There may be some that have already commenced with the process of gathering intel on the incoming class, outlining their draft board and other offseason plans including free agency, possible trade candidates, and cap casualties. It’s all part of the process in executing their direction with the goals of the organization and how they can best construct the team on the field for next season.
However, before we completely turn our attention to the draft circuit, now is a good time to look back from this year and review a handful of rookies that have paid off their draft investment. Names, defensively, that have stood out include Aidan Hutchinson, Kayvon Thibodeaux, Jaquan Brisker, Sauce Gardner, Tariq Woolen, and Martin Emerson, Jr. – all of whom have solidified themselves as a cornerstone or quality player at the important positions on defense. But for this exercise, I wanted to highlight the offensive side of the ball and dissect 3 rookies at the running back position who appear to have established feature-back ability for their respective teams.
Breece Hall – NY Jets
Let’s begin here. Hall’s injury that resulted in being lost for the season still stings for the Jets, but the impact he made through seven games prior to going down is eye-popping. Through his seven games played, Hall averaged 4.11 yards/after contact(per PFF) and found the endzone on the ground in four straight contests from Weeks 4-7. Hall had completely unleashed a Jets offense that was anemic last season and showed that he is a difference maker that can gash impact plays at any moment. Hall was taken with the 36th pick last April and was well on his way to being a top-flight back(and arguably maybe the best in short order) in the NFL before he suffered his ligament tear. Despite the injury(the first time he’s ever been lost for a whole season), Hall should recover fully and pick up where he left off next season.
Kenneth Walker III – Seattle Seahawks
Let’s go back to Week 5…
Rashaad Penny leaves the game with a knee injury(which would turn out to be season-ending). Kenneth Walker steps in, breaks a long 67-yard score, and never looks back. The 41st overall pick in April out of Michigan State had a slow start to the season, but has since established himself as the feature back in the Great Northwest for the foreseeable future. After resigning Rashaad Penny to a one-year deal last offseason, Seattle used one of their three top 41 picks to select Walker and rebuild an offense that dealt their franchise QB at the start of free agency last March. It is very unlikely the Seahawks would bring back Penny again after his long injury history, but mostly because of the emergence of Walker – who has already proven he has a knack for the endzone with six touchdowns in the last seven games and three games with multiple touchdown performances. Seattle currently has two picks in the 1st round, where the pick they acquired from Denver for Russell Wilson currently sits at 4th overall. The Seahawks defense does need some reinforcements along their front seven, but I think GM Jon Schneider and Pete Carroll will understand that it is important they continue to invest in other pieces on offense to complement their star in Kenneth Walker.
Rachaad White – Tampa Bay Buccaneers
White was taken by the Bucs with the 91st overall pick(3rd rd), needing some additional depth behind Leonard Fournette whom they had signed prior to a 3-year deal. Tampa previously used a 3rd round pick in 2020 to draft Ke’Shawn Vaughn, hoping he could provide the role as a pass-catching back they were looking for, but the return on that has not been what they hoped. Instead, it appears they found a guy in White who can do that, and do it at a high-level, as well as feeding him the rock on the ground, too(22 and 14 carries the last two games). Coming out of Arizona State, his ability to catch passes and run multiple routes as a receiver was the best part of his game and had a high percentage to translate at the next level. Tom Brady loves to get his RBs involved in the passing game, to keep defenses honest, and White was a perfect fit for this role. With Fournette now banged up, the Bucs have no need to rush him back as White has established himself capable of handling a bigger role.
Fournette doesn’t become an unrestricted free agent until 2025; however, has no guaranteed salary in 2024 and can be a pre-June 1st cut that would save the Bucs $7 million in cap savings.
Honorable Mention – Dameon Pierce Houston Texans
I’d be remiss not to include Pierce as another rookie RB whom has stood out and outplayed his draft position thus far. A 4th round pick of the Texans, Pierce has stepped in day one and been a factor on a Houston offense that is barren in talent. The Texans currently sit with the 1st overall pick in 2023, and, barring a blockbuster trade-out, will more than likely select either of the top two QBs this draft cycle in Bryce Young or CJ Stroud. It is certainly possible, because they’re so thin, that Houston uses one of their 11 draft picks to select another RB as talented or better than Pierce. No matter what happens though, Pierce has proven he can be successful at the very least as a committee back that runs with power and explosiveness and has upside in a feature role.