Week 3 of the NFL season was full of the usual surprises, but one of them wasn’t the continued excellence of a rookie class of running backs that’s living up to its pre-draft hype.
“Great class,” said one of its members, the Vikings’ Dalvin Cook. “The rookie class is doing what they were expected to do.”
And then some.
Twenty-five running backs were drafted this year, including eight in the first three rounds. The sixth guy selected, Toledo’s Kareem Hunt, is having the NFL’s “Holy Toledo!” season while leading the 3-0 Chiefs.
“I talk to Kareem,” Cook said. “He’s a humble guy. Just wants to play football and have fun.”
Then he must be having a ball because the third-round draft pick (and 86th overall) is on pace for 2,138 yards rushing. The NFL record, by the way, is 2,105 by Eric Dickerson in 1984.
In only three games, Hunt has a 113-yard lead in the rushing title race. He has 401 yards; Cook is second at 288.
Hunt also has an 8.5-yard average per carry, leads the NFL in combined yards (538) and is the first player in NFL history to open his career with 50-yard scores in each of his first three games.
Cook, the third running back selected, is another early contender for NFL Offensive Rookie of the Year. He’s ahead of Adrian Peterson’s rookie pace after three games, ranks fourth in combined yards (370) and already has four runs of 20 or more yards to rank No. 2 behind Hunt, who has five.
“I don’t think about rookie of the year,” Cook said. “I think once you get caught up in that stuff, everything else starts messing with your mind.”
Three of the league’s top seven rushers are rookies, including Jacksonville’s Leonard Fournette, who is seventh (199).
Five of Pro Football Focus’ top 10-ranked backs are rookies. Hunt (first) and Cook (fourth) are followed by Seattle’s Chris Carson (sixth) and Cincinnati’s Joe Mixon and Chicago’s Tarik Cohen, who are tied for ninth.
Carson was drafted 249th overall, five spots from the end of the draft. But he’s also ranked No. 2 behind Hunt on PFF’s “Elusive Rating.” Hunt has broken 17 tackles, while Carson has 11 in only 41 touches.
Cohen, the 10th back drafted out of North Carolina A&T, is averaging 6.5 yards per carry and is tied for sixth among all players in receptions (20).
Cook had 169 combined yards from scrimmage in Sunday’s victory over Tampa Bay. He had 72 yards receiving, a total Peterson has exceeded only twice in 11 seasons.
The biggest knock on Cook coming out of Florida State was his 13 fumbles. But, so far, no fumbles in 71 touches.
“Coach KP [Kennedy Polamalu] coaches cross grip, which is something I didn’t learn until I got into the NFL,” Cook said. “He enforces it no matter what. He’s going to keep that in the back of your mind so you don’t forget it. Just putting two hands on the football and crossing your hands over the ball to keep it tight.”
As for pass protection, Cook has held his own, looking better and more willing to do it than his Hall of Fame-bound predecessor. Including one time Sunday when a missed assignment on the line turned Tampa Bay’s 300-pound All-Pro Gerald McCoy loose on a direct path to quarterback Case Keenum.
“That was my play of the game right there,” Cook said. “I seen [McCoy] bust through and I was like, ‘You better drop your weight down because he’s coming.’ I kind of got in the way a little bit to get him off the spot so Case would have room to throw the ball.
“Pass protection is all about will and wanting to get it done. I just wanted to keep Case up and have him throw the football,” which he did for a 17-yard completion.
A rookie running back who can run and catch while blocking and not fumbling? So far, that’s pretty normal for a rookie class that’s not surprising anyone.
Mark Craig is an NFL and Vikings Insider. Twitter: @markcraigNFL