By any measure, Kansas City’s Kareem Hunt had a spectacular rookie season last year. The Chiefs running back led the NFL in rushing in 2017 and authored one of the best rookie seasons in league history.
As they like to say in investment commercials, however, past performance is no guarantee of future results. With Kansas City making a change under center is Hunt headed for the dreaded sophomore slump?
Second Year Running Backs
Is it really typical for running backs to take a step back in their second year? As it turns out, yes. From a statistical standpoint, most runners see a decrease in production during their sophomore campaign.
Todd Gurley was awesome in his rookie season and spectacular in his third season but merely ordinary in his second. Ezekiel Elliott‘s numerical decrease might have been due to suspension but his yards per carry was down a full yard in his second season.
Some of that has to do with adjusting to that level of usage and becoming accustomed to adjusting an offseason routine to account for recovery time, which doesn’t happen exclusively in the second year. Take David Johnson. After limited usage in his rookie season, he exploded in his second year. A season after that first heavy workload though, he was hurt.
Hunt’s highest usage at the University of Toledo was during his senior year when he rushed 262 times, which was nearly 60 carries more than his next busiest college season. In his inaugural NFL season, he logged 283 carries (including playoffs), even while largely taking the final regular season game off. It’s impossible to know how his body will respond to its first dose of NFL lead back pounding.
Hunt started like gangbusters in 2017, rushing for 609 yards in his first five NFL games and added an additional 166 receiving yards. He tailed off during the middle part of the season before rebounding with a strong effort at the end to secure Kansas City’s playoff spot.
While all running backs have ups and downs during the season, that mid-season slump is worth noting. Defensive coordinators have now had plenty of time to break down that film. Coming in as a third-round pick from a mid-major, it’s a safe bet that Hunt wasn’t a focus for that group heading into 2017. He definitely is in 2018.
The running back also found out that it isn’t only defensive coaches who are now paying attention to him. Like Elliott, Hunt found some unwanted attention for his off-the-field activities this offseason. While any suspension from the league probably wouldn’t come down this season, the Chiefs’ new star is already having to answer questions about it.
The New Quarterback
As a rookie, Hunt had the luxury of playing with one of the league’s best game managers in Alex Smith. The veteran quarterback had Andy Reid‘s Kansas City offense down pat and can read a defense with no problem.
When the Chiefs traded up in the first round of the 2017 NFL Draft to pluck Texas Tech quarterback Patrick Mahomes with the 12th pick, it was always only a matter of time before he would supplant Smith.
In the long run, the change at quarterback might turn out great for Kansas City. In the short-term, it’s probably not great for Hunt.
Having barely played last season, Mahomes has a steep learning curve — one that a number of former Big 12 signal callers have struggled with. In his first training camp as the starter, Mahomes has struggled with interceptions, something entirely new for the Chiefs after the risk-averse Smith.
Mahomes has a strong arm, and he’s got some gunslinger swagger to him, which is why Kansas City wanted to get him involved sooner rather than later. He’s also going to have receivers, in Tyreek Hill and Sammy Watkins, who are able to catch up to his deep ball.
There’s no way, however, to gain experience without having him take the same lumps as every other young quarterback. Until he proves that he can identify where a blitz is coming from and shows that he knows when to check down instead of forcing a ball into coverage, defenses are going to dare Mahomes to throw.
What It Means for Hunt
No matter what his shortcomings might be as a head coach, Reid is an offensive genius. He’ll come up with plays that will minimize what Mahomes needs to do. After all, Reid once coaxed back-to-back 300-yard passing games from Kevin Kolb, for heaven’s sake.
That’s not going to stop opposing defenses from loading up the box to stop Hunt, particularly early in the season. The long runs that were a hallmark of his rookie season will most likely be harder to come by this time around.
Hunt also will need to be at his best in pass protection. During the early weeks of 2018, the likes of Joey Bosa, Melvin Ingram, Von Miller, and Calais Campbell will be coming after Mahomes relentlessly.
That could lead to a high number of third-and-longs, which are no friend to either a running back nor a young quarterback.
Last season, Hunt caught 53 balls during the regular season. With defenses loading up to stop the run and sending the kitchen sink at Mahomes, Reid will give his running back plenty of opportunities to increase those receiving numbers, getting Hunt out into space on the outside while Travis Kelce roams the middle of the field.
That’s the good news for the running back. The bad news is it’s hard to forecast his rushing totals not taking at least a slight step backwards.
Ultimately, Hunt will probably become Mahomes best friend in the Chiefs offense — a threat that will keep defenses honest while he works underneath to Kelce and over the top to Hill. That transformation for Kansas City’s offense relies on the young quarterback figuring out a whole lot, which is going to take plenty of game action that will feature a whole bunch of mistakes.
It’s entirely possible that Hunt will be a better overall player in his second season, and still not match the output from his rookie year. That, my friends, is the epitome of a sophomore slump, one that will claim Hunt just as it has so many of his NFL predecessors.