Kareem Hunt is averaging 9.6 yards every time the Kansas City Chiefs give him the ball, including 8.5 yards per rushing attempt. The third-round rookie running back from the University of Toledo already has six touchdowns — more than any Kansas City running back had all of last year and as many as any rookie through his first three games in history. And three of those scores have come from more than 50 yards, which is as many as any player had all of last year from scrimmage, according to Pro-Football-Reference, and also something a rookie has never done in his first three games. At this point, no one would be surprised if Kareem Hunt grew wings and flew out of Arrowhead Stadium in Week 4.
But the most impressive thing about Hunt’s scintillating NFL debut is his combined yards rushing and receiving. His total of 538 — FiveThirtyEight! — is the most by any rookie runner or pass catcher in his first three games since Billy Sims gained 562 for the Detroit Lions in 1980. Here’s a look at the 812 rookies who accumulated at least 100 yards from scrimmage in their first three games. As you can see, Hunt and Sims are in a class by themselves.
This was not supposed to happen. Hunt toiled in relative obscurity in the Mid-American Conference and did not impress scouts at the NFL combine, running a 4.62 40-yard dash — which is beginning to look about as predictive as the pedestrian 4.59 that lowered Jerry Rice’s draft stock in 1985. Hunt’s NFL.com pre-draft scouting report raised a lot of red flags about his ability: “Average explosion … marginal downhill burst … too cute in the hole … could struggle to find chunk runs on the next level.” Welp.
That’s why he was available with the 86th pick in the draft when the Chiefs traded up to select him. For the next couple of months, there was no indication that this kind of explosive debut was remotely possible. Hunt, instead, was praised for his pass-blocking and his ability to learn the system. Then incumbent starter Spencer Ware suffered a preseason knee injury, which translated into a field promotion for the rookie. Hunt responded by fumbling his first NFL carry. But Chiefs coach Andy Reid was undeterred and gave Hunt the ball again on Kansas City’s next play — and it was off to the races. Hunt finished that upset 42-27 win over the Patriots with 246 yards from scrimmage and three touchdowns.
As the Chiefs prepare for their Monday night game against Washington, the only people more excited than Chiefs fans to watch what Hunt will do next are his fantasy owners. In the realm of fantasy, the nerdy underbelly of NFL obsession, Hunt is already a god — a status rookies seldom achieve. Since 2000, here are the rookies who accumulated at least 20 total traditional fantasy points in their first three games, which is also a good proxy for gauging overall production because it compares quarterbacks with running backs and receivers.
The question remaining is how long Hunt can keep up this level of production. The list of rookie RBs who accumulated eye-popping yards-from-scrimmage totals in their first three career games is dotted with legends who burst out of the gates when they reached the pro level — such as Hall of Famers Marshall Faulk, LaDainian Tomlinson and Barry Sanders, each of whom notched 360 or more yards in Games 1-3. But there are also plenty of players who would prove to be flukes. In 2005, Cadillac Williams notched 434 yards from scrimmage in his first three games but would end his career with only 5,040 yards across six seasons.
Cadillac’s auspicious start reflects the greater trend: an RB’s production in his first three games isn’t a great predictor of how well the rest of his rookie season will go, much less his career. To measure this, we looked at the top 100 rookie RBs since 1950 in their first three games1 and found that the correlation between those totals and their rest-of-season output2 was just 0.19, which is a weak relationship on a scale of -1.0 to 1.0.
That means it’s still too soon to say for sure how big Hunt’s stats will end up being. Based on the relationship above, we’d expect an RB with 538 yards from scrimmage in career Games 1-3 to put up about 1,295 yards from scrimmage over the rest of the season, which (when added to the stats he’s already produced) would give him 1,833 scrimmage yards. As far as rookie RB performances go, that’s very good — it would rank seventh since 1950 — but it would still leave Hunt hundreds of yards behind Edgerrin James’s 1999 and Eric Dickerson’s 1983 performances.
In the meantime, Chiefs fans are just enjoying the ride.
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