Take Tom Brady off the Madden cover; after Thursday night’s NFL season opener, it’s clear that Kareem Hunt deserves to be on it.
The rookie running back helped the Chiefs blow past the defending champs in a 42-27 win, putting together one of the best debuts in league history. He racked up quite the list of Pats he embarrassed. Hunt burned Cassius Marsh, a doomed defensive end asked to stick with him, on a deep passing route; he boomed safety Duron Harmon to the ground; he stiff-armed defensive tackle Lawrence Guy. But most importantly, he kept turning toss after toss into positive yardage, perpetually spurting into space.
Hunt finished with 17 carries for 148 yards with a touchdown, plus five catches for 98 yards with two more scores. He smashed the record for yards from scrimmage in an NFL debut, recording 29 more than Anquan Boldin did in his breakout 2003 performance, and tied for the fourth-most rushing yards in a debut all time—with the three performances above him happening in 1979 and 1980. Hunt also had the most fantasy points in a debut ever, meaning that one person in your league is probably completely insufferable this Friday.
So, now that we’ve seen him juke and burn a team that some believed could go 16-0, we have to ask: Who the hell is Kareem Hunt?
Hunt is a 5-foot-11, 208-pound running back who ran for a school-record 4,945 yards during his college career at Toledo. His sophomore campaign in 2014 is a work of statistical wonder: He rushed for 100 yards every game, including in a 265-yard outing against Bowling Green and a 271-yard, five-touchdown effort against Arkansas State in the GoDaddy Bowl.
In a 2017 draft class stocked with star running backs like Leonard Fournette, Dalvin Cook, and Christian McCaffrey, though, Hunt was widely regarded as second tier. Those were elite recruits known for their remarkable physical traits since they were in high school; Hunt received only two power-conference scholarship offers, from Minnesota and Pitt. There are faster players than Hunt—he ran a 4.62-second 40-yard dash at the combine and got caught from behind on a run against the Patriots late Thursday night—and there are stronger players than Hunt. The traits that make him stand out are his instinctiveness and elusiveness. Pro Football Focus graded him as the top running back in college football last season; he led the nation as a senior by forcing 98 missed tackles.
Running back was a focus for the Chiefs in this spring’s draft, after the team finally came to terms with the fact that Jamaal Charles would not be their forever option. But they still had Spencer Ware penciled in as the starter. They used a first-round pick on a more fundamental franchise need, selecting quarterback of the future Patrick Mahomes II, and traded a fourth-round pick to the Vikings in a package that allowed the front office to take Hunt in the third. When Ware tore the MCL and PCL in his right knee during the preseason, Hunt was Kansas City’s next man up.
Let’s watch Hunt’s college highlights.
It’s easy to see the running back who just rolled over New England in those clips. He instantly finds openings, and his balance is magical. He seems to read every defender’s momentum perfectly and he makes effortless cuts that render them hopeless.
But there’s also a lot about Hunt’s debut that was inexplicable. Take, for example, his first play: a fumble.
Hunt didn’t lose a fumble once in his entire Toledo career. He had one fumble, as a freshman, and promptly hopped on top of it. Sure, most of his carries came against lowly MAC competition. But how unlikely is it that Hunt fumbled the first time he touched the ball in the NFL after not losing a single fumble in 855 touches over the last four years? Is Hunt’s ball security an issue in the pros, or was this an odd fluke?
And some of Hunt’s biggest contributions against the Pats came in the passing game. He had two receiving touchdowns, including this 78-yard catch out of the backfield:
Hunt had one receiving touchdown in his Toledo career. He had only 32 catches for 152 yards over his first three seasons before playing a more significant role in the passing game as a senior, with 41 catches for 403 yards. It makes sense that Hunt will catch more passes as a pro—it’s not like he doesn’t have the talent to do so, and Chiefs head coach Andy Reid prefers to get his running backs involved in the passing game. But that touchdown wasn’t a screen or a checkdown: It was Hunt bursting downfield and absolutely torching Marsh. How could we have predicted that the play of the game would be a deep-ball connection between a back with little route-running experience and noodle-armed quarterback Alex Smith?
It would be easy to explain Hunt’s Week 1 success with a slew of factoids and told-ya-so’s. (The person who owns him in your fantasy league surely is taking this approach.) But the magic of nights like Thursday is that for as much analysis we put into the NFL draft and fantasy sports, there was no way to reasonably predict Hunt’s debut. And no reasonable prediction can be made about his future.
Look at the list of players with 100-plus rushing yards in their debuts. Hunt is alongside Hall of Famers Marshall Faulk, Earl Campbell, Marcus Allen, and LaDainian Tomlinson. He’s also in the company of guys like Cadillac Williams, Ben Tate, and Daniel Thomas. Maybe we just witnessed the birth of a star; maybe this will go down as the high point of Hunt’s career.
Who is Kareem Hunt? We’re all going to find out together.