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The Truth About Rookie Running Backs
David Dorey
Updated: May 7, 2012
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Historically no position has been as profitable for rookies as the running back. It made sense - it is the easiest skill position to learn. They literally have the ball handed to them and for the most part just head to some predetermined point in the line hoping that the blocking was successful. If it was, he squirts through for about four yards and gets tackled in the second tier. With luck, he makes a move and gains more. All too often, the gap is not wide open and he either has to bull into it or dance elsewhere. If you have played fantasy football long enough, you love rookie running backs. You know you do. You had at least one or two along the way that you drafted cheap and they made a huge difference for your team.

But there is some sense that maybe the party is over. That rookie backs have lost their place in the early rounds of fantasy drafts. In an attempt to make the analysis as consistent as possible, this article will consider all running backs drafted since 1994 - the first year that the NFL scaled back to only seven rounds in the draft. That's 18 years of "same-same" to measure and plenty for statistical significance - if there are any differences found. One of the reasons we think so highly of rookie running backs is that they often win the AP Rookie of the Year. That sticks in the mind knowing that the best player out of college that year was a running back.

Rookie of the Year

Year Pos. Pick Player Tm. College Year Pos. Pick Player Tm. College
1994 RB 2 Marshall Faulk IND San Diego State 2003 WR 54 Anquan Boldin ARI Florida State
1995 RB 74 Curtis Martin NEP Pittsburgh 2004 QB 11 Ben Roethlisberger PIT Miami (Ohio)
1996 RB 14 Eddie George HOU Ohio State 2005 RB 5 Carnell Williams TB Auburn
1997 RB 12 Warrick Dunn TB Florida State 2006 QB 3 Vince Young TEN Texas
1998 WR 21 Randy Moss MIN Marshall 2007 RB 7 Adrian Peterson MIN Oklahoma
1999 RB 4 Edgerrin James IND Miami 2008 QB 3 Matt Ryan ATL Boston College
2000 RB 189 Mike Anderson DEN Utah 2009 WR 22 Percy Harvin MIN Florida
2001 RB 38 Anthony Thomas CHI Michigan 2010 QB 1 Sam Bradford STL Oklahoma
2002 RB 51 Clinton Portis DEN Miami 2011 QB 1 Cam Newton CAR Auburn

Well. Doesn't look as good for the top rookie to be a running back lately. Eight of nine years through 2002 were all running backs and since only two have managed to be the "best offensive rookie". Carnell Williams never again matched his rookie season (or really his first three games) and Adrian Peterson stands out as the only back in the last nine years to be the Rookie of the Year and a continued elite player.

Rookie running backs were almost always stars until about nine years ago. Since then - it's been evolving more in the passing game with quarterbacks taking five of the last nine. From 1967 (the start of the Rookie of the Year) until 1993, the tally was 21 of 27 years with running backs as winners and only one quarterback (1970 - Dennis Shaw). Bottom line - from 1967 until 2002 there were 29 of 36 seasons with a running back as Rookie of the Year. Basically, four of every five years were with a running back until 2003 when it reversed to only one of five. And it has been four years since we have seen a running back end up as Rookie of the Year - they had never gone more than two years in all of past history.

The super stud rookie back is either gone or at least in a long-term hiding. Why is this? There are two aspects to consider - what the college ranks producing and what NFL teams need. While there are many college programs slanted towards passing more now, there are still scores of top talent backs in the NCAA. And as we will later discuss, top scoring rookies are by no means limited to first rounders - it is about their opportunity more than any other criteria. It is all about how the NFL is using them now and the reality is that has been decreasing.

One least factor to consider for the rookie of the year is that NFL teams no longer draft players to develop them. They draft them with the intention to get help in year one and that even extends to quarterbacks and wideouts - positions that once upon a time were given one or two years to season on the bench before taking a starting role.

Top three most productive rookie running backs per year

Another interesting measurement that shows how the NFL is using rookie running backs is to consider the top three most productive backs from each draft class. While you could use a variety of categories - carries, touchdowns, yardage, etc.. - let's just consider total touches. That shows how much workload was given to the top three most busy rookies and in almost all cases, it matches up with both carries and fantasy points. Here are the touch totals of the top three running backs in touches for the last 18 years:

Total Combined Touches for the Top Three Most Productive Rookie Backs per Year
1994 1995 1996 1997 1998 1999 2000 2001 2002 2003 2004 2005 2006 2007 2008 2009 2010 2011
892 991 889 745 787 1009 887 965 771 546 789 705 721 773 991 658 615 578

Hard to argue that there has not been a decline but 2008 popped up with one of the highest usages of the top three rookies. The year with Matt Forte, Steve Slaton and Chris Johnson was more of an aberration though with a clear decline otherwise and the last three years combining for the lowest stretch by far. We have to pay some homage to the fact that 2011 was an odd year thanks to the lockout but then again it did not seem to bother other positions.

Safe enough to say that those top three rookie backs are a good measurement of the fantasy value of the year since more than three really starts to water down the position with part-timers.

In the world of fantasy football, we love our rookie running backs and there are always at least a few that seem to carry value in their first season. But let's break it down and see exactly how well each draft class delivered. Using a non-reception point, standard scoring (1/10 yardage, six point TDs) scenario applied to each rookie, it will show us just how many stars emerged. Those with 200+ points would fall into being a RB1 (one of the first tier of starters since they would be in the top 10 to 12 each year). Those with 150 to 199 points make up RB2 - still a solid starter but not a difference maker. 100 to 149 points is a RB3 that should rank around 20 to 30th in your league. An okay play as a flex player perhaps. 50 to 99 points is just a bench player and then 49 down to no points at all is of course a bust. Makes sense and matches up to how running backs overall score every year.

How many relevant rookie running backs were there each year?

  RB1 RB2 RB3 BENCH BUST
Pts 200+ 150+ 100+ 50+ 0
1994 1 1 2 4 25
1995 1 3 1 4 30
1996 1 1 1 3 30
1997   2 3   21
1998 2     5 28
1999 1 1 1 4 29
2000 2   2 4 33
2001 1 2 4 5 24
2002 1   1 7 30
2003   1 1 2 31
2004 1 1 2 2 31
2005   1 2 4 26
2006 1 2 3 3 23
2007 1 2 1 4 35
2008 3 1 3 6 28
2009   1 2 3 29
2010     4 4 26
2011     2 6 39

We'll consider all rookies here - those who were drafted and even the undrafted running backs who had at least one carry or one catch and includes fullbacks as well.

The bust numbers may seem incredibly high but again - this includes fullbacks and running backs who were rookies. There are always a large number of undrafted players who actually get a carry or catch in a game but that is about it. Realize that if every team had just one undrafted rookie runner there would be 32 of them and some teams love those cheap, undrafted guys who are never going to see much use anyway.

It has been three years since we have seen any rookie running back turn in numbers that warranted him being a starter all season. Granted there have been a few players such as DeMarco Murray who were injured during the season. Murray would have most likely been an RB2 but then again remember he did not have much workload for the initial six weeks of the season.

The best we have seen in the last three years was just one player who turned in total numbers worthy of a RB2 - Knowshon Moreno. Not a very good track record. We see how 2008 was surprisingly the best year ever for a top rookie running back with three players turning in over 200 fantasy points but that was such an aberration that it is hard to consider it anything more than a freak year. It was the only time since 2000 that there was more than one running back who had more than 200 fantasy points in his first season.

The backs with 100 to 149 fantasy points had value but usually only for a couple of games and offered no consistency of enough fantasy points to matter.

What should be considered as well is that there are always 20 to 40 rookie running backs every year who get drafted and/or get at least one carry or catch. At best, there seems to be no more than one or two rookie rushers that have any real fantasy value. Is there any way of predicting which one of every 20 rookies are going to matter? Where the player was selected seems like the logical place to look first.

How many top rookie backs came out of the first three rounds of every draft?

First Round
  RB1 RB2 RB3 BENCH BUST
Pts 200+ 150+ 100+ 50+ 0
1994 1     2 1
1995   1   2 1
1996 1     2 1
1997   1 1    
1998 2     1 1
1999 1   1    
2000 1   1 1 2
2001 1   1   1
2002     1 1  
2003         2
2004 1 1 1   1
2005   1 1   1
2006   2 1 1  
2007 1 1      
2008 1   2   2
2009   1 1 1  
2010     2 1  
2011       1  
Second Round
  RB1 RB2 RB3 BENCH BUST
Pts 200+ 150+ 100+ 50+ 0
1994   1 1 1 2
1995         3
1996     1   1
1997   1 1   2
1998         1
1999       1 6
2000          
2001   1 1   1
2002 1     1 2
2003       1 1
2004     1 1 1
2005       1 1
2006 1       2
2007         4
2008 1     1  
2009     1    
2010       1 2
2011       1 3
Third Round
  RB1 RB2 RB3 BENCH BUST
Pts 200+ 150+ 100+ 50+ 0
1994     1   6
1995 1 1     3
1996   1     7
1997         4
1998       1 4
1999         3
2000     1 2 2
2001     1 2 3
2002       1 1
2003         4
2004          
2005       1 2
2006       1 1
2007         3
2008 1 1   1 1
2009       1 1
2010          
2011     1 1 1

First Round - You would expect this to be where nearly all the successful backs came from and overall it certainly holds it own far better than any other round. Some gems found here include Eddie George (1996), Jamal Lewis (2000), LaDainian Tomlinson (2001), Adrian Peterson (2007) and Chris Johnson (2008). Starting in 1994, there were seven Top Ten studs over the first eight years but just three over the last ten years. There have been two slumps where there were no rookie runners in the top twenty and both lasted for two seasons - 2002 to 2003 and then 2010 to 2011. There has never been a three year period so far where no first round back ended in the top twenty but 2012 may break that chain. In most years, there were three or four running backs selected in the first round and at least one or two usually panned out. Not so much for going on four years now.

Second Round - The return here is less spectacular than you might have guessed. Only three running backs ever ended top ten after being drafted in the second round - Clinton Portis (2002), Maurice Jones-Drew (2006) and Matt Forte (2008). But other than those three, there have been no rookie running backs from the second round that have ended as anything more than a lower-end fantasy flex play. Just three of 28 (11%) second rounders ended up decent fantasy value their first season.

Third Round - Curtis Martin slipped into the third round back in 1995 thanks to injuries as a Senior at Pittsburgh but otherwise it has been nothing but a 16 year drought for this round to provide someone who mattered. In the freakishly good 2008 draft, both Steve Slaton and Kevin Smith were able to emerge from this round with nice freshman seasons. But once you leave the first two rounds, the chances of finding any running back of any note is not only mighty slim, it is getting worse.

How many top rookie backs came out of the last four rounds of the draft or were undrafted?

4th Through 7th Rounds
  RB1 RB2 RB3 BENCH BUST
Pts 200+ 150+ 100+ 50+ 0
1994         9
1995   1 1 1 9
1996       1 16
1997         10
1998       1 16
1999       2 12
2000       1 16
2001       1 8
2002       2 17
2003     1   16
2004       1 13
2005       2 15
2006     1 1 11
2007       2 16
2008     1 3 14
2009         18
2010         10
2011     1 3 20
Undrafted Rookies
  RB1 RB2 RB3 BENCH BUST
Pts 200+ 150+ 100+ 50+ 0
1994       2 6
1995       1 14
1996         5
1997     1   5
1998       2 6
1999         9
2000         13
2001   1   2 10
2002       2 10
2003       1 8
2004         16
2005     1   7
2006     1   10
2007   1 1 2 12
2008       1 11
2009       1 10
2010     2 2 14
2011         17

Naturally, you would not expect many top rookies to come out of the final four rounds or be undrafted and that has been very true. Almost to the point where you should always just ignore the lot of them considering how many players were are talking about over the last 18 years and how precious few have actually mattered as a rookie.

Considering those drafted late, it has been barren of much help. The only player with more than 150 points was Terrell Davis (6th round, 196 points) who was a surprise even to the Broncos. No other player drafted in those final four rounds managed to score more than 150 fantasy points and rank as a RB2 for their rookie season. Last year it was Roy Helu (4th round, 120 points) who managed to have some relevance though that was from a batch of games later in the year.

For those undrafted players, there were only two players who ended up as good as an RB2 and that was 2001 - Dominic Rhodes (187 points) and 2007 - Ryan Grant (158 points). That means of the 484 running backs drafted in the final four rounds or who were not drafted over the last 18 years, that only three players have ended up worthy of being a fantasy starter for the season and even then only as an RB2 so not a difference maker. It requires the very rare combination of the right situation, opportunity and team dynamics for these guys to matter. At best these are the guys that may have one or two decent games while a starter is mending on the sidelines.

What has been the fantasy payback for drafting a rookie running back?

2006 Pick # RB Taken Actual Rank Pts
Bush, Reggie 2.09 16 8 262
Bell, Mike 4.10 25 31 139
Addai, Joseph 5.01 26 15 216
Maroney, Laurence 5.10 30 29 143
Williams, DeAngelo 8.05 39 39 115
White, LenDale 8.08 41 52 44
Norwood, Jerious 9.07 42 43 86
Lundy, Wali 11.01 44 37 125
Jones-Drew, Maurice na na 7 264
2007 Pick # RB Taken Actual Rank Pts
Lynch, Marshawn 4.02 24 16 183
Peterson, Adrian 4.05 25 4 254
Jackson, Brandon 6.11 34 52 46
Henry, Chris 12.04 48 59 32
Leonard, Brian 12.08 49 44 76
2008 Pick # RB Taken Actual Rank Pts
McFadden, Darren 3.04 14 36 128
Forte, Matt 3.12 18 1 297
Smith, Kevin 5.12 27 17 194
Stewart ,Jonathan 6.07 31 30 145
Johnson, Chris 7.02 34 9 252
Mendenhall, Rashard 8.07 37 64 10
Jones, Felix 8.10 38 55 54
Rice, Ray 9.08 42 40 106
Slaton, Steve 11.10 49 8 252
2009 Pick # RB Taken Actual Rank Pts
Moreno, Knowshon 5.03 25 23 173
Wells, Chris 7.12 33 33 146
Brown, Donald 8.01 34 49 74
McCoy, LeSean 8.08 36 28 158
2010 Pick # RB Taken Actual Rank Pts
Mathews, Ryan 2.02 9 34 111
Best, Jahvid 3.11 17 18 187
Spiller, C.J. 7.06 31 42 80
Hardesty, Montario 10.02 44 68 -
2011 Pick # RB Taken Actual Rank Pts
Ingram, Mark 3.10 18 43 93
Thomas, Daniel 7.10 33 47 77
Helu, Roy 11.01 44 25 156
Murray, DeMarco 11.08 46 27 146

In order to give this all some real world flavor, I used the SOFA Classic expert league that has 12 teams and a Point Per Reception performance scoring (so their points are slightly higher than those above which had no reception points). This is just to look at how one league where team owners are serious and certainly among the better drafters out there. Considering the last six seasons, let's see where rookie runners were taken and then where they ended up that season (Actual Rank). "# RB Taken" indicates the total running backs taken when the draft pick was made.

This table says a lot.

From 2006 through 2008, each season served up at least two or three rookies who were very good draft values if not huge difference makers. 2006 not only served up Reggie Bush and Joseph Addai as decent values, somehow we all discounted Maurice Jones-Drew too much. He was undrafted here and in many other leagues and yet ended up as the #7 highest scoring running back. Those first two rookie running backs taken in fantasy drafts for 2007 both paid off nicely. And then came 2008 which should go down in history as one of the best running back classes of all time. Matt Forte, Chris Johnson and Steve Slaton all landed top ten marks in this scoring system.

And then we suffered through the last three seasons. At best you maybe got what you were paying for which was barely a RB2 if you were lucky. It gets worse every year. Ryan Mathews went to the high-powered San Diego offense but he missed four games and mostly just watched Michael Tolbert gain "freaking" as his new middle name.

Perhaps worst of all was Mark ingram who left Alabama with their first ever Heisman, was an AP All-American First Team and led the Crimson Tide to an undefeated National Championship where he was the MVP in the BCS Championship. He was drafted by perhaps the most dangerous offense that was looking to add more running to the play calling and that had only a smattering of oft-injured mediocre backs. What's not to like? Other than he rarely was used as more than the #3 or #2 back on his team and ended his disappointing season by missing the final four games. Daniel Thomas had two big games to open his season and then did almost nothing the rest of the way. DeMarco Murray was never used until midseason, looked great and then left injured as he had in college.

Been a rough three years for rookie runners. Even more so for the fantasy teams that took the chance on them.

Are the Good Times Really Over?

Probably.

The reality is that the shift towards a more pass-intensive offense has been further balanced by the use of committee backfields. Much like you have receivers for short routes, others for deep sidelines, others for possession work over the middle, etc., there are now different types of running backs. And even two identical sort of backs can be mixed and used in different ways. It is a copycat league and teams no longer want to rely on one person (unless it is the quarterback).

The reduction in use coincides with the position overall as we saw last season in my article The Rise and Fall of the Workhorse Running Back..

2008 was a magic year for rookie running backs and it produced Darren McFadden, Jonathan Stewart, Felix Jones, Rashard Mendenhall, Chris Johnson, Matt Forte, Ray Rice, Kevin Smith, Jamaal Charles, Steve Slaton, Tim Hightower and Ryan Torain. That blows away most any other draft year and it was perhaps the final glory year for the position for rookies. It was a freakishly great year for a position with declining good news.

But all is not lost. Yes, the first rookie back drafted has a terrible record for the last four seasons but hype makes the world go around in the summer. What is acceptable is that we all are more aware of the reality of rookies and in that our drafting of them has been mostly accurate. We don't take them to be much more than they are. There will always be situations where half the backfield gets injured and suddenly a rookie runner gets 300+ carries in a nice offense. Remember Maurice Jones-Drew who was rarely drafted as a rookie? Fred Taylor was the primary back there at the time and had 231 carries to 166 for Jones-Drew but he was a touchdown machine with 15 scores in his first season. It can still happen but those years of drafting Edgerrin James is over. James came out with 369 carries and 62 catches as a rookie in 1999. There were years in Indy where he literally had every carry in every game. That era died.

There is no reason to avoid rookie runners other than the overly optimistic who generally grab them first. Keep your odds a bit better with only runners taken in the first two rounds of the NFL draft if you can somehow get them cheaply enough. Each season they are falling in drafts thanks to failures of the rookie class before them. And yet swinging for the fence with any runner beyond the first two rounds just has always been a very bad bet. You'd be better off grabbing a veteran back probably 98% of the time. Rookies still have a place in fantasy football but it is more as a back-up or flex play or just a "hold on and see what happens" guy. Not a starter. The stats over time just no longer support them as anything more than a RB3 with luck and RB2 on an even more rare occasion.

2012 using the recent past as a gauge

Most everything points to reduced use of rookie backs each season and an ever increasing use of a committee backfield. At some point, the reality has to set in that primary backs carrying a huge load are rare and few and usually the result of a developing situation. So the measuring stick of what a successful rookie back should probably be less and the bar set much lower. For leagues using flex positions and reception points, the rookie backs still have a place to be sure.

Here's a quick look at the top backs drafted using only the first four rounds since that has been the cutoff in the past for reasonable value.

Pick Team Player Talent Opportunity Situation  
1.03 CLE Richardson, Trent Major disappointment if not the top rookie RB.
1.31 TB Martin, Doug Should pass Blount but will share
1.32 NYG Wilson, David #2 and like a faster, healthier Bradshaw
2.18 STL Pead, Isaiah Should offer speedy complement to Steven Jackson
2.29 SF James, LaMichael Electric runner but crowded backfield
3.04 DEN Hillman, Ronnie Denver is going to be passing anyway
3.21 BAL Pierce, Bernard Ray Rice's handcuff you will never use
4.02 MIA Miller, Lamar Local boy may get cameos as a rook
4.11 SEA Turbin, Robert Relieving Marshawn Lynch if that



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