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Running Back Breakout Seasons
David M. Dorey

There is no position like a RB to find a guy who comes from obscurity to help your team. Most rushers will have about a three year productive span, the great ones push it up to six or so and Barry Sanders just plain deserves a separate wing at the Hall of Fame in Canton, Ohio. Since Running Backs will produce consistent numbers, they will go early and often in your drafts so it pays to find the guys before their value dumps them in the first round of your Fantasy Football draft next year.

First let's consider what the top 30 FF scoring RB's looked like from 1997, sorted by their fantasy point values.

Round Drafted : Perhaps surprisingly, many of last seasons best RB’s never held up a new jersey on the first day of their NFL draft. In the top ten from last year, only Sanders, Bettis, Kaufman and Faulk proved were first rounders. Steals? Davis, Martin, Levens and Anderson. RB value is related as much to the team as the player. This holds true throughout the top rushers and for the past many years.

Years Played : There appears a fair distribution of years of experience. Old man Sanders leads the pack and the most common level is between three to four years of experience. Dillon, Dunn, Antowain Smith and Lane (played half a season) made a good showing as a rookie, but on the face of it there seems to be a trend of third and fourth year players hitting their stride.

Break Out Years : Almost all of the players who had scored at least eight touchdowns appear to have done it earlier in their careers. The distribution appears fairly mixed between those who did so as rookies up through the guys who waited until the third year.

NFL Player Round Drafted Years Played Breakout Year FF Pts
DET Sanders, Barry 1 9 1 202
DEN Davis, Terrell 6 3 1 192
GB Levens, Dorsey 5 4 3 162
MIA Abdul-jabbar, K. 3 2 1 154
PIT Bettis, Jerome 1 5 4 143
OAK Kaufman, N. 1 3 3 133
CIN Dillon, Corey 2 1 1 129
ATL Anderson, J. 7 4 4 129
IND Faulk, Marshall 1 4 1 124
PHI Watters, Ricky 2 6 1 119
CHI Harris, Raymont 4 4 4 117
MIN Smith, Robert 1 5 N/A 115
TEN George, Eddie 1 2 1 114
TB Dunn, Warrick 1 1 N/A 114
NE Martin, Curtis 3 3 1 103
TB Alstott, Mike 2 2 2 102
NYJ Murrell, Adrian 5 5 N/A 102
JAC Means, Natrone 2 5 1 100
BUF Smith, Antowain 1 1 1 99
JAC Stewart, James 1 3 2 99
SF Hearst, Garrison 1 5 N/A 97
DAL Smith, Emmitt 1 8 1 89
CAR Lane, Fred fa 1 N/A 84
MIA Phillips, L. 1 2 2 84
NYG Way, Charles 6 3 N/A 80
SEA Warren, Chris 4 8 5 79
SD Brown, Gary 8 7 3 78
SF Kirby, Terry 3 5 N/A 77
WAS Allen, Terry 9 7 2 75
Sanders, Barry  9 
Smith, Emmitt 8
Warren, Chris 8
Brown, Gary 7
Allen, Terry 7
Watters, Ricky 6
Bettis, Jerome 5
Smith, Robert 5
Murrell, Adrian 5
Means, Natrone 5
Hearst, Garrison 5
Kirby, Terry 5
Levens, Dorsey 4
Anderson, Jamal 4
Faulk, Marshall 4
Harris, Raymont 4
Davis, Terrell 3
Kaufman, N. 3
Martin, Curtis 3
Stewart, James 3
Way, Charles 3
Abdul-jabbar, K. 2
George, Eddie 2
Alstott, Mike 2
Phillips, L. 2
Dillon, Corey 1
Dunn, Warrick 1
Smith, Antowain 1
Lane, Fred 1
Sanders, Barry 1
Smith, Emmitt 1
Watters, Ricky 1
Means, Natrone 1
Faulk, Marshall 1
Davis, Terrell 1
Martin, Curtis 1
Abdul-jabbar, K. 1
George, Eddie 1
Dillon, Corey 1
Smith, Antowain 1
Allen, Terry 2
Stewart, James 2
Alstott, Mike 2
Phillips, L. 2
Brown, Gary 3
Levens, Dorsey 3
Kaufman, N. 3
Bettis, Jerome 4
Anderson, J. 4
Harris, Raymont 4
Warren, Chris 5
Smith, Robert N/A
Murrell, Adrian N/A
Hearst, Garrison N/A
Kirby, Terry N/A
Way, Charles N/A
Dunn, Warrick N/A
Lane, Fred N/A
Years of Experience

Remember how advanced age actually helped some QB's? Throw that notion out the window for RB's! In the past season, 23 players had five years or less experience. Let's repeat that - for the best 30 RB's from 1997, almost 80% of them left college after 1992. Almost half (13) were still in college in 1994. Old guys? Only six had more than five years playing time. You really think Brown, Allen, Warren, Emmitt and Sanders will see the year 2000 wearing a helmet? Is Ricky about to join the "Lost Step Club for Men?".

The numbers, and this holds true the past several years, dictate that youth is everything to a RB. Will Emmitt, Ricky, Terry, Gary and Chris return to form at that age? Hard to support. Will Barry ever slow down? Harder to explain.

If you want to play probability (which is the basis of fantasy football by the way), what exactly is it that makes Emmitt Smith, Ricky Watters, Terry Allen and Gary Brown look attractive this year? A better question is do you think Robert Smith, Hearst or Murrell will have their FIRST season with 8 TD's in 1998? They are entering their sixth seasons and no one has had a breakout after their fourth season except Warren (5th year) who did not play his first two seasons. Maybe I am a pessimist, but I hate betting against something that has not happened in a long time, if ever. If you were in a casino and they offered you a game that no one had won, how much do you bet?

Of those top 30 RB's, also notice that for each "years of experience" there were four or five up until the sixth year. This year's four RB's worthy of the top 30? I like Taylor, Holcombe, Edwards and Hicks. Enis might make it as well if he fires another agent and just signs on the dotted line. Four rookies - who do you think?

Youth is everything. RB's are the NFL version of the Marine Corps. First in...first out.

Breakout Season

Of the 22 RB’s from 1997 who had ever scored 8 or more TD's, half (11) had their first breakout season as a rookie. Those eleven are also a role call for RB’s who made a big splash in FF - Sanders, Emmitt, Watters, George, Means, Jabbar, Faulk, Davis, Martin, Dillon and Antowain Smith. Four broke out in their second year and six later hit the mark in years three and four of their careers. Of these, most were not handed starting jobs their first year (Brown, Levens, Kaufman, Anderson, Harris). And Chris Warren brings up the rear with the only player to have a breakout in their fifth season. Want to catch a rising star? Best chance is to get the young ones.

Rookie RB’s are typically mid-draft fare largely from the risk that they pose. It is safe to say that most never meet expectations, but it is also evident that great RB’s take no time to hit the ground running. Each rookie class contributes one or two RB's to the elite - Sanders ('89), Smith and Warren ('90), Allen ('91), Watters ('92), Bettis ('93), Faulk ('94), Davis and Martin ('95), Jabbar and George ('96), Dillon and A. Smith ('97). For the class of 1998? Probably one or two long-term stars, a couple others who turn in good seasons for a few years. Too early to tell, but I like Taylor's chances so far. And take into account that of the 1997 top ten scorers, only 4 were first round picks. Most were not. Of the top 30, only 13 were first rounders. I assume this fact is not something that the agent for Enis includes in his negotiation tactics.

Running backs are truly the most dynamic, changing position in the NFL. They offer unmatched consistency and FF value, and yet they are also the least likely to have a long career. Bottom line - keep them young and fresh. Most stars breakout as rookies and too often, too soon turn into a falling star. And if you are willing to bet that Murrell, Robert Smith and Hearst all manage to beat "never", perhaps you can thow in a side bet that a falling star like Emmitt Smith or Terry Allen can suddenly rise again. It can happen...but it is going to have to happen on your team, not mine.