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The History of "Top 5 Draft Pick" Running Backs
David Dorey
July 27, 2005
1st Round RB's
2002
1.16 William Green CLE
1.18 T.J. Duckett ATL
2003
1.23 Willis McGahee BUF
1.27 Larry Johnson KC
2004
1.24 Steven Jackson STL
1.26 Chris Perry CIN
1.30 Kevin Jones DET
2005
1.02 Ronnie Brown MIA
1.04 Cedric Benson CHI
1.05 Carnell Williams TB

This summer we get to select from the newest set of rookie running backs and it comes at a time of extremes. In 2005, there were three rushers taken in the first five picks (Ronnie Brown, Cedric Benson and Cadillac Williams). This comes after a three year drought of sorts for rookie runners and ends with the first time in NFL history that three runners were taken in the first five picks.

For those with a sense of history, rookie running backs were always the most exciting part of each season. If you just started playing fantasy football in 2002, chances are the recent history spawns limited expectations for those rookie runners. That would be wrong.

First, let's paint the picture of the last three drafts:

2002 - The Browns finally took the first rookie runner in the mid-first round. Green has proven to be a major disappointment and has been plagued with personal and legal problems. Duckett was selected to mix with the newly acquired Warrick Dunn and at 255 pounds, he was only expected to offer short yardage and goal line duty. That's pretty much been his role since and even then, the Falcons have ignored him at times.

2003 - How sad are the rookie runners exiting the college ranks when the best one was not taken until the 1.23 pick and he had blown his ACL and would not play that year? The only other back taken in the first round was Larry Johnson who was expected to only offer support to Priest Holmes. Many did not expect any runners to be taken in the first round at all that year.

2004 - Continuing the demise in stature with NFL scouts, the first running back taken was Steven Jackson (1.24) who went to the Rams that already was starting Marshall Faulk. He was not expected to offer more than a supporting role and some relief role for the next Faulk injury. Chris Perry was supposed to challenge Rudi Johnson for tailback eventually but was hampered by a sports hernia the entire season. Lastly, Kevin Jones went at the 1.30 to the Lions but he too had injury problems that kept him limited for the first half of the season.

So after three seasons, the first round produced one headcase flop (Green though he did gain 1010 yards and 6 TDs), one part-timer (Duckett), three back-ups (Johnson, Perry, Jackson), one late season stud (Jones) and one guy on crutches (McGahee). That's not exactly what fantasy football dreams are meant to be. No wonder by now the rookie runners generate mild enthusiasm compared to what they once did.

But this year should be different. This season has three running backs taken in the first five picks. That says a lot. Any player taken in the first few picks of the draft says not only does the owning NFL team think this player fills a need, but that they are willing to pay a very high price for one of the elite players coming out of college that year. If you want to get a "fall-back" player like Larry Johnson or Chris Perry, then sure - they wait until the end of the first round or later. The highest back taken as a "fall-back" was Shaun Alexander with the 1.19 pick in 2000 when the Seahawks decided to back-up Ricky Waters.

Make no mistake - a top five pick means this is considered an elite player over all other players regardless of position. It means the expectation is that the player will be a significant contributor and in the case of running backs - contribute from the start. There is no position on the field that likely has a lower learning curve than running back (and a shorter shelf life). This is why players like Nick Goings or Reuben Droughns (both second string fullbacks) were able to shine last year.

Why Spend a Top 5 on a Running Back?

There has been no "Top 5" pick of running backs in the previous three years. There hasn't even been a back taken in the first half of the first round. Let's spin through the previous ten years of running backs taken in the first five picks and see what situation caused the team to spend such a high pick and what their results were.

Running Backs Drafted Top 5 - 1996-2001
Year Pick # Name Tm Rookie Year Previous Year - Best Running Back on Team
2001 1.05 LaDainian Tomlinson SD 1603 Yds, 10 TD Terrell Fletcher - 739 Yds, 4 TD
2000 1.05 Jamal Lewis BAL 1660 Yds, 6 TD Errict Rhett - 1021 Yds, 7 TD
1999 1.04 Edgerrin James IND 2139 Yds, 17 TD Marshall Faulk - 2227 Yds, 10 TD (traded in offseason)
1999 1.05 Ricky Williams NO 1056 Yds, 2 TD Lamar Smith - 706 Yds, 3 TD
1998 1.05 Curtis Enis CHI 497 Yds, 0 TD Raymont Harris - 1148 Yds, 10 TD
1997 NA (Warrick Dunn - 1.12) TB 1440 Yds, 7 TD Mike Alstott - 934 Yds, 6 TD
1996 NA (Lawrence Phillips - 1.06) STL 658 Yds, 5 TD Jerome Bettis - 743 Yds, 3 TD

1996 and 1997 did not have any top 5 picks, but it did have backs taken earlier than what we have seen in the last three years. Warrick Dunn came into the league already considered undersized and was taken to complement Mike Alstott in the best "thunder and lightning" pairing of the last ten years. Lawrence Phillips came into the league with the 1.06 pick, and promptly proved that every bad thing said about him not only was true, but that it was to be continued in the NFL. Now there's a major flop.

In 1998, Curtis Enis was the lone top pick for running back by the Bears who took him in spite of his own Penn State headcoach labeling Enis as "a con man". Enis had been suspended at Penn State for taking bribes but managed to convince that he was not a problem unlike the other player the Bears had considered at the 1.05 pick (guy named Randy Moss). Enis caught the tag of "Sybil" for his multiple personalities on the team and after only nine games tore his ACL which shelved him for the remainder of the season. Make this another flop. But one with injury problems too.

In 1999, the gold standard for running back picks started. Edgerrin James was the surprise pick over Ricky Williams by the Colts who felt that he was a better receiver than Ricky (the previous season, Faulk had over 900 yards receiving). They were also more comfortable with James' personality than Williams (in retrospect, count that as "one" for the Colts). James not only picked up where Faulk left off, he scored a total of 17 TDs. He ended up as the #2 fantasy running back that year.

Ricky Williams went to the Saints in the much celebrated trade when Mike Ditka basically traded his entire draft away to procure Williams. They posed in the infamous "wedding photo". Then Williams suffered both high and low ankle sprains on the carpet of the Superdome. He hyperextended his elbow and hurt his big toe. He was short-tempered and nasty with the media if in fact he would even speak to him. Strangely enough, Williams came into the league with the biggest expectations of perhaps any other runner ever.

In 2000, Jamal Lewis came into the league and was either hated or loved by fantasy fans with few in the middle. He came in with the knock of being injury prone and overrated. He was also considered an elite back by many. In short, he ran well that rookie season though he only scored six times. He ended up as the 15th best fantasy back that year.

In 2001, we end with the greatest example of what a rookie runner can do. Tomlinson went to the Chargers that were noted for a terrible rushing game and poor offensive line. He ended up as the #6 fantasy back that year.

What the last ten years of Top 5 picks has shown is that running backs with any measure of personal/attitude baggage have spun downward. Enis and Phillips both crashed and burned while Ricky Williams spent his first few years battling "clinical shyness" and a remarkable laundry list of injuries. His second year was looking very bright with five straight 100 yard games. Then he broke his ankle.

There is no question that Tomlinson, Lewis and James have been gems in the NFL from the very start. Aside from the circus that greeted Williams' rookie year, he obviously ended up as a great player when his eyes were not bloodshot and he was in Miami. So who will Ronnie Brown, Cedric Benson and Carnell Williams most resemble? The golden trio of Tomlinson, Lewis and James or will they end up like Enis, and Phillips.

None of the top three rookies this year are considered to have the personal problems that had already plagued Enis and Phillips, so that parallel is hard to consider valid. The notion that all three are going to a poor offensive line is not completely valid either. Tomlinson was stellar as a rookie in spite of his line.

Running Back By Committee?

For each of the three rookies, a sharing scenario with other running backs always seems a possibility and there is occasionally lip service to that effect from coaches. Does it really happen? It's almost a cliche every summer with the things that are mentioned to reporters who will constantly think of new ways to ask the same questions. Every team is going to commit to the run more. Every team is going to focus on playing better defense. And every incoming running back will "have to earn his keep" and likely share with whomever the best back on the roster was before he got there.

Has that happened before for a Top 5 pick? A player that will cost so much in salary and signing bonus that the biggest concern is envious teammates. Have teams in the past spent such an early pick only to use them sparingly or in conjunction with another tailback? Let's break down those players from the last ten years for a historical perspective.

Player Car Yards TD Rec Yards TD % of RB
1. LaDainian Tomlinson 339 1236 10 59 367 0 87%
2. Terrell Fletcher 29 107 0 23 184 0  
1. Jamal Lewis 309 1364 6 27 296 0 *74%
2. Priest Holmes 135 594 0 23 185 2  
1. Edgerrin James 369 1553 13 62 586 4 99%
1. Ricky Williams 253 884 2 28 172 0 83%
2. Lamar Smith 60 205 0 20 151 1  
1. Curtis Enis 287 916 3 45 340 2 88%
2. James Allen 32 119 0 9 91 0  

All of the Top 5 backs drafted in the last ten years were heavily used. The percentages for Jamal Lewis were adjusted since Lewis was not the primary back for the first two weeks and later Holmes picked up 30 carries in two games only after Lewis had already ran for over 170 yards in each. Bottom line - every Top 5 back was clearly a primary back. Even Curtis Enis.

John Gruden was asked if he planned on featuring Carnell Williams this year and he summed it up well when he said "There's no question about that. You don't pick a guy this high to make him a nickel back or make him an exclusive role player. This guy can play in any situation. I think he can handle the pounding, and he's got durability. He'll play hurt, practice hurt and that's important also." Any NFL headcoach will echo the same about a top 5 pick running back. Try selling the pricetag to the owner for anything less than that.

Of the five players taken in the Top 5 on the last ten years, three were immediate stars - James, Tomlinson and Lewis. One was good and had heavy work but was repeatedly injured - Ricky Williams. And one was disappointing and yet still managed to take 88% of his team's running back action - Curtis Enis.

Big numbers can come from rookie running backs, something that the last three years has tried to obscure. While this summer has to give some benefit of doubt that all three rookies will have talent, one persistent speculation is that one or more of the three will not be used as a true feature back and share significant action with another play.

Cadillac Williams? While Michael Pittman has flashed some signs of ability, he's lost the ball more than anyone else last year and after eight years in the league, there is no question what his ability and role is. The Buccaneers snapped up Cadillac with the intention of making him a heavy use, primary back. "No question about that" to quote Gruden. Tampa Bay has been in the bottom third of the league for rushing the last two years and Cadillac is slated to change that.

Ronnie Brown? The Dolphins have a bad offensive line? Sure - but it is still likely better than the one that allowed Ricky Williams to gain 3939 total yards with 27 touchdowns in two seasons with Miami. There is the possibility that Ricky Williams gets mixed in with Brown now that Ricky has seen the error of his ways. While anything is possible, there's also a chance that the new head coach Nick Saban is showing some gamesmanship in order to pump up Ricky's worth in a trade and with Ricky on the team - the leverage of signing Ronnie Brown belongs to Miami. They can point to having another option. But Ricky will miss the first four games on a suspension and he is the one player that was considered most responsible for the absolute freefall of the Dolphins and who alone was most responsible for the team having that 1.03 pick in the draft. Ronnie Brown is Saban's guy. Ricky Williams is mostly the albatross around the neck of Dave Wannstedt and a reminder of the greatest crash and burn in team history.

Cedric Benson? There's no question he has the prototypical size and talent for the position and he's been nothing short of prolifically productive in the NCAA. But the most common concern is that Thomas Jones will command a significant role. Even offensive coordinator Ron Turner said about the two players - " We definitely have a plan to utilize both of their abilities". It is a common statement every summer by every team that has two backs that have any talent. The head coach Lovie Smith said "With the fourth pick, you want to get a complete running back. I think sometimes when you're known as a runner, you forget other things, but he can catch the football also." If Jones was considered as worthy of significant contribution this year, would the Bears have used the fourth overall pick on a player that is perhaps the consummate workhorse type back? One that fits perfectly into the inside running scheme of Turner?

Jamal Lewis was supposed to share carries with Priest Holmes. LaDainian Tomlinson was supposed to have a horrible line and lose some action to Terrell Fletcher, particularly in the passing game. Ricky Williams was never supposed to share but had to when he was injured. Curtis Enis was supposed to see the newly acquired Edgar Bennett get carries. None of that really happened. A Top 5 pick is a player that is slated to receive heavy work and expected to be productive with it.

The bottom line to this all - teams that have used such a high draft pick on a running back during the last ten years have never done it with the intention of anything but a primary, featured back. The success rate of these backs is high and their ratio of sharing the load is very low. In a few cases, some backs may not play as heavily in the initial weeks while gaining a better understanding of blocking duties. But they always play. Bad offensive line? Of course the teams that take the Top 5 backs have bad offensive lines - that's how they normally end up with a top 5 draft pick. But history shows an elite back can still make very good things happen. They can even make the line look good.

There is risk with any player and any rookie is even higher. But in the last ten years, a Top 5 pick running back has been the lowest risk to perform well. In the four years before the drought of 2002 - 2004, at least one rookie running back ended up in the top ten. And this year - we have more prized rookie runners than any time in the history of the NFL. This analysis has not even mentioned J.J. Arrington who landed in a perfect situation in Arizona and will almost assuredly start as well.

If this ends up being the year of the rookie running back, don't be surprised. Just think of it as things getting back to normal and history merely repeating itself for those with memories more than three years old.