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In the pre-season, I wrote three pieces on Cleveland Browns rookie Trent Richardson.  As part of a thought experiment, I wondered who would lead the NFL in rushing yards from 2012 to 2021? I narrowed my finalists to LeSean McCoy, Beanie Wells (was I drunk?), DeMarco Murray (ouch), Richardson and the rest of the rookies, and then a few college running backs. I concluded that Richardson was the obvious frontrunner, with McCoy, Doug Martin, and Marcus Lattimore (double ouch) as the next best bets. I’m not really sure 2012 helped clarify the issue, although Martin and Alfred Morris certainly raised their chances.

Then in August, I looked at the production of the highest drafted running back in each draft class.  I discovered that slightly fewer than half of the highest drafted running backs led their class1 in rushing yards as a rookie; as you can see, “the field” also turned out to be a better bet than Richardson in 2012:

1Alfred Morris20126-173WAS1633516134.8113100.8
2Doug Martin20121-31TAM1631914544.561190.9
3Trent Richardson20121-3CLE152679503.561163.3
4Vick Ballard20125-170IND162118143.86250.9
5Bryce Brown20127-229PHI161155644.9435.3
6Bernard Pierce20123-84BAL161085324.93133.3
7Daryl Richardson20127-252STL16984754.85029.7
8David Wilson20121-32NYG16713585.04422.4
9Robert Turbin20124-106SEA16803544.43022.1
10Ronnie Hillman20123-67DEN14843273.89123.4
11Brandon Bolden2012udfaNWE10562744.89227.4
12Lamar Miller20124-97MIA13512504.9119.2
13LaMichael James20122-61SFO4271254.63031.3
14Chris Rainey20125-159PIT16261023.9226.4
15Jeremy Stewart2012udfaOAK4251014.04025.3

In that post, I also noted that the running back drafted first in his class was slightly less successful over the course of his career: only one-third of the highest-drafted running backs finished with the most career rushing yards in their class.

The final post on the topic ended up being more relevant to Alfred Morris than Richardson. In August, I compared how the top rookie running back performed over the rest of his career relative to the other members of his class. From 1992 to 2002, 10 of the 11 backs to lead their class in rushing yards as rookies ended up finishing with the most career rushing yards. But in recent years, that trend has reversed itself: the odds are long that Ben Tate (2011), LeGarrette Blount (2010), Knowshon Moreno (2009 and competing with Arian Foster and LeSean McCoy), or Steve Slaton (2008) will also finish with the best careers from their class.

So where do we stand on Richardson and Morris? A year later, how much credit do we give Richardson for having been the #3 pick in the draft? For Morris, how much do we downgrade him for being a 6th round pick? And how does the presence of Robert Griffin III complicate things?

On average, we expect the 3rd pick in the draft to produce about 34 points of Approximate Value, while Morris’ 173rd slot is expected to add only two points of career AV. But we don’t need AV to compare running backs to each other.

Instead, let’s look at the 20-year period from 1988 to 2007. Over that time frame, there were 23 running backs selected in the top 10 of the draft, with 14 of them being chosen in the top five. The table below shows how many rushing yards those 23 running backs gained during their rookie season (on the X-Axis) and over the first five years of their career (on the Y-Axis). The top five picks are in blue, while the other top-ten selections are in red. The first four letters of each player’s last name and first two letter of their first name are next to the data point.

top 10 RBs 3

As you can see, there’s a pretty clear relationship between rookie production and how that player fared over the long-term. I suspect that’s because top-ten running backs are given ample opportunity to succeed, and running back is perhaps the easiest position for a rookie to excel; the learning curve is not great (at least when it comes to running), so if you don’t show it early on, odds are you don’t have elite ability. Adrian Peterson, LaDainian Tomlinson, Barry Sanders, Edgerrin James, Jerome Bettis, Marshall Faulk and Fred Taylor all topped the 1200-yard mark, and all turned into very good-to-Hall of Fame caliber players.2

For the most part, the “busts as rookies” group tended to underperform, although players like Garrison Hearst, Cedric Benson, and Thomas Jones did experience late-career success with other teams. The black dotted line running vertically from the 950-yard mark shows where Trent Richardson will one day be placed. I think a player like Ricky Williams is a good comparison for many reasons, although that would appear to be the optimistic projection for him over the next four years. I’m not pessimistic on Richardson’s outlook, but I think the noncontroversial position is his career outlook looks slightly less rosy now than it did a year ago.

The next Shanahan star.

The next Shanahan star.

What about Morris? As you might imagine, it’s not easy finding comparisons. From 1988 to 2007, only two running backs drafted after pick 150 gained 1,000 yards as a rookie: Terrell Davis and Mike Anderson. It doesn’t take a genius to figure out what those two backs have in common with Morris, either. For all his faults, Mike Shanahan has achieved unparalleled success with lowly-regarded running backs. If we drop the cut-off to pick 125, we add one more running back: Olandis Gary.

By adding undrafted running backs, we finally get a non-Shanahan player: Dominic Rhodes. The Broncos running backs tended to perform well whenever healthy, while Rhodes tore his ACL after his rookie season and was never the same player. That makes it doubly hard to get a read on Morris, especially since he didn’t just cross the 1,000-yard mark, he obliterated it. In fact, he joined Eric Dickerson, George Rogers, and Ottis Anderson as the only players to rush for 1,600 yards as a rookie. That’s because Morris averaged 4.8 yards per carry, an excellent figure (although likely aided by playing alongside Griffin) that looks even more impressive compared to Richardson’s pedestrian average.

The table below shows all 42 running backs since the merger to record 250 carries as rookie. The columns display each player’s team, number of games, rushes, rushing yards, rushing touchdowns and yards per carry as a rookie, along with his draft pick and draft pick value (necessary to run a regression due to the non-linear value associated with draft picks), and the player’s number of games and rushing yards per game in his sophomore season.

YearNameTmGRshRshYdRshTDYPCPickPkValN+1 gN+1 ypg
2002Clinton Portisden162731508155.55112.913122
1989Barry Sandersdet152801470145.3334.21682
2000Mike Andersonden1629714871551891.51642
2008Chris Johnsonoti15251122894.92419.916125
1993Jerome Bettisram16294142974.91026.91664
1979Ottis Andersoncrd16331160584.8828.41685
2012Alfred Morriswas163351613134.81732.20
1978Earl Campbelloti153021450134.8139.616106
2008Steve Slatonhtx16268128294.8897.81140
1986Rueben Mayesnor16286135384.75711.91276
1983Eric Dickersonram163901808184.6236.316132
1998Fred Taylorjax152641223144.6927.61073
2012Doug Martintam163191454114.63117.60
1981George Rogersnor163781674134.4139.6689
2000Jamal Lewisrav16309136464.4531.40
1983Curt Warnersea163351449134.3334.2140
2001Anthony Thomaschi14278118374.33815.71260
1999Edgerrin Jamesclt163691553134.2432.616107
1999Olandis Garyden12276115974.21274.8180
1984Greg Bellbuf16262110074.22619.21655
1980Billy Simsdet163131303134.2139.614103
1996Eddie Georgeoti16335136884.11424.41687
1994Marshall Faulkclt163141282114.1236.31667
2005Cadillac Williamstam14290117864.1531.41457
1995Curtis Martinnwe163681487144749.41672
2007Marshawn Lynchbuf132801115741225.61569
2004Willis McGaheebuf1628411281342320.31678
1988John Stephensnwe16297116843.91722.81460
2008Matt Fortechi16316123883.94414.31658
1989Bobby Humphreyden16294115173.901580
1973Boobie Clarkcin1425498883.93020.1839
1980Joe Cribbsbuf163061185113.92918.21573
1993Ronald Moorecrd16263101893.98781649
1998Robert Edwardsnwe16291111593.81822.30
1995Rodney Thomasoti1625194753.8897.8169
2001LaDainian Tomlinsonsdg163391236103.6531.416105
1996Karim Abdul-Jabbarmia163071116113.6808.71656
1995Rashaan Salaamchi162961074103.621211241
1991Leonard Russellnwe1626695943.61424.41135
1994Errict Rhetttam16284101173.63416.71675
2012Trent Richardsoncle15267950113.6334.20
1999Ricky Williamsnor1225388423.5531.410100

Now let’s exclude Morris, Martin, and Richardson, along with Jamal Lewis, Robert Edwards, Curt Warner, Olandis Gary, and George Rogers (due to injury) and Bobby Humphrey (due to being a supplemental pick); that leaves us with 33 running backs. What’s interesting is that the correlation coefficient between the rookie YPC average and rushing yards per game average as sophomores is only 0.37, while the CC between the player’s draft value and rushing yards per game average as sophomores is 0.57. The sample size is not all that large, but essentially this indicates that — among all running backs with 250 carries as rookies — draft value still is a larger indicator of future production than rookie yards per rush average.

If we run a regression using draft value and rookie yards per carry as inputs and sophomore rushing yards per game as the output, we get:

Sophomore Rushing Yards per Game = -32.2 + 17.6*YPC + 1.42*DraftValue

What’s that mean for the three 2012 rookies with 250 carries last year?

Name2012 YPCPkValPick2013 YPG Proj
Alfred Morris4.82.217356
Doug Martin4.617.63173
Trent Richardson3.634.2379

This is nowhere near dispositive, but it does indicate that Richardson’s draft value still matters. Obviously history also suggests not to bet against a Shanahan running back (unless, of course, the Redskins draft another runner this year), but essentially this regression tells us this: LaDainian Tomlinson (3.6 YPC as a rookie) and Ricky Williams (3.5 YPC) were top-five picks who had unimpressive yards per carry averages in their first year but then rushed for 100 yards a game as sophomores. Meanwhile, players like Steve Slaton and Mike Anderson went from lowly drafted players to rookie with high yards-per-carry averages to sophomore disappointments. In Anderson’s case he had to split carries with Terrell Davis, but Slaton was an outright disappointment. With so few running backs to examine, the regression basically says “whoa, let’s not write off Richardson yet — he could be the next Tomlinson or Williams and he’s not that far off from being the next Edgerrin James.”

I’ll admit to not having a great feel on either of these running backs. And, of course, Doug Martin slots in nicely in the middle, having a better rookie year than Richardson and a higher draft status than Morris. As always, each player is unique, and not a equal-parts amalgamation of prior running backs with similar biographies. I’m tempted to take the optimistic view on how the careers of all three will work out. Richardson was too talented in college and did enough as a rookie to avoid being downgraded too significantly, Morris seems likely to be the next in a long line of Shanahan stars, and Martin has few blemishes. What do you think?

  1. Note that this only includes drafted running backs. []
  2. Of course, year one can be a big component of through-five-years-production, so that probably explains some part of the correlation. []
  • sn0mm1s

    Sanders was a top 5 pick – shouldn’t he be blue?

    • Chase Stuart

      The Sanders and Lewis tags were right on top of each other; I moved them to make it easier for viewing, and I assume I forgot which color meant which. I’ve updated the chart. Thanks.

      • sn0mm1s

        I thought Lewis was a top 5 pick as well. I also think the rookie rushing numbers are off. I know Sanders had more than AD or Bettis and I am pretty sure that James has them all beat because he won the rushing title as a rookie with over 1500 yards.

        • Chase Stuart

          You’re right — something messed up with the tags code, I think. Unfortunately, I won’t be able to fix this until tonight. It may have just been my error — if I have time, when the ID tags are right on top of each other, I’ll move them around to make it easier to read, but I may have misread which tag belonged to which data point.

        • Chase Stuart

          I’ve fixed it — it was a manual error by me with the code tags.

  • mrh

    Wouldn’t it be more revealing to have the x-axis = rookie yards and the y-axis = yards the subsequent five years? Then you’d avoid the rookie yardage being counted on both axes?

    • Chase Stuart

      After I finished the article, I realized that. If I get a chance tonight, I’ll update the graph.

  • Only because I’ve been immersed in writing our 2013 Speed Score piece (http://www.footballoutsiders.com/fo-espn-feature-columns/2013/espn-speed-score-2013) for the past couple of days, what’s most interesting to me about Morris is that his Speed Score was a pedestrian 92.1. And while pound-for-pound speed isn’t the be-all-end-all of projecting RBs, it does have a decent history of plucking out later-round sleepers (e.g., Andre Brown and Bryce Brown in 2012). Given Morris’ status as a Shanahan late-rounder, this tells me the system probably had at least as much to do with his success this season as his raw physical talent did. Furthermore, while he did rank 7th in YPC, Morris also ranked only 23rd in the percentage of that YPC that came after contact (courtesy of ESPN Stats & Info). Again, that tells me the zone-blocking system seemed opened more than his fair share of gaping holes 2012.

    Of course, two things. First, it’s to his credit that Morris is a savvy enough zone runner to take advantage of those gaping zone-blocked holes. Second, it’s not like WAS is getting rid of Shanahan anytime soon, so, Morris will be running in that favorable system for the foreseeable future (barring a major surprise).

    • Chase Stuart

      I think those are good points. I also think Shanahan knows what he’s doing, and he’s able to identify the right backs for his scheme. I know back in August Cecil Lammey and Sigmund Bloom were comparing Morris to Mike Anderson, saying he runs just like a Shanahan back. My guess is the Redskins had Morris pretty high on their board, but that’s just a guess.

      That said, given the presence of Shanahan and RG3, it’s fair to wonder how much of his success was due to Morris alone. I doubt Cleveland or Tampa Bay would want to trade their backs for Morris, but I guess I’m not so sure Washington would want to do that, either.

  • EdG

    Really interesting stuff. BTW, Bobby Humphrey was a supplemental draft first rounder, so I don’t think his draft pick value should equal zero.