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An ordinary running back.

Last month, I wondered whether previous Justin Blackmons — i.e., the first receiver selected in the draft — lived up to their lofty draft status. There have been 42 drafts since 1970, but only five times has the highest selected wideout gained the most receiving yards among all rookie receivers. The long-term odds were slightly better, though, as nearly a quarter of those highest selected receivers ended up with the most receiving yards in his draft class.

So how do things look at the running back position? The Bills drafted Willis McGahee knowing he would miss his entire rookie season, while Bo Jackson chose to play baseball instead of playing with the Buccaneers. Ki-Jana Carter and Larry Stegent suffered season-ending injuries in the pre-season of their rookie years, making them inapplicable for our purposes, assuming Richardson stays healthy. What about the other 38 running backs who were the first at their position selected in the draft since the merger?

Over 40% of those highest drafted running backs led their class1 in rushing yards as a rookie, while exactly half gained at least 75% as many rushing yards as the the most productive rookie running back. That may not be particularly impressive in the abstract, but represents a much better track record than we saw at the wide receiver position. On the other hand, recent history has not been particularly great: in the past 10 years, arguably every top rookie running back outside of Adrian Peterson disappointed, as even Moreno failed to meet the expectations of many.

YearRunning BackTeamPickCollegeRush Yds% of LeaderTop Rookie
2011Mark IngramNOR28Alabama4740.53DeMarco Murray
2010C.J. SpillerBUF9Clemson2830.42Ryan Mathews
2009Knowshon MorenoDEN12Georgia9471.00Knowshon Moreno
2008Darren McFaddenOAK4Arkansas4990.39Steve Slaton
2007Adrian PetersonMIN7Oklahoma13411.00Adrian Peterson
2006Reggie BushNOR2USC5650.52Joseph Addai
2005Ronnie BrownMIA2Auburn9070.77Cadillac Williams
2004Steven JacksonSTL24Oregon St.6730.59Kevin Jones
2003Willis McGaheeBUF23Miami (FL)----Domanick Williams
2002William GreenCLE16Boston Col.8870.59Clinton Portis
2001LaDainian TomlinsonSDG5TCU12361.00LaDainian Tomlinson
2000Jamal LewisBAL5Tennessee13640.92Mike Anderson
1999Edgerrin JamesIND4Miami (FL)15531.00Edgerrin James
1998Curtis EnisCHI5Penn St.4970.41Fred Taylor
1997Warrick DunnTAM12Florida St.9780.87Corey Dillon
1996Lawrence PhillipsSTL6Nebraska6320.46Eddie George
1995Ki-Jana CarterCIN1Penn St.----Curtis Martin
1994Marshall FaulkIND2San Diego St.12821.00Marshall Faulk
1993Garrison HearstPHO3Georgia2640.18Jerome Bettis
1992Tommy VardellCLE9Stanford3690.65Vaughn Dunbar
1991Leonard RussellNWE14Arizona St.9591.00Leonard Russell
1990Blair ThomasNYJ2Penn St.6200.66Emmitt Smith
1989Barry SandersDET3Oklahoma St.14701.00Barry Sanders
1988Gaston GreenRAM14UCLA1170.10John Stephens
1987Alonzo HighsmithHOU3Miami (FL)1060.16Christian Okoye
1986Bo JacksonTAM1Auburn----Rueben Mayes
1985George AdamsNYG19Kentucky4981.00George Adams
1984Greg BellBUF26Notre Dame11001.00Greg Bell
1983Eric DickersonRAM2SMU18081.00Eric Dickerson
1982Darrin NelsonMIN7Stanford1360.20Marcus Allen
1981George RogersNOR1South Carolina16741.00George Rogers
1980Billy SimsDET1Oklahoma13031.00Billy Sims
1979Ottis AndersonSTL8Miami (FL)16051.00Ottis Anderson
1978Earl CampbellHOU1Texas14501.00Earl Campbell
1977Ricky BellTAM1USC4360.43Tony Dorsett
1976Chuck MuncieNOR3California6591.00Chuck Muncie
1975Walter PaytonCHI4Jackson St.6790.74Mike Thomas
1974Bo MatthewsSDG2Colorado3280.28Don Woods
1973Otis ArmstrongDEN9Purdue900.09Boobie Clark
1972Franco HarrisPIT13Penn St.10551.00Franco Harris
1971John RigginsNYJ6Kansas7690.70John Brockington
1970Larry StegentSTL8Texas A&M----Duane Thomas

Richardson is the favorite to be the most productive rookie running back, although “the field” appears to be a more enticing proposition. But Cleveland drafted Richardson for what he can do for the next five or ten years, which will ultimately be much more significant than how he performs in 2012. Even if the highest drafted running back is unlikely to lead his draft class in rushing yards as a rookie, is he more likely (than the field) to lead his draft class in career rushing yards?

The table below shows the career rushing yards gained by the top drafted running back in each of the last 42 drafts, along with how he performed relative to the best runner (as measured by total rushing yards) selected in the same draft:

YearRunning BackTeamPickCollegeRush Yds% of LeaderTop Career
2011Mark IngramNOR28Alabama4740.53DeMarco Murray
2010C.J. SpillerBUF9Clemson8440.48Ryan Mathews
2009Knowshon MorenoDEN12Georgia19050.63LeSean McCoy
2008Darren McFaddenOAK4Arkansas26270.47Chris Johnson
2007Adrian PetersonMIN7Oklahoma67521.00Adrian Peterson
2006Reggie BushNOR2USC31760.46Maurice Jones-Drew
2005Ronnie BrownMIA2Auburn49510.65Frank Gore
2004Steven JacksonSTL24Oregon St.90931.00Steven Jackson
2003Willis McGaheeBUF23Miami (FL)73661.00Willis McGahee
2002William GreenCLE16Boston Col.21090.21Clinton Portis
2001LaDainian TomlinsonSDG5TCU136841.00LaDainian Tomlinson
2000Jamal LewisBAL5Tennessee106071.00Jamal Lewis
1999Edgerrin JamesIND4Miami (FL)122461.00Edgerrin James
1998Curtis EnisCHI5Penn St.14970.13Fred Taylor
1997Warrick DunnTAM12Florida St.109670.98Corey Dillon
1996Lawrence PhillipsSTL6Nebraska14530.14Eddie George
1995Ki-Jana CarterCIN1Penn St.11440.08Curtis Martin
1994Marshall FaulkIND2San Diego St.122791.00Marshall Faulk
1993Garrison HearstPHO3Georgia79660.58Jerome Bettis
1992Tommy VardellCLE9Stanford14270.36Edgar Bennett
1991Leonard RussellNWE14Arizona St.39730.37Ricky Watters
1990Blair ThomasNYJ2Penn St.22360.12Emmitt Smith
1989Barry SandersDET3Oklahoma St.152691.00Barry Sanders
1988Gaston GreenRAM14UCLA21360.18Thurman Thomas
1987Alonzo HighsmithHOU3Miami (FL)11950.24Christian Okoye
1986Bo JacksonTAM1Auburn27820.45Neal Anderson
1985George AdamsNYG19Kentucky8860.11Herschel Walker
1984Greg BellBUF26Notre Dame49590.60Earnest Byner
1983Eric DickersonRAM2SMU132591.00Eric Dickerson
1982Darrin NelsonMIN7Stanford44420.36Marcus Allen
1981George RogersNOR1South Carolina71760.89Freeman McNeil
1980Billy SimsDET1Oklahoma51060.95Joe Cribbs
1979Ottis AndersonSTL8Miami (FL)102731.00Ottis Anderson
1978Earl CampbellHOU1Texas94071.00Earl Campbell
1977Ricky BellTAM1USC30630.24Tony Dorsett
1976Chuck MuncieNOR3California67020.91Mike Pruitt
1975Walter PaytonCHI4Jackson St.167261.00Walter Payton
1974Bo MatthewsSDG2Colorado15660.24Mark van Eeghen
1973Otis ArmstrongDEN9Purdue44530.75Chuck Foreman
1972Franco HarrisPIT13Penn St.121201.00Franco Harris
1971John RigginsNYJ6Kansas113521.00John Riggins
1970Larry StegentSTL8Texas A&M00.00Jim Otis

The results are actually a little less impressive here. Whereas the top drafted rookie wide receiver generally took some time to develop, the situation looks different at running back. One-third of the highest-drafted running backs finished with the most career rushing yards in their class, only slighter higher than the results we saw with wide receivers. The results look to be better across the board than they were at wide receiver, but perhaps the bigger takeaway is that the top drafted rookie runner performed slightly better as a rookie relative to his peers than he did over the course of his career. More on this tomorrow.

To highlight the issue, let’s turn this into a poll:

[poll id=”5″]

The sample sizes are not large enough to draft any significant conclusions to answer the above question. But I think it’s an interesting intellectual exercise. What do you think?

Previous “Random Perspective On” Articles:
AFC East: Buffalo Bills, Miami Dolphins, New England Patriots, New York Jets
AFC North: Baltimore Ravens, Cincinnati Bengals, Cleveland Browns, Pittsburgh Steelers
AFC South: Houston Texans, Indianapolis Colts, Jacksonville Jaguars, Tennessee Titans
AFC West: Denver Broncos, Kansas City Chiefs, Oakland Raiders, San Diego Chargers
NFC East: Dallas Cowboys, New York Giants, Philadelphia Eagles, Washington Redskins
NFC North: Chicago Bears, Detroit Lions, Minnesota Vikings, Atlanta Falcons
NFC South: Atlanta Falcons, Carolina Panthers, New Orleans Saints, Tampa Bay Buccaneers
NFC West: Arizona Cardinals, San Francisco 49ers, Seattle Seahawks, St. Louis Rams

  1. Note that this only includes drafted running backs. []
{ 13 comments }
  • Tim Truemper August 6, 2012, 11:27 am

    In the 1970’s, 5 times the first RB picked turned out to be the career leader when compared to same year RB draft picks. In the 1980’s and 1990’s, it happened twice. So far, for the 2000’s (2000-2010) its is 5 with several careers still active. I know, too little data for a trend but just what caught my eye.

    Speaking of Cleveland–in 1965 their HOF RB Jim Brown retires as the league leader. He is succeeded by another HOF RB, Leroy Kelly, who finishes 2nd that year in rushing and leads the league the next. Any other times one HOF RB as lead runner is succeeded by another HOF’er?

    Reply
    • Chase Stuart August 6, 2012, 11:41 am

      In the earlier days of pro football, it happened a few times. And don’t forget, Brown also played with Bobby Mitchell in Cleveland. Ollie Matson followed Charlie Trippi with the Cardinals. And there has been some overlap, not just with Hornung and Taylor but combos like Marcus Allen and Eric Dickerson, Perry, McElhenny and Johnson with the 49ers, and Taylor and Mitchell in Washington.

      Reply
  • Richie August 6, 2012, 12:51 pm

    I voted for the 20-year option. To me that just seems like the “safest” bet. It’s easy for the theoretical best player to have a bad year, or an injury and not be the most productive. But it seems much more likely for the theoretical best player to wind up with the best career. But even that can be a little shaky when you figure that sometimes the best player might retire early and get surpassed by a lesser player.

    Reply
  • Andrew August 6, 2012, 2:11 pm

    I can see Trent Richardson accomplishing both, but I think that leading in the first year is much more likely because of the offensive line he’s got to run behind in Cleveland and the probability that most of the other HB’s picked this year won’t be starters yet. Martin, Pead, Wilson, and James won’t be more than platoon guys, if that, whilst Richardson is clearly the man in Cleveland (though I’m curious about Chris Ogbonnaya’s future, myself). On the other hand, though Richardson looks to be set up as the long term solution in Cleveland, this wouldn’t be the first time one of their highly-touted prospects has disappointed, i.e. Braylon Edwards, Tim Couch, Kevin Johnson, or William Green. There is simply too much that can happen to a player over the course of a career for me to bet on Richardson to be the best in his class as of yet. I’ll take the field on this one.

    Reply
  • Tim Truemper August 7, 2012, 9:06 am

    Thanks Chase for the NFL History background. I hadn’t taken the time to examine the HOF lineage/successor of the past. And certainly with fewer teams the chance of HOF following another was greater. Charli Trippi to Ollie Matson is a good one. I checked out some video of Ollie Matson after he died recently. He was quite the stud with his size and speed combination. And I felt a bit self-peeved not remembering the Marcus Allen/Eric Dickerson combo. So I guess the HOFers Brown to Kelly transition was not that unusual after all.

    Reply
    • Chase Stuart August 7, 2012, 10:19 am

      It’s a ‘what are the odds of that?’ question. Come on now!

      Reply
  • Richie August 7, 2012, 2:00 pm

    Brandon Weeden announced as starter in Cleveland. How many teams have gone with a rookie QB and a rookie RB at the same time, and how many had success?

    Reply
    • Shattenjager August 8, 2012, 11:10 pm

      The 2007 Bills had Trent Edwards and Marshawn Lynch starting as rookies (though Edwards was not the original starter). That was a fairly weak 7-9 team.
      The 1996 Rams had Tony Banks and Lawrence Phillips starting as rookies (though again Banks was not the original starter). That was a really bad 6-10 team.
      The 1989 Lions had Rodney Peete and Barry Sanders starting as rookies (Peete was injured at the beginning of the year, but was supposed to be the starter). That was a mediocre 7-9 team.
      The 1985 Browns started Bernie Kosar and Kevin Mack (Kosar did not start opening day but was the primary starter). That was a dead-average 8-8 team that made the playoffs.
      The 1976 Seahawks started Jim Zorn, Sherman Smith, and Don Testerman (Testerman was a fullback) as rookies. That was probably the worst team in the league and went 2-12. Their top WR, Steve Largent, was also a rookie.

      I believe that’s all since the merger, though I certainly could have missed some.

      Reply
      • Chase Stuart August 8, 2012, 11:35 pm

        If we widen the search to all teams who had a rookie lead in passing and rushing yards, I’ve also got:

        –Alex Smith and Frank Gore on the ’05 49ers
        –David Carr and Jonathan Wells on the ’02 Texans
        –Tom Owen and Wilbur Jackson on the ’74 49ers
        — John Reaves and Po James on the ’72 Eagles
        — Scott Hunter and John Brockington on the ’71 Packers

        Reply
        • Richie August 9, 2012, 2:58 pm

          Po James? Nice!

          So basically we’re saying that if you are going to rely on rookies at QB and RB, playoff prospects are grim for season N. In fact, season N+1, N+2, N+3, N+4, etc. don’t look too good either. The Rams won the Super Bowl in season N+3, but with different guys at both positions. The N+1 Browns were pretty good. The N+2 Lions were a playoff team, but with a different QB.

          Reply

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