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Trent Richardson and 400 carries

Richardson powers through for three yards

Richardson powers through for three yards.

Trent Richardson has been a frequent topic of discussion at Football Perspective. In about 14 months, I’ve written the following articles:

  • How often does the first running back selected in the draft become the best running back from his class? The field is always a better bet than one player: Only about 40% of the highest-drafted backs led their class in rushing yards as a rookie, with that number dropping to about 33% on a career basis. On the other hand, that’s better than the production of the first-drafted wide receiver.
  • In 2012, the field won, as both Doug Martin and Alfred Morris rushed for more yards than Richardson. I then tried to project the number of yards for all three players for 2013 based on their draft status and rookie production; as it turns out, draft status remained extremely important, and Richardson projected to average the most yards per game in year two out of that group (a projection that doesn’t look very good right now).
  • In July, I continued to voice my disdain for the use of yards per carry as the main statistic for running backs, when I argued that Richardson’s 3.6 average last year was not important. More specifically, I said if you loved Richardson as a prospect, his 3.6 YPC average in 2012 was not a reason to downgrade him (of course, if you didn’t like Richardson, that’s a different story). Richardson still received a huge percentage of Cleveland carries and had a strong success rate, and I argued that his low YPC was simply a function of a lack of big plays. For a more in-depth breakdown of his rookie season, Brendan Leister compiled a good film-room breakdown of some of Richardson’s mistakes in 2012. Leister noted that Richardson had some mental mistakes, which isn’t atypical of a rookie, and still fawned over the former Alabama star’s physical potential.
  • After the trade to Indianapolis, I wrote that Richardson’s ability as a pass blocker was tough to analyze, and advised you to view some of the numbers thrown around in support of Richardson with skepticism. Believe it or not, I still have thoughts on that trade that I just haven’t gotten around to finishing, so look for my hot take on the Richardson deal to be published in say, March.

In 75 carries with the Colts, Richardson is averaging just 3.0 yards per carry. Even though I find yards per carry overrated, there is a certain baseline level of production needed for every running back, and 3.0 falls well short of that number. For his career, Richardson now has 1,283 yards on 373 yards, a 3.44 YPC average. He’ll reach 400 career carries in a couple of weeks, so I thought it might be interesting to look at the YPC averages of all running backs after their first 400 carries.

We can’t measure that exactly through game logs, but what we can do is calculate the career YPC average of each running back after the game in which they hit 400 career carries. The table below shows that number for all running backs who entered the league in 1960 or later and is current through 2012. Let’s start with the top 50 running backs:
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Trent Richardson – How Good Is He in Pass Protection?

Richardson exhibiting proper blocking technique

Richardson exhibiting proper blocking technique.

I have some bigger thoughts on the Trent Richardson trade, but I want to first address a statistic I’ve seen cited frequently the past few days. You’ve probably heard some variation on the following, perhaps first reported by ESPN:

Since the start of 2012 with Richardson on the field, Browns quarterbacks were sacked on 4.8 percent of dropbacks. With Richardson off the field, Browns quarterbacks were sacked on 9.4 percent of dropbacks.

Colts quarterbacks have been sacked on 6.2 percent of dropbacks since the start of last season, the ninth-highest rate in the league.

I’ll assume the numbers are accurate, but stats like that don’t mean anything out of context. The conclusion isn’t spelled out, but the reader is asked to connect the dots: Richardson is good at pass protection and Indianapolis could use an upgrade in that department, so this is another reason to like the trade for the Colts. But when is Richardson most likely to be off the field? In obvious passing situations, which happens to be the most likely time the Browns would be sacked.

Brandon Weeden and other Cleveland quarterbacks were sacked 36 times last year and 11 times in the first two games of 2013. First, we should note that Thaddeus Lewis started in week 17 last year against the Steelers — his only start of the year, and the only game Richardson has missed in his pro career. He was sacked four times on 36 dropbacks, an 11.1% rate. So let’s throw that game out, since nobody cares about Lewis’ sack rate.

According to NFLGSIS, Richardson was not on the field for 22 of the 43 sacks of Browns quarterbacks over the last year and two games. But the fine print is the real story: only five of those 22 sacks came on 1st or 2nd down, only seven came when Cleveland had the lead, and only three of those sacks occured when the Browns needed fewer than seven yards for a first down. Take a look:
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An ordinary hit

An ordinary hit.

Just about every article about Trent Richardson references his unimpressive 3.6 yards per carry average from last season. That stat is pretty meaningless, in my opinion. I suppose if you took a random running back from NFL history, and his YPC average in one random season was 3.6, and I knew nothing else about the player, I suppose I would probably assume that the running back was not (or was not going to become) a star. But Richardson isn’t a random running back from a database, because…

  • His 3.6 YPC average came on 267 carries, which represented 77% of all carries by Cleveland running backs
  • He was a rookie last year
  • He was a high first round pick

Since 1970, only 13 first round rookies have recorded 70% of all running back carries by their team. Two of those players were Richardson and Tampa Bay’s Doug Martin last year. Of that group, Richardson did post the lowest YPC average, but he was within 0.1 YPC of LaDainian Tomlinson. The next two lowest averages belong to Robert Edwards and Emmitt Smith; the former suffered a career-debilitating injury in a beach football game after his rookie season, while the latter ran for the most yards in NFL history.

Yeah, Richardson’s yards per carry average was well below average. But the universe of first round running backs who became workhorses right away as rookies and had a low YPC average consists of a HOF running back, a future HOF running back, and a player who suffered the flukiest of injuries. Richardson has something else in common with Emmitt Smith: after both of their rookie seasons, Norv Turner came on board as offensive coordinator.

But let’s say you don’t want to give Richardson any credit for his draft status. And you’re not in the mood to give him a pass just because he was a rookie. OK. Since 1990, 48 running backs have averaged fewer than 3.8 yards per carry while recording at least 70% of all running back carries for their team. Twenty-six of those players were at least 27 years old, and on the back half of their careers. Here are the other 22 running backs:
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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?
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  1. Note that this only includes drafted running backs. []

The best rookie season and best career from the class of '89.

Yesterday, I looked at how frequently the highest drafted rookie running back ended leading his draft class in rushing yards. Today, we’ll examine how often the best rookie running back ends up being having the most career rushing yards among the members from his class.

I performed this same exercise at wide receiver, and concluded that as great as A.J. Green was last season, the odds were stacked against him leading the 2011 rookie receiver class in career receiving yards.1 For whatever reason, there simply is not a strong correlation between rookie performance and career performance for wide receivers. Is the same true at the running back position?

There was an eleven-year stretch from ’92 to ’02, when Ricky Watters, Jerome Bettis, Marshall Faulk, Curtis Martin, Eddie George, Corey Dillon, Fred Taylor, Edgerrin James, LaDainian Tomlinson, and Clinton Portis each led their class in rushing yards both as rookies and over the course of their careers. The lone exception came in 2000, when Mike Anderson nudged by Jamal Lewis to lead the ’00 class in rookie rushing yards, while Lewis ended with the most career rushing yards. If I had written this article a decade ago, I would have thought that unlike at the receiver position, there was an extremely strong correlation between rookie and career performance for the top running backs.

But since then, things have changed. Domanick Williams (Larry Johnson), Kevin Jones (Steven Jackson), Cadillac Williams (Frank Gore), Joseph Addai (Maurice Jones-Drew), Steve Slaton (Chris Johnson), and Knowshon Moreno (Arian Foster) led all rookies in rushing yards but have been passed in the career category by another back from the same rookie class. It’s too early to get a handle on the last two draft classes, although I certainly wouldn’t take even odds on either Ben Tate or LeGarrette Blount finishing with the most career rushing yards of any running back who entered the league in either 2010 or 2011.

The table below shows the top rookie running backs and the top career running backs from each class since 1978.
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  1. From 1978 to 2008, only three of the 31 wide receivers with the best rookie seasons ended up with the most receiving yards from their class. []

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?
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  1. Note that this only includes drafted running backs. []

Bill Barnwell wrote an interesting article where he tried to identify the best running back in football. His article made me wonder: which player will gain the most rushing yards over the next decade?

It probably makes sense to start with a look at history. I suspect you would have been able to guess that LaDainian Tomlinson had the most rushing yards from 2002 to 2011, but what about from 1982 to 1991? Or from 1960 to 1969? The table below shows each leader in rushing yards for every ten year period, along with their age and NFL experience during their first season during the relevant period.

YearsRush YdsPlayerBeg AgeBeg Exp.
1932--19413860Clarke Hinkle231
1933--19423529Clarke Hinkle242
1934--19433132Tuffy Leemans22--
1935--19443132Tuffy Leemans23--
1936--19453132Tuffy Leemans241
1937--19462529Pug Manders24--
1938--19472813Steve Van Buren18--
1939--19483758Steve Van Buren19--
1940--19494904Steve Van Buren20--
1941--19505533Steve Van Buren21--
1942--19515860Steve Van Buren22--
1943--19525860Steve Van Buren23--
1944--19535860Steve Van Buren241
1945--19545416Steve Van Buren252
1946--19554817Joe Perry19--
1947--19565337Joe Perry20--
1948--19575791Joe Perry21--
1949--19586549Joe Perry22--
1950--19597151Joe Perry233
1951--19606599Joe Perry244
1952--19616597Joe Perry255
1953--19627459Jim Brown17--
1954--19639322Jim Brown18--
1955--196410768Jim Brown19--
1956--196512312Jim Brown20--
1957--196612312Jim Brown211
1958--196711370Jim Brown222
1959--19689843Jim Brown233
1960--19698514Jim Brown244
1961--19707257Jim Brown255
1962--19716074Leroy Kelly20--
1963--19726885Leroy Kelly21--
1964--19737274Leroy Kelly221
1965--19747262Leroy Kelly232
1966--19758123O.J. Simpson19--
1967--19769626O.J. Simpson20--
1968--197710183O.J. Simpson21--
1969--197810776O.J. Simpson221
1970--197910539O.J. Simpson232
1971--198010051O.J. Simpson243
1972--198110339Franco Harris221
1973--198210204Walter Payton19--
1974--198311625Walter Payton20--
1975--198413309Walter Payton211
1976--198514181Walter Payton222
1977--198614124Walter Payton233
1978--198712805Walter Payton244
1979--198811410Walter Payton255
1980--198911226Eric Dickerson20--
1981--199011903Eric Dickerson21--
1982--199112439Eric Dickerson22--
1983--199213168Eric Dickerson231
1984--199311451Eric Dickerson242
1985--19949346Eric Dickerson253
1986--199510172Barry Sanders18--
1987--199611725Barry Sanders19--
1988--199713778Barry Sanders20--
1989--199815269Barry Sanders211
1990--199913963Emmitt Smith211
1991--200014229Emmitt Smith222
1992--200113687Emmitt Smith233
1993--200212949Emmitt Smith244
1994--200311719Emmitt Smith255
1995--200413366Curtis Martin221
1996--200512614Curtis Martin232
1997--200611462Curtis Martin243
1998--200711607Edgerrin James20--
1999--200812121Edgerrin James211
2000--200912490LaDainian Tomlinson21--
2001--201013404LaDainian Tomlinson221
2002--201112448LaDainian Tomlinson232

Steve Van Buren in the middle of his most famous performance.

Tomlinson entered the league in 2001, but he was so productive in his first nine years that he also led the league in rushing yards gained from 2000 to 2009. O.J. Simpson, Eric Dickerson and Barry Sanders each led the league in rushing yards for ten year periods … when they spent the first three seasons of those decades playing college ball. Jim Brown was even more impressive, as he led the NFL in rushing yards from 1953 to 1962, even though he was just 17 years old in 1953 and did not enter the league until 1957.

But Steve Van Buren has them all beat: he entered the league in 1944, but led all players in rushing from 1938 to 1947. As you may recall, he’s still the Eagles franchise leader in rushing touchdowns. We can also look at the leaders over the last nine seasons, although obviously the ten-year windows are not closed in these cases:

YearsRush YdsPlayerBeg AgeBeg Exp.
2003--201110765LaDainian Tomlinson243
2004--20119120LaDainian Tomlinson254
2005--20118420Steven Jackson222
2006--20117374Steven Jackson233
2007--20116752Adrian Peterson221
2008--20115645Chris Johnson231
2009--20114417Chris Johnson242
2010--20112930Maurice Jones-Drew255
2011--20111606Maurice Jones-Drew266

So what can we make of the results? The average running back was just a hair under 22 at the start of his ten year period. Nearly half of all running backs were not yet in the NFL at the start of their ten year run, although that is likely to change now. Those players were in other football leagues, serving their country, or in college, but all three of those factors are less prevalent now. Star running backs leave college a year or two earlier than they did a generation ago, which will make it slightly less likely that a player will not be in the NFL at the start of the next ten-year run.

Fourteen players were rookies at the start of their great stretch, and another 10 were second year players, making nearly 80% of the players having just one year or less of experience in the summer before the start of their streak. What does that mean for the stretch from 2012 to 2021? Trent Richardson is the ideal candidate, as the new Browns running back just turned 21. Last year’s Alabama running sensation, Mark Ingram, was 22 in 2011, while Dion Lewis and Jacquizz Rodgers were the top 21-year-old running backs last season.

The rushing champ from 2012 to 2021?

No running back started his 10-year stretch atop the leaderboard at the age of 26, and only Hall of Famers Steve Van Buren, Joe Perry, Jim Brown, Walter Payton, Eric Dickerson and Emmitt Smith were 25 at the start of a streak. That makes it pretty easy to rule out Maurice Jones-Drew, Matt Forte, Adrian Peterson and Chris Johnson, all of whom will be 27 in 2012. Ray Rice (25 in 2012), Arian Foster (26), Marshawn Lynch (26) and Ryan Mathews (25) are probably suckers’ bets, too.

LeSean McCoy, Beanie Wells and DeMarco Murray all are entering their age 24 season, making them perhaps the best hope among the young runners with NFL experience. On the other hand, along with Richardson, Doug Martin, David Wilson, Ronnie Hillman and Lamar Miller made the 2012 draft strong at the position. In the NFC West, Isaiah Pead and Kendall Hunter (or LaMichael James) could be the future for their teams for the next decade. As always, it’s too early to say.

In the collegiate ranks, South Carolina’s Marcus Lattimore is expected to be the cream of the 2013 class, with Auburn transfer Michael Dyer and Wisconsin’s Montee Ball also in the mix. And based on past history, we can’t count out sophomores Malcolm Brown or De’Anthony Thomas. If you had to pick which player will lead the league in rushing yards from 2012 to 2021, Trent Richardson is the obvious choice. After him, I’d probably be pretty evenly split among McCoy, Martin and Lattimore.


Franchise leaders — rushing stats

Yesterday, we took a look at the franchise leaders in various passing categories. Let’s do the same for running backs today. The first list shows the leaders in career rushing yards for each franchise; the last column shows the last year that running back played for that franchise:

TeamYardsRunning BackLast Yr
STL9093Steven Jackson
SFO7625Frank Gore
CAR5047DeAngelo Williams
SDG12490LaDainian Tomlinson2009
GNB8322Ahman Green2009
JAX11271Fred Taylor2008
NOR6096Deuce McAllister2008
SEA9429Shaun Alexander2007
KAN6070Priest Holmes2007
NYG10449Tiki Barber2006
BAL7801Jamal Lewis2006
NYJ10302Curtis Martin2005
IND9226Edgerrin James2005
HOU3195Domanick Williams2005
TEN10009Eddie George2003
CIN8061Corey Dillon2003
DAL17162Emmitt Smith2002
DEN7607Terrell Davis2001
MIN6818Robert Smith2000
BUF11938Thurman Thomas1999
DET15269Barry Sanders1998
OAK8545Marcus Allen1992
TAM5957James Wilder1989
ATL6631Gerald Riggs1988
CHI16726Walter Payton1987
ARI7999Ottis Anderson1986
WAS7472John Riggins1985
PHI6538Wilbert Montgomery1984
PIT11950Franco Harris1983
NWE5453Sam Cunningham1982
MIA6737Larry Csonka1979
CLE12312Jim Brown1965

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