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Thomas Rawls and Great Rookie Seasons

Rawls is one of the best running backs to earn a few hundred grand to play for Pete Carroll.

Rawls is one of the best running backs to earn a few hundred grand to play for Pete Carroll.

Thomas Rawls had an incredible rookie season. He was the only player, rookie or veteran, with two games with at least 160 rushing yards in 2015. His heat map was otherworldly, with the highlight being that an astounding 10% of his runs went for at least 15+ yards. And he led the league in yards per carry, as Rawls averaged 5.65 yards per carry while rushing for 830 yards. Rawls ranked 1st in DYAR, 1st in Success Rate, and 2nd in DVOA according to Football Outsiders.

In the historical context, Rawls also stands out. The table below shows all rookies since 1970 with at least 700 rushing yards and 5.00 yards per carry: there are only 18 of those players, and Rawls has the second highest YPC average in the group:

Rk Player Year Age Draft Tm Lg G GS Att Yds Y/A TD Y/G
1 Maurice Jones-Drew 2006 21 2-60 JAX NFL 16 1 166 941 5.67 13 58.8
2 Thomas Rawls 2015 22 SEA NFL 13 7 147 830 5.65 4 63.8
3 Adrian Peterson 2007 22 1-7 MIN NFL 14 9 238 1341 5.63 12 95.8
4 Franco Harris* 1972 22 1-13 PIT NFL 14 10 188 1055 5.61 10 75.4
5 Clinton Portis 2002 21 2-51 DEN NFL 16 12 273 1508 5.52 15 94.3
6 DeMarco Murray 2011 23 3-71 DAL NFL 13 7 164 897 5.47 2 69.0
7 Ben Tate 2011 23 2-58 HOU NFL 15 2 175 942 5.38 4 62.8
8 Duane Thomas 1970 23 1-23 DAL NFL 14 8 151 803 5.32 5 57.4
9 Barry Sanders* 1989 21 1-3 DET NFL 15 13 280 1470 5.25 14 98.0
10 Ickey Woods 1988 22 2-31 CIN NFL 16 10 203 1066 5.25 15 66.6
11 Chris Ivory 2010 22 NOR NFL 12 4 137 716 5.23 5 59.7
12 Selvin Young 2007 24 DEN NFL 15 8 140 729 5.21 1 48.6
13 John Brockington 1971 23 1-9 GNB NFL 14 14 216 1105 5.12 4 78.9
14 Don Woods 1974 23 6-134 SDG NFL 12 9 227 1162 5.12 7 96.8
15 Ryan Grant 2007 25 GNB NFL 15 7 188 956 5.09 8 63.7
16 Jeremy Hill 2014 22 2-55 CIN NFL 16 8 222 1124 5.06 9 70.3
17 Mike Anderson 2000 27 6-189 DEN NFL 16 12 297 1487 5.01 15 92.9
18 LeGarrette Blount 2010 24 TAM NFL 13 7 201 1007 5.01 6 77.5

That’s some pretty good company, although there are some less-exciting comps on the list, too. But here’s another interesting thing about his season: Rawls went undrafted in 2015. Rawls ranks 4th among all undrafted free agents in rushing yards gained as a rookie, behind only Dominic Rhodes (1,104), Blount (1,007), and Grant (956).

It’s too early to get a sense of whether Rawls will be the next Ivory (or better) or the next Blount (or worse). I’d say his heat map is a positive sign, as he was consistently gaining yards. On the other hand, the sample size is tiny here; Bills rookie Karlos Williams had almost the same YPC and three more touchdowns on about 2/3 as many carries. Andre Ellington wasn’t far off Rawls’ rookie numbers, either. But if you want to play with the cut-offs, you could also generate this stat: since 1970, Franco Harris, Clinton Portis, Maurice Jones-Drew, Adrian Peterson, and Rawls are the only rookie running backs with 800+ rushing yards and to average 5.5+ yards per carry.

Oh, and take a look at the list of rookie running backs with a 200+ yard rushing game:

Rushing
Rk Age Date Lg Tm Opp Result G# Week Day Att Yds Y/A TD
1 Adrian Peterson 22-228 2007-11-04 NFL MIN SDG W 35-17 8 9 Sun 30 296 9.87 3
2 DeMarco Murray 23-253 2011-10-23 NFL DAL STL W 34-7 6 7 Sun 25 253 10.12 1
3 Mike Anderson 27-073 2000-12-03 NFL DEN @ NOR W 38-23 13 14 Sun 37 251 6.78 4
4 Doug Martin 23-296 2012-11-04 NFL TAM @ OAK W 42-32 8 9 Sun 25 251 10.04 4
5 Corey Dillon 23-041 1997-12-04 NFL CIN TEN W 41-14 14 15 Thu 39 246 6.31 4
6 Clinton Portis 21-119 2002-12-29 NFL DEN ARI W 37-7 16 17 Sun 24 228 9.50 2
7 Adrian Peterson 22-207 2007-10-14 NFL MIN @ CHI W 34-31 5 6 Sun 20 224 11.20 3
8 Bo Jackson 25-000 1987-11-30 NFL RAI @ SEA W 37-14 11 12 Mon 18 221 12.28 2
9 Jerome Bettis* 21-299 1993-12-12 NFL RAM @ NOR W 23-20 13 15 Sun 28 212 7.57 1
10 Thomas Rawls 22-111 2015-11-22 NFL SEA SFO W 29-13 10 11 Sun 30 209 6.97 1
11 Terry Miller 22-323 1978-11-26 NFL BUF NYG W 41-17 13 13 Sun 21 208 9.90 2
12 Curt Warner 22-254 1983-11-27 NFL SEA KAN W 51-48 13 13 Sun 32 207 6.47 3
13 Greg Bell 22-109 1984-11-18 NFL BUF DAL W 14-3 12 12 Sun 27 206 7.63 1
14 Tony Dorsett* 23-241 1977-12-04 NFL DAL PHI W 24-14 12 12 Sun 23 206 8.96 2
15 Rueben Mayes 23-184 1986-12-07 NFL NOR MIA L 27-31 14 14 Sun 28 203 7.25 2
16 Alfred Morris 24-018 2012-12-30 NFL WAS DAL W 28-18 16 17 Sun 33 200 6.06 3
Provided by Pro-Football-Reference.com: View Original Table
Generated 7/9/2016.

A number of these stats are highly correlated, so it’s not surprising to see Rawls pop up at the top of many stats. According to the AP voters, he was neither the best rookie runnning back in the NFC West nor the best offensive rookie on Seattle! A broken ankle ended Rawls’ season early, robbing us of a larger sample size to better understand his season. But regardless, it was one of the more uniquely impressive rookie running back seasons, given his undrafted status, high success rate, and league-leading YPC average.

  • Mistakes: “He was the only player with two games with at least 160 rushing yards in multiple games” should either say in multiple games or with two games. “[B]ehind only Rhodes (1,104)” should include Dominic Rhodes’s first name–he is not in the table above, as he averaged 4.7 yards per carry that season.

    Rawls was incredible last season, and it seems like people kind of ignored it, to the point that there are people still saying that the Seahawks are going to miss Marshawn Lynch, who seemed cooked last season when he did play. Rawls was much, much more effective any way one can look at it. I’m excited to see what he does with a full season, which is not something I say about running backs often.

    Another takeaway unrelated to Rawls himself: the Shanahan-era Broncos were really good at running. Three of those 18 players in the first table are Selvin Young, Mike Anderson, and Clinton Portis. Portis and Anderson show up again in the second. (Selvin Young, for what it’s worth, only had two 100 yard games in his career, both against the Chiefs. Over 30% of his career yardage came against the Chiefs.)

    • sacramento gold miners

      I also think the Seahawks saw an aging RB with back issues who sometimes speaks before thinking, and the organization thought it was better cutting ties now.

      Two backs from these lists really stand out to me. Don Woods from the 70s Chargers, and Rueben Mayes of the 80s Saints. Both players were sensational in their rookie seasons, but subsequent injuries greatly reduced their effectiveness.
      Woods was a converted college QB who the Chargers acquired for practically nothing, and ripped off seven 100 yard games in the 12 in played in during 1975. Mayes was a decorated RB at Washington State, setting an NCAA single game rushing record, and had six games of at least 100 yards in 1986.

      • Thanks, sac. I don’t know much about Woods, so cool to hear.

        • sacramento gold miners

          My bad, I should have said 1974, not 1975 for the excellent rookie season for Don Woods. Just checked PFR, and of his six 100 yards games, two came against the strong Oakland Raiders.

      • monkey

        What are you talking about?
        Talks without thinking? He was in trouble for NOT talking, because the media twisted his words.
        The organization cut it’s ties? He retired!

        • sacramento gold miners

          Many other incidents of Lynch talking during his Seahawks career, he is a different type of individual. He lost the passion to play, and Seattle was ready to move on.

    • Fixed!

      Yeah, I mean Rawls took everyone by surprise. I think the small sample size and the undrafted label have kept him still under the radar, not to mention the fact that he’s still recovering from injury.

      • It never ceases to amaze me how much draft position matters in terms of perception of a player.

    • McGeorge

      Lynch had surgery last year during the season, and was playing injured. I think that had something to do with him being less effective. It will be interesting to watch Rawls this year, and see if he can repeat and even improve.

  • Julius Guccione

    Give me a break. Rawls had more than 6 carries in only 6 games in 2015. You are splitting hairs by saying he is the only RB with at least 2 games with 160+ yards; Peterson had 203 yards vs Raiders and 158 yards vs Falcons. I don’t expect much from Rawls in 2016, just like many RBs who look good initially but end up being average.

    • Isn’t two huge games out of 6 even more impressive than two huge games out of 16?

      • monkey

        Seems like your math is better than Julius Guccione’s.

    • Ehh

      The sample size is really small, but you can’t just write this off as “many RBs look good initially”. Rawls looked historically good, not just good.

    • monkey

      Clearly, you never once watched him.
      Saying he is the only RB with at least 2 games with 160+ yards isn’t “splitting hairs”, it’s pointing out the fact that he had MONSTER games in a short time.
      Again, you obviously never watched him play, so your comment is coming from a position of ignorance.