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Who will lead the NFL in rushing from 2012 to 2021?

by Chase Stuart on July 25, 2012

in College, History, Rushing, Statistics

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.

Years
Rush Yds
Player
Beg Age
Beg 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:

Years
Rush Yds
Player
Beg Age
Beg 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.

{ 5 comments… read them below or add one }

Richie July 25, 2012 at 3:57 pm

Nice to see Pug Manders get some credit for a change!

Reply

Richie July 25, 2012 at 4:00 pm

Jim Brown led the period 1961-1970 despite only playing 5 of those seasons!!! (1961-1965)

Reply

Richie July 25, 2012 at 4:03 pm

Nevermind, now I see that Van Buren did even better from the “other side”.

Reply

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