Special to Page 2
This NFL offseason has been filled with interesting free-agent signings, topped by last week's announcement that Ron Dayne signed with the Denver Broncos. This may be the weirdest pairing of front man and team since Gary Cherone did that album as lead singer of Van Halen.
The belief that any running back can succeed behind the Denver offensive line is about to get its ultimate test. When he was at Wisconsin, people thought Dayne could run through a brick wall. As my Football Outsiders colleague Al Bogdan has observed, not only is Dayne unable to run through a brick wall, he also is unable to notice when there's a hole in the wall two feet to his left.
Dayne is just another in a long line of Big Ten running backs who flopped in the NFL. Does the name Ki-Jana Carter ring a bell? What's Curtis Enis doing these days? Name a running back bust, and the odds are he played his college ball in the Big Ten.
With the NFL Draft coming up, it's a reminder that every year, general managers who take Big Ten running backs say they don't care about the past, that this player is different. That's what Cincinnati said last year about first-round pick Chris Perry. Now the Bengals don't even want him on the team.
It turns out there is a mirror-image conference where running backs regularly turn into NFL stars: the SEC. The track record of SEC running backs is as good as the track record of Big Ten running backs is bad. No Big Ten running back taken below the 40th pick in the draft over the last 10 years has ever had more than 200 carries in a single season. Meanwhile, the SEC has produced such second-day draft gems as Terrell Davis, Stephen Davis, Rudi Johnson and Domanick Davis.
Here's a round-by-round comparison of all the running backs taken from these two conferences over the past 10 years. The further down the draft board you go, the more absurd the difference becomes. But the parade of Big Ten running back busts starts right at the top, with the last running back ever chosen with the No. 1 overall pick.
|BIG Ten vs. SEC|
|Big Ten||1995||1||Ki-Jana Carter||Bengals||Penn State|
|1996||14||Eddie George||Oilers||Ohio State|
|1998||5||Curtis Enis||Bears||Penn State|
|2002||18||T.J. Duckett||Falcons||Michigan State|
|2003||27||Larry Johnson||Chiefs||Penn State|
Not every single Big Ten running back taken in the first round has been a flop. Eddie George was a star for five years with the Titans and then an average starter for three more after breaking down due to a 400-carry workload in 2000.
But the other nine Big Ten backs in the chart have only two 1,000-yard seasons among them: Michael Bennett in 2002 and Tyrone Wheatley in 2000. Carter and Tim Biakabutuka never put it together because of injuries. But Enis and Dayne didn't get injured; they were just lousy. The recent picks just continue the trend. Cincinnati is already trying to trade Perry, the Chiefs were trying to trade Johnson until they finally let him play a little at the end of last year, and T.J. Duckett and Bennett have gotten stuck in running back committees because they are always getting hurt.
Compare that to the seven SEC first-rounders. Fred Taylor, Jamal Lewis and Shaun Alexander have been among the best backs of the last five years. McAllister had a down year in 2004, and gets stuffed at the line too often, but he has been a reliable starter for three years now. James Stewart took a while to finally get a starting job, but even he had two 1,000-yard seasons. And Robert Edwards rushed for 1,115 yards as a rookie before suffering a freak injury in a "beach football" game during Pro Bowl festivities.
There's only been one real first-round bust among the SEC running backs: John Avery, who was considered a reach pick by Miami when he was taken in 1998 and was cut within a year. But hey, he can tell people that he's the all-time XFL rushing champion.
|Big Ten vs. SEC|
|Big Ten||1995||19||Terrell Fletcher||Chargers||Wisconsin|
|1999||18||Joe Montgomery||Giants||Ohio State|
|1999||8||James Johnson||Dolphins||Miss. State|
Let's see, Mike Alstott is a very good, albeit specialized, running back, and Anthony Thomas had that one good year in 2001. That pretty much does it for the Big Ten second-rounders. Joe Montgomery fought injuries and played only 10 games. Robert Holcombe struggled as a halfback before moving to fullback, where he's been a contributor but nothing special. Ladell Betts has been a backup for three years.
Terrell Fletcher had perhaps the strangest career. He hung around San Diego for eight years, and every year he struggled as the backup as the Chargers brought in some other running back to take the starting job, from Natrone Means to Leonard Russell to Gary Brown, back to Means. Thank God the Chargers finally drafted LaDainian Tomlinson or Fletcher might still be wearing lightning bolts, waiting for his opportunity.
The SEC second-rounders aren't as good as the SEC backs to come in later rounds. Sherman Williams never did much of anything, and J.J. Johnson was a complete disaster. But Travis Henry started in Buffalo for 3½ seasons and could be starting in Arizona next year, while Kevin Faulk is a valuable third-down back who owns three Super Bowl rings.
|Big Ten vs. SEC|
|Big Ten||1996||31||Jon Witman||Steelers||Penn State|
|1997||11||Duce Staley||Eagles||S. Carolina|
Total NFL carries for the four Big Ten backs: 114. Total carries for Duce Staley in 2004 despite missing six games: 192. That pretty much says it all, but here's a little love for Moe Williams, the most underrated running back in the NFL over the past three years. No matter what Minnesota asks him to do, Williams always makes big plays. Need a tough third down? He's converted 25 of 30 runs on third- or fourth-and-1 over the last three years. Need yards on first down? He's averaged 4.3 yards per carry on first downs. Need a back who can catch a pass? He had 65 catches in 2003.
Now that we're on to the second day of the draft, we'll only list players who had 100 carries, played three NFL seasons or were on 2004 rosters. (The others we'll just call busts.)
|Big Ten vs. SEC|
|Big Ten||1996||20||Brian Milne||Colts||Penn State|
|2002||1||Jonathan Wells||Texans||Ohio State|
|2002||9||Omar Easy||Chiefs||Penn State|
|2002||31||Jamar Martin||Cowboys||Ohio State|
|1996||23||Stanley Pritchett||Dolphins||S. Carolina|
|2003||24||Justin Griffith||Falcons||Miss. State|
For some reason, every team in the NFL seems to wake up on the draft's second day desiring a running back, so you'll notice a ton of running backs taken in the fourth round. Yet despite all these Big Ten running backs taken in the fourth round, you can't find one that's any good. The only Big Ten fourth-rounder to ever carry the ball more than 100 times in a season is the guy who averaged less than three yards per carry for the expansion Texans, Jonathan Wells. They thought so much of him they drafted an SEC running back in the fourth round the following year, and all Domanick Davis has done in two years is rush for more career yards than the 10 Big Ten backs combined.
And Davis isn't even the best SEC fourth-rounder. A two-time Pro Bowler with four seasons over 1,300 yards? Stephen Davis is the very definition of "draft steal." But Davis doesn't even have the highest single-season mark for an SEC fourth-rounder: Rudi Johnson holds that mark with last year's 1,454 yards. Other quality fourth-round SEC picks include Olandis Gary, although he has never been as successful outside of Denver; Stanley Pritchett, who's lasted nine seasons; and Justin Griffith, a great lead blocker who also provides a valuable outlet in the Atlanta passing game.
|Big Ten vs. SEC|
|Big Ten||1996||6||Scott Greene||Panthers||Michigan State|
|1996||7||Mike Archie||Oilers||Penn State|
|Big Ten||2000||5||Michael Wiley||Cowboys||Ohio State|
|Big Ten||2004||5||Thomas Tapeh||Eagles||Minnesota|
|1995||6||Fred McCrary||Jaguars||Miss. State|
|1999||6||Dennis McKinley||Cardinals||Miss. State|
|2003||7||Andrew Pinnock||Chargers||S. Carolina|
By the time you get to the fifth round, players who made an impact on the NFL are far outnumbered by players who spent a couple years as backups or special teamers and then washed out of the league. Scott Greene had one nice year as a fullback in Carolina, with 40 receptions in 1997, and that's about it. To find a quality late-round Big Ten running back, you have to go all the way back to 1993, when the Jets used a sixth-round pick on Richie Anderson out of Penn State.
The SEC, of course, brought us one of the greatest late-round draft picks in NFL history: Terrell Davis in 1995. Besides Davis, though, Fred Beasley has played seven years as a fullback and Fred McCrary five. Patrick Pass was a special teamer during the first two New England Super Bowl runs and starting fullback during the third. Verron Haynes ran 55 times for 272 yards as Pittsburgh's third-stringer last year, an average of nearly five yards per carry. Even Terry Jackson's five-year career at the bottom of the San Francisco depth chart is longer than the careers of any of the late-round Big Ten backs.
What does this mean for this year's draft? Well, you should expect that Ronnie Brown and Carnell Williams of Auburn will make two teams very happy. But you also should expect some SEC running back taken on the second day to be starting by the middle of 2006. Watch out for Ciatrick Fason of Florida, Cedric Houston of Tennessee, Ray Hudson of Alabama and Decori Birmingham of Arkansas (who may never start, but sounds like he might be Kevin Faulk, Part II).
As for the Big Ten, there aren't any first-round prospects to be wary of this season, but general managers should stay away from Anthony Davis of Wisconsin, Noah Herron of Northwestern and especially Marion Barber of Minnesota, who as described by the guys at Scouts Inc. sounds like the prototype for the Big Ten bust: "needs to do a better job of allowing his blocks to develop ... is a little bit too straight-line ... runs hard but seems to lack a bit of explosiveness."
Oh, and there's one more Big Ten running back you may have heard about. Just in case there weren't enough reasons for teams not to pick Maurice Clarett, just remember how good Ron Dayne looked in college.
Draft information comes from Chris Malumphy's excellent site DraftHistory.com.
Aaron Schatz is editor-in-chief of FootballOutsiders.com.