Rookie running backs have chance to be successful

Editor's note: This is Part 1 of a two-segment look at running back draft classes. For Part 2, click here.

The 2008 season is shaping up to be a great year for rookie running backs. Three backs go into training camp looking like probable starters: Darren McFadden, Matt Forte and Kevin Smith. Jonathan Stewart may start as well in Carolina, and there will be three other first-round backs starting the season as part of a committee. That doesn't even count the later-round backs who may end up playing an important role in the offense, like Steve Slaton, Jamaal Charles and Ryan Torain.

All of these important rookie running backs bring up the question: What are the best running back draft classes in NFL history, and what do the 2008 rookies have to do to join that list?

To find out, I went back to every draft class since the AFL and NFL merged drafts in 1967. Now, to find the best backs, I could just total up yardage, or perhaps yardage with a bonus for touchdowns. But we want to find the backs who were really valuable to their teams in the context of the time. In the 1970s, rushing was a more important part of the game, but so was defense. Teams averaged fewer yards per carry than they do today, and used two or three backs in tandem. Since then, the top workhorse backs have had a higher percentage of team carries almost every year, a trend which has finally been reversed in the past couple seasons.

Football Outsiders controlled for these issues a year ago, when we wrote an essay on the top running back seasons of all time in our book Pro Football Prospectus 2007. By creating a model to show the changes in football strategy since the 1950s, we tried to compare historical backs on equal footing. The method is way too complex to repeat here, but it scores the performance of running backs in such a way that the top 10 seasons of all time included backs as different as Marshall Faulk, Jim Brown and Larry Csonka. (O.J. Simpson's 1975 season was No. 1.)

Adding 2007 into the mix, I've used those same values to look at all rookies who played a significant role on their teams, with at least 100 touches (runs plus receptions). Here is the resulting list of the top running back draft classes in modern NFL history:

1. 2006: If you want to find the best rookie year for running backs, you don't have to go back very far. The record for rushing average by a back with at least 99 carries belongs to Jerious Norwood, with 6.4 yards per carry. The record for rushing average by a back with at least 150 carries belongs to Maurice Jones-Drew, with 5.7 yards per carry. Joseph Addai had 1,081 yards and averaged nearly five yards per carry. Reggie Bush had 88 receptions for 742 yards. More importantly, none of the eight rookie backs with at least 100 touches really had a bad year. The only one averaging less than four yards per carry was Wali Lundy of Houston, who apparently went into witness protection after the season ended.

2. 1993: Jerome Bettis gained 1,429 yards on 294 carries -- nearly five yards per attempt -- with seven touchdowns and just four fumbles. According to our study from PFP 2007, the only better rookie season since 1967 belongs to Edgerrin James in 1999. Elsewhere, Miami's Terry Kirby caught 75 passes for 874 yards, while Reggie Brooks of Washington and Ronald Moore of Arizona each had a 1,000-yard season. Ten rookie backs had at least 100 touches, more than any other season.

3. 1980: No. 1 overall pick Billy Sims had 1,303 rushing yards and 621 receiving yards, leading the league with 16 combined touchdowns. Baltimore's Curtis Dickey, chosen No. 5 overall, averaged 4.5 yards per carry with 11 touchdowns and just three fumbles (very low for the time) on 176 carries. Joe Cribbs also had a huge year, with 1,185 rushing yards and 11 touchdowns, while Charles White and Gerry Ellis played well as backups.

4. 1997: Just five running backs were chosen in the first two rounds, but three of them had strong rookie seasons: Antowain Smith for Buffalo, Warrick Dunn for Tampa Bay and most significantly Corey Dillon (1,129 yards, 10 touchdowns) for Cincinnati. Tiki Barber's mediocre rookie season (just 511 yards on 136 carries) hid the greatness yet to come. The last back chosen in the first two rounds, Atlanta's Byron Hanspard, had just 53 carries but did score two touchdowns on kick returns.

5. 1994: Marshall Faulk, chosen No. 2 overall by the Colts, blew the league away with 1,282 rushing yards, 522 receiving yards and 12 total touchdowns. Four other rookies scored at least six touchdowns: William Floyd, Bam Morris, Errict Rhett and Mario Bates.

Honorable mention: 1978 (Earl Campbell, Terry Miller); 2007 (Adrian Peterson, Marshawn Lynch); 1971 (John Brockington, John Riggins).

And the worst . . . .

1990: Emmitt Smith had 11 touchdowns, but couldn't average four yards per carry. Smith and Johnny Johnson of Arizona were the only rookies with at least 160 carries. Second overall pick Blair Thomas had five yards per carry, but got on the field for only 123 carries with just one touchdown. First-rounders Darrell Thompson (Green Bay) and Steve Broussard (Atlanta) were awful, but not as bad as second-round pick Reggie Cobb of Tampa Bay. Cobb had 151 carries for 480 yards, averaging 3.2 yards per carry with just two touchdowns and eight fumbles. According to our system from PFP 2007, Cobb had the least valuable season ever by a running back with at least 100 carries, rookie or otherwise.

Aaron Schatz is president of Football Outsiders Inc. and the lead author of Pro Football Prospectus 2008, now on sale online and in bookstores everywhere.