For rookie running backs, preseason success matters

Every NFL preseason has its share of disposable heroes -- players who impress in the "silly season," never to be seen again. It's a statistical bubble where Quincy Carter can put up a passer rating of 109.0 (2003), Keary Colbert and Doug Gabriel can outproduce Randy Moss (2004), and names like Adimchinobi Echemandu and Craphonso Thorpe will intrigue with high yardage totals (2007).

In reality, we dismiss most of what we see in the preseason -- there's too much to throw out when considering performances against third-string defenses and players who will be cut in weeks or days. Actual performance indicators are rare, but this table detailing the leading rushers in yards per carry for the 2007 preseason was fairly interesting:

Four of the five backs above were rookies, Chris Brown being the only exception, and Ahmad Bradshaw, Selvin Young and Pierre Thomas were either drafted late in the second day or not at all. Adrian Peterson's amazing season wasn't much of a surprise in comparison, but who expected Bradshaw to shine down the stretch and help the Giants win the Super Bowl? Did anyone imagine that Young would end the year as Denver's leading rusher? And did you have Thomas when they were taking bets on the first Saints player to gain 100 yards rushing and receiving in the same game in franchise history? Probably not.

Is preseason success, measured by yards per carry, an indicator that an unheralded rookie back has an edge in regular-season performance? We collected preseason data for all rookie running backs since 2000 with 25 preseason carries or more. Success was indicated when a running back had at least 50 carries and more yards per carry than the average for all backs with 25 or more carries per year. To avoid the obvious success stories, we omitted first- and second-round draft picks.

From 2000 through 2007, 71 rookie backs rushed 25 times or more in their first preseason. Fifty-four were drafted in the third round or later (or not at all), and 24 of those players averaged more yards per carry than the preseason baseline for the eight-year period (3.94).

How do our under-the-radar backs stand up in the harsher light of the regular season? Nine of those backs put up 50 or more carries in their rookie years, averaging 4.43 yards per carry. Five were undrafted (Dominic Rhodes, Mike Bell, Selvin Young, Tony Fisher and Pierre Thomas). There was one sixth-rounder (Wali Lundy) and three third-rounders (James Jackson, Jerious Norwood and Ryan Moats). If we look at all 24 rookie backs who finished over the preseason baseline, regardless of how many carries they had in their first regular season, the average yards per carry remains 4.43.

What about the backs who slipped under the 3.94 yards-per-carry preseason baseline? There are 28 who fit our third-to-undrafted filter. Seven of them carried the ball more than 50 times in their rookie seasons, and they averaged a total of 3.51 yards per carry.

That means the backs below our preseason baseline averaged a yard per carry less than those above it. You'll be forgiven if you don't find this list quite as exciting. There are three undrafted players (Nick Goings, Maurice Hicks and Arlen Harris), one fifth-rounder (Sammy Morris), two fourth-rounders (Onterrio Smith, Jonathan Wells) and third-rounder Lamar Gordon. If you include all of the backs who averaged below the baseline in the preseason, regardless of number of carries, regular-season yards per carry drops to 3.47.

Not surprisingly, the over-baseline list has a much larger list of backs who eventually broke out and became stars. Brian Westbrook, Willie Parker and Rudi Johnson also had excellent preseasons as rookies, but weren't mentioned earlier because they didn't get 50 carries during their first regular seasons. Under the baseline, you'll find a couple of successful backs -- Earnest Graham, the longtime backup who played well for Tampa Bay last season, and sample-size superstar Michael Turner, the former Chargers backup who just signed a huge deal with the Atlanta Falcons. But that's it. The rest of the names have faded into obscurity, while many more of the backs who beat the baseline look to advance on their solid starts.

It's a long-held belief that you shouldn't get too excited about what you see in the preseason. Still, keep an eye on yards per carry over the next month -- the NFL's next great back could be a rookie on your favorite team, and you might not even know his name yet.

Doug Farrar is a writer for FootballOutsiders.com and co-author of Pro Football Prospectus 2008, available in bookstores now.