Rookie Impact: Running Backs
Impressive rookie runners haven't all come from the first round of the draft. Gordon McGuinness lays out what we've seen in first-year production.
Rookie Impact: Running Backs
As you’ll have seen, we’ve focused on rookies this past week at PFF, with the emphasis being on what you can expect from them in their first season in the league. Some players start strong, but we’ve seen plenty of players take their time to find their feet in the NFL, with a huge step up in quality from the college ranks to the pros.
Still, after seeing them drafted in May, everyone wants to know how this group of rookies will perform when they hit the field. While we can’t quite predict the future, we can show you how players at each position have, on average, performed in the past, and give something of an indicator to the realistic expectations you should have from a rookie. As part of the last group of position-by-position looks, we turn our attention to running backs today.
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Staking Your Claim
While we’re looking to see what sort of impact a rookie running back can have, it’s important to note that the first battle they face isn’t for playing time, it’s ensuring that they actually make the final roster. For players drafted in the top four rounds of the draft, it’s likely that they’ll be successful in that regard, but the players drafted later — and those who went undrafted — are competing for their careers from the moment they step onto the practice field in training camp.
A position which has seen a shift from the days when most teams had a lead back who grabbed the majority of the team’s carries, more than ever now we are seeing teams go with a ‘running back by committee’ approach. That obviously impacts the number of snaps that we see from running backs, with just 12 of the 140 players drafted at the position since 2007 registering at least 600 snaps in their first year in the league. Of those 12, only Alfred Morris was drafted outside the top three rounds of the draft, with the former sixth-round selection seeing 752 snaps in his rookie year in 2012.
Being drafted late doesn’t mean that you can’t make an impact, though, and (along with Morris in the sixth) we’ve seen Peyton Hillis, Bryce Brown and Daryl Richardson all see over 300 snaps as seventh-round rookies over the years.
Making Your Mark
When looking at every running back drafted since 2007, the average grade comes in at a fairly average -1.0. That average is impacted by a large number of players who didn’t play much, if at all, though, with the 12 players who saw at least 600 snaps as rookies averaging out at +1.3. What’s interesting is that even someone like LeSean McCoy, who last season was far ahead of the pack as our highest-graded running back, struggled as a rookie with a grade of -12.6 on 610 snaps. That low grade was down to the fact that he just didn’t do much without the help of his offensive line, with just 13 missed tackles forced from 160 carries. By comparison, in 2013 he forced 58 from 335 carries.
For a running back drafted in the top three rounds of the draft, the typical averages for Year 1 are 314 snaps and an overall grade of -1.4, with the Carolina Panthers’ 2008 first round draft pick Jonathan Stewart (366 snaps, -0.5) the closest example of this. A player who has seen his career disrupted by injury, Stewart had solid first year in the league, rushing for 851 yards and forcing 36 missed tackles as a runner.
The Dream Scenario
Though only five rookie running backs have finished their rookie year’s with a grade of +10.0 or better, we have still seen some impressive performances through the years. The two-highest graded debut seasons came in 2013, with second-round draft picks from the Cincinnati Bengals’ Giovani Bernard (+15.6) and the Green Bay Packers’ Eddie Lacy (+15.2) both starting their careers off strong.
Our third- and fifth-highest graded players at the position in 2013, they were both tough to bring down for opposing defenders, but for different reasons. While Bernard was quick with his feet and able to cut and burst away, Lacy used his power to shrug off would-be tacklers, with both combining to force 80 missed tackles last year.
They weren’t the only rookies to impress recently, with Andre Ellington (+13.9) last year and Alfred Morris (+13.9) in 2012 both having rookie years to get excited about. It’s not surprising, though, given the kind of once-in-a-decade type of talent that he is, that the most impressive rookie performance we have seen since 2007 came from Adrian Peterson. His +14.4 grade back in 2007 may not be the highest by a rookie running back, but coming on just 469 snaps it was clear to see that he was a star from Day 1. His play actually faded in the last four weeks of the season too, with a grade of +18.9 through the first 12 games of the year
Getting a player as good as Peterson is obviously rare at the running back position, but we have seen enough strong performances from rookies through the years that it wouldn’t be a shock to see one of this year’s group start fast, but with players as good as LeSean McCoy struggling in their first year in the league, patience should be exercised with them early in their careers.
Follow Gordon on Twitter: @PFF_Gordon
Gordon McGuinness | Analyst, Lead Special Teams Analyst
Gordon has worked at PFF since 2011, and now heads up the company’s special teams analysis processes. His work in-season focuses on college football, while he is also heavily involved in PFF’s NFL draft coverage.