Rookie running backs on the decline
Posted Jul. 18 at 03:08 PM
Justin Eleff has the nice feature in the magazine (it starts on page 40). He came up with the theory that rookie running backs now don’t tend to be as productive as in the past.
It’s a nice theory, and Justin deserves almost all of the credit. He did almost all of the work on that feature. I was busy with other stuff; I contributed the one little chart you see on the first page, but that was put together after he’d written the article – it’s not even mentioned in the text.
On this issue, however, I wanted to do some additional research. I wanted to push around the numbers for myself and see how it holds up. I was working on a similar type of topic for a mailbag question yesterday, so I expanded that and spent a couple of hours on it this morning.
I had the list of all top-20 backs from the last 20 years in front of me, so I compiled where all of those backs came from. How many were rookies? How many were in their second year? That kind of thing.
The findings support the Eleff theory.
In the last 10 years, only five rookie running backs have been top-10 backs. That’s less than half as many as the previous 10 years, when there were 12.
If you want to look at top-20 backs rather than top-10, then the numbers are 24 and 13.
What’s going on here?
Were backs in the ‘90s simply better on average? Possible, but probably not.
Pass protection, I think, seems to be more of an issue now than it was in the past. If a running back can’t learning the blocking assignments, that can keep him off the field. That could be a contributing factor to more players not “breaking out” until their second or third years.
Expanding on the pass protection idea, I thinking the demise of the fullback is related. Far more teams are using one back rather than two, and that means that one back has to block more often. Maybe in the ‘80s and ‘90s, when there was a sturdy veteran fullback in there, it was easier for teams to get by with tailbacks who were limited as blockers.
Some of the numbers appear below. For a prettier version, see the Facebook page.
Note that for the 2002-2011 time chunk (versus the previous 10 years), more of the top-10 backs were players in their second and third years.
TOP-10 RUNNING BACKS, 1992-2001
No RB (experience)
12 1st-year RBs
9 2nd-year RBs
15 3rd-year RBs
16 4th-year RBs
16 5th-year RBs
13 6th-year RBs
7 7th-year RBs
4 8th-year RBs
4 9th-year RBs
4 10th+ year RBs
TOP-10 RUNNING BACKS, 2002-2011
No RB (experience)
5 1st-year RBs
13 2nd-year RBs
21 3rd-year RBs
10 4th-year RBs
15 5th-year RBs
15 6th-year RBs
8 7th-year RBs
5 8th-year RBs
4 9th-year RBs
4 10th-year RBs
If anybody else has any theories on these numbers, I will be happy to hear them.
Posted by L DALE GANDER | Jul. 18 at 06:03 PM
I think RB contracts compared to other positions tell you what you need to know. Supply is far greater than demand. Most teams have a "good enough" RB and have bigger needs at other positions harder to fill. Rookie RBs get starting jobs in two ways: 1) The best prospects are drafted by bad teams (a fantasy crapshoot), or 2) Someone gets hurt and they are thrust into the spotlight. Very rarely does a good team draft a rookie and throw him in the lineup because usually good teams have bigger needs. RB is quite frankly a "warm body" position in today's NFL. Rookie RBs, therefore, have a lot of competition - fewer are drafted, fewer are able to beat out vets in the passing game, and few are significantly more talented than the RBs already there.
Posted by david erickson | Jul. 19 at 09:04 PM
To expand yet again on the emphasis on the passing game is that few teams feature strong "run" offensive lines in today's NFL, which I think contributes to why runningback injuries are so prevalent. The teams who are generally strong "run" teams are usually conservative defensive-minded organizations which would almost-never trust a rookie runningback to lead their team. Additionally, players once known as 3rd-down backs are now being used more often on various downs to mix up defenses; another factor that takes runs away from feature backs.
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