Travis Etienne and Javonte Williams look like key decisions to me. Both have the potential to be notable contributors as rookies, but neither is guaranteed to even be the most productive running back on his own team.

The Jaguars and Broncos, after all, have other backs with some ability. James Robinson had a really nice rookie season for Jacksonville, while Melvin Gordon returns for Denver. Both have the advantage of having played in the league.

Etienne and Williams (pictured) were taken early, of course. They were picked 25th and 35th, meaning those teams are pretty confident they’ll be winning significant roles early. One Denver-area reporter has speculated he thinks Williams will lead the Broncos in rushing, and that he’ll be taking over sooner rather than later.

But history shows us that there are Etienne-Williams type backs coming in every year, and that it’s more common for them to fall short of expectations in their first year.

Since 2000, 48 running backs have been chosen in the second half of the first round or the first half of the second round. That is, somewhere between the 17th and 50th picks (I’m leaving out the early first-round picks because expectations are higher with those kind of backs).

Of those 48 running backs, only 18 – about a third – were the most productive running backs on their own team. And most (maybe all) of those teams didn’t have a back coming back who was as good as Robinson or Gordon. (15 of the 48, by the way, weren’t even the second-most productive back on their own team as a rookie.)

Only 11 of these 48 backs put up top-20 numbers (PPR scoring) in their first season, and only another 6 even finished with top-30 numbers. More commonly, these rookie running backs didn’t tend to be much of a factor. Injuries, of course, can be a factor at this position – four of the running backs didn’t play at all in their rookie year.

In the chart below, I’ve got the 18 team leaders tagged with black dots. I’ve got the three 2021 backs selected in this range in bold. That includes Najee Harris, since he was selected 24th by the Steelers, but he’s a different kind of prospect than Etienne or Williams – far more penciled in as a starter.

On the chart, the players are ordered not chronologically or by first-year production, but by where they were selected. Only one of the 17 running backs chosen between 18th and 28th (and this is really surprising) put up top-20 numbers in his first year. Chris Johnson. Only three of those 17 were the top back on their own team.

2002T.J. Duckett, Atl.1850761568489.847
2000Shaun Alexander, Sea.1931341354252.462
2006Laurence Maroney, N.E.217451949397157.927
2008Felix Jones, Dall.2226610276453.675
2001Deuce McAllister, N.O.2391166257257.365
2008Rashard Mendenhall, Pitt.2358177509.5128
2003Willis McGahee, Buff.230000.0--
2008• Chris Johnson, Ten.241228260148810251.811
2019• Josh Jacobs, Oak.24115016613167193.621
2004Steven Jackson, St.L.246731898624131.233
2021Najee Harris, Pitt.24??????
2021Travis Etienne, Jac.25??????
2004Chris Perry, Cin.261333406.4143
2001• Michael Bennett, Min.276822269083137.829
2006DeAngelo Williams, Car.275013138142126.439
2009Donald Brown, Ind.27281169450374.060
2018Rashaad Penny, Sea.2741975494270.468
2003Larry Johnson, K.C.2785287115.7116
2011Mark Ingram, N.O.2847446520593.046
2006• Joseph Addai, Ind.30108132514068228.613
2010• Jahvid Best, Det.3055548710426198.220
2004• Kevin Jones, Det.30113318013136195.321
2012• Doug Martin, T.B.311454472192612313.62
2018Sony Michel, N.E.31931509816141.134
2009Beanie Wells, Ariz.317931439367147.637
2000Trung Canidate, St.L.31641002.0147
2020• Clyde Edwards-Helaire, K.C.3280329711005176.022
2012David Wilson, NYG3235834392679.251
2002DeShaun Foster, Car.340000.0--
2020• D'Andre Swift, Det.3552135787810193.816
2018• Nick Chubb, Cle.35996149114510194.517
2021Javonte Williams, Den.35??????
2015• T.J. Yeldon, Jac.3674027910193155.928
2010Dexter McCluster, K.C.3671209280261.065
2013• Giovani Bernard, Cin.3769551412098224.913
2001• Anthony Thomas, Chi.38118317813617202.117
2018Ronald Jones, T.B.38443377120.795
2011Ryan Williams, Ariz.380000.0--
2020• Jonathan Taylor, Ind.411169299146812254.86
2004Tatum Bell, Den.4139680476370.663
2017Dalvin Cook, Min.4135490444267.472
2004• Julius Jones, Dall.438191099287151.831
2018• Kerryon Johnson, Det.436412138544141.433
2008• Matt Forte, Chi.441238477171512306.52
2005J.J. Arrington, Ariz.44370139509287.953
2016Derrick Henry, Ten.454901376275105.745
2006LenDale White, Ten.4524460304044.472
2013• LeVeon Bell, Pitt.4886039912598218.915
2017Joe Mixon, Cin.486262879134145.333
2001LaMont Jordan, NYJ4929244336252.672
2007Kenny Irons, Cin.490000.0--

—Ian Allan