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Rookie running backs

How have previous "deep" classes turned out?

It's considered a deep draft class for running backs, but reasonable people can differ over exactly what that means. Are there a lot of really talented backs, or just an unusually large number of decent backs who could become serviceable NFL starters? From a fantasy perspective, either would be nice.

Texas' Bijan Robinson might be a first-round pick; he looks great. Alabama's Jahmyr Gibbs, who I've written about here once or twice, also has star potential. UCLA's Zach Charbonnet and TCU's Kendre Miller are the among others who should be early considerations.

I was wondering how often previous classes that were considered deep turned out that way. If they either had a lot of stars, or a lot of really solid NFL backs.

Looking back over the past 20 years, I see three classes that seemed to fit the profile. On average, you'll see about 6-8 running backs selected in the first three rounds of the draft. (Last year 6, 2021 just 4, 2019 there were 7, 2018 there were 8.) But three draft classes this century had double-digit running backs selected in the first three rounds: 2020, 2008 and 2001. How did those backs turn out?

The 2001 class, highlighted by LaDainian Tomlinson, worked out pretty well. Eight of the 10 running backs selected in the first three rounds had at least one top-20 season (PPR). Four (Tomlinson, Deuce McCallister, Travis Henry and Reuben Droughns) had multiple such years.

2008 would be considered the gold standard. There were 11 running backs selected in the first three rounds. Nine of them had at least one top-20 fantasy season (seven had more than one), six had a top-10 season, and four -- Chris Johnson, Jamaal Charles, Matt Forte and Ray Rice -- had at least one season where they ranked No. 1 or 2 overall. Probably the best running back class ever.

Early returns on the 2020 class, which featured 11 running backs selected in the first three rounds, aren't great. (Since there have only been three seasons, there's still time for a couple of those guys to emerge, but then again, running back careers are short.) Only three of them have a top-20 season thus far, and two of those guys (Antonio Gibson, D'Andre Swift) weren't even starters most of last season, and won't be this year. Clyde Edwards-Helaire has been a disappointment. J.K. Dobbins and Cam Akers have had their moments but battled injuries -- maybe one of those guys will step up with a big season in 2023. AJ Dillon is also a possibility, though he seems forever stuck behind Aaron Jones.

Anyway, table below shows the top seasons from those 32 running backs. (A couple near the bottom were actually fullbacks, but are included for completeness.) Let's hope 2023 winds up being a little closer to 2008, or at least 2001, than 2020.

BEST SEASONS, RD 1-3 RUNNING BACKS (2000, 2008, 2020)
DraftBestPlayerAttRunNoRecTDRk
20082009Chris Johnson, Ten.358200650503161
20082013Jamaal Charles, K.C.259128770693191
20202021Jonathan Taylor, Ind.332181140360201
20012006LaDainian Tomlinson, S.D.348181556508311
20082011Ray Rice, Balt.291136476704151
20082013Matt Forte, Chi.289133974594122
20012003Deuce McAllister, N.O.35116416951685
20012005LaMont Jordan, Oak.272102570563116
20082008Steve Slaton, Hou.268128250377107
20202021Antonio Gibson, Was.258103742294108
20082010Darren McFadden, Oak.223115747507108
20012002Travis Henry, Buff.325143843309149
20082010Rashard Mendenhall, Pitt.3241273231671311
20012005Reuben Droughns, Cle.309123239369214
20202021D'Andre Swift, Det.15161762452715
20082009Jonathan Stewart, Car.2211133181391115
20012001Anthony Thomas, Chi.278118322178717
20082008Kevin Smith, Det.23897639286817
20012002Michael Bennett, Min.255129637351618
20012003Kevan Barlow, S.F.201102435307719
20202020Clyde Edwards-Helaire, K.C.18180336297522
20202021AJ Dillon, G.B.18780334313723
20082010Felix Jones, Dall.18580048450223
20202020J.K. Dobbins, Balt.13480518120924
20202022Cam Akers, LAR18878613117734
20012001Travis Minor, Mia.5928129263442
20012003James Jackson, Cle.10238214114347
20202020Zack Moss, Buff.1124811495549
20082010Jacob Hester, S.D.266022145174
20012005Heath Evans, 2TM5219214105078
20202021KeShawn Vaughn, T.B.36180426290
20202022Darrynton Evans, Chi.14641330118

--Andy Richardson

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