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Late-round backs

Is a first- or second-year back more likely to emerge?

When gambling on a late-round running back, is it better to choose a rookie? Or instead opt for a running back who’s been around for a year? The player with a year of experience, after all, is a year ahead in terms of understanding the offense and the pro game in general.

In recent days, we have kicked around names like Jerome Ford, Pierre Strong, Kendre Miller, Roschon Johnson, Tyjae Spears and Ty Chandler (pictured). All have their pros and cons, and anybody considering one of those individuals will look at the player and the situation in detail. But in a vacuum, do we tend to do better rolling the dice on a rookie or a second-year guy?

Using data from previous season, we can better see a general lay of the land.

On this one, I left out running backs selected in the first and second rounds. When players are picked that early, the expectation is that they’ll be starters. I also left out free agents, focusing instead only on players drafted from the third round and on.

In the past 10 years, there have been 27 such rookies who have finished with top-40 numbers (using PPR scoring). So I guess if form holds and it’s a typical year, we can expect about three later-round running backs (not including Bijan Robinson or Jahmyr Gibbs) to finish with top-40 PPR numbers. About three guys who will have some value.

2017Alvin Kamara, N.O.37288261,55414322.43
2017Kareem Hunt, K.C.31,3274551,78211297.24
2016Jordan Howard, Chi.51,3132981,6117232.110
2015David Johnson, Ariz.35814571,03813217.87
2020Antonio Gibson, Was.37952471,04211206.214
2013Zac Stacy, St.L.59731411,1148185.421
2019David Montgomery, Chi.38891851,0747174.424
2022Dameon Pierce, Hou.49391651,1045170.425
2013Andre Ellington, Ariz.66523711,0234165.326
2021Elijah Mitchell, S.F.69631371,1006165.026
2015Duke Johnson, Cle.33795349132164.324
2018Nyheim Hines, Ind.43144257394160.928
2022Tyler Allgeier, Atl.51,0351391,1744159.430
2021Michael Carter, NYJ46393259644156.429
2017Tarik Cohen, Chi.43703537234154.428
2019Devin Singletary, Buff.37751949694149.933
2015Javorius Allen, Balt.45143538673149.729
2016Devontae Booker, Den.46122658775148.729
2015Jeremy Langford, Chi.45372798167147.630
2022Rachaad White, T.B.34812907713145.135
2014Andre Williams, NYG47211308517145.127
2017Jamaal Williams, G.B.45562628186142.834
2021Chuba Hubbard, Car.46121747866139.636
2022Isiah Pacheco, K.C.78301309605139.037
2014Tre Mason, St.L.37651489135137.330
2015Karlos Williams, Buff.5517966139126.338
2021Kenneth Gainwell, Phil.52912535446125.440

We can then compare those numbers to second-year backs coming from off the radar. In this group, I’m not looking only for second-year backs who finished with top-40 numbers. Those players must also be guys that didn’t do much in their first season. Guys who are emerging from obscurity. (That’s what we’re hoping for from Ford, Chandler and Strong.)

I see 19 second-year backs in the last 10 years who finished with top-40 numbers after not ranking in the top 40 as rookies. (And again, not including first- and second-round picks.) How this is setup, of course, is key. There are four backs (tagged with dots) in this group that finished with top-50 numbers in their first year. That arguably isn’t quite “off the radar”. Rhamondre Stevenson last year, for example, wasn’t lasting until the late rounds. So if we want to instead set the bar at top 50, then it looks like we have only 15 second-year running backs posting top-40 numbers. About half as many.

In this chart, the final column (Prev) shows where the player ranked, using PPR scoring, in his rookie year.

2022• Rhamondre Stevenson, N.E.41,0404211,4616251.1847
2020Darrell Henderson, LAR36241597836130.33698
2020Myles Gaskin, Mia.75843889725168.22590
2019• Royce Freeman, Den.34962567524142.23846
2018James Conner, Pitt.39734971,47013284.06113
2018Chris Carson, Sea.71,1511631,3149205.41586
2018Aaron Jones, G.B.57282069349173.42463
2018• Marlon Mack, Ind.49081031,01110182.12048
2017Alex Collins, Balt.59731871,1606175.01982
2017Kenyan Drake, Mia.36442398834146.33173
2016Ty Montgomery, G.B.34573488053142.533122
2016Jay Ajayi, Mia.51,2721511,4238217.31185
2016Tevin Coleman, Atl.352042194111191.12079
2015James White, N.E.4564104666122.639128
2015Charles Sims, T.B.35295611,0904184.01673
2015• Devonta Freeman, Atl.41,0565781,63414320.4149
2014Denard Robinson, Jac.55821247064117.638134
2014Knile Davis, K.C.34631476108125.03456
2013Lamar Miller, Mia.47091708792125.93882

These big-data numbers suggest that if we’re taking a late-round flyer, you’re about twice as likely to hit on a rookie rather than a second-year guy.

In Minnesota, for example, where you perhaps might want to gamble on a youngster (with Dalvin Cook likely to be released and Alexander Mattison being Alexander Mattison). These numbers suggest that if you didn’t know anything about Ty Chandler (who popped a couple of runs in the preseason last year) and rookie DeWayne McBride, you’re about twice as likely to hit on McBride.

—Ian Allan

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