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Melvin Gordon, Todd Gurley, and a Brief History of Rookie RBs

We have a quick chat with history to see what it says about rookie running backs and whether or not the 2015 class is worthy of their ADP.

That buzz you may be feeling naturally occurs at this time of year. Every spring we’re blessed with a fresh set of players to restock our fantasy rankings. And every summer one or two of these players generates enough hype that they climb past proven veterans before climaxing with a high-risk ADP.

The 2015 season will be no different. There will be rookies, particularly running backs, and they will earn high draft picks just as they do every year. But what says history of our indulgence in collegiate talent? Are rookies worth the draft capital in redraft leagues? Or is it a risk we should avoid until the talent matches the hype?

You may remember a young man by the name of Eric Dickerson. In 1983 the Los Angeles Rams made him the eighth running back in NFL history to be selected second overall. What followed was an unprecedented rookie season in which “Mr. Fourth Quarter” accumulated 2212 total yards and 20 total touchdowns. The next closest such performance wouldn’t occur for another 16 years and still fell 25.3 points short of Dickerson’s historic 341.2 point season, the greatest rookie running back performance in the history of fantasy football.

We’ve been chasing ever since. With every new class there’s a new hype train to catch. But three decades later the closest encounter we have in the modern football era is Doug Martin’s 2012 season, the seventh best ever by a rookie.

The 2015 NFL Draft ushers in a new crop of running backs. A class that is positioned to be the best since 2012 and the first one in three years that saw a ball carrier selected in the first round—two of them, in fact. And right on cue, as we’ve come to expect in late spring/early summer, the consensus average draft position is littered with a slue of newcomers being selected over more established players.  

Here we find Melvin Gordon sneaking into the third round over the likes of Justin Forsett and Joique Bell, and Todd Gurley a few spots south in the fourth round over the likes of Frank Gore and Jonathan Stewart. I wouldn’t be surprised to see Gordon climb the ranks even more as the season approaches and the predictable coach speak and subsequent news cycle inflates his stock.

At their current cost we’ll need a return of RB2 numbers. We’ll need the 2013 versions of Eddie Lacy and Giovani Bernard, who were drafted in the third and fourth rounds as rookies and finished as RB7 and RB16 respectively (standard scoring).

If you’re going to make that investment you have to ask yourself two questions: what will it take to secure a top-24 finish, and how likely is a top-24 finish?

To answer the former, I turned to the Historical Data Dominator and filtered the top 24 running backs of the last 10 years into a sortable table.  The average score of the qualifying players was 198.1 over the course of a full season. To further extrapolate, the 240 RBs in this study averaged 1102.2 rushing yards, 8.2 rushing touchdowns, 306.6 receiving yards and 1.2 receiving touchdowns.  

Realizing those numbers are inflated by historical performances, I wanted to filter the data even more as to cater to the minimum expectations rather than the maximum. So I eliminated the top 12 and instead pivoted to the players that finished 13-24, which gives us more realistic expectations and aligns with the current ADP of the rookies in question.

Doing so brought our average score down to 161.1: extrapolated as 915.8 rushing yards, 6.2 rushing touchdowns, 260 receiving yards and 0.9 receiving touchdowns.

We now have a threshold for the minimum requirements of an RB2 as told by 10 years of data and 240 examples. The next question is how likely are rookie running backs, particularly those selected early in drafts, to achieve those numbers?

Again we turn to the HDD. This time we filter by rookies and set the minimum amount of fantasy points to 161.1. Below are the results.

Rk Name Pos Yr Age Gm Rush RuYds Y/Rush RuTDs Rec ReYds Yd/Rec RecTDs Fpts
1 Doug Martin rb 2012 23 16 319 1454 4.56 11 49 472 9.63 1 264.6
2 Alfred Morris rb 2012 24 16 335 1606 4.79 13 11 77 7.00 0 246.3
3 Matt Forte rb 2008 23 16 316 1238 3.92 8 63 477 7.57 4 243.5
4 Adrian Peterson rb 2007 22 14 238 1341 5.63 12 19 268 14.11 1 238.9
5 Maurice Jones-Drew rb 2006 21 16 166 941 5.67 13 46 436 9.48 2 227.7
6 Steve Slaton rb 2008 22 16 268 1282 4.78 9 50 377 7.54 1 225.9
7 Eddie Lacy rb 2013 22 15 284 1178 4.15 11 35 257 7.34 0 209.5
8 Chris Johnson rb 2008 23 15 251 1228 4.89 9 43 260 6.05 1 208.8
9 Trent Richardson rb 2012 22 15 267 950 3.56 11 51 367 7.20 1 203.7
10 Joseph Addai rb 2006 23 16 226 1081 4.78 7 40 325 8.13 1 188.6
11 Jeremy Hill rb 2014 22 16 222 1124 5.06 9 27 215 7.96 0 187.9
12 Reggie Bush rb 2006 21 16 155 565 3.65 6 88 742 8.43 2 177.7
13 Marshawn Lynch rb 2007 21 13 280 1115 3.98 7 18 184 10.22 0 176.3
14 Kevin Smith rb 2008 22 16 238 976 4.10 8 39 286 7.33 0 174.2
15 Le'Veon Bell rb 2013 21 13 244 860 3.52 8 45 399 8.87 0 173.9
16 Knowshon Moreno rb 2009 22 16 247 947 3.83 7 28 213 7.61 2 170.0
17 Giovani Bernard rb 2013 22 16 170 695 4.09 5 56 514 9.18 3 168.9
18 Cadillac Williams rb 2005 23 14 290 1178 4.06 6 20 81 4.05 0 161.9

It’s encouraging to see 18 players in the last 10 years meet the criteria. It’s even more encouraging to see that six of the 18 occurred over the last three seasons. Perhaps Gordon and Gurley’s current ADPs are exactly where they should be.

Projections are baked into ADP rankings. But it’s a good mental exercise to remember that the player you didn’t draft is equally as important as the player you did. When you select Gordon in the third round you are not selecting Forsett, as mentioned. If you’ll remember, he finished with RB1 numbers last year and we have him projected to score more points this year. Therefore, if Forsett is projected as an RB1, and you select Gordon ahead of him, you are projecting Gordon to also finish as an RB1.The chart above tells us that only nine rookie RBs in the last decade have accomplished that.

It’s reasonable to expect that at least one rookie in 2015 will finish in the top 12. It’s just as reasonable to expect Gordon to be that rookie given his college stats and potential opportunity in San Diego. The very first sentence of his draft profile on NFL.com includes the words Barry Sanders. Even though the Chargers have a collection of serviceable ball carriers, they traded up to select Gordon with the intention—one would think—of slotting him atop their depth chart that now is without Ryan Mathews.

But does being the No. 1 back in San Diego automatically translate to an RB1 in fantasy? Over the last two seasons, under Mike McCoy’s control, the Chargers have seen two different offensive coordinators: one with a decade of play-calling experience, and one with zero play-calling experience until 2014. Here is a quick look at distribution:

OC Frank Reich Age GS Rushin Receiving
2014 Player Att Yds TD Trgts Rec Yds TDs
43 Branden Oliver 23 7 160 582 3 45 36 271 1
34 Donald Brown 27 3 85 223 0 41 29 211 0
24 Ryan Mathews 27 7 74 330 3 10 9 69 0
39 Danny Woodhead 29 0 15 38 0 6 5 34 0
30 Ronnie Brown 33 0 14 59 0 7 4 39 0
Total       348 1232 6 109 83 624 1
OC Ken Whisenhunt Age GS Rushin Receiving
2013 Player Att Yds TD Trgts Rec Yds TDs
24 Ryan Mathews 26 14 285 1255 6 33 26 189 1
39 Danny Woodhead 28 2 106 429 2 88 76 605 6
23 Ronnie Brown 32 0 45 157 1 8 8 60 0
33 Le'Ron McClain 29 2 11 32 0 4 2 -7 0
Total       447 1873 9 133 112 847 7

There’s an alarming difference between these two coaches and the effect they had running backs. Mathews missed a good chunk of 2014 due to injury, an all too familiar situation, so it’s hard to say how Reich would utilize a bell cow back if he had one.  One thing is for certain, the Chargers called 88 fewer running plays and went from 6th league wide in 2013 to 23rd in 2014. It would be unfair to blame that drop off on injuries.

So if we were to assume that Gordon comes in and earns a heavy workload, said workload may mean fewer than 200 total touches. Even if he somehow managed the 4.3 yards per carry—the average of our top 24 backs last season—he would still need 8 or more touchdowns to crack the RB2 numbers we’ve established. All this behind a line that ranked second-to-last in Football Outsiders run blocking and pass protection last year (a fact that the front office is cognizant of and have addressed it accordingly).

Gurley has an even tougher road. The Rams haven’t produced an RB1 since Steven Jackson’s 2011 season. All the fantasy football polymaths out there will be quick to remind you that Jeff Fisher loves him some conservative, run-first football. Here in Nashville, he earned the nickname “Field Goal Fisher”. So I suppose the logic behind drafting a rookie, one that tore his ACL seven months ago, in the fourth round is balanced by the hope Fisher selected him 10th overall to be his workhorse.  

But what if Fisher has changed his coaching philosophy? Or what if Fisher’s cast of running backs has carried our perception of his philosophy? Eddie George was no slouch, to be sure. Chris Johnson and Travis Henry, though their success was short-lived, looked like hall of famers under Fisher.

During his first three years with the Rams his backs averaged 353 attempts, good enough to finish 26th, 25th and 23rd from 2012 through 2014. In comparison, his backs in Tennessee averaged 423 attempts, good enough to finish 5th, 5th and 15th from 2008 through 2010 (he didn’t participate in the 2011 season).

Has Fisher changed his ways or is it a matter of talent? Nick Wagnor of ESPN notes that Fisher’s best seasons featured top performances by his running backs. Apparently, Tre Mason wasn’t fit for that role.  It’s fair to think the Rams selected Gurley in hopes of returning to a dominant, run-first offense. Whether or not we see that in 2015 is debatable.

What’s not debatable is the quality of the Rams’ roster. There’s a reason why St. Louis is a fantasy wasteland, and it’s not because they have an explosive team led by an electric quarterback. They ranked 28th in yards per game in 2014 and 21st in points per game. Their projection for 2015 isn’t much brighter. I’d prefer to target offenses that I presume to be good rather than chase players that could be good.

But it’s comforting to know that, in general, the consensus has been fairly accurate when drafting rookie running backs. Adrian Peterson and Marshawn Lynch both climbed into the fourth round according to historical ADP data provided by MyFantasyLeague.com. Joseph Addai nearly made it into the fifth round and Reggie Bush landed in the second. There’s evidence that NFL teams are good at evaluating ground talent and we should follow their lead.

Here’s a look at every running back selected in the first round over the last 10 years and their subsequent finish in fantasy football:

Year Player ADP Fpts Rank Difference
2008 Felix Jones 111 98.4 40 71
2008 Chris Johnson 105 346.9 1 104
2012 David Wilson 104 69.2 47 57
2008 Rashard Mendenhall 102 184.9 13 89
2009 Donald Brown 98 63.0 57 41
2006 DeAngelo Williams 96 93.4 41 55
2006 Laurence Maroney 87 135.9 29 58
2005 Cedric Benson 84 27.5 86 -2
2009 Chris Wells 75 135.6 31 44
2010 Ryan Mathews 69 124.0 32 37
2008 Jonathan Stewart 66 193.2 11 55
2006 Joseph Addai 62 188.6 11 51
2005 Ronnie Brown 61 143.9 23 38
2009 Knowshon Moreno 60 170.0 17 43
2010 C.J. Spiller 57 50.0 62 -5
2011 Mark Ingram 54 82.0 46 8
2007 Adrian Peterson 48 238.9 3 45
2010 Jahvid Best 48 141.0 23 25
2007 Marshawn Lynch 47 176.3 12 35
2012 Doug Martin 45 264.6 3 42
2005 Cadillac Williams 40 161.9 19 21
2008 Darren McFadden 37 66.1 55 -18
2012 Trent Richardson 29 203.7 9 20
2006 Reggie Bush 21 177.7 17 4

The Difference column notates the difference between a player’s ADP and his final standings. Only three on this list finished below expectations. Over half of them provided RB2 numbers and 66% provided at least RB3 numbers. This is good news for those of you targeting rookies early.

But let’s not forget there are a few rookies available much later. T.J. Yeldon and Tevin Coleman are both circling around the sixth round and it’s not difficult to make a case for them over some of the other running backs on the same shelf.

While Yeldon might have better odds as a prop bet for Offensive Rookie of the Year, I’m more infatuated with Coleman. At the very least, we can say he is far more talented than any other back on the Falcons’ roster and I especially love the way his summary reads:

Tevin Coleman was drafted this past spring to replace now-departed Steven Jackson - he set the Indiana University school record for rushing yards in a season during 2014 with 2,036 yards to his credit (one of only three Big Ten players to get more than 2,000 yards rushing in a season - Larry Johnson and Melvin Gordon are the other two). According to NFL.com, half of Coleman's 28 career rushing touchdowns were of 43-plus yards, including eight of 64-plus yards. He is noted for outstanding, star-caliber speed though there are some concerns raised by scouts about his pad level, ability to break tackles, and his creativity running once past the initial wave of defenders. Coleman is considered a boom-bust draft pick but will have the advantage of working with the Falcons' new offensive coordinator Kyle Shanahan, who is noted for his skill in bringing out the best in his running backs. Reports out of Atlanta after the draft indicate that Coleman is envisioned as running back 1A in some sort of committee with second-year man Devonta Freeman. We'll have to see how the work-sharing arrangement pans out during training camp/preseason. (May 15)”

He has just as much an opportunity to take over lead-back responsibilities as Gordon or Gurley. The difference is he gets the benefit of a competitive offense and “Shanahan, who is noted for his skill in bringing out the best in his running backs”.

It’s also hard to ignore his metrics and subsequent best comparable on Playerprofiler.com:

Now for the bad news: Coleman isn’t Jamaal Charles. And as easy as it is to buy into Shanahan’s success with running backs, let’s not forget the Shanahan family hates fantasy football. It’s entirely conceivable Coleman earns a start one week and is benched mid-game the next. But if you’re not looking to fill other positional needs in the 6th/7th rounds, he makes for a nice boom/bust option with major flex appeal.

conclusion

Perhaps the ADP of the 2015 class says a lot about the running back landscape as a whole. The likes of Gore, Stewart and Andre Ellington leave a lot of people squeamish. Bell is certainly no sure thing even if Reggie Bush is out of the picture. Forsett, though perfectly capable of repeating what he did last season, doesn’t have much for a track record, and it’s easy to say no to former first rounders such as Darren McFadden and Ryan Mathews.

But that doesn’t mean saying yes to Gordon or Gurley, especially Gurley, where their ADP currently has them. If anything, depth at running back in 2015 begs us to take one early… maybe even get back to the days of taking several early. 

One thing is conclusive: Eric Dickerson isn’t walking through the door anytime soon. The L.A. Rams are long gone and so too are the days of rookies automatically taking the charge. Opportunity will always trump skillset and draft status. Remember that before investing into this summer’s hottest freight.