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History of Rookie RBs Under John Fox

A history of rookie running backs under head coach John Fox (Panthers, Broncos).

John Fox knows how to spot running back talent. During his time as the head coach of the Panthers and Broncos, he's built some of the best ground games in all of football. He's always been incredibly loyal to veterans as evidenced once again last year. When Willis McGahee went down in Week 11 with a knee injury, Fox turned to veteran Knowshon Moreno over rookie Ronnie Hillman. Moreno was inactive for eight weeks up to that point but was thrust into the starting lineup. In the playoff loss to the Ravens, we saw Moreno go down with another knee injury, and Fox had no choice but to give Hillman a featured role. Weighing less than 180 pounds, Hillman was able to rush 22 times for 83 yards. He was not able to pick up short yardage situations so the Broncos went into this offseason looking for a big running back to push the pile.

In the second-round of the 2013 NFL draft the Broncos selected Montee Ball (Wisconsin). We should see Ball begin training camp in the mix for the starting job. The team may or may not keep McGahee and/or Moreno around in 2013. Ball should have an easier path to the starting job than other rookies around the league. He was extremely productive in college, breaking the NCAA record for rushing touchdowns (77) and total touchdowns (83). Ball is known as a workhorse back after compiling 983 touches at Wisconsin. However, he's more than just a between the tackles banger. He averaged 7.1 yards per carry outside the tackles in 2012. Ball gained 36.1% of his FBS-leading 3,750 yards on rushes outside of the tackles over the last two seasons. He did benefit from a veteran line that opened huge holes for him, and some question how effective he'll be as a pro back.

If John Fox is going to feature Ball this year in the Broncos offense then how much of a fantasy force will he be? Fantasy owners want to know the answer as Ball could be an important part of fantasy teams. He could be the premiere back on an offense that won't see many stacked boxes because of their elite passing game. Let's look at history and see what kind of production rookie runners had under the veteran head coach. He was with the Carolina Panthers from 2002-2010 and has been with the Broncos since 2011. 

Running Back
Year
Carries
Yards
YPC
RushTDs
Catches
Yards
RecTDs
DeShaun Foster
2003
113
429
3.8
0
26
207
0

DeShaun Foster was the first rookie running back to work under coach Fox. Foster was a second-round pick (34th overall) in the 2002 NFL draft but missed his rookie season due to a preseason injury. Foster was able to play in 2003 but didn't have outstanding numbers. He was effective as a change of pace runner behind Stephen Davis and will be best remembered for a playoff run against the Eagles where he broke four tackles to get into the end zone. Fantasy owners hit gold with the veteran Davis (over 1,400 yards rushing) but didn't get a good return if they drafted Foster as a sleeper. 

Running Back
Year
Carries
Yards
YPC
RushTDs
Catches
Yards
RecTDs
Eric Shelton
2006
8
23
2.9
0
1
6
0

Eric Shelton is the lone John Fox running back who was a total bust. He was a second-round pick (54th overall) in the 2005 NFL draft and missed his rookie season due to a foot injury. In 2006 he rushed for only 23 yards and was active for just eight games. Shelton was released in 2007 but had a cup of coffee with the Redskins in 2008. 

Running Back
Year
Carries
Yards
YPC
RushTDs
Catches
Yards
RecTDs
2006
121
501
4.1
1
33
313
1

DeAngelo Williams was a first-round pick (27th overall) by the Panthers in 2006. He had a similar career to Montee Ball in college, compiling 1,039 touches at Memphis. He is extremely talented but had a good (not great) rookie season. As a reserve player behind DeShaun Foster he showed good versatility as a runner and receiver out of the backfield. He finished that season as the 41st best running back in fantasy football. Williams did have a monster season two years later (2008) and finished the season as the number one fantasy back. 

Running Back
Year
Carries
Yards
YPC
RushTDs
Catches
Yards
RecTDs
2008
184
836
4.5
10
8
47
0

Jonathan Stewart was another first-round pick (13th overall) for the Panthers and had the best rookie season of any John Fox running back. It was a banner year for the Panthers ground game in 2008 as the team had over 500 rushing attempts, over 2,400 yards rushing, and 30 rushing touchdowns. Stewart finished the season as the 24th best fantasy running back, largely due to his double digit rushing touchdowns. 

Running Back
Year
Carries
Yards
YPC
RushTDs
Catches
Yards
RecTDs
2009
22
49
2.2
0
2
15
0

Mike Goodson was a fourth-round pick (111th overall) by the Panthers and was considered a value pick given his electrifying skill set. Goodson lacked electricity as a rookie and barely showed up on the radar backing up both DeAngelo Williams and Jonathan Stewart. Goodson appeared in only eight games that year and was primarily used as a return man. 

Running Back
Year
Carries
Yards
YPC
RushTDs
Catches
Yards
RecTDs
2012
84
327
3.9
1
10
62
0

Ronnie Hillman was a third-round pick (67th overall) by the Broncos and the first running back Fox drafted with his new team. The Broncos actually traded up in the third-round to select Hillman out of Fox's alma mater San Diego State. The rookie worked as the primary backup behind Willis McGahee in 2012 getting used sparingly as a change of pace runner. When McGahee was lost to a knee injury in week 11 the team still kept Hillman as a backup but now behind Moreno. Hillman's performance against the Ravens in the playoffs (22 carries, 83 yards) was overshadowed because the Broncos lost.

Enter Montee Ball, the Broncos second-round pick (57th overall) in the 2013 NFL draft. Denver is going to use more outside zone stretch plays this year under new offensive coordinator Adam Gase. That plays to the strengths of both Hillman and Ball. With Peyton Manning under center, the Broncos should be one of the most pass happy teams in the league, especially with 11 personnel (three wide receivers) as their base offensive set. That means carries won't be as plentiful in Denver as they are with other teams. The league average is about 58% passing and 42% rushing and the Broncos may slant even more towards the passing game. They had 588 passing attempts in 2012 along with 481 rushing attempts. This year they could exceed 650 passing attempts which may drop their rushing attempts to around 375 for the top two running backs in their RBBC.

Some say the addition of Ball is admitting a mistake in drafting Hillman. Nothing could be further from the truth. In fact, John Fox had this to say after this year's draft.“Well I think, really overall the area offensively we need to improve in the most is the run game. Places I’ve been in the past—it’s hard to do with one guy so we take the approach of the more the merrier. We did have a couple injuries last year and it's a tough position to survive a whole season, especially in this league. We’re going to put them on the field and give them a chance to compete and who performs the best will get to play and we feel good about everyone involved.”

They will use a RBBC this year, so Ball may be in line for around 250 carries. That would leave Hillman with around 125 carries on the season. Hillman should also be the team's primary receiver out of the backfield and could secure around 30 catches in 2013. Ball has a nose for the end zone and could approach double digit touchdowns as a rookie. If he does that then he may have numbers similar to what Jonathan Stewart had as a rookie in 2008. That would make Ball around the 25th best running back in fantasy football.

Whether you believe in Ball or have your doubts about him one thing is clear: There is a role for him in Denver as the lead back. Ball should win the starting job in training camp and if he does then he could finish the year as a low end fantasy RB2. His value should be lower in PPR leagues but higher in TD premium leagues. Bottom line: The future is bright for Ball in Denver but don't get carried away with expectations for a rookie running back under John Fox.


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