Even in what looks like an historically great class of running back prospects, LSU's Leonard Fournette comes out on top. The depth of quality options, though, makes it clear: 2017 is a great year to draft a runner.
31 Jul 2008
by Aaron Schatz
In honor of our fifth anniversary, we're running a series of articles looking at the best and worst players in the history of our advanced stats, DVOA and DYAR. If you are unfamiliar with our advanced stats -- perhaps you are a new reader visiting our website for the first time after picking up a copy of Pro Football Prospectus 2008 -- you can read all about them here. The series so far:
For running backs, I want to look at rushing and receiving value separately, and then we'll add the two together. First, here are the top rushing seasons by DVOA, minimum 100 carries. (Note that all the running back stats pages now rank players over 100 carries instead of players over 75 carries.)
|Best RB Seasons in Rushing DVOA, 1995-2007 (min. 100 carries)|
Alas, poor Whizzinator, you left us with nothing but memories of what might have been...
In case you are wondering about opponent adjustments, the Faulk and Garner seasons are the ones that take a bit of a hit because of easy schedules, while the Johnson, Allen, and Westbrook seasons get a boost from tough schedules. The Allen and Westbrook seasons provide a great example of how two players can have similar value even though their performances look very different. With a similar number of runs, Westbrook had 100 more yards and four fewer fumbles, but Allen had a much more consistent season and four additional touchdowns. Check out the distribution of yardage for each player:
Marcus Allen 1997 vs. Brian Westbrook 2003
|Allen 1997||Westbrook 2003|
The top rushing DVOA ratings belong to a lot of part-time running backs, so let's look at the best DVOA ratings by lead backs, with at least 15 carries per game (or 240 on the season).
|Best RB Seasons in Rushing DVOA, 1995-2007 (min. 250 carries)|
A look at the backs who played well in really limited time gives a mix of recent names and guys you have never heard of. The highest DVOA for a back with at least 20 carries belongs to Tampa Bay rookie Jerry Ellison in 1995, 81.4% DVOA thanks to 26 carries for 218 yards and five touchdowns. The second-highest DVOA belongs to DeDe Dorsey with last year's Bengals, and the sixth-highest DVOA belongs to Ahmad Bradshaw of the Giants. If you are looking for reasons for skepticism about Dorsey and Bradshaw, consider that after 1995 Jerry Ellison played four more years with just 150 more rushing yards and never scored another touchdown. Then again, the third-highest DVOA for a running back with at least 20 carries belongs to a rookie fourth-rounder with the 1996 Redskins, a guy by the name of Stephen Davis.
Players like Marshall Faulk and Clinton Portis show up with historically great DVOA ratings in part because of Success Rates above 60 percent. However, the running backs with the highest Success Rates have two things in common: DVOA under 20% and home games at the RCA Dome.
|Best RB Seasons in Success Rate, 1995-2007 (min. 100 carries)|
As you might expect, the highest Success Rates for backs below 100 carries belong to fullbacks. Two of the top four spots belong to Lorenzo Neal (83 percent in 2005, 76 percent in 2006) with Mack Strong and Zack Crockett in between, both at 78 percent in 2002.
That brings us to our final list for rushing value, the top ten seasons in rushing DYAR. Even though rushing performance around the league was lower from 1996 through 2001 compared to the seasons since 2002, two of the top three seasons come from the mid-90's. Looking for more ammunition for the Terrell Davis Hall of Fame argument? Here you go...
|Best RB Seasons in Rushing DYAR, 1995-2007|
I left in the numbers with opponent adjustments (YAR) to show something most people don't consider when they talk about how great Davis was at his peak: he played against some really hard schedules. In 1997, Kansas City was fifth in run defense DVOA while San Diego ranked seventh. Three of the four teams that ranked above Kansas City were also on the Broncos schedule (Pittsburgh, San Francisco, Buffalo). The following year, 1998, San Diego had the league's best run defense and although Kansas City dropped to 15th, Oakland improved to third.
Let's move on to running backs as receivers, starting with the best DVOA seasons for running backs with at least 25 passes.
|Best RB Seasons in Receiving DVOA, 1995-2007 (min. 25 passes)|
Hey, that Larry Johnson guy is pretty good. Johnson's 2004 receiving resume features a 30-yard gain on second-and-16 and a 14-yard touchdown on fourth-and-2. He gained at least eight yards on more than half of his passes -- not half the completions, but half the passes, period. And hey, who knew that Jamal Anderson was such a good pass receiver? He caught six passes on third down and moved the chains five times, including twice on third-and-11.
Here's a list of the best running backs who were a little more important to the passing game, with a minimum of 50 passes. This might as well just be called the "Marshall Faulk" list... or should that be the "Ronnie Harmon" list?
|Best RB Seasons in Receiving DVOA, 1995-2007 (min. 50 passes)|
Harmon was sort of the Reggie Bush of his era, complete with a massive high-profile Rose Bowl failure. I wonder what we're going to get when we go back to his 1992 season, when he had 79 receptions for 914 yards. By the time we hit the DVOA Era, Harmon isn't getting quite as much playing time as he once did, which means that the list of the top receiving DYAR seasons is dominated even further by Marshall Faulk.
|Best RB Seasons in Receiving DYAR, 1995-2007|
That brings us to the grand enchilada, the list of the top overall running back seasons in DYAR. As always, be aware that a rushing "yard above replacement" does not necessarily signify the same amount of running back value as a receiving "yard above replacement," since neither one really represents the running back doing something all by himself. When we add them together, we assume they are equal, but we can't know for sure at this point. It's fun though, isn't it?
|Best RB Seasons in Total DYAR, 1995-2007|
|Runs||RuYd||Ru TD|| Rec
|Pass||RcYd||Rc TD|| Catch
Once again it seems like this list is severely lacking in performances from the 20th century, but that's partly a coincidence that comes from cutting the list at a round number. Emmitt Smith in 1995 is 21st in combined value, and Barry Sanders in 1997 is 23rd.
You have to wonder if Marshall Faulk is going to get screwed by those NFL "Team of the Decade" lists -- his peak happened to come right around the turn of the century, with four of the top ten seasons in combined DYAR, but they don't have an NFL "Team of Two Consecutive Half-Decades After 1995." Nobody should be surprised that Faulk leads the list of career combined rushing and receiving DYAR. He also leads the list of career combined rushing and receiving DYAR per season (minimum four seasons with at least 25 carries).
|Best RB in Total Career DYAR, 1995-2007|
|Priest Holmes||9||1,969||Marshall Faulk||11||1,948||Marshall Faulk||11||3,422|
|LaDainian Tomlinson||7||1,653||Larry Centers||9||1,381||Priest Holmes||9||2,692|
|Terrell Davis||7||1,572||Tiki Barber||10||1,147||Tiki Barber||10||2,244|
|Marshall Faulk||11||1,475||Charlie Garner||10||1,044||Edgerrin James||9||2,017|
|Edgerrin James||9||1,354||Brian Westbrook||6||891||Charlie Garner||10||2,013|
|Corey Dillon||10||1,327||Warrick Dunn||11||779||LaDainian Tomlinson||7||1,993|
|Fred Taylor||10||1,247||Dorsey Levens||10||773||Brian Westbrook||6||1,779|
|Clinton Portis||6||1,192||Priest Holmes||9||723||Terrell Davis||7||1,679|
|Curtis Martin||11||1,158||Amp Lee||4||717||Corey Dillon||10||1,617|
|Jerome Bettis||11||1,150||Kevin Faulk||9||685||Fred Taylor||10||1,591|
In case you needed another reminder of the brevity of a running back's career, here's a fun fact: Brett Favre has qualified for our DYAR rankings in every single year of the DVOA Era, 13 straight seasons. Steve McNair has qualified in 12 seasons and almost qualified in a 13th (87 passes). On the other hand, no running back has even 25 carries in all 13 years. The longest career for a running back in the DVOA Era, measured by consecutive seasons of 25 or more carries, is 11 years. Only two of those players, Jerome Bettis and Curtis Martin, had 100 carries in all 11 years.
And the award for surprise appearance on the career DYAR lists goes to... Amp Lee. Seriously, Amp Lee? Actually, yes, Amp Lee was a receiving force for a few years in the mid-nineties. The 49ers took him in the second round of the 1992 draft and he was a rookie at the tender age of 21. Even though he fit the San Francisco mold of backs who excelled as receivers, he moved on to Minnesota after two years. (Does anyone know why? I couldn't find information on whether this was a trade or Plan B free agency.) Lee was in Minnesota for three years and then really blossomed in St. Louis. In 1997 and 1998 he was basically Dick Vermeil's prototype for what Marshall Faulk would be from 1999 through 2002. However, once Faulk showed up, Lee couldn't get playing time. He had three catches in 1999, then one for the Eagles in 2000, and was out of the league at the age of 29.
|Best RB in DYAR per Season, 1995-2007 (min. 4 seasons)|
|LaDainian Tomlinson||7||236.2||Amp Lee||4||179.3||Marshall Faulk||11||311.1|
|Terrell Davis||7||224.5||Marshall Faulk||11||177.1||Priest Holmes||9||299.1|
|Priest Holmes||9||218.8||Larry Centers||9||153.4||Brian Westbrook||6||296.5|
|Barry Sanders||4||211.2||Brian Westbrook||6||148.6||LaDainian Tomlinson||7||284.7|
|Clinton Portis||6||198.7||Tiki Barber||10||114.7||Larry Johnson||5||254.8|
|Larry Johnson||5||183.8||Charlie Garner||10||104.4||Clinton Portis||6||251.6|
|Edgerrin James||9||150.4||Terry Kirby||5||102.2||Barry Sanders||4||246.3|
|Brian Westbrook||6||148.0||Jamal Anderson||6||83.0||Terrell Davis||7||239.9|
|Marshall Faulk||11||135.9||Priest Holmes||9||80.3||Tiki Barber||10||224.4|
|Rudi Johnson||5||135.5||Brian Mitchell||6||79.6||Edgerrin James||9||224.2|
Next week, we'll look at the worst running back seasons and careers; however, we didn't wait to post all the running back stats all the way back to 1995. Just don't go giving away the "worst running back seasons" secrets in the discussion thread...
40 comments, Last at 25 Aug 2008, 2:13pm by Sam Larson