Thursday, January 1

Hey Rookie, Welcome to the NFL: Evaluating the Performance of Several Rookie RBs

Not too often do the Dennis Quaids of the world prove to be anything more than your first pick's handcuff. 2008 was the year of the rookie running back. Over 10 rookies either started, filled in for their injured predecessor, or split the load of the carries and became fantasy relevant in a year in which many first- and second-round fantasy picks turned out to be busts. In what was called one of the greatest running back drafts ever—even proclaimed so before the draft occurred—three of the five first-round backs missed a total of 22 games this year—yet four other backs chosen in the first three rounds had over 1,000 total yards (three of which rushed for 1,200 yards), and another had 900 yards and 10 touchdowns. Tim Hightower, Tashard Choice, and Ryan Torain—the guy that sat on your bench all year as you hoped and prayed that he would recover and prosper in Denver's Russian-roulette running back slot, which came out to be true for one game until he tore his ACL and gave way for another rookie (Peyton Hillis) to succeed, I might add—all provided fantasy effectiveness for some time or another, in addition to the aforementioned group of 900- and 1,000-yard backs. Recent years such as 2006 provided other great running back draft classes, but not nearly as much as 2008, which had, among many stats, three 1,200-yard rushers (since the 1981 draft class, only two had as many as two such rushers, in 1983 and 2000) and four backs with 10 total touchdowns (only three classes since 1981 had as many as three, and none of those came after 1985). The breakout of these rookie running backs yields a good question: Will they—nay, any of them—keep this up for next year? I went to a statistical approach to answer this question. I looked at every rookie RB since 1981 that had six touches per game and 60 attempts on the year to see how their next year's stats changed from their rookie season. Since there were 249 players that had these requirements, I split them up into five groups based on their stats from their rookie year. (I had the top 50 leaders in attempts in group one, Nos. 51-100 for group two, and so on, and then did this for each stat that I was looking at.) I then found various data—the percent of the group that had their stat decline from their rookie year to the next, the average of the stat in the rookie year and the sophomore year, and the correlation for the stat from the rookie year to the next—to try and see how each group performs the next year. (Methodological note: Not every group had 50 or 49 players; if there was a tie for the last spot in a group, I moved both players to the higher group. There were 51 players in the first group for total yards, for example, because two players tied for 50th place with 1,130 yards.) Here are the results:

Range Att_down? Att-Yr1 Att-Yr2 Correl
1st group 207 - 390 64.0% 272 227 0.220
2nd group 143 - 204 56.9% 172 148 0.135
3rd group 112 - 142 60.8% 125 118 0.173
4th group 84 - 111 68.8% 97 80 0.287
5th group 61 - 83 44.0% 73 83 -0.182
Overall 59.0% 149 132 0.587
Total Yards
Range Yd_down? Yd-Yr1 Yd-Yr2 Correl
1st group 1130 - 2212 64.7% 1,440 1,124 0.452
2nd group 763 - 1117 63.3% 919 823 0.276
3rd group 596 - 759 50.0% 670 688 0.180
4th group 447 - 594 64.0% 514 446 0.025
5th group 179 - 446 44.9% 356 420 0.065
Overall 57.4% 784 703 0.575
Total Touchdowns
Range TD_down? TD-Yr1 TD-Yr2 Correl
1st group 10 - 20 75.9% 13.1 8.3 0.220
2nd group 7 - 9 60.5% 7.7 5.7 0.102
3rd group 4 - 6 61.5% 4.8 4.6 0.179
4th group 1 - 3 55.6% 2.1 3.1 0.181
Overall 57.4% 4.9 4.6 0.448
Fantasy Points
Range Pts_down? Pts-Yr1 Pts-Yr2 Correl
1st group 154.7 - 341.2 72.0% 204.7 157.8 0.439
2nd group 105.9 - 153.7 62.0% 124.5 114.3 0.098
3rd group 79.3 - 105.5 50.0% 92.9 92.1 0.111
4th group 60.1 - 79.2 64.0% 69.1 61.0 -0.017
5th group 22.9 - 59.7 42.9% 47.3 62.4 -0.019
Overall 58.2% 108.0 97.7 0.562
Range—The range of the stat in question for each group Att_down?—The percent of players in a group that had their stat decline or stay the same the following year Att-Yr1—The average number of each stat for each group in their rookie year Att_Yr2—The average number of each stat for each group in their sophomore year Correl—The correlation of the rookie year stats and the sophomore year stats. The closer to one, the more dependent the sophomore and rookie stats are with each other, or in order words, the easier to predict that stat in the sophomore year; a negative number means that as the stat increases in the first year, it decreases in the second year. The better a rookie performs in his first year, he is more likely to decline the next year (a phenomenon called regression toward the mean). Generally, the lower the stat of a player in their rookie year, the tougher it is to get a true grasp of how they'll perform the next year.
I'll use these data to analyze the crop of 2008 rookie running backs and try and predict how they'll do in 2009. In order of how I'd rank them for 2009... Matt Forte Falls under: 1st group for attempts; 1st group for yards; 1st group for touchdowns; 1st group for fantasy points As the leading rusher and pass catcher for the Bears, Forte had almost 380 touches and more than 1,700 total yards to go along with 12 touchdowns. However, Forte gained only 3.91 yards per carry this year, which is certainly a problem for the Chicago workhorse. That said, he gained 4.19 yards per carry from Week Nine on—when first-round OT Chris Williams returned from injury—compared to his 3.42 average without Williams. Forte was incredibly consistent in 2008: He had only two games end in single-digit fantasy points, and he had a either 75 total yards or a touchdown in every game this year. His lowest amount of touches in a game was 16, twice. Forte fell under the first group for every statistic, and it seems unlikely that he'll follow up his rookie numbers with even better ones next year. Projected 2009 stats (see below): 281 attempts, 1,471 total yards, nine total touchdowns, and 203 fantasy points Where'd I rank him for 2009: No. 3 - 6 RB; Mid-first rounder Steve Slaton Falls under: 1st group; 1st group; 1st group; 1st group Taking out his first career game and his four-carry game in Week 10 against the Ravens, Slaton averaged over 100 total yards and 15.6 fantasy points per game. He reached 100 yards in nine of those 14 games, and in the five without 100 yards he put up 12.5 fantasy points. Slaton was clearly helped by head coach Gary Kubiak's zone-blocking scheme—which Kubiak learned in his 11 years as Denver Broncos offensive coordinator—although that's not a bad thing. Slaton is in the perfect situation for him: an offense that is made for quick-footed and agile players (Slaton ran a 4.4 40-yard dash at the Combine). Slaton's 4.78 yards per carry show he can make the most of his opportunities, be it 20 carries a game or a timeshare with Ryan Moats (hey, stuff can happen). Slaton gained 100 total yards in six of his last seven games, and his success should carry over to next year. Proj. 2009 stats: 239 attempts, 1,423 total yards, seven touchdowns, and 189 fantasy points Where'd I rank him for 2009: No. 11-15 RB; Early- to mid-second rounder Chris Johnson Falls under: 1st group; 1st group; 1st group; 1st group Whether it's his first or last carry, Johnson is always a threat to take it 50 yards to the house. But that's the thing—if he doesn't get a score, he doesn't perform at all. In the games in which he scored, Johnson averaged 102 rushing yards and 23 receiving yards, and on 21 touches, that's a 5.95 yards-per-touch average; in the games in which he did not score, he had 59 rushing yards and 11 receiving yards on 18 touches, a 3.89 yards-per-touch average. (Taking out the distances of his touchdown runs and catch, Johnson averaged 99 total yards on 22 touches in games in which he scored, a 4.95 yards-per-touch average.) Which is why I'm not a big fan of Johnson. Predicting touchdowns is hard as is, and even tougher is predicting the distances of his touchdowns—Johnson's touchdown lengths added a whole yard to his YPT average. Proj. 2009 stats: 224 attempts, 1,277 total yards, seven touchdowns, and 174 fantasy points Where'd I rank him for 2009: No. 14-18 RB; Mid- to late-second rounder Kevin Smith Falls under: 1st group; 1st group; 2nd group; 1st group After carrying the ball only 56 times in the first eight weeks, Smith ran the ball 61 times in his next three games. That was the story for Smith this year. Smith started out slow and almost lost his job to Rudi Johnson early on. After Week Nine, however, he picked up the pace and was a top-10 running back. He averaged 100 yards on 23 touches for 12.9 fantasy points per game from Week 10 on, a stretch that included six 85-yard games and four touchdowns. Smith's 2009 value heavily relies on the Lions' draft strategy. Will they take OT Andre Smith first overall, or Sam Bradford? Will they stock up the offensive line, or work on the defense? As it stands now, Smith is a reliable top-20 back with high upside. From Week Five on, Smith had at least six fantasy points in every game except one, so you know you can trust him week in, week out. Proj. 2009 stats: 214 attempts, 1,082 total yards, seven touchdowns, and 145 fantasy points Where'd I rank him for 2009: No. 18-23 RB; Late third-rounder Jonathan Stewart Falls under: 2nd group; 2nd group; 1st group; 2nd group As long as DeAngelo Williams is there, Stewart won't get more than 15 carries a game. Of course, that's not good for his fantasy value. Like Johnson, Stewart's value is based on his touchdown scoring. Stewart's per-game line in the eight games where he didn't score: 8.5 attempts, 34 rushing yards, and five receiving yards. In the other eight games where he did score, he's averaging 14.4 attempts for 71 rushing yards. Stewart doesn't get carries and is only worth a shot if he gets a touchdown, which is 50 percent of the time. He's not a safe bet for next year. Proj. 2009 stats: 169 attempts, 824 total yards, seven touchdowns, 141 fantasy points Where'd I rank him for 2009: No. 24-28 RB; Late fourth-rounder Darren McFadden Falls under: 3rd group; 2nd group; 3rd group; 3rd group Injuries caught up with McFadden and ruined his rookie season. He looked spectacular at times (see his Week Two 164-yard performance) and downright ugly at others (one carry for no yards in Week 14). Justin Fargas stole from his opportunities, as he averaged 17 carries in the last eight weeks of the year, which led to McFadden's averaging just seven carries in that time frame. Fargas signed a three-year contract last February, so he won't be gone for another two years, and Michael Bush looked great in the last week of the season with both Fargas and McFadden injured. It's a loaded backfield in Oakland, and only time will tell who will emerge as the No. 1 back. Proj. 2009 stats: 109 attempts, 732 total yards, four touchdowns, 102 fantasy points Where'd I rank him for 2009: No. 26-30 RB; Mid-fifth-rounder Rashard Mendenhall Falls under: n/a Although he had no carries in two of his four games, Mendenhall had nine and 10 carries in his other two games and was on his way to becoming a good flex play before suffering a season-ending injury on Monday Night Football. Willie Parker signed a four-year deal in 2006, meaning next year may be his last in Pittsburgh. Owners in dynasty and keeper leagues may want to hold on to Mendenhall in case Parker does in fact leave. Rashard would be a top-20 back if he got the load of the carries in Pittsburgh. Proj stats in 2009: N/A. Mendenhall had less than 60 carries. Where I'd rank him in 2009: No. 28-31 RB; Late-fifth, early-sixth rounder Tim Hightower Falls under: 2nd group; 3rd group; 1st group; 2nd group Hightower started the year with seven touchdowns in his first eight games, including his first career 100-yard game at the end of that stretch. And then he crumbled right before our eyes. He did run the ball nine times a game from Week 10 on—but, on the other hand, gained only 20 yards with those carries. Hightower isn't going to be fantasy relevant at all next year—even 15 carries a game will only result in, what, 45 yards? Proj. 2009 stats: 132 attempts, 638 total yards, seven touchdowns, and 117 fantasy points Where I'd rank him for 2009: No. 30-33 RB; Early-sixth rounder Tashard Choice Falls under: 4th group; 3rd group; 4th group; 4th group Felix Jones Falls under: none; 5th group; 4th group; 5th group So you know how Choice finished the year: 20 touches, 122 total yards, and 15.2 fantasy points per game in his last four, in which he scored two touchdowns. And you know how Jones started the year: six touches, 51 total yards, and 8.7 fantasy points per game in his first five, which includes a zero-rush, zero-catch game in Week Four. But with Marion Barber in the backfield, will either back get enough touches to be worth at least a flex play in standard leagues? Yes—Jones will. The Cowboys should have their first-rounder Jones get the majority of the carries after Barber, with Choice demoted to injury insurance. If Jones gets seven or eight carries a game, he should gain 60 or so yards, as he had more than nine yards per carry in his first five games this year. Proj. 2009 stats for Choice: 97 attempts, 666 total yards, three touchdowns, and 72 fantasy points Proj. 2009 stats for Jones: N/A. Jones didn't reach 60 carries. Where I'd rank Choice for 2009: No. 45-50 RB; Late-10th rounder Where I'd rank Jones for 2009: No. 35-40 RB; Early-ninth rounder
How are 2009 stats projected? I used the data in the table and the player's 2008 stats to try and project their 2009 stats. I'll use Matt Forte as an example. Forte fell under the first group for each stat. He had 315 attempts in 2008. The players in the first group in attempts had their attempts change by 83.3 percent (227 divided by 272 in the table), and 64 percent had their attempts go down. Multiply these two numbers by 315, and you get 168. Then multiply 315 by 36 percent (100 percent minus 64 percent), which is 113. Add the two numbers (113 and 168) and you get 281. We are currently getting e-mail from one guy. We would love if you could up that number significantly.

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