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Second Year Running Backs: A Hard Act to Follow

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A closer look at rookie running backs and their ability to improve on their first season’s statistics

by Terry Herlihy, Special Contributor
Published, 3/27/14
 
Note: The scoring in this article is based on standard non-PPR scoring.
 
No doubt about it, fantasy football players love youth. The NFL is a young man’s league, and running back is a young man’s position. That’s why we get so excited when a running back blows up in his rookie year. Hey, he’s gotta be better in year two, right? For fantasy, the strong first seasons of Doug Martin, Trent Richardson, and Alfred Morris warranted their early selections and high expectations for the 2013 season.
 
The reality was in stark contrast. Martin was lost for the season in Week Seven. Richardson was traded early in the year, was bad with both teams, and was one of the biggest non-injury busts in recent memory. Morris failed to meet his rookie mark and second-year expectations despite finishing as the #15 RB this past season, perhaps in large part because of the struggles of the Washington offense.

Player
Attempts
Rushing Yards
Receptions
Receiving Yards
Total TD
Fantasy Points
Martin (R)
319
1,454
49
472
12
258.1
Martin (2)
127
456
12
66
1
57
Richardson (R)
276
950
51
376
12
197.7
Richardson (2)
198
563
35
316
4
109.5
Morris (R)
335
1,613
11
77
13
239
Morris (2)
276
1,275
7
78
7
169.3

Was this bad luck? Or are these three backs indicative of a larger “sophomore slump” trend for rookie stud running backs?
 
The Numbers
 
The following data describes rookie running backs over past 10 years, with at least 100 total touches in their first campaign. Let’s see:
 
2003-2012 Rookie Running Backs:

Touches as a rookie
# of Rookie RBs
Statistical improvement in second season
Statistical decline in second season
100-149
22
9 (41%)
13 (59%)
150-199
14
6 (43%)
8 (57%)
200-249
11
3 (27%)
8 (73%)
250+
14
5 (36%)
9 (64%)

Total
61
23 (38%)
38 (62%)

Pretty clear, huh? The NFL is ever-evolving in the way its talent is utilized, so the last five years are especially important in this study. Let’s take a closer look:
 
2008-2012 Rookie Running Backs:

Touches
# of rookie RB’s
Statistical Improvement
Statistical Decline
100-149
14
6 (43%)
8 (57%)
150-199
7
4 (57%)
3 (43%)
200-249
5
0 (0%)
5 (100%)
250+
7
1 (14%)
6 (86%)

Total
34
11 (32%)
23 (68%)

Now, for a closer look at these numbers.
 
100-149 touches:
 
For the most part, this group consists of players who have been backups, handcuffs, or rotational players in their careers.
 
Players in this group who improved on their rookie numbers in their second seasons include Michael Bush, Shonn Greene, and Toby Gerhart.
 
Players who saw their fantasy numbers decrease in their second seasons include Tashard Choice, Chris Ivory, Kendall Hunter, Delone Carter, and Bryce Brown.
 
Other notable players include Darren McFadden (his numbers fell off because he was plagued by injuries) and Daryl Richardson (who was expected to start but lost his job due to ineffectiveness to rookie Zac Stacy).
 
The only RB from this category to see a significant statistical boost in his second season? Ray Rice. Before the beginning of Rice’s second season, it was announced he beat out Willis McGahee as the Ravens’ starter. This endorsement provided an increased workload allowing Rice to go from 70.7 fantasy points in 2008 to 246.1 in 2009.
 
150-199 touches:
 
As opposed to the previous category, this group of rookie RBs gave us a little bit of everything. This group included goal-line backs, backs who split carries with another back, backups who had to start because of injury, and first-round backs who were drafted to be bell cows.
 
This group also saw the greatest variance in success or failure rates, and was the only group we’re analyzing that surpassed 50% when it comes to statistical improvement for sophomore campaigns.
 
Injuries had a lot to do with this. Beanie Wells and DeMarco Murray failed to top their rookie performances, largely because of injuries, while someone like Jonathan Stewart improved his performance because DeAngelo Williams dealt with injuries. Before his career year in 2013, Ryan Mathews’ best season came in 2011, as he was steady in his second season after a disappointing rookie campaign. Guys like Tim Hightower and Daniel Thomas didn’t see much of an increase or a decrease because their roles remained limited.

The biggest success story from this group was LeSean McCoy, who split time with Brian Westbrook as a rookie but exploded in his second year, going from 114.5 FP to 219.2.
 
200-249 touches:
 
No matter the cause, you can’t deny that zero RBs in this touch range as rookies improved their overall fantasy performance in their second season.
 
LeGarrette Blount had his share of injuries and his overall play declined in year two. Jahvid Best ended up having to retire because of his concussions. Roy Helu lost a camp battle to Alfred Morris. Mikel Leshoure (we’re considering 2012 as his rookie year, given he missed all of 2011 with an injury) lost out to two better backs and landed in the Lions’ doghouse. Vick Ballard was primed to split carries with Ahmad Bradshaw (remember that?) before getting hurt. Of this group, Blount’s sophomore slump was actually the slightest, declining from only 15.2 FP total to his second season.
 
250+ touches:
 
We’ve finally entered the territory where massive rookie seasons lead to even bigger expectations for second-year backs. However, is that hype warranted? The numbers suggest we should temper expectations.
 
Of the seven rookie RBs in this category over the last five seasons, only Chris Johnson (in his famed 2000-yard campaign) bested his rookie numbers.
 
Guys like Matt Forte, Knowshon Moreno, and Alfred Morris failed to reach their rookie numbers, but didn’t exactly fall off a cliff, so while their numbers failed to meet expectations, drafting them weren’t exactly season-killers.
 
However, we have to look at the cautionary tales of Steve Slaton and Trent Richardson. If you catch us on a good day, we’ll give Doug Martin a bigger pass because of injuries and the general malaise of the team around him (although his numbers were way down across the board before his injury). But Slaton and Richardson parlayed their big rookie years into major first-round bust picks the next year. Slaton’s fumbling problems exacerbated his precipitous fall from 223.9 FP as a rookie to 117.4 as a sophomore. He’s not even in the league anymore, and he’s often now the subject of “remember that guy?” conversations at fantasy drafts.

Let’s hope things work out better for Richardson, but it’s difficult to count on that now. Richardson plummeted from 197.7 FP as a rookie to 109.9 FP in his second year. And his struggles continued after a trade to the Colts. If you want to be positive, he’s still a talented player getting a full off-season to adjust to Indianapolis, and he was far more highly touted coming out of college than Slaton was. But the reasons to be seriously concerned are obvious.
 
So, what are the trends, and why?
 
Obviously, there seems to be a pattern here, at least enough of one for anyone to be skeptical of a 2013 rookie in 2014. But what exactly is that trend, and are there any indicators of which backs we should avoid? After all, of the 18 rookie runners in this article that entered their second year as the unquestioned starter with their respective teams, only five posted more fantasy points in year two (28%).
 
Yards per carry (YPC) was a telling stat, (the higher the better) but not exactly conclusive. First-year RBs that found greater sophomore success overall averaged 4.7 YPC as rookies, with a wide range of 2.8-6.4 YPC. Those who declined in year two averaged 4.3 YPC as rookies, with a slightly narrower range of 3.0-5.8 YPC. Sure, the 4.7 number is higher than 4.3, and a general rule of thumb should be that higher YPC RBs have a better chance of success. But the wide range of numbers in both categories suggests there is no “eureka!” number that shows we should blatantly avoid a second-year back.
 
If anything, lightly used (150-200 touch) running backs that had a definitive role as a starter or were slated to get a majority of the carries were able to yield the highest probability for year two statistical improvements.
 
The numbers suggest one thing overall: we should watch these players, identify their skills, analyze the teams around them, and we should be wary of overrating any young RB that doesn’t exactly have an extensive track record.
 
The 2013 Rookies
 
It was a fantastic year for rookie RBs in 2013. Eddie Lacy, Zac Stacy, Le’Veon Bell, and Giovani Bernard, plus others, all had great success and have given us reasons to look forward to next season. In fact, it’s not out of the question that we could have four or five second-year RBs selected, on average, in the first 30 picks of fantasy drafts next summer. But what are the risk factors?
 
Eddie Lacy:
 
Rush Attempts
Rush Yards
YPC
Receptions
Receiving Yards
Total TD
284
1,178
4.1
35
257
11
 
Minor injuries plagued Lacy in 2013, and he had to battle back from a concussion, but there is nothing serious lingering heading into 2014. His YPC isn’t ideal, but after watching him we’d argue it’s lower than it should be due to the injury to Aaron Rodgers and the Packers’ offensive line woes.
 
But if Rodgers is healthy, the Packers are a forced to be reckoned with offensively With Lacy deployed properly, opposing defenses will have to honor the run just the same as the pass which should lead to stats galore for all involved (and we know Mike McCarthy likes to run the football, when he has the personnel). What’s the thing to worry most about? In our opinion, it’s Lacy’s relentless physicality and the number of hits he takes. Regardless, his role in this high-powered offense and his underrated ability as a receiver suggests Lacy has a chance to be one of the first five backs taken in 2014, and a high-cost auction player. To us, the warning signs at this stage in Lacy’s career are minimal, but he is a physical player (somewhat like Doug Martin) and dealt with injuries in 2013.
 
Zac Stacy:
 
Rush Attempts
Rush Yards
YPC
Receptions
Receiving Yards
Total TD
250
973
3.9
26
141
8
 
Stacy’s emergence in Week Five allowed the Rams to finally have a go-to player on their offense, as they didn’t have one in Daryl Richardson or any of the receivers here. His 3.9 YPC appears to be a serious warning sign, however do note that he played most of his games with Kellen Clemens at QB and stacked boxes. If the QB is Sam Bradford or someone else in 2014, it will be a major upgrade.
 
Also alarming: Stacy’s 23 touches per game as a rookie. It was an increase over the 18 touches per game he saw over his last two years at Vanderbilt, and heading into the draft he was considered a player who had taken quite a few hits in college. This, combined with average receiving ability, suggests that Stacy is perhaps example #1 among rising second-year backs on whom we should avoid reaching. At this early stage, he might be safest in the late third round, or somewhere around there, but it seems prudent to allow someone else to take the risk on him any earlier than that.
 
Le’Veon Bell:
 
Rush Attempts
Rush Yards
YPC
Receptions
Receiving Yards
Total TD
244
860
3.5
45
399
8
 
Bell missed the first four games of his rookie campaign with a foot sprain. However, he parlayed his obvious bell cow role into a strong final 12 games, and the Steeler offense took off once he got comfortable in his role. Bell was impressive especially as a receiver, averaging nearly 4.0 receptions per game, an aspect of his game he really didn’t get to show off a ton at Michigan State.
 
However, we have to consider a few things. Number one, Bell’s 3.5 YPC was really on the low end, and as we’ve seen, a lower YPC, while not a serious red flag, should raise suspicion, especially behind the best Steeler line in years (and one that has a chance to improve because it was still shaky). Number two, Bell didn’t exactly create explosive plays, with 7 of his 8 TDs coming from inside the five-yard line. Number three, it was Ben Roethlisberger’s first full 16-game schedule since 2008. While the improving line had something to do with that, Ben is an aging player who has given us enough of a track record to consider him an injury risk every year. Without Ben, Bell becomes the focal point for opposing defenses.
 
All these things should be taken into consideration before investing perhaps a first-round pick in Bell next year.
 
Giovani Bernard:
 
Rush Attempts
Rush Yards
YPC
Receptions
Receiving Yards
Total TD
170
695
4.1
56
514
8
 
Bernard was dynamic in open space and an effective pass catcher as a rookie despite playing second fiddle to BenJarvus Green-Ellis.
 
However, Gio absolutely blew away Green-Ellis on a per-touch basis, averaging 5.35 YPT to Green-Ellis’s miserable 3.47. Should Green-Ellis remain with the Bengals (he’s owed $2.5 million and is a candidate to be cut), this trend should continue as Bernard is clearly a better and more explosive player.
 
But should Green-Ellis move on and the Bengals don’t replace him with someone of note, Bernard becomes an intriguing case study. As detailed above, Bernard fell into the “200-249 touch” range as a rookie, and over the last five seasons exactly zero of those backs improved their total fantasy points in their second years. That said Bernard exhibited every trait we look for in a fantasy RB these days, as someone who is versatile and explosive in the passing game and on the perimeter, but also showed surprising power when running between the tackles.

In this way, he has a shot to be the next Ray Rice, someone who played second fiddle as a rookie but showed every trait needed to be a big-time NFL RB and fantasy performer. But as always, we’d be projecting that kind of role on him. It’s possible new coordinator Hue Jackson prefers Bernard in his current role, as frustrating as that is for fantasy players. We’ll have to see what the off-season holds, but Bernard has the tools to shake the trends detailed above. And while we’ve received mixed signals from the club on Gio’s role, it’s fair to say it will be increasing in 2014.
 
Montee Ball:
 
Rush Attempts
Rush Yards
YPC
Receptions
Receiving Yards
Total TD
120
599
4.7
20
145
4
 
The Broncos spent a second-round pick in 2013 on Ball, and he became a valued fantasy asset given that fact, but once again Knowshon “Rodney Dangerfield” Moreno emerged to lead the Broncos’ fantasy performers in the backfield. However, Ball received an increased workload down the stretch, and outperformed Moreno over the last six weeks or so of the season. Moreno is an unrestricted free agent, and Ball has done enough to show he can handle a bigger workload. If Moreno’s gone, Ball’s got a shot for major fantasy improvement in 2014. Note: As of 3/27/14, Moreno was still on the street, and while Miami has been interested there is still a chance he returns to Denver.
 
Andre Ellington:
 
Rush Attempts
Rush Yards
YPC
Receptions
Receiving Yards
Total TD
118
652
5.5
39
371
4
 
The versatile Ellington possesses the threat to score every time he touches the ball: he averaged a ridiculous 6.56 YPT as a rookie. Contrast that with Rashard Mendenhall, who averaged a paltry 3.48 YPT in the same backfield. Seems an awful lot like the Bernard/BJGE relationship, huh?
 
But consider a couple factors. Number one, Ellington isn’t built as solidly as Bernard and didn’t handle the between-the-tackles work Bernard got. Additionally, coach Bruce Arians was insistent that Ellington was better suited to handle 12-15 touches per game than a true “feature back” role. Overall, Arians’ usage of Ellington backed up his words. Even with Mendenhall gone, will the Cards bring someone else in other than the pedestrian Jonathan Dwyer?
 
This off-season will shape Ellington’s draft status in 2014.
 
Conclusion
 
OK, perhaps this article was a bit sobering. It paints a bleak picture at perhaps the most important fantasy position, one that fantasy players clamor to fill every year with high-end talent despite a near 50% turnover among the top 24, on average.
 
That said, there are certainly several of the 2013 rookies, if not all of them, who are worth draft picks in 2014 at the right spot. However, given this data, might it be wiser to invest in some of the cheaper options (perhaps the incoming 2014 rookie class?) than trying to project roles onto players who don’t have extensive track records of yet?
 
FantasyGuru.com managing editor Joe Dolan edited and contributed to this article.
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