Adam Levitan

Fantasy Fallout

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Second-Year Running Backs

Monday, April 28, 2014

1) Between 2003 and 2012, 33 rookie running backs have rushed for 600 or more yards. 22 of them have suffered a decline in yardage as sophomores.

2) Between 2003 and 2012, 12 rookie running backs have rushed for 1000 or more yards. Nine of them have suffered a decline in yardage as sophomores. The only three that didn’t were Domanick Williams, Adrian Peterson and Chris Johnson.

3) Between 2003 and 2012, 18 rookie running backs (with 600+ yards) have rushed for seven or more touchdowns. 13 of them have suffered a decline in touchdowns as sophomores. Jonathan Stewart stayed stagnant. Chris Johnson, Marshawn Lynch, Joseph Addai and Domanick Williams scored more as sophomores.

4) Between 2003 and 2012, four rookie running backs (with 600+ yards) averaged less than 4.0 yards per carry: Matt Forte, Knowshon Moreno, Vick Ballard and Trent Richardson. All four of those suffered a decline in both yardage and touchdowns as sophomores.

5) Between 2003 and 2012, eight rookie running backs (with 600+ yards) averaged 5.0 yards per carry or more: Steven Jackson, Jerious Norwood, Maurice Jones-Drew, Selvin Young, Adrian Peterson, Chris Ivory, DeMarco Murray and LeGarrette Blount. Six of them suffered a decline in yardage as sophomores. Five of them suffered a decline in touchdowns as sophomores.

To be honest, I really don’t know why runners that had success as rookies to fail so often as sophomores. I didn’t expect it. When I think of career arcs, I typically think of a sharp rise from Years 1 to 2 and then gradual improvement from there until the peak.

Overuse was not usually an issue. Just eight of these 33 backs had 250+ carries as rookies. Serious injuries were not a huge factor either as only seven guys (Mike Bell, Selvin Young, Steve Slaton, Beanie Wells, Roy Helu, Vick Ballard, Doug Martin) missed significant time. Many of these guys – Slaton, Wells, Martin particularly as really high fantasy picks – were really bad even before their injury.  

My best guess at what’s going on here is simple regression to the mean. The majority of these backs outperformed expectations as rookies and then fell victim to the curve as sophomores. The 11 backs that improved in yardage (Ryan Mathews, LeSean McCoy, Chris Johnson, Jonathan Stewart, Adrian Peterson, Laurence Maroney, Ronnie Brown, Frank Gore, Julius Jones, Steven Jackson, Domanick Williams) are/were, for the most part, special talents.

Here are the numbers for the five rookies in 2013 that rushed for 600+ yards:
Eddie Lacy: 284 carries, 1178 yards, 11 touchdowns, 4.1 YPC
Zac Stacy: 250 carries, 973 yards, 7 touchdowns, 3.9 YPC
Le’Veon Bell: 244 carries, 860 yards, 8 touchdowns, 3.5 YPC
Giovani Bernard: 170 carries, 695 yards, 5 touchdowns, 4.1 YPC
Andre Ellington: 118 carries, 652 yards, 3 touchdowns, 5.5 YPC

* Lacy applies to numbers 1, 2 and 3 in trend takeaways.
* Stacy applies to numbers 1, 3 and 4 in trend takeaways.
* Bell applies to numbers, 1, 3 and 4 in trend takeaways.
* Bernard applies to number 1 in trend takeaways.
* Ellington applies to numbers 1 and 5 in trend takeaways.

This evidence isn’t meant to be taken as a be all, end all in terms of discussion on second-year running backs. Each player should be evaluated individually, with trends like this as one piece of the puzzle. Take the facts stated here and put as much emphasis on them as you wish.

As noted at the of the “But Why?” section, a big part of the whole evaluation should be raw talent. Eddie Lacy oozes it, and he’s trending up with Aaron Rodgers (collarbone) fully healthy. … My bigger concerns are in Zac Stacy and Le’Veon Bell because they fell into category 4. Stacy does get a boost with Sam Bradford (neck) expected back. … The numbers in category 5 prove that simply blowing the doors off defenses as a rookie doesn’t mean a player will continue to do so in Year 2. Andre Ellington prospectors should take note – even with the addition of free agent LT Jared Veldheer and return of stud LG Jonathan Cooper (leg). … I still absolutely love Giovani Bernard because I think his situation has changed. Run-first Hue Jackson’s promotion to offensive coordinator is monstrous.

I remain really high and Lacy and Bernard. I think the ADPs of Stacy, Bell and Ellington will end up too rich for my blood, especially after digesting the above data.

Adam Levitan is in his sixth season covering football and basketball for Rotoworld. He won the Fantasy Sports Writers Association award for Best Series in 2011 and 2009, and ESPN's overall fantasy football title in 2000. Find him on Twitter.
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