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Wednesday, April 25, 2007
Updated: May 9, 1:48 PM ET
Draft risk study: Running backs

By Ted Kluck
Special to Page 2

By position: QB | RB | WR | O-line | DE | DT | LB | CB | S | Study wrap

Bears and Jets fans, you might want to pass on this position.

While running back can often produce successful rookies (see Cadillac Williams, Ronnie Brown and Laurence Maroney of late) it has also produced some colossal busts, including Blair Thomas, Rashaan Salaam, Curtis Enis and Tony Smith among others.

Success criteria, first-round NFL running backs

What makes for a successful NFL career? We've set the bar at any combination of 80 games played (a core requirement), plus a 4.0 yards-per-carry average and a Pro Bowl appearance. For more recent draftees, we'll use a combination of accrued stats and gut feelings. It stands to reason then, that a bust, for our purposes, is any first-round back who falls short of those numbers. Or any back, apparently, drafted by the Chicago Bears.

1989
Team Pick Player, School Games Yards, YPC Pro Bowls Bust?
Lions 3 Barry Sanders, Oklahoma State 153 15,260/5.0 10 No
Steelers 7 Tim Worley, Georgia 48 1792/3.9 0 Yes
Dolphins 9 Sammie Smith, Florida State 44 1881/3.5 0 Yes

Sanders you're familiar with. Worley was serviceable, playing six seasons and finishing with 3.9 yards per carry, but you're not looking for "serviceable" at the No. 7 slot. Smith was out of football by 1992.

1990
Team Pick Player, School Games Yards, YPC Pro Bowls Bust?
Jets 2 Blair Thomas, Penn State 64 2,236/4.2 0 Yes
Cowboys 17 Emmitt Smith, Florida 226 18,355/4.2 8 No
Packers 19 Darrell Thompson, Minnesota 60 1,641/3.5 0 Yes

Thomas is the reason Jets fans congregate yearly to boo their team's first-round selection. Oddly, Thomas lasted seven years and had 4.2 yards per carry, but if you're a GM, would you spend a No. 2 on him? No.

1991
Team Pick Player, School Games Yards, YPC Pro Bowls Bust?
Patriots 14 Leonard Russell, Arizona State 85 3,973/3.4 0 Yes
Chiefs 21 Harvey Williams, LSU 110 3,952/3.9 0 No
Giants 27 Jarrod Bunch, Michigan 47 629/4.6 0 Yes

Russell flirted with 1,000 yards his rookie season, and barely topped the 1,000-yard mark in '93, but posted just 3.4 YPC for his career. Bunch is now a fine character actor in Hollywood, after a disappointing three-year career. Williams had a long career as a utility man, playing RB/FB/WR/TE, meaning, in part, that he never really got it done as a runner.

1992
Team Pick Player, School Games Yards, YPC Pro Bowls Bust?
Falcons 19 Tony Smith, Southern Mississippi 33 329/3.8 0 Yes
Saints 21 Vaughn Dunbar, Indiana 39 935/3.5 0 Yes

Woof. Smith may be the most forgettable first-round back in history, playing, essentially, one season with Atlanta. Dunbar was gone in three.

1993
Team Pick Player, School Games Yards, YPC Pro Bowls Bust?
Cardinals 3 Garrison Hearst, Georgia 126 7,966/4.4 2 No
Rams 10 Jerome Bettis, Notre Dame 192 13,662/3.9 6 No
Vikings 21 Robert Smith, Ohio State 98 6,818/4.8 2 No

A banner year for first-round backs, as all three made multiple Pro Bowls. Hearst overcame a serious knee injury to play for 10 seasons, with 4.4 YPC and 30 TDs. Bettis played for 13 seasons and scored 91 TDs. Smith played for eight seasons, rushing for over 6,800 yards, before retiring early.

1994
Team Pick Player, School Games Yards, YPC Pro Bowls Bust?
Colts 2 Marshall Faulk, San Diego State 176 12,779/4.3 7 No
Chiefs 25 Greg Hill, Texas A&M 79 328/4.2 0 Yes

Faulk, of course, is a future Hall of Famer and hero to fantasy players everywhere. Hill falls into the category of "He was a first rounder?" Hill played six seasons, and registered 4.2 YPC. Not bad, but also not great. The 1994 draft also produced Charlie Garner, Dorsey Levens and Jamal Anderson in later rounds.

1995
Team Pick Player, School Games Yards, YPC Pro Bowls Bust?
Bengals 1 Ki-Jana Carter, Penn State 57 1,127/3.6 0 Yes
Giants 17 Tyrone Wheatley, Michigan 124 4,962/3.9 0 No
Raiders 18 Napoleon Kaufman, Washington 91 4,792/4.9 0 No
Jaguars 19 James Stewart, Tennessee 102 5,841/4.0 0 No
Bears 21 Rashaan Salaam, Colorado 31 1,682/3.6 0 Yes

Thanks to a series of injuries, Carter never panned out as a Bengal; however, he did have a great cameo in "Jerry Maguire." File Wheatley under "solid but unspectacular" with 10 seasons and 3.9 YPC. Heisman winner Salaam was a bust, and Stewart was the jewel of this group -- the consummate "move the chains" workhorse for Jacksonville and later Detroit. Kaufman hashed out a nice career (91 games, 4.9 YPC), and you have to love a short guy (5-foot-9) named Napoleon. This draft also happened to produce Curtis Martin (third round) and Terrell Davis (sixth round).

1996
Team Pick Player, School Games Yards, YPC Pro Bowls Bust?
Rams 6 Lawrence Phillips, Nebraska 35 1,453/3.4 0 Yes
Panthers 8 Tim Biakabutuka, Michigan 49 2,530/4.1 0 Yes
Oilers 14 Eddie George, Ohio State 142 10,441/3.6 4 No

George is, of course, the class of this draft, with little more of note, besides the gamble that was Phillips. Biakabutuka never had a 1,000-yard season and battled injuries.

1997
Team Pick Player, School Games Yards, YPC Pro Bowls Bust?
Bucs 12 Warrick Dunn, Florida State 150 9,461/4.2 3 No
Bills 23 Antowain Smith, Houston 131 6,881/3.9 0 No

Smith became a solid NFL starter, and Dunn a star, but the real value in this draft came in Round 2, which unearthed Corey Dillon and a broadcast journalist named Tiki Barber.

1998
Team Pick Player, School Games Yards, YPC Pro Bowls Bust?
Bears 5 Curtis Enis, Penn State 34 1,497/3.3 0 Yes
Jaguars 9 Fred Taylor, Florida 112 9,513/4.6 0 No
Patriots 18 Robert Edwards, Georgia 28 1,222/3.9 0 Yes
Dolphins 29 John Avery, Mississippi 29 524/3.5 0 Yes

Edwards was a bust for reasons somewhat beyond his control -- a freak knee injury sustained in a Pro Bowl flag football game. He's currently playing in Canada. Avery was last seen in the XFL (seriously), while Enis didn't even manage to become Blair Thomas 2.0. Fred Taylor, while loathed by fantasy owners, has actually been very productive.

1999
Team Pick Player, School Games Yards, YPC Pro Bowls Bust?
Colts 4 Edgerrin James, Miami 112 10,385/4.1 4 No
Saints 5 Ricky Williams, Texas 82 7,097/4.0 1 No

The Colts proved justified in taking James over Heisman winner Williams, who, while disappointing, can't be considered a bust.

2000
Team Pick Player, School Games Yards, YPC Pro Bowls Bust?
Ravens 5 Jamal Lewis, Tennessee 91 7,801/4.3 1 No
Cardinals 7 Thomas Jones, Virginia 100 5,384/4.0 0 No
Giants 11 Ron Dayne, Wisconsin 83 2,949/3.7 0 Yes
Seahawks 19 Shaun Alexander, Alabama 106 8,713/4.4 3 No
Rams 31 Trung Canidate, Arizona 45 1,095/4.6 0 Yes

Canidate had great speed -- that was the book on him, and while he was a bust by our standards, he actually finished with a respectable YPC (4.6) for his career. Alexander has been great, Lewis had the one monster Pro Bowl season, and Jones has hammered out a very solid career. Insert your own Dayne quip here.

2001
Team Pick Player, School Games Yards, YPC Pro Bowls Bust?
Chargers 5 LaDainian Tomlinson, Texas Christian 95 9,176/4.5 4 No
Saints 23 Deuce McAllister, Mississippi 81 5,586/4.3 2 No
Vikings 27 Michael Bennett, Wisconsin 75 3,374/4.5 1 No

While Bennett and his track speed haven't completely panned out, McAllister and Tomlinson have been stars. Tomlinson, in fact, could go down as the best back to play the game before it's said and done. All three have been to the Pro Bowl.

2002
Team Pick Player, School Games Yards, YPC Pro Bowls Bust?
Browns 16 William Green, Boston College 46 2,109/3.7 0 Yes
Falcons 18 T.J. Duckett, Michigan State 66 2,307/3.9 0 Yes

At first glance, what a clunker of a draft. Green and his personal issues made little impact in Cleveland, and Duckett has been a big (pun intended) disappointment thus far as well, first in Atlanta and then in Washington. However, what a treasure trove of later-round backs -- DeShaun Foster, Clinton Portis, Ladell Betts, and Chester Taylor.

2003
Team Pick Player, School Games Yards, YPC Pro Bowls Bust?
Bills 23 Willis McGahee, Miami 46 3,365/3.9 0 No
Chiefs 27 Larry Johnson, Penn State 48 4,205/4.7 2 No

This was the year Drew Rosenhaus earned his paycheck, as a legendary predraft sales job (remember the workout videos?) propelled the injured McGahee back up the charts. McGahee fared well during his first active season in 2004 (13 TDs), but the Bills have since shipped him to Baltimore. File him under "too early to tell." You've heard of Johnson.

Crunching the Numbers: First-Round RBs, 1989-2003
Number of RBs drafted: 41

Notable busts: Blair Thomas, Ki-Jana Carter, Lawrence Phillips, Curtis Enis (that's three Penn State guys if you're counting)

Number of busts: 20

Bust percentage: 49 percent

Players on the bubble (could be considered non-busts): Tim Biakabutuka, Greg Hill

Number of running backs with at least one Pro Bowl appearance: 15

Pro Bowl percentage: 36 percent

Teams with multiple busts: Falcons, Rams, Bears, Dolphins, Giants, Patriots

Conclusions
This position ended up being riskier than anticipated. Running back, by conventional wisdom, is an "easier" transition for rookies simplicity-wise (run to daylight), so one would think the bust percentage would be low. However, a good number of the players busted due to injury (Ki-Jana Carter, Robert Edwards), the legal system (Lawrence Phillips) and just plain subpar performance (many others).

That said, there seems to be a strong argument for taking your running back in a later round, as proven by (in no particular order) Corey Dillon, Tiki Barber, Ricky Watters, Terrell Davis, Chris Warren, Charlie Garner and Curtis Martin all having come out of later rounds during the study cycle, and outperforming most of the first-rounders.

Ted Kluck is not a scientist, rather he is the author of three books, including "Facing Tyson: Fifteen Fighters, Fifteen Stories" (Lyons Press 2006) and a full-fledged draft geek. He recently spent a season playing professional football as a member of the Battle Creek Crunch (GLIFL), where he was, without a doubt, a bust.