Commentary

Small in stature, Sproles coming up big for Chargers

Originally Published: September 20, 2008
By Aaron Schatz | Football Outsiders.com

Darren SprolesAP Photo/Jack DempseyWith LT slowed by injury, Darren Sproles has provided a spark for the Chargers this season.
One of the most electrifying players in this week's Monday Night Football game probably won't be in the starting lineup: San Diego Chargers backup running back Darren Sproles. So far this year, Sproles is averaging 6.2 yards per carry, has a 66-yard touchdown reception and returned a kickoff for a touchdown. Nonetheless, because Sproles is only 5-foot-7 and 180 pounds, no team thought of making him a full-time back when he came out of Kansas State in 2005. The Chargers managed to scoop him up in the fourth round.

If LaDainian Tomlinson suffered a major injury, could Sproles fill in full-time? There haven't been a lot of backs who had long, successful careers at his size, but there are a few notable ones. In honor of Sproles, we compiled a list of the best small running backs since the AFL-NFL merger in 1970. To make our list, running backs could be no larger than 5-foot-9 or 200 pounds.

1. Warrick Dunn (5-9, 180)

The best small running back in NFL history is still playing. Dunn has more than 10,000 career rushing yards and is the smallest back ever to reach that milestone. (Of the other 22 backs to reach this milestone, 21 weighed more than 200 pounds, with the exception being Tony Dorsett at 5-11, 192 pounds). Dunn's career has gone through peaks (5 yards per carry in both 2003 and 2005) and valleys (3.2 yards per carry or less in 1999, 2001 and 2007), but he's consistently stayed in the lineup -- a fairly remarkable fact for a back of his size. Dunn has eight seasons with at least 200 carries, while no other back on this list has more than three.

2. Charlie Garner (5-9, 187)

Garner is the only other back on this list with more than 10,000 combined rushing and receiving yards over the course of his career, and his career rushing average was more than 4.6 yards per carry. He also managed more than 400 receiving yards four times, and in 2002 he nearly managed 1,000 yards in each category, ending up with 959 rushing yards and 941 receiving yards, plus 11 combined touchdowns. His career started very slowly: He never had more than 116 carries in a season until he left Philadelphia for San Francisco in 1999, his sixth season. The ending was also abrupt: Two years after his best season, Garner signed with Tampa Bay and suffered a career-ending injury in the third game of the year.

3. Brian Westbrook (5-8, 200)

Westbrook combined for 2,104 rushing and receiving yards last season, one of the top 40 combined yardage totals in NFL history. No other back who qualified for our list had a season with more than 1,900 combined yards. With a couple more years of this type of performance, Westbrook will definitely rate ahead of Garner.

4. Napoleon Kaufman (5-9, 185)

Kaufman's career was short but very sweet. Oakland grabbed him 18th overall out of Washington in 1995, and Kaufman averaged more than 5 yards per carry in three of six seasons. He averaged less than 4.5 yards per carry in only one season. His best year came in 1997, when he started all 16 games and gained 1,294 rushing yards with six touchdowns and 4.8 yards per carry. Kaufman left the game when he was at his peak in order to pursue a higher calling; he's now a pastor in Dublin, Calif., a suburb to the east of Oakland.

5. Stump Mitchell (5-9, 188)

Mitchell was a ninth-round pick by the Cardinals in 1981, and he had one of the best runs in history by a part-time running back. Although he totaled just 11 starts in his first five seasons, he averaged 5.4 yards per carry or more for three straight years from 1983 through 1985, and even had a 1,000-yard rushing season in 1985 despite only 183 carries. After 1985, the Cardinals did make him the starter, but he was a bit stretched in the role, averaging 4.6 yards per carry in 1986 and then just 4 yards per carry over his final three seasons.

6. Joe Morris (5-7, 195)

A second-round pick by the Giants in 1982, Morris was the only small back who really served for an extended time as his team's primary workhorse runner. He's the only back on the list to have more than 290 carries in a season. Morris' 1,516 rushing yards in 1986 is the highest single-season total by any of the backs on this list, and his 1,336 rushing yards in 1985 ranks third. He also had 35 rushing touchdowns in those two years combined. The reason he doesn't rank higher, however, is that he actually wasn't very good except in those two seasons. Morris gained 4.5 yards per carry those two years but averaged a dismal 3.5 yards per carry in his other six seasons.

7. Darrin Nelson (5-9, 188)

Minnesota took this Stanford product seventh overall in the 1982 draft. He was only the primary running back in two seasons, 1985 and 1986, but he played for 11 years as a situational back and part-time kick returner, averaging 4.4 yards per carry for his career. Unfortunately, Nelson's most famous play was a failure that happened late in the 1987 NFC Championship game. Washington cornerback Darrell Green knocked the ball out of his hands when it looked like Nelson had caught a touchdown on fourth-and-goal, and the Redskins moved on to the Super Bowl with a 17-10 victory.

8. Dave Meggett (5-7, 190)

Meggett is one of the original "Bill Parcells guys," a fifth-round pick for the Giants in 1989 who went with Parcells from team to team throughout the '90s. He was primarily a return man and third-down back who never had a season with 100 carries, but he did manage at least 30 receptions for eight straight seasons from 1989 through 1996.

9. Bruce Harper (5-8, 174)

An undrafted free agent from Kutztown State, Harper played eight seasons for the Jets between 1977 and 1984. Like Meggett, he was best known as a kick returner, but he also averaged 4.9 yards per carry as a running back over the course of his career and caught more than 50 passes in both 1980 and 1981. Harper will forever be a part of Jets lore because his jersey is the one worn by the famous Jets fan "Fireman Ed."

10. Mike Garrett (5-9, 191)

Garrett won the 1965 Heisman Trophy for USC (where he currently serves as athletic director) and played for eight years with Kansas City and San Diego. Only Garner and Dunn have more combined rushing and receiving yards for their careers, but Garrett gets an asterisk as the tenth man on our list -- his best years came between 1966 and 1969, before the AFL-NFL merger.

It's worth noting that a number of all-time greats narrowly miss our list because of the maximum size we used. Barry Sanders was 5-8, 203 pounds, while Walter Payton, Thurman Thomas and Tiki Barber were all listed at 5-10, 200 pounds.

Aaron Schatz is president of Football Outsiders Inc. and the lead author of "Pro Football Prospectus 2008," now on sale online and in bookstores everywhere.