Rookie Running Backs: How are They Faring?

Seven running backs were selected in the top two rounds of the 2008 NFL Draft, but were they selected in the right order?'s Ed Thompson provides his early take on which players are currently performing like one of the top running backs from this class -- and which ones are struggling to get noticed.

Seven running backs were selected in the first two rounds of the 2008 NFL Draft. Some have already made their debut as starters, while others are trying to get on their coach's radar for more reps. Some are already prominently showing off their talent and versatility, while others are trying to climb up the depth chart or even help their teams as a return specialist.

Here are the players, in the order they were selected, and a look at how they are faring so far in the NFL.

Darren McFadden
Oakland Raiders
Round 1 (4th overall)
Rushing numbers: 44-252-1

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McFadden has been thrown right into the mix in Oakland. Averaging 5.7 yards per carry, he's carried the ball 44 times so far for an average of 14.7 per game, placing him in the middle of this pack of seven rookies. He enjoyed his best game to date in Week 2 against the Chiefs, running the ball 21 times for 164 yards, including a 50-yard sprint for a touchdown. 

McFadden's been a minor player in the passing game, catches five passes in three games, but three of those catches were made just last week against the Bills, so the Raiders may be trying to get him more active in the passing game as the season progresses. He's fumbled twice, but only one was recovered by the opponent.

After three weeks of action, an interesting trend to watch is his 3.0 yards per carry average in the first half versus 8.5 yards per carry in the second half — even though he's had 22 carries in both halves.

Is he No. 1?
Among the top seven drafted rookie running backs, McFadden is currently fourth in carries per game (14.7), second in average yards per carry (5.7), third in yards per game (84.0), tied for fourth in rushing touchdowns (1), fourth in the percent of runs that result in a first down (22.7) and first in runs of 20-plus yards (4).

Jonathan Stewart
Carolina Panthers
Round 1 (13th overall)
Rushing numbers: 31-145-3

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The rookie out of Oregon has only been getting a modest number of carries, averaging about ten per game. But he was making the most of them up until Week 3 when the Vikings stymied him on seven carries, holding him to 15 yards (2.1 yards per carry). During the first two weeks, he averaged better than five yards per carry, and he's scored three rushing touchdowns already. 

Stewart's scored a touchdown on three of his four red zone attempts. Quarterback Jake Delhomme hasn't connected with the rookie yet through the air, but the Stewart has contributed as a kickoff returner, running ten kickoffs back for a solid 24.8-yard average.

Is he No. 2?
So far, Stewart ranks sixth amongst this elite group of seven running backs in attempts per game (10.3) and fourth in rushing average per attempt with 4.7 yards per carry. His 48.3 rushing yards per game is only sixth-best, but he leads the group in rushing touchdowns (3). The Carolina running back's ability to convert 29.0 percent of his runs into first downs is second-best, while he's tied for third in runs of 20-plus yards (1).

Felix Jones
Dallas Cowboys
Round 1 (22nd overall)
Rushing numbers: 18-148-2

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Jones hasn't started a game at running back yet since he's working behind Marion Barber in Dallas. As a result, his rushing and receiving opportunities have been lean, a mere six chances per game running that ball, while catching just one short pass. But that could change after head coach Wade Phillips watched his first-round rookie rip off a 60-yard run from scrimmage for a touchdown last week against the Packers.

In the early going, the "other" running back from Arkansas has really been more noticeable as a kickoff return specialist, averaging 35.1 yards per return. During Week 2 action against the Eagles, Jones wowed the hometown fans and a national television audience on Monday Night Football with a 98-yard kickoff return for a touchdown.

Is he No. 3?
Based on his limited number of rushing opportunities, Jones' numbers are a bit hard to judge. He's sixth among this group in attempts per game (6.0), but first in rushing average at 8.2 yards per carry — thanks to that 60-yard effort for a score. He's fourth in yards per game with 49.3, and he's tied for second in rushing touchdowns (2). Out of his 18 carries, 33.3 percent have resulted in a first down — tops among this group of rookies — and his two runs for 20-plus yards puts him in a tie for second-best.

Rashard Mendenhall
Pittsburgh Steelers
Round 1, (23rd overall)
Rushing numbers: 10-28-0

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The 5-foot-10, 225-pound rookie out of Illinois has only had the chance to run the ball from scrimmage a total of 10 times after three games, and has caught one pass. While it had appeared that he wouldn't get many opportunities to improve his 2.8 yards-per-carry rushing average in the near future, primarily because of the strong start by Willie Parker, the veteran's sprained knee will keep him out of Monday night's game giving the rookie a chance to show what he's got.

So far, Mendenhall's contribution to the kickoff returns unit has been rookie-like, averaging 19.2 yards per carry on six returns. So out of the seven rookies, you could easily argue that he's off to the slowest start.

Is he No. 4?
Mendenhall is last among this group in attempts per game (3.3), average yards per rush attempt (2.8), and percent of runs resulting in a first down (10.0). He's tied for last in rushing touchdowns (0) and runs of 20-plus yards (0).

Chris Johnson
Tennessee Titans
Round 1, (24th overall)
Rushing numbers: 50-276-0

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After three weeks that included two starts, Johnson hasn't been held to less than 74 yards rushing in a game. He topped the 100-yard mark in Week 2 with 109 yards, and has averaged a healthy 5.5 yards per rush so far.

The Titans have completed seven passes to the rookie out of East Carolina, including one for a touchdown, marginally making him the second-most frequent pass-catcher of this group. 

One early trend for Johnson is that he's doing the bulk of his damage during the first half of play, averaging 7.4 yards per carry during the first 30 minutes versus 3.9 yards per carry the rest of the way.

Is he No. 5?
Johnson's 16.7 rush attempts per game is the second-highest out of the seven running backs, and his 5.5 yards per carry is third-best. He's tied for last in rushing touchdowns (0), but is third in the percentage of runs that moved the chains (26.0).  Johnson's one run for 20-plus yards puts him in a tie for fourth place. And in addition to his second-best average of 92 yards rushing per game, Johnson's averaging 17 more through the air, making his total offensive contribution 109 yards per game.

Matt Forte
Chicago Bears
Round 2, (44th overall)
Rushing numbers: 73-304-1

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Forte has been a workhorse for Chicago, stepping in as their featured back since the start of the season. The former Tulane star is carrying the ball an average of 24.3 times per game — almost eight more per game than any of the other backs in this group.  His 4.2 yards per carry average is fifth-best, but very respectable for a rookie, especially when you look at the fact that three of the backs aren't even carrying the ball half as often for their clubs. 

Out of these seven rookies, Forte's been the running back who has been the most active in his team's passing game, catching 13 passes for 105 yards, including one touchdown.

Is he No. 6?
Forte's 101.3 yards per game rushing and his 24.3 carries per game are tops among the seven rookie backs. His one rushing touchdown puts him in a tie for fourth-place in that area. With just 15.1 percent of his runs securing a new set of downs for his team, Forte ranks sixth in that category. And his one run for 20-plus yards — a 50-yard touchdown run — places him in a tie for fourth. 

Ray Rice
Baltimore Ravens
Round 2, (55th overall)
Rushing numbers: 27-85-0

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The 5-foot-8, 205-pound runner out of Rutgers has only played in two games due to the fact that the Ravens' Week 2 game against the Texans was postponed due to the hurricane weather conditions. 

In the season opener, with starter Willis McGahee sidelined due to a knee injury, Rice saw plenty of action. He carried the ball 22 times working in tandem with Le'Ron McClain, but with McGahee back in the mix for Week 3, he touched the ball just five times.

Rice fumbled the ball away once in the opener, but he also showed some versatility, getting involved in the passing game a bit, catching three balls for 19 yards.

Is he No. 7?
With McGahee and McClain ahead of him on the depth chart, Rice will likely be one of the low men on the totem pole out of this talented group of seven rookie backs until he can work himself into a position where he commands more playing time. Although he's currently fourth in attempts per game with 13.5, he'll lose ground quickly if he doesn't get more carries than he did in Week 3. His 3.1 yards-per-carry average and his 42.5 yards per game place him sixth in those categories. He hasn't scored a rushing touchdown yet or broken a run for 20-plus yards, so he's tied for last in those areas. And with 18.5 percent of his runs resulting in first downs, he places fifth among these peers.

Where they stand right now

It's still way too early to tell which of these seven talented players will pan out over the long haul, but based on what I've seen so far, here's how I would rank them based on their current results only, not their potential:

1. Matt Forte: When it comes to running the football, he is indisputably "the man" in Chicago, a heady experience for any NFL rookie. But Forte is showing the maturity to pull it off. In three starts, no team has been able to hold him to less than 89 yards by the end of the game. And he's established himself as a player who has to be accounted for in the passing game with 13 catches already. No rookie running back is carrying the ball more often for his team than Forte, and he's getting good results despite a lackluster Bears passing attack that is doing little to take pressure off the running game.

2.  Chris Johnson: Like Forte, he's quickly gotten involved in both the running and passing game. And he's also brought a quiet maturity to a team that has been unsteady at the running back position. A powerful and fast runner, Johnson has been asked to carry the ball at least 15 times in each of his three games, and he has posted no less than 74 yards per game. That's a nice start for a rookie who is sharing reps.

3. Darren McFadden: He's showing flashes of being the kind of threat that Adrian Peterson has become for the Vikings, but three weeks into his NFL career, McFadden isn't showing the consistent presence and results that Forte and Johnson have achieved. While he rolled over the Chiefs for 164 yards, showcasing his big-game potential at this level, McFadden fell short of 50 yards rushing in two of his three outings, including his most recent game while Justin Fargas was sidelined with an injury. He's fumbled twice, losing possession once, and on three of his five catches, he averaged just two yards per catch. He's got the raw talent and the right tools to be the best of this class, but after three weeks he hasn't proven it yet.

4. Jonathan Stewart: With the exception of his most recent performance against the Vikings, averaging just 2.1 yards per carry on seven chances, Stewart has looked sharp, averaging better than five yards per carry the during the first two weeks. But he hasn't caught a pass yet, and he's averaging less than 50 yards of rushing per game. He's adding value as a kickoff return specialist, and I do think you'll see him post better overall results if the Panthers let him touch the ball more than 10 to 14 times a game.

5.  Felix Jones: The Cowboys have a really good problem on their hands. They have a terrific runner in Marion Barber, but they have seen that Jones has big-play written all over him — on kickoff returns or after taking a handoff. Jones is showing good vision, burst and quickness that is already turning heads. Sp Dallas needs to find a way to get the ball in hands more often. Had he been drafted by a club that didn't have such a strong feature back, Jones would already be carrying the ball no less than 50 percent of the time.

6.  Ray Rice: He gets a slight nod here over Mendenhall, but only because he's shown some versatility. Even if his yards per carry and overall performance have been a bit unremarkable, he's shown that he can take a banging and hand out some punishment while running. Given time, he should be capable of being a tandem-back, but it would surprise me to see him become a featured back, especially inside his first three years in the league.

7.  Rashard Mendenhall: He has to be ranked last, simply because it's really hard to tell what the Steelers have in Mendenhall after just ten rushes from scrimmage and six kickoff returns. With just average kickoff return numbers and sub-par rushing results (2.8 yards per carry) the few times the rookie has had the ball, it would be hard to place him above any of the other six at this early stage. Mendenhall is another runner that looks as though he'll need some time before it'll be readily apparent if he'll become a prominent rusher in this league. But he'll have a chance on Monday night to take a step in the right direction.

A member of the Pro Football Writers of America, Ed Thompson's player interviews and NFL features are published across the network and at You can contact him by email through this link.

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