Rookie report: Running backs

A few rookies running backs have been getting some surprising run, and even a few undrafted guys are finding success in their first season.

The world of running backs is changing. Seemingly gone are the days of spending a top-five draft pick on one, and some teams have moved to more of a rotation at the position.

Pick your flavor before making your draft pick, but a number of rookie runners are finding a quick niche for themselves in the NFL. Rank them on what you want the strength of your running back to be, but here are some of the top rookie runners in the league, ranked by yards per carry among those that have played at least 25 percent of their team’s offensive snaps.

Jerick McKinnon (3rd round, Georgia Southern)
Minnesota Vikings, 5-9, 208
Where he has excelled (compared to the other rookies): McKinnon leads the qualify rookie running backs with a healthy 5.2 yards-per-carry average with 309 yards on 60 attempts and has the longest run among them at 55 yards. He is also the top rookie in yards after contact per attempt, at 2.9, according to Pro Football Focus.
What he has lacked: Experience, for one. That might be said with all rookie running backs, but it is especially true for McKinnon, who was mainly an option quarterback at Georgia Southern, but if it weren’t for Adrian Peterson’s legal troubles, McKinnon likely wouldn’t even qualify in carries. Being a smaller back, he gets the worst grade among rookie backs for pass blocking, according to PFF grades.

Isaiah Crowell, (Rookie free agent, Alabama State)
Cleveland Browns, 5-11, 225
Where he has excelled: He is averaging 5.0 yards per carry and has 255 yards on 51 carries and he also leads the rookie backs with four touchdowns. But the most amazing statistic: He is seventh in the league with 12 runs of 10 yards or more and, despite hot being the main back in Cleveland, he has a run of 10 yards or more in each of the Browns’ six games.
What he has lacked: He averages only 1.9 yards after contact and has two fumbles, the only qualifying rookie with any fumbles. And it appears it’s more hit or miss with him because, in addition to his runs for 10 yards or more, he also has been stuffed for no gain or a loss eight times, according to STATS.

Branden Oliver, (RFA, Buffalo)
San Diego Chargers, 5-7, 208
Where he has excelled: One of the smallest rookie backs, he is credited with making defenders miss 11 times and already has a 52-yard run (stats prior to Thursday night’s game). He has a solid 4.4-yard average and has the most carries (72) of any of the rookies. In the last three games (prior to Thursday night), he had two 100-yard performances and had rushed 15 times or more in each of the last three games.
What he has lacked: Not much. He has been a pretty solid all-around back for the Chargers, especially considering he wasn’t even drafted and was inactive for the first two games.

Jeremy Hill, (2nd round, LSU)
Cincinnati Bengals, 6-1, 238
Where he has excelled: He hasn’t gotten many carries (40) but has averaged 4.3 yards per run. As a bigger back, he also has three touchdowns. To date, he has been a complementary back to Giovani Bernard, but Hill has run for a first down on almost 28 percent of his carries.
What he has lacked: An extended opportunity. He hasn’t gotten as many chances as the others and hasn’t been quite as elusive yet, but in limited actions (only one game with more than 10 carries) has proven serviceable.

Terrance West, (3rd round, Towson State)
Cleveland Browns, 5-9, 225
Where he has excelled: For the first three games, he was the workhorse, averaging more than 15 carries a game, but in the last three games he has a combined 12 carries and was inactive for one of them. He has a very solid 2.5 yards after contact and two touchdowns.
What he has lacked: He was benched last Sunday after failing to pick up first downs in two short-yardage situations. After West started the season with a 100-yard game, the Browns are back to having Ben Tate as their primary rusher with Crowell getting more love recently than West.

Bishop Sankey, (2nd round, Washington)
Tennessee Titans, 5-10, 209
Where he has excelled: Only Oliver has gotten more carries than Sankey among rookie backs, and Sankey has been solid but unspectacular to this point. He has a middle-of-the-road 4.0-yard average and 2.5 yards-after-contact average.
What he has lacked: With Shonn Greene inactive the last two games, Sankey’s carries increased, but his average went down. He had 18 carries on Oct. 12 and managed only 61 yards and had similar results last Sunday against Washington – 16 carries, 456 yards.

Carlos Hyde, (2nd round, Ohio State)
San Francisco 49ers, 6-0, 235
Where he has excelled: He could be a goal-line back, but for now he is biding his time behind Frank Gore.
What he has lacked: When the 49ers are able to stick with the running game, it has been about a 2-to-1 split between Gore and Hyde, but, despite three games with 10 or more carries, he has yet to surpass 50 yards in a game. The worst stat for him: He has already been stuffed for a loss or no gain nine times, according to STATS.

Andre Williams, (4th round, Boston College)
New York Giants, 5-11, 230
Where he has excelled: Williams has the most carries of any of the rookie backs, but he hasn’t been very productive with his opportunities. He does have two touchdowns and has been getting more use lately, averaging about 17 carries over the last four games.
What he has lacked: He has a pedestrian 3.2 yards per carry and only averages 2.0 yards after contact, according to PFF.

Darrin Reaves, (RFA, Alabama-Birmingham)
Carolina Panthers, 5-10, 220
Where he has excelled: Frankly, he hasn’t excelled anywhere yet, but he has only had 31 carries. All of those came in a recent three-game stretch, but he didn’t do enough to earn that kind of workload on a consistent basis.
What he has lacked: He has a paltry 2.5 yards per carry and 1.5 yards after contact (per PFF) and has only forced four missed tackles in those 31 carries.

Note: There were 16 other running backs chosen in the NFL draft, but they haven’t played in 25 percent of their team’s offensive snaps.




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