“I don’t draft rookie running backs- they are too risky.” This is an axiomatic statement I’ve heard many-a-time from fantasy football players. But is it really true? How do rookie running backs perform when they get similar amounts of touches to non-rookie running backs? Lets explore this “rookie vs. veteran running backs” debate.

How do rookies perform when given 170+ carries?


Here is a list of rookie running backs who received 170 carries or more from 2003-2013 along with their rushing and receiving statistics. On the bottom, you will find all their statistics averaged:


PlayerYearGRush AttYdsY/ATDRecYdsY/RTDTotal Y/G
Alfred Morris20121633516134.8113117770105.6
Doug Martin20121631914544.5611494729.631120.4
Adrian Peterson20071423813415.63121926814.111114.9
Steve Slaton20081626812824.789503777.541103.7
Matt Forte20081631612383.928634777.574107.2
Chris Johnson20081525112284.899432606.05199.2
Eddie Lacy20131528411784.1511352577.34095.6
Cadillac Williams20051429011784.06620814.05089.9
Kevin Jones20041524111334.75281806.43187.5
Willis McGahee20041628411283.9713221697.68081.1
Marshawn Lynch20071328011153.9871818410.220100
Joseph Addai20061622610814.787403258.13187.9
Domanick Williams20031423810314.338473517.47098.7
LeGarrette Blount20101320110075.0165142.8078.6
Kevin Smith2008162389764.18392867.33078.9
Zac Stacy2013142509733.897261415.42179.6
Ryan Grant2007151889565.098301454.83073.4
Trent Richardson2012152679503.5611513677.2187.8
Knowshon Moreno2009162479473.837282137.61272.5
Ben Tate2011151759425.38413987.54069.3
Ronnie Brown2005152079074.384322327.25176
Le'Veon Bell2013132448603.528453998.87096.9
Jonathan Stewart2008161848364.54108475.88055.2
Julius Jones200481978194.167171096.410116
Vick Ballard2012162118143.862171528.94160.4
Beanie Wells2009161767934.5171214311.92058.5
Laurence Maroney2006141757454.266221948.82167.1
Giovani Bernard2013161706954.095565149.18375.5
Jahvid Best2010161715553.254584878.4265.1


As evidenced by the chart above, rookie running backs are capable of putting up some stats. Out of the 29 qualifying rookies, 24 of them rushed and received their way to over 1,000 total yards from scrimmage, with a low of 883 and a high of 1,926. From recent years, I know of many 2012 championship teams graced by the presence of Doug Martin and/or Alfred Morris, and 2013 saw a whopping four rookie running backs see significant touches. So far, at the very least, Mr. “I don’t draft rookie RBs” has to be paying attention.


Comparing Rookie vs. Veteran RBs


So we’ve seen that rookie running backs can definitely be assets to fantasy football teams- but how do they compare to non-rookie RBs who are given a similar number of touches? To find out, I’ve taken the average stats of every non-rookie RB who got 170+ carries between 2003 and 2013 and compared them to the average stats of the 29 rookies above. I’ve also included the percentage difference between veterans and rookies (a “minus” favors the veterans, while a “plus” favors the rookies):


PlayerGRush AttYdsY/ATDsY/GRecYdsY/RTDY/G

The Findings


Pretty surprising, is it not? Rookie running backs are within 7% or exceed the veterans in every rushing category. For starters, this comparison shows that when it comes to goal line work and scoring, NFL coaches have no problem leaving their rookies in the game. There should be no concern about someone getting pulled for goal line work just because they are in their first NFL season. Another positive is the comparable efficiency of rookie running backs. This is evidenced by their 7% deficiency in rushing attempts per season while they are only behind 6% in rushing yards- this explains why rookies have a higher yards per carry than the veterans. Does this mean that rookie running backs are always more efficient than non-rookies? Absolutely not. But it does show that when it comes to efficiency, you need not worry about rookie running backs when compared to veterans.

The largest difference we see is in their receiving statistics. While every rushing statistic was at most a 7% difference, receiving statistics reached as high as a 19% difference. For PPR owners, the biggest concern is an 11% difference between veteran and rookie running backs- not a huge concern, but definitely one to store in the back of your mind on draft day. The drop in receiving yards as compared to rushing yards is most likely due to the huge transition in passing offense that occurs when transitioning from college to the NFL. Many rookie running backs are not trusted in pass protecting, as the offensive and defensive schemes are much more complicated. This is emphasized in the increasingly pass-heavy NFL, whereas star college running backs will see much less pass protection duties due to the simple run-heavy attacks of some college schemes.


In Summary


Sleeping on or altogether avoiding rookie running backs is an old axiom that must be absent from the minds of successful fantasy football owners. I would advise that you evaluate rookie running backs the exact same as you would evaluate any player: by their talent, situation, and opportunity. Don’t buy into the hype that just because a running back is a rookie they should be knocked down the rankings. This mindset may often help you in drafts, as your opponents may believe in this false philosophy.

However for PPR leaguers, the evidence does speak for itself. There is a noticeable drop in receptions and receiving touchdowns that must not be ignored. But simply pay attention to who is getting the 3rd down work  during training camp and preseason and if the running back was trusted in pass protection during college. If you do your homework, your expectations for rookie running backs receiving projections should be in the right place. Recently, Giovani Bernard and Doug Martin saw the lion’s share of 3rd down work – it’s not a complete rarity.

This makes following the NFL Draft and training camp ultra important! Pay attention to where the Carlos Hyde’s, Bishop Sankey’s and Tre Mason’s of the world end up, especially if they go to a team with a running back vacuum. If 2014’s rookies can see a starter’s share of carries, they’ll more than likely give you RB1 and RB2 production at the cost of a mid-round pick.