The 2008 NFL draft class might be the last of its kind in league history. While the draft was topped by a pair of Longs (Jake first, Chris second) and became known for the quarterback duo of Matt Ryan and Joe Flacco, its most interesting characteristic is the bevy of running backs it produced. We’re in an NFL climate where no halfback has come off the board during the first round in each of the past two drafts, but 2008 saw no fewer than five running backs selected in the first 24 selections.
In a way, it both confirmed and challenged the now-common opinion that running backs are mostly interchangeable. The backs in that draft excelled early in their careers, taking over the league as quickly as any class in history. And then, in just a couple of seasons, they mostly scattered around the league and collapsed. Now, a midround pick is the most talented back left from the class, and the most productive back is a journeyman who didn’t get a chance until a fellow draftee became a pariah. This class is not just the last of its kind; it might very well be one of a kind.
I realized the 2008 draft class was probably going to be special for running backs almost by accident. I put together a metric called Speed Score, which uses a player’s weight and 40 time at the combine to predict his future NFL performance, a couple of months before the draft. It was (and is) hardly a lone predictive measure, but it was an interesting step in tying some simple quantitative measure to future NFL success.
In doing my research, I weighted Speed Score so a typical combine participant’s performance was close to 100. There were more backs with a Speed Score over 100 in the 2008 class than there had been in any of the previous drafts I studied. The average grade for a first-round back at the time was about 112, and four backs with a score greater than 112 would go in the first round alone. There were even sleepers with well-above-average Speed Scores in the second, third, fourth, and sixth rounds.
The numbers, fortunately, matched up with the pre-draft hype for that year’s running back crop. While there wasn’t a running back in the class with the amount of individual hype that surrounded 2006 second overall pick Reggie Bush, this was a deeper, stronger class with a variety of shapes and sizes.
The one blue-chipper everybody could agree on was Arkansas running back Darren McFadden. The hometown hero had just finished his third season at school just six yards shy of 2,000 from scrimmage while chipping in 17 touchdowns, earning him a second-place finish behind Tim Tebow in that year’s Heisman Trophy balloting. He unquestionably had more hype than the previous year’s top running back prospect, Oklahoma’s Adrian Peterson. McFadden is the most recent running back to have had a reasonable shot at being the first overall pick in the NFL draft, and he might very well be the last to receive such consideration for years to come. (Damn you, Trent Richardson!)
McFadden would come off the board fourth to the Oakland Raiders, who naturally cherished his freak athleticism. Indeed, McFadden had a Speed Score of 120.1, the second-highest figure in the class. The highest Speed Score, 121.9, belonged to the final running back selected in the first round, a far less heralded East Carolina product with a midround grade by the name of Chris Johnson.
The two would be at the core of an anachronistic investment in running backs. With five first-rounders and 10 more picks coming off the board during the first three rounds, the 2008 draft was unusually weighted toward ball carriers. Using Chase Stuart’s Approximate Value draft chart, we can estimate that the league’s 32 teams used 11.6 percent of the draft capital available to them in 2008 on running backs.
That just doesn’t happen these days. The only other year after the turn of the century when teams used more than 10 percent of their draft capital on running backs was in 2005, a historically thin draft in which three of the first five players off the board (Ronnie Brown, Cedric Benson, and Cadillac Williams) were running backs.1 With the absence of first-round picks, spending on running backs has fallen to its lowest point in post-merger history over the past couple of seasons, hitting 6.0 percent in 2013 and rising to just 6.1 percent in May’s draft:
The post-merger record for most draft capital devoted to running backs dates back to 1974, when teams used six first-round picks, four second-round picks, four third-round picks, and five fourth-round picks on running backs. In typical running back fashion, the most successful backs were second-round pick Delvin Williams (5,598 career rushing yards) and third-rounders Dexter Bussey (5,105 yards) and Mark van Eeghen (6,651 yards), while second overall pick Bo Matthews only made it to 1,566 rushing yards and never topped 328 yards in a season during his nine-year career.
Early NFL mock drafts do have a running back going in the first round. Georgia’s Todd Gurley is a phenom who should come off the board in the middle of the first round, but he’s also the only back projected to do so during the draft’s opening night. Draft-capital spending on backs will rise next year, but it will hardly hark back to the ’70s, when an average of 15.4 percent of all available draft capital went to running backs.
Here’s what the class of 2008 looked like on draft day. I’ve included all the backs who were selected, where they went, and (where available) their Speed Score.2
Speed Scores aren’t calculated for players who didn’t run the 40-yard dash at the combine or who were drafted as fullbacks.
It’s a good group of players, and because the draft is so recent, a group that you’re likely familiar with. How successful were they, though?
To put their performance in context, I wanted to see what percentage of the league’s yardage has come from this crop of running backs as opposed to the rest of the running backs around the NFL. To do that, I went through Pro-Football-Reference.com’s archives and calculated the number of rushing yards that were gained by running backs in each given season, and then measured how many of those yards came from each individual draft class.
First, there was the question of instant impact. What percentage of the yards gained by running backs during this class’s first three years in the league were actually gained by 2008 draftees? That question is convoluted as all hell, so let’s make it simpler. From 2008 to 2010, players listed as running backs on PFR gained 149,681 rushing yards. Over that time frame, the players from this draft class — playing in their first, second, and third seasons — gained 33,525 rushing yards, making them responsible for 22.4 percent of the total.
That’s a really incredible performance. That 22.4 percent figure is the second-best rate for any draft class of running backs since 1970. The only group that tops it is the 1977 crop, a draft that saw running backs Ricky Bell and Tony Dorsett come off the board with the first two picks. Only one other class since 1991 came in above 20 percent. That was the 2001 unit, which featured LaDainian Tomlinson, Deuce McAllister, Michael Bennett, and Rudi Johnson in starring roles.
A slightly longer-term measure that encapsulates virtually all of what a team can be expected to get from its draft picks is to run the same test after five seasons. Under the previous collective bargaining agreement, teams would usually get five years from their first-round picks and four years plus a fifth season under restricted free agency from their picks later in the draft. Teams obviously hope to find a star they can retain without question, but in most cases, the fifth year ends up being the time when teams make a decision, especially for skill-position players like running backs, who have no other spot to fall back upon.
This draft still shines under a five-year analysis, if not quite as brightly. The running backs from this 2008 class were responsible for 20.2 percent of all rushing yards from 2008 to 2012, the fourth-largest percentage for any draft class since the merger. The aforementioned 1977 draft was the most productive five-year group, and the 2001 class was third. In between them was the running back group from 1990, which includes Emmitt Smith, Rodney Hampton, Chris Warren, Leroy Hoard, and Terry Allen, all of whom were drafted after second overall pick Blair Thomas, who was out of football by 1996.
You can see that the 2008 class did slip a bit between their third and fifth seasons. In many cases, the running backs peaked early before failing to deliver on their massive promise. Instead, it was the players who emerged later in the draft who stepped up as the most valuable contributors. Let’s run through their stories and remember their highs and lows.
Darren McFadden (first round, no. 4, Raiders) has unquestionably failed to live up to the massive pre-draft hype I mentioned earlier. Oakland hasn’t helped, repeatedly switching from a power-blocking scheme to a zone-blocking front and then back to the original while rarely posing any threat as a passing attack, but McFadden has really been foiled by injuries.
While he exhibited flashes of brilliance during his first few seasons in the league, McFadden has struggled through ailments that include a high ankle sprain, various hamstring injuries, and a Lisfranc injury in 2011 that really seemed to sap his top-end speed. He averaged 4.8 yards per carry before the injury and 3.4 yards per pop after returning. Having failed to play more than 13 games in any of his seven professional seasons, it seems unlikely there’s a sudden turnaround coming for the once-dominant college back. He’s the top pick from this class, but he’s never been its standard-bearer.
Jonathan Stewart (first round, no. 13, Panthers) has been the victim of various false starts and missteps throughout his career. He formed a dominant one-two punch with DeAngelo Williams during his first several seasons in Carolina, but just when it seemed likely the team would let Williams leave in free agency and turn the job over to Stewart, Marty Hurney signed Williams to a massive contract extension. It then seemed likely Stewart would depart for greener pastures, but Hurney gave him a five-year, $36.5 million deal to keep football’s most expensive running back rotation going.
Stewart’s deal has become a symbol of what’s holding the Panthers back, and indeed, it’s been onerous. The Panthers have already needed to renegotiate it twice in two years to recapture cap space, and it will be unviable for them to move on from the deal until 2016. He’s also collapsed since the signing; after averaging 4.8 yards per carry while missing just two games during his first four seasons, Stewart has averaged just 3.7 yards per carry since his extension while missing 21 of Carolina’s 43 games since 2012. He’s a competent running back when on the field, but the Panthers would wipe his contract off the books in a heartbeat if they could.
Felix Jones (first round, no. 22, Cowboys) was Jerry Jones’s prize pick, a home run hitter from the Cowboys owner’s alma mater, Arkansas, who would be the lightning to Marion Barber’s thunder. He looked every bit the part during his first two seasons, averaging 6.5 yards per carry while serving as Dallas’s primary kick returner. The problem is that he never developed; Felix Jones was perennially trying to hit a home run and never exhibited much ability to hit singles. As a marginal receiver, Jones quickly fell out of favor when he lost even the tiniest bit of speed, and he’s currently out of football at 27.
Rashard Mendenhall (first round, no. 23, Steelers) never seemed to satisfy fans in Pittsburgh. The bruising Illinois product suffered a season-ending shoulder injury in his first Ravens-Steelers game, costing him most of his rookie campaign, only to come back with an impressive sophomore season in Willie Parker’s stead. After a mediocre 2010, Mendenhall famously fumbled on the opening play of the fourth quarter in Super Bowl XLV as the Steelers were driving inside Packers territory with a chance to take their first lead.
Mendenhall’s Steelers career never recovered. He tore his ACL in 2012 and joined the Steelers outpost in Arizona last season, only for Andre Ellington to emerge as the far more exciting back. Seeing the writing on the wall, Mendenhall retired at the age of 26 in a Huffington Post article.
Chris Johnson (first round, no. 24, Titans) made his mark at the combine after running a 4.24 40-yard dash, and he quickly became one of the league’s most exciting ball carriers, capable of running around or past anybody else in football. After filling the lightning side of a familiar rotation with LenDale White during his rookie season, Johnson took over as the primary back in 2009 and produced one of the greatest seasons in NFL history, running for 2,006 yards while averaging 5.6 yards per carry. He naturally regressed some the following season, but a 1,364-yard, 11-touchdown campaign was still enough to earn him his third trip to the Pro Bowl in three years.
It’s been a steady drop since then. Johnson was so fast and knew just enough about reading his blocks that he could get by early in his career, but once he lost a tiny bit of that top speed, like Jones, he wasn’t the same guy. A four-year, $53.5 million extension with the Titans before 2011 failed to stir Johnson into his old ways, and he was released this offseason. He caught on with the Jets, where he’s been a mundane change of pace alongside Chris Ivory. It would be fun to see him in an offense like Philadelphia’s, where he could put the speed he still has to good use, but he’s not much more than a replacement-level back at this point.
Matt Forte (second round, no. 44, Bears) is widely considered to be the most versatile back in football. He’s caught 402 passes in his career, more than any other back since 2008, and he’s on pace for another 109 receptions this season. His 3,436 receiving yards over that time frame are topped only by Darren Sproles. The only knock on Forte throughout his career has been that he’s a terrible goal-line back, and while I think there’s probably a good amount of randomness to that idea, Forte’s been so bad near the goal line — including this year — that I would be scared to use him there. Otherwise, he’s been a phenomenal player and continues to deliver reliably impressive football.
Ray Rice (second round, no. 55, Ravens) became the team’s primary back in 2009 (after sitting behind Willis McGahee in 2008) and remained in that role for the vast majority of his time in Baltimore. As a three-down back, Rice was capable of keeping the team on schedule on first down before making a key catch on third down to extend the drive. He finished in the top three in yards from scrimmage in 2009, 2010, and 2011. You probably don’t need me to explain why Rice’s career took a sudden turn. Even though he’s just 27, it would be a surprise if he played professional football again.
Kevin Smith (third round, no. 64, Lions) was part of the the final draft class of the Matt Millen era. Having carried the ball 450 times during his junior year at UCF, Smith gave the Lions one healthy season before he tore his ACL in 2009. He carried the ball 143 times over the next three seasons as a situational back before falling out of the league.
Jacob Hester (third round, no. 69, Chargers) rotated between fullback and halfback in San Diego’s backfield. His last NFL work came in Denver’s fateful loss to Baltimore during the 2012 playoffs, when the Ravens dared Peyton Manning to audible into running plays with Hester in the backfield. He finished with 11 yards on eight carries, failing to convert on three third-down tries.
Jamaal Charles (third round, no. 73, Chiefs) is about as far away from Hester as a running back can be. A magnificent speed demon who fell to the third round because of concerns about his fumbling and his ability to hold up under an NFL workload, the Chiefs protected Charles from day one and found a player who was electric every time he touched the football. He broke out nationally during an incredible 2010 campaign as part of Kansas City’s unlikely run to the playoffs in a season when Charles (6.4 yards per carry on 230 attempts) received a similar workload to Thomas Jones (3.7 yards per carry on 245 attempts).
Despite Kansas City’s efforts to keep him safe, Charles tore his ACL two games into the following season, still his only major injury as a pro. With the league adapting to see players with Charles’s 300-touch workload as the ideal, he’s become arguably the best running back on a snap-to-snap basis. The only runner in league history with at least 500 career rushes to average more yards per carry than Charles (5.5) is Marion Motley, who played in a totally different era. Charles, the 10th running back taken in this draft class, is its prize.
There are other players you’ll recognize, most of whom had promising early runs before flaming out. Steve Slaton had an impressive rookie season before giving way to Arian Foster. Tashard Choice was a useful change of pace in Dallas before losing his confidence. Tim Hightower started seven games (while averaging 2.8 yards per carry!) over Edgerrin James in Arizona before James took the job back; he’s somehow been out of football since 2011. Peyton Hillis was traded for Brady Quinn and had that one huge year for the Browns before flaming out and bouncing around the league. I’m not including undrafted players here, but Mike Tolbert, BenJarvus Green-Ellis, and Danny Woodhead all carved out careers after going undrafted in 2008.
With this notable draft class in its seventh season, only one player appears to be on the upswing, one who has shown up this year and found a level of success that he hadn’t previously hit. He might be the most interesting candidate of them all.
Justin Forsett wasn’t even a starter on his own team for most of his college career, let alone as a pro. After spending his first three seasons at Cal as the backup to J.J. Arrington and then Marshawn Lynch, Forsett finally got to take over as the no. 1 back during his senior season. He delivered an impressive campaign, most notably for his ability to shoulder a heavy workload. The 5-foot-8, 190-pound Forsett carried the ball 305 times during that senior season, gaining 1,546 yards in the process. Nobody else carried the ball more than 36 times.
Despite comparisons to Maurice Jones-Drew, NFL scouting reports made Forsett’s height their focus, leading him to fall in the draft. Forsett came off the board after 232 picks, going to Seattle, where he began an itinerant trip around the league. He was cut by the Seahawks during his rookie season, caught on briefly with the Colts, and then made his way back to Seattle, returning punts and kicks the entire time.
Given a chance to run the ball as a change of pace over the next two seasons, all Forsett did was produce. He averaged 4.9 yards per carry on 232 attempts over two years as the primary backup to Julius Jones, but when the Seahawks soured on Jones, they made the decision to trade for Lynch, then a disgruntled bust with the Bills. Forsett’s four fumbles during the 2009 season didn’t help, although he’s fumbled only twice since then. When Lynch finally broke out in 2011 and Forsett responded with a disappointing showing in limited work, the Seahawks allowed him to leave in free agency.
With little market interest, Forsett signed a one-year deal with the Texans, where he averaged 5.9 yards per carry on 63 attempts as the third-string back, most of which came on the 81-yard touchdown run that created the Jim Schwartz rule. A year later, he moved on to Jacksonville, where the Jaguars signed him to a two-year, $2 million deal. He ran the ball just six times during his lone season in Jacksonville before suffering the first injury of his career, a broken foot, which ended his 2013 campaign. The Jaguars cut him in March as a prelude to opening up their running back job to Toby Gerhart, who received a three-year, $10.5 million deal.
Perhaps remembering what Forsett had done in a situational role for him in Houston, new Ravens offensive coordinator Gary Kubiak brought him along for the ride in Baltimore on a one-year deal this offseason. By this point, Forsett’s career numbers amounted to one really impressive season’s worth of work: 347 carries, 1,692 rushing yards, 115 catches, 850 receiving yards, and nine touchdowns. He had never been given a chance to play as a team’s primary back, but the gates suddenly opened for him. Rice was suspended and then released. His replacement, Bernard Pierce, fumbled in Week 1 and was benched before suffering a thigh injury.
That finally gave an opportunity to Forsett, and he’s delivered. Since taking over as the starting back in Week 3, he’s averaged 5.2 yards per carry, a lofty figure for an offense in which the other running backs are averaging 3.9 yards per attempt; last year, the team ran for just 3.1 yards per carry. Prorate his performance from that eight-game stretch as a starter over a full season and you get a 228-carry, 1,190-yard, eight-touchdown campaign with another 344 yards as a receiver.
At 29, after most of the players drafted before him have either lost their ability or retired, Forsett is thriving. He’s an advertisement for both how great the class of 2008 was and how stupid it ended up looking. In so many cases, the difference between a star running back and a mediocre one is opportunity, not ability. As exciting as those five first-round backs looked, and even as great as some as them were during the early stages of their careers, the best runners from this class are a second-rounder, a third-rounder, and a seventh-rounder who was cut by one of the worst teams in football eight months ago. The class of 2008 was star-studded. We were just looking at the wrong stars.