In the 2004 NFL Draft, the Dallas Cowboys made a move that disappointed a lot of fans, myself included, in bypassing running back Steven Jackson with their first round selection. Instead, the 'Boys moved into the second round and grabbed Notre Dame rusher Julius Jones. The widespread pessimism that surrounded the selection turned into downright anger when Jones broke his collarbone in Week 2 of the season.
Once Jones returned to the team, he was immediately named the starter. After a solid 81-yard game against the Baltimore Ravens, he erupted for 348 combined yards over the next two games, including a 198-yard, three-touchdown performance in a road tilt against the Seattle Seahawks. After all was said and done in that 2004 campaign, Jones managed to rack up 819 yards and seven touchdowns with just seven career starts under his belt. Cowboys fans were ecstatic about the new running back of the future.
The future passes by quickly for some NFL players. Despite the initial success, Jones didn't come close to living up to the high bar he set in his rookie campaign. He finished just three more seasons in Dallas, never besting the seven touchdowns or 4.16 yards-per-carry average he put up as a rookie. The running back with a running style that mirrored that of Emmitt Smith left Dallas after 2007, a year in which he scored two touchdowns and averaged just 3.59 YPC.
In hindsight, there were warning signs that Jones might not live up to the early hype. Here's why ...
Rookie Running Backs: What Begets Success?
I spent the afternoon tracking career success for the top 40 rookie running backs since 2000 (in terms of first-year rushing yards). Jones checked in at 27th, a fine accomplishment for someone who played less than half the season.
Unfortunately, Jones was also near the bottom of the pack, 28th, in YPC. Unlike total yards, YPC doesn't always increase with more games played. To get a clearer picture of Jones' career outlook, it may have been wise to assess his efficiency in terms of YPC rather than focus on the total yards that came as a result of a heavy workload. Extrapolated over an entire season, Jones' 27-plus carries per start would still be a record for attempts in a season.
When looking at the numbers of the other top 40 rookie running backs, I saw the same trend: Rookie YPC was a solid predictor of future success. In the graph below, I used Pro Football Reference's Approximate Value as a measure for NFL success. At a position like running back where players prosper by racking up stats, I think AV (or in the case of this study, AV per season) is an accurate judge of value. Since 2000, the top five running backs in terms of AV per season are Chris Johnson, LaDainian Tomlinson, Maurice Jones-Drew, Adrian Peterson, and LeSean McCoy.
You can see that rookie YPC is just behind total yards in terms of how accurately it can predict future NFL value. The AV per season of the top 20 running backs (in terms of yards) was 7.0. It was just 0.1 point lower for the top 20 backs in terms of YPC. Meanwhile, the number of carries received by the top 40 rookie running backs had little impact on their future success.
There are a few reasons I think these results are noteworthy. First, we would naturally expect the best running backs to receive the most carries and gain the most yards as rookies. Cadillac Williams was destined to see a lot of carries as the fifth overall pick in the 2005 NFL Draft; the 290 carries he received in his first year are 65 more than he's gotten in any season since then. That's just one example of how highly touted running backs who receive an abundance of carries, and thus rack up a lot of yards, could skew the results.
Secondly, those yards are an aspect of the AV calculation. Whereas YPC isn't factored into a player's approximate value, the yards he gains in his first year add to his total AV. Again, we would then expect the results to favor yards over YPC.
Lastly, since YPC is the average of all carries, it tends to level out with more touches. We would never expect a running back who ran for a 50-yard touchdown on his first NFL carry to maintain that 50-yard average, for example. Thus, the rookie running backs who have gained the most yards are also likely to have posted a somewhat lower YPC simply because they almost certainly had a lot of touches. We actually see this in the results. Of the 14 backs who have rushed for 1,100-plus yards in their rookie season, half of them have averaged 4.41 YPC or less.
The fact that the AV per season of the top 40 running backs in terms of YPC is even close to that of those with the most yards – and well ahead of those backs with the most carries – is nothing short of amazing. It means that rookie YPC is far more effective than both yards and carries as a means for predicting a running back's future performance.
In terms of recent rookie running back efficiency, I'm not sure many teams can top the Cowboys. Since 2000, no rookie running back with more than two (yes, two) carries has averaged more than the 8.87 YPC Felix Jones put up in his inaugural campaign.
DeMarco Murray is even more impressive. Although his 5.47 YPC from last season looks less staggering, it came on 164 carries. Since 2000, that's the fourth-highest YPC total for any rookie running back with at least 100 rushes, behind only Maurice Jones-Drew (5.67), Adrian Peterson (5.63), and Clinton Portis (5.52). That's pretty lofty company.
For the reasons mentioned above, I don't think it's too early to make a lot of Murray's impressive rookie season. Stats aside, Murray looked like an explosive, powerful, complete running back. In combination with Jones this year, you're likely to witness the best rushing attack the Cowboys have assembled in over a decade.
And unlike the "other" Jones, Murray's rookie season doesn't appear to be his peak.