RB Theorem Chpt. VI: Rookie Failures Versus Career Arc

In the fifth chapter of this RB Theorem series, I looked at the recent rookie failures of Kenyan Drake and Melvin Gordon. In doing so, I hoped to find a proper gauge on their Fantasy value moving forward. With this chapter, I set out to find slightly older players who “failed” as rookies. Then I looked at how it affected the rest of their careers. Rookies fail for various reasons. No one case is a mirror image of the other. These examples of first-round failures can help you make better future investment strategies.

A Decade’s (2005-14) worth of first round RBs who “failed” as rookies:

Cedric Benson: The Windy City Meets No Wheat Tolerance

Benson rushed for at least 1,053 yards (not to mention 1,834 yards during his senior season) in each of his four seasons at Texas. Chicago made him the fourth overall selection in the 2005 draft. Unfortunately, a 36-day hold-out caused Benson to missed all of training camp. The city of Chicago and his Bear teammates were not impressed. Benson stoked the fire even more when vowed to be the starter by week three despite missing significant and vital practice time. Jay Glazer even reported that some teammates attempted to intentionally injure Benson in drills.

Benson’s rookie season got off to a not so grand start. He was active for week one. He had three carries for 10 yards. The following week Benson received 16 carries in a blowout win versus the Lions. He missed week three with an undisclosed injury then he got just 13 carries over the next four games. Benson’s finest rookie moment came in his seventh game. He carried the ball 14 times 79 yards in a nail-biting 20-17 win at New Orleans. He would sprain his MCL the following week. That forced him out to be inactive for six straight weeks. He played in the meaningless season finale and gained 35 yards on nine carries.

It seemed that everyone inside Chicago organization preferred Thomas Jones who led the team in all rushing categories. Even third-year pro-Adrian N. Peterson (who had 57 career carries entering the 2005 season) saw more touches than Benson. In total Benson finished with 69 attempts for 272 yards and zero TDs.

Despite missing most of the preseason with a shoulder injury, Benson showed promise in year two by maintaining a 4.1 YPA. He gained 647 yards on 157 carries in 15 games. He also scored six TDs. Chicago was impressed enough that they traded Thomas Jones to the Jets so they could move up 26 spots in the second round of the 2007 draft.

As the full-time starter in 2007 Benson regressed with a 3.4 YPA. He also missed another five games. During the off-season, Benson was arrested (alcohol) on two separate occasions in a five-week span. The Bears had seen enough, and they released him in June of 2008. The Bears had also seemingly reached by taking a kid from Tulane named Matt Forte in the second round of the 2008 draft.

Benson could have been so much more.

The 25-year old Benson went on to sign with Cincinnati. With the 4-11-1 Bengals, he saw a majority share of the rushing attempts despite missing four games and making only ten starts. The Bengals had given him a second chance, and Benson was determined to make a difference on a professional level. During that season Benson also claimed he had been diagnosed with Celiac disease.

Benson was a free agent the following off-season, but he was re-signed by the Bengals after briefly being courted by the Texans.

The 2009 season saw Benson explode for 1,251 yards on 301 carries in just 13 games. He also set a Bengal franchise record by recording six 100 yard rushing games. He would go on to produce two more 1,000-yard seasons for Cincinnati.

The Bengals declined to re-up Benson after the 2011 season. They cited immaturity as a significant reason. It seemed the 29-year Benson was very threatened by the Cincinnati’s interest in rotating RBs.

The writing was on the wall. Benson finished his career with five underwhelming games as a member of the Green Bay Packers. His season ended during the first week of October 2012 when he suffered a Lisfranc injury that put him on season-ending IR.

Darren McFadden: Oh the Horror, Oh What Could Have Been

Can you imagine the NFL prospects of an SEC kid who averaged 120.7 yards per game in 38 games? That is what convinced the Oakland Raiders to take McFadden with the fourth overall pick of the 2008 draft. He also dropped 4.33 40-time and 6.86 3-cone time. His draft status was debatable thanks to few off-field incidents.

Expectations were high in the black hole. McFadden “rewarded” Raider Nation by appearing in 13 games in which he was mostly unhealthy. He produced 499 yards on the ground in just 113 attempts for a solid 4.4 YPA. McFadden saved some face by contributing 29 receptions for an additional 286 yards. With 785 total scrimmage yards and four total TDs, McFadden’s rookie season could be considered a moderate success. Considering his draft status, you can likely sympathize with the disappointment amongst the Silver-N-Black faithful.

Run-DMC was a fine college player.

Year two was as about as encouraging as starting your day with vomit in your socks. It was so cringe-worthy I don’t even want to give you the separate rushing and receiving yardage totals. So instead I’ll give you the total scrimmage yards, 125 touches 602 yards and one lousy TD. McFadden also set his career high in fumbles with five. All this happened in 12 games.

Year three saw McFadden miss three more games. In those 13 remaining games all things came to fruition. He went on to set career highs in rushing yards (1,157), receptions (47), receiving yards (507) and total TDs (10). This 2010 season was the only year of his career in which he scored more than five TDs. It was also one of two times he eclipsed 1,000 yards rushing.

If you take away those two 1,000 yard campaigns McFadden’s career would have been a colossal failure. Without those, his seasonal highs would be 216/707/5 rushing, 42/258/1 receiving and 258/965/5 from scrimmage.

McFadden played in all 16 games just twice in his decade in the NFL. Ironically those seasons were his last year in Oakland and his first year in Dallas at ages 27 and 28.

I have yet to find a list of his trainers. I suppose that is not a coincidence. I certainly would not want McFadden’s name listed on my credentials. In total McFadden missed 57 career games and played in 103.

Donald Brown: Did you remember Brown was a first round pick?

After amassing just 1,700 yards in his freshman and sophomore seasons combined, Brown then ran wild for 2,083 in 13 games as a junior. That total was good enough to lead the country in rushing yards. That’s a whopping 160.2 yards per game! He also finished his college career with a 5.4 YPA. Brown dropped a 4.46 40-time (83rd percentile), 125 inch broad (87th percentile) and a 41.5 inch vertical (97th percentile) at the scouting combine. He also ran a 6.93 3-cone at his pro day. He was selected with the 27th overall pick in the 2009 draft. Brown was one of three RBs to be selected in round one. Chris “Beanie” Wells went 31st, and Knowshon Moreno went 12th overall respectively. Brown drew comparisons to “Fast” Willie Parker, Julius Jones, and even LaDainian Tomlinson! 

Hi Donald! Bye Donald, thanks for nothing? -sincerely Colts Nation

Brown failed in his rookie season (78/281/3) mainly because he missed five games. He also could not beat out 2006 first rounder Joseph Addai. This was the same Colts team (led by Peyton Manning) who lost the Super Bowl XLIV to Drew Brees and the Saints. Addai even had a pretty average year with 3.8 YPA and only one TD longer than 15 yards. This was one of those electric passing games as Manning threw for 4,500 yards. And/yet neither the rookie Brown or Addai could average more than 3.8 YPA.

Brown’s second season was slightly better. Despite missing three games, he still led the team in rushing attempts and rushing yards. He also eclipsed 700 scrimmage yards.

Year three saw Brown have his best rushing season 134/645/5 for the 2-14 QB-less Colts. Unfortunately, there is not much else say, but his career was a serious series of failures. Just to illustrate how incredibly bad it was, ponder this; Brown rushed for exactly 3,800 yards in three years (37 games) at Connecticut. In his seven NFL seasons (88 games) he rushed for 2,829 yards.

C.J. Spiller: Riding the Rails that Spill

Spiller took the college football world by storm in 2009. He went for over 2,600 all-purpose yards (1,212 rushing, 503 receiving and 965 on returns). Furthermore, he scored 12 times rushing, four receiving and he took five kicks back to the house.

The Bills brass was so flabbergasted that they made Spiller the top RB in 2010 draft by selecting him ninth overall. Spiller went three spots ahead of Ryan Mathews and 21 slots in front of Jahvid Best. Spiller was considered the top RB of the class and his sub 4.3 40-time (99th percentile) made him a slam dunk.

As a rookie, the Bills made Spiller their RB1 ahead of a dinged up Marshawn Lynch and the always versatile Fred Jackson. Spiller failed to deliver for fantasy and reality purposes. He did accumulate nearly 1,200 yards in the return game. He scored just one offensive TD all season, and he was outrushed by his first-round counterparts. Even Toby Gerhart out gained Spiller’s rushing total of 283 yards.

If you slept on Spiller, you probably had a good night’s sleep.

Year two was better. It was still not what you would expect from a top 10 draft pick. Spiller did drop a 5.2 YPA as he produced a 107/561/4 rushing line. Also to appease the PPR homers he recorded  39 receptions (15 more than his rookie total).

Year three was the ultimate tease. Spiller chalked up a 6.0 YPA on 207 carries, that was good for 1,244 yards. That was the only time in his career that he would exceed 1,000 yards rushing. He also set new seasonal career highs in receptions (43), receiving yards (459) and yards per receptions (10.7). This was mostly due to the 6-10 Bills missing Fred Jackson for six games.

Conversely, Spiller did not get bit by the injury bug at all. Now knowing what you know of Spiller’s career so far how would you have treated him? Smart dynasty owners would, of course, sold high.

Year four was very respectable. Spiller had the second-highest rushing output of his career with 933 yards. Despite gaining just 185 yards in the receiving game, he did reel in 33 receptions. It was the fourth straight season in which he gained at least 1,100 all-purpose yards if you include his return yardage.

…And then the music stopped, or the wheels came off. However you want to put it, Spiller’s career took a downhill turn for good. In 2015 a broken collarbone cost him six games. His all-purpose yardage total took a nearly 400-yard gash. His contract in Buffalo had expired.

The Saints took a shot him and gave the soon to be 28-year old RB a four-year contract. He had few shining moments, and he was released one week into year two of that contract. Like the aforementioned Donald Brown, Spiller rushed for fewer yards in 90 NFL games than he did in 52 college games.

Mark Ingram: Patience in-the-Gram

This is a rare case of a player who did not break out until his fourth season in the NFL. The former Heisman winner, Ingram was just another one those Alabama backs who rolled up 3,000 yards and scored 40 TDs while with the Crimson Tide. Their lineage runs deep, however, their pro prospects are often met with skepticism even before they have even played a snap.

At the combine, his 4.62 40-time, 7.13 3-cone and 31.5 inch vertical were shockingly mediocre. His top comparable player was Domanick Davis (former LSU Tiger & Houston Texan).  Sprinkle in a some Nick Maddox plus a little bit Adrian N. Peterson and that skepticism starts to become fairly graphic. The point is even though Ingram was a first round pick (28th overall) his doubters had valid reasons to be concerned. It should be noted that Ingram was the first RB selected in the 2011 draft. Ingram’s 21 combine bench reps also gave us a reason to believe he could at least succeed between the tackles.

Ingram’s rookie season was marred by both a heel and toe injury. The heel was injured in late-October. Before this injury he only had one game where he averaged over 4 YPA. He totaled just two runs of 20-yards or more all season. Both of those came with his team leading by at least 24 points. He had only two games where he rushed for more than 55 yards. Ingram also had just two of his 11 receptions go for more than six yards. Just 520 yards on 133 touches for 3.9 yards per touch is not what you expect from a first round RB. He did prove his between the tackle worth five short yardage TDs.

In year two Ingram was healthy and ready to prove his worth. Remember this was the Drew Brees/Sean Payton/high flying Saints offense. One would think a hard-headed grinder like Ingram could find some yards amongst those receiver spreads. He rushed for more than 53 yards four times in 16 games. Ingram was in a nearly 50/50 timeshare with Pierre Thomas. Ingram had a slight touch advantage over Thomas 162/149. The major kicker was Thomas’s 53 targets versus Ingram’s 10. Sadly in total Ingram had just 620 scrimmage yards for a measly 3.9 yards per touch. He also had just four rushes where he gained more than 20 yards.

Year three started out slow thanks to another toe injury. He gained just 31 yards on the ground during the first two weeks. He then missed weeks three through seven. In week nine Ingram busted loose for 145 yards on just 14 carries. It was his first 100 yard rushing day of his pro career. It was also during a 49-17 blowout win over Dallas. That game counted for 38% of his rushing yards on the season. Ingram would later rush for 83 yards on 13 carries in week 15. Besides those two performances, he would not rush for more than 32 yards or get over nine rushing attempts in any other game.

In year four things finally came together and Ingram rumbled for 964 yards in 13 games. He only had two games where he gained less than 43 yards on the ground. He maintained a 4.3 YPA and he was given 17.4 attempts per contest. He also set a career-high mark that still stands with a 74.2 yards per game average. It was no coincidence that his 29 receptions also opened things up for the rest of his game to flourish. Ingram had four 100 yard games, included was a stretch of three straight.

Ingram seemingly took a slight step back in his fifth season. In 12 games he maintained 4.6 YPA/64.1 YPG/13.8 APG. The big needle pusher were his 50 receptions for 405 receiving yards. The four-game absence hindered a total elite breakout. He still took a major step in becoming a complete back. Kudos to the Saints for keeping him around. They had re-signed him prior to this season. Not many GMs would give a soon to be 26-year old back a four-year deal. It was like they knew the best was yet to come.

The sixth-year would finally be the one where Ingram would break the 1,000-yard mark. His 46 receptions for 319 more yards sunk the fantasy world’s teeth deep into what was Ingram’s true self. Still, the Saints opted to find him a running mate in the 2017 draft. In the third round with the 67th overall pick, New Orleans took a stab on the dynamic Alvin Kamara.

Thunder and Lightning to the extreme!

It appeared Ingram’s value was going to take a big hit. This was not the case. Kamara and Ingram went on to become one of most prolific backfield committees in recent memory. Both went over the 1,500-yard threshold in scrimmage yards during the 2017 season.

Ingram is the only active player on this list. He will start the season with a four-game PED suspension. At the age of 29 that may be to his advantage. It was only one year but the Ingram/Kamara pairing sent shockwaves around the NFL. It was the truest of committees in the fantasy era. This may be Ingram’s last hurrah. His value is certainly on the down trickle.


I am searching for the meaning of every bump on the pigskin. From leather helmets to a league with no point after attempts, I am researching with a wide shovel. -married/father/music fan/Raider Nation baby/deli meat enthusiast/three-cone extremist

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