The New Orleans Saints' offense is rolling in 2009. You may not have noticed that former 2nd overall pick Reggie Bush has not been a huge part of that offensive explosion, as he has had only 9 and 7 touches the last two weeks.
Is he a bust? Or does he just need to stop playing running back so he can excel?
I'm going to show you the first two years of two other first round draft picks at the running back position, compared to Reggie Bush.
Reggie Bush: 28 games, 312 rushes for 1,146 yards and 10 td's; 161 receptions for 1,159 yards and 4 td's.
Player A: 27 games, 344 rushes for 1,157 yards and 8 td's; 93 receptions for 1,391 yards and 8 td's.
Player B: 32 games, 267 rushes for 881 yards and 7 td's; 111 receptions for 849 yards and 5 td's.
Player A was detailed by Chase in this post about versatile players who played both running back and wide receiver. Player B is the son of the player I talked about in this podcast. What did those two players have in common? They both switched positions to wide receiver during their careers, though the decisions were not made at the same point in their careers. They both showed playmaking ability early in their careers, but they weren't very good at actually running the ball between the tackles at a young age. On roughly the same number of carries, they both averaged less yards per carry than Bush did through his first two years.
Charley Taylor made the switch to full-time wide receiver after 8 games of his third season in the NFL. His yards per carry was even lower than Bush's at that point. Taylor had been the third overall pick in the 1964 draft, and made two pro bowls, but based largely on his play making contributions as a pass catching receiver out of the backfield, and not based on his running.
In the fifth game of the 1966 season (Taylor's third in the league), the Redskins had 35 running back rush attempts, and Taylor had only 8 of them. He did score a rushing touchdown, and also had an 86 yard touchdown reception. The following week, Taylor split carries with Steve Thurlow, and had only 20 yards rushing on 11 attempts. A week later, both Thurlow and A.D. Whitfield had more rushing attempts, and Taylor finished with 9 yards on 6 carries. A week after that, Taylor gained only 7 yards on 3 attempts, as Joe Don Looney was the leading rusher and 27 carries went to the other three backs on the roster.
Taylor had gained only 32 yards on 24 carries in his last three games as running back, and Otto Graham made the switch and put Taylor at wide receiver in the ninth game of the 1966 season. Taylor immediately justified the decision, catching 8 passes for 111 yards and a touchdown. He would finish with 46 receptions for 613 yards and 8 touchdowns over the final six games, and ended up leading the NFL in receptions that season. He wouldn't stop until he put up numbers that merited induction into the Pro Football Hall of Fame.
Reggie Bush and Charley Taylor rank in the top five all-time in receiving yards for a running back in the first two years of a career (debut at age 23 or younger). Do I think that Reggie Bush will turn out to be Charley Taylor if he switches to wide receiver? Probably not. Taylor was taller (6'3") and had been even more productive as a receiver before the switch was made (though we should put Taylor's ypc in the context of his era).
But I do think he could at least be as good as the other guy referenced above, who, unlike Taylor, did not switch positions by age 25. Eric Metcalf was more similar to Bush size-wise (Bush is a little bigger). He, like Bush, was an explosive return man, who could make plays as a receiver, but was even worse than Bush as a runner.
Like Bush, Metcalf entered the NFL as a 21 year old, and was an undersized playmaker at the running back position selected 13th overall. He had a career high 185 rush attempts as a rookie. He returned kicks early on, and had two kickoff returns for touchdown in his second season. He began returning punts in his third season. He recorded only 30 rushes and 29 receptions at age 23 while missing half the season, and then only 73 rush attempts and 47 receptions the following year.
Metcalf continued to flash big play potential, and continued to be under-utilized and miscast by the Cleveland Browns. Between ages 24 and 26, Metcalf had five punt return touchdowns and was selected to two pro bowls as a returner. He recorded a career best 4.7 yards per carry in 1993. The Browns’ head coach said he was going to find ways to get Metcalf more touches, but it didn’t happen. In 1994, at age 26, Metcalf finished with fewer than 100 rushes and 50 receptions.
He was traded the next offseason. The San Fransisco 49ers wanted Metcalf and could only offer two late first round picks, and he went instead to the Atlanta Falcons for the tenth overall pick. The Falcons traded for him to make him into a slot receiver in their Run-N-Shoot offense. At age 27, Eric Metcalf finally was moved to wide receiver. He flourished right away, recording 30 catches and over 300 yards receiving in his first three games as a Falcon. He would finish the year with 104 receptions for 1189 yards and 8 touchdowns (the 11th best fantasy wide receiver) in 1995. He declined to 54 catches at age 28, and would stick around the league primarily as a return man and part-time receiver after that. One has to wonder what would have happened to Metcalf’s career if he had been converted before he was 27 ½ years old.
Which brings us back to Reggie Bush. It's pretty clear at this point that he is a not a good runner out of the running back position. He has, however, shown playmaker potential in roles other than running back. We've already seen that he ranks as one of the prolific pass catchers out of the running back position at a young age. Here's the link to the players with the most punt return touchdowns at age 23 or younger. Leroy Kelly is the only other running back on that list with 3 or more. That list has some small guys that were almost exclusively returners, some defensive players, and three receivers with 3 punt return touchdowns (one fewer than Bush) who are closer in size to Bush: Henry Ellard, Steve Smith of Carolina, and Louis Lipps.
So, we have a player who is historically great at making plays as a receiver at a young age, and making plays in the punting game at a young age, and is below replacement level as an actual runner. We have examples of players who were high draft picks and showed similar abilities making successful position switches, and players of similar size and early playmaking abilities having successful careers as wide receivers. It doesn't seem like rocket science to me to say that he should never (except maybe on reverses) be used as a runner, and he should exclusively be doing the things he does well. The switch should happen now, not a few years from now.
I know I'm not the first to suggest a position switch, just the latest. But with the rise of the inside slot receiver, expanding use of shotgun and three-wide receiver sets, it sure seems like this is a move that I would make. His skills seem perfectly suited for the inside receiver role.