I was talking football with some friends this weekend and the following question arose: if you were starting a franchise right now, would you rather have Reggie Bush or Shaun Alexander? Assume a three-year contract that is essentially guaranteed at the same money.
With Alexander, you're getting the age-29, 30, and 31 seasons of a back who was arguably the best in the league. With Bush, you're getting the first three years in the career of a top five NFL draft pick. Historically, which of those options gets you the best production?
Between 1980 and 2003, there were 19 running backs taken among the top five overall picks in the draft. Here they are, along with their total yards in each of their first three seasons:
Player Yr1 Yr2 Yr3 LaDainian Tomlinson 1603 2172 2370 Jamal Lewis 1660 1769 Edgerrin James 2139 2303 855 Ricky Williams 1056 1409 1756 Curtis Enis 517 1256 152 Ki-Jana Carter 433 621 29 Marshall Faulk 1804 1553 1015 Garrison Hearst 218 1313 978 Blair Thomas 824 923 489 Barry Sanders 1752 1784 1855 Alonzo Highsmith 161 597 732 Brent Fullwood 285 611 1035 Bo Jackson 690 659 1019 Eric Dickerson 2212 2244 1360 Curt Warner 1774 59 1401 George Rogers 1800 556 1213 Freeman McNeil 794 973 826 Billy Sims 1924 1888 981 Curtis Dickey 1004 1198 460
The averages are 1192, 1229, and 1068.
Now, to find some Alexander comps, I'll search for all 28-year-old top-5 running backs since 1980. Here they are, along with their total yardage for the following three years.
Player 29 30 31 Terry Allen 896 828 1021 Barry Sanders 2358 1780 Chuck Muncie 776 1282 89 Earnest Byner 1356 1336 299 Eric Dickerson 1522 769 805 Roger Craig 1527 640 726 Curtis Martin 1456 1570 1942 William Andrews 249 Marshall Faulk 1490 1108 1084 Priest Holmes 2287 2110 1079 Christian Okoye 828 1065 453
The averages are 1450, 1248, and 775.
On the one hand, the Alexander comparables aren't necessarily that comparable; very few of them had seasons as good as Alexander's 2005. On other hand, a great many people feel that Alexander is largely a product of his environment.
Assuming you believe that Bush is a typical top-five pick (I do) and that Alexander is roughly comparable to the eleven players listed above (maybe), the historical data does nothing but confirm that it is an interesting question. In year one, the old guys did better. In year two, they were essentially tied. In year three, the young guys did better.
So your answer to that question really depends on your discount rate. Seattle is a Super Bowl contender right now and Houston is not, so Seattle ought to value year one more than Houston does. Ultimately, if I were Seattle I wouldn't trade Alexander for the first pick. And if I were Houston I wouldn't trade the first pick for Alexander.
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