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Reggie Bush and Maurice Jones-Drew, Part III

Posted by Chase Stuart on August 15, 2007

On Monday and Tuesday, we tried to decide who would be the better NFL RB, Reggie Bush or Maurice Jones-Drew. In the end, both were projected to have excellent careers. But let's take a look at their rookie seasons from a different angle now, one commonly promoted by fans of either as reason for optimism in '07.

From weeks 10 through 17 last year, Reggie Bush and Maurice Jones-Drew ranked as the 8th and 4th best fantasy RBs, respectively. This was a large improvement from the first half of the season, when Bush ranked 38th and Jones-Drew ranked 20th at the end of week nine. So it's easy to see why fantasy owners are excited about the prospects for Bush and Jones-Drew, but is it warranted? Bush's average draft position is towards the end of the first round, while MJD's is being selected int he early to middle parts of round two. In fantasy leagues that reward points per reception, both are drafted even earlier.

It's been argued many times over that the light went on for Reggie Bush, and he adjusted to the pro game in the middle of last year. If that was the case, then it certainly seems appropriate to expect Bush to play like the 8th best RB and not the 38th best. But remember that sometimes splits happen with no explanation at all. Further, Bush's big game of the season happened when Marques Colston was on the sidelines, and the 67 rushing yards in week 1 were his second highest total of the season. Bush's strong playoff performance shouldn't be ignored, but neither should the careers of Kevin Jones and William Green.

Like Bush, Green had a subpar YPC average as a rookie in 2002 (3.7), but the last seven weeks of the season he ran for 708 yards and averaged 4.2 yards per carry. It was certainly easy to claim that "the light went on" for Green, and in fact, many thought he'd be a stud in 2003. Green never regained the success from the second half of his rookie season, though, and was out of football last year.

Kevin Jones led the league with over 900 rushing yards in the second half of 2004, his rookie season. He averaged 5.3 YPC, and he was expected to be a stud in 2005. He was drafted as a top 12 RB that year, but was one of the biggest busts of the season.

It's easy to say that Bush and Jones-Drew are way better running backs than Green and Jones. But that's only because of what we've seen since the rookie years of Green and Jones. It's non-controversial to state that Bush has about a million times more talent than Willie Green did. But would you have said that after Green carried his Browns into the playoffs by rushing for 178 yards and two scores against the 9-5-1 Falcons in week 17?

Regardless, the question I want to look at today is whether rookie RBs that perform better at the end of the year play better the next season than those that hit the rookie wall.

Jones-Drew (13th best) and Reggie Bush (18th) were among the 26 rookie running backs since 1996 to total over 1,000 yards from scrimmage. The group was evenly split with respect to yards per carry average: twelve saw their YPC decrease as the season went on, twelve saw it increase, and two saw no change. When looking at fantasy points, the picture was much clearer: only seven saw their fantasy production decrease as the season went on, and only two or three of those seven were significant.

While some people like to use first and second half splits, the arbitrariness of those numbers often fails to reflect a true change in production. Instead, I like to use a weighted average formula to note progression:

Adjusted Fantasy Points =

1*(Gm 1 FP) + 2*(Gm 2 FP) + 3*(Gm 3 FP) + ... + 16*(Gm 16 FP)

        1 + 2 + 3 + ... + 16

[Note: For the purposes of this study, fantasy points were calculated by dividing a player's total yards by 10, and adding six points for each touchdown scored by the running back.]

Here's a table of all 26 RBs, with the fantasy players that improved the most during their rookie seasons at the top. The "Improve" column is simply the adjusted FPs minus the actual fantasy points. The last column shows how many FPs each player scored in their sophomore season:

Name			Year	Team	FP	adjFP	Improve	Next Year
Clinton Portis		2002	den	289.2	354.3	65.1	274.5
William Green		2002	cle	136.0	191.5	55.5	 66.9
Corey Dillon		1997	cin	198.8	241.4	42.6	160.8
Maurice Jones-Drew	2006	jax	227.7	269.1	41.4	 --
Kevin Jones		2004	det	167.3	207.9	40.6	107.3
Willis McGahee		2004	buf	207.7	247.7	40.0	172.5 
Jamal Lewis		2000	rav	202.0	241.2	39.2	 --
Dominic Rhodes		2001	clt	186.8	216.1	29.3	 --
Reggie Bush		2006	nor	178.7	207.4	28.7	 --
Anthony Thomas		2001	chi	178.1	201.3	23.2	124.4
Mike Anderson		2000	den	255.6	278.1	22.5	 96.4
Edgerrin James		1999	clt	315.9	337.2	21.3	338.3
Domanick Williams	2003	htx	186.2	207.3	21.1	261.6
Fred Taylor		1998	jax	266.4	284.5	18.1	117.5
Marcel Shipp		2002	crd	178.7	192.0	13.3	101.4
Ricky Williams		1999	nor	117.6	128.3	10.7	194.9
Eddie George		1996	oti	203.0	212.8	 9.8	186.3
Joseph Addai		2006	clt	188.6	193.9	 5.3	 --
Olandis Gary		1999	den	173.8	178.1	 4.3	  9.0
Cadillac Williams	2005	tam	161.9	160.0	-1.9	105.4
Antowain Smith		1997	buf	149.7	144.9	-4.8	161.5
Robert Edwards		1998	nwe	216.6	211.1	-5.5	 --
Karim Abdul-Jabbar	1996	mia	191.5	184.6	-6.9	211.3
Warrick Dunn		1997	tam	186.0	175.6  -10.4	149.0
Ronnie Brown		2005	mia	143.9	128.9  -15.0	158.4
LaDainian Tomlinson	2001	sdg	220.3	194.4  -25.9	307.2

Twenty of the 26 RBs played in the NFL the following season (Jones-Drew, Bush and Addai have yet to play their second seasons, while Jamal Lewis, Dominic Rhodes and Robert Edwards all suffered season-ending injuries before the next regular season). Olandis Gary tore his ACL in the season opener the next year, and Mike Anderson's role changed significantly, leaving just 18 runners to examine.

Only Portis, Dillon and Green had better improvement as rookies than Jones-Drew. None of those three matched their rookie production the next year, though, and only Portis was close. William Green was a huge bust, and Dillon played nowhere near as well as he did towards the end of 1996. Further, the next big improvers -- Kevin Jones, Willis McGahee and Anthony Thomas -- also were busts as sophomores. Only Edge, Dom (Davis) Williams and Ricky Williams were able to even match their rookie production the following year.

On the other side, Antowain Smith, Karim Abdul-Jabbar, Ronnie Brown and Tomlinson were slow finishers that improved the next season. So four of the six strong starters improved on their overall rookie production, while only three of the thirteen fast finishers improved on their overall production. While it's worth noting that all three also bested their adjusted fantasy point totals, this evidence would seem to go strongly against intuition. We shouldn't expect to see the Reggie Bush or MJD from the second half of '06, and might be lucky to just see what we got out of them last year.

I used the same formula to compute adjusted yards per carry, but used Rushing Yards in the numerator and Carries in the denominator.

Adjusted YPC =

1*(Game 1 Rush Yards) + 2*(Gm 2 RYds) + 3*(Gm 3 RYds) + ... + 16*(Gm 16 RYds)

1*(Game 1 Rushes) + 2*(Gm 2 Rsh) + 3*(Gm 3 Rsh) + ... + 16*(Gm 16 Rsh)

Here's the full list, along with their sophomore production (min: 100 carries):

Name			Year	Team	YPC	adjYPC	Improve	Next Year
Reggie Bush		2006	nor	3.65	4.13	 0.48	 --
William Green		2002	cle	3.65	4.05	 0.40	3.94
Olandis Gary		1999	den	4.20	4.56	 0.36	 --
Clinton Portis		2002	den	5.52	5.80	 0.28	5.49
Maurice Jones-Drew	2006	jax	5.67	5.92	 0.25	 --
Kevin Jones		2004	det	4.70	4.94	 0.24	3.57
Corey Dillon		1997	cin	4.85	4.98	 0.13	4.31
Willis McGahee		2004	buf	3.97	4.10	 0.13	3.84
Mike Anderson		2000	den	5.01	5.12	 0.12	3.87
Edgerrin James		1999	clt	4.21	4.32	 0.11	4.42
Robert Edwards		1998	nwe	3.83	3.91	 0.08	 --
Karim Abdul-Jabbar	1996	mia	3.64	3.70	 0.06	3.15
LaDainian Tomlinson	2001	sdg	3.65	3.65	 0.00	4.52
Dominic Rhodes		2001	clt	4.74	4.74	 0.00	 --
Joseph Addai		2006	clt	4.78	4.73	-0.05	 --
Jamal Lewis		2000	rav	4.41	4.35	-0.06	 --
Warrick Dunn		1997	tam	4.37	4.29	-0.08	4.19
Cadillac Williams	2005	tam	4.06	3.93	-0.13	3.55
Ricky Williams		1999	nor	3.49	3.35	-0.15	4.03
Domanick Williams	2003	htx	4.33	4.18	-0.15	3.93
Anthony Thomas		2001	chi	4.26	4.10	-0.16	3.37
Ronnie Brown		2005	mia	4.38	4.21	-0.17	4.18
Eddie George		1996	oti	4.08	3.88	-0.21	3.92
Marcel Shipp		2002	crd	4.44	4.19	-0.25	3.64
Fred Taylor		1998	jax	4.63	4.37	-0.26	4.60
Antowain Smith		1997	buf	4.33	3.91	-0.42	3.75

Reggie tops the list this time, as he really made great strides last year. But remember, William Green is second on that list. On the fast finishers side, of the eight RBs that played their sophomore seasons, only two of them improved. One was Green, who was still a big time bust for the Browns. The other was Edgerrin James. For the strong starters, only one out of ten -- Ricky Williams -- bested his rookie YPC average. Antowain Smith and Anthony Thomas ended the year poorly, and things never turned around for them the next season.

So what's it all mean? Will Bush or Drew be the next Edgerrin James or the next William Green? Perhaps most notably, only four of the 18 RBs -- James, Ricky Williams, Dom Williams and Tomlinson -- had better years as sophomores. Fourteen RBs totaled over 1,000 yards as rookies, were poised to breakout, but then regressed the following year. And it doesn't look like the great finishes in 2006 by Bush or Jones-Drew should make them immune from suffering similar fates.