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How valuable is Reggie Bush?

Posted by Doug on March 23, 2006

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.