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I listened to the CBS Fantasy Football Today Podcast a couple of times last week, and this was the first time that I had taken the occasion to do so in about a year. On the show, a debate opened up about Joseph Randle, who seems to have become somewhat of a polarizing figure this preseason. I don’t recall the exact nature of the debate, but it concerned Randle’s overall potential for this season.

The debate was somewhat ended (since I have only listened to the podcast once since then, the topic may have come up again and I’m not aware of it) when Heath Cummings (this isn’t the exact language but it’s approximate) argued that there haven’t been many running backs that have turned out to be successful after having less than 100 carries in each of their first two seasons.

Intuitively, the narrative makes sense. If a running back was actually talented, they would have been good enough to get at least 100 carries in one of their first two seasons: not a very high bar to cross. However, I heard that and thought, “Do we really know that?”

The basic question is, are there running backs who turned out to be successful after barely playing in each of their first two seasons?

If we can answer this question, it not only informs us about the possibilities for Joseph Randle, but it tells us about the upside for any other running back who is asked to be a contributor after seeing limited action at the start of their career.

 

Let’s Get to The Bottom of This

To solve our question above, I looked at all running backs since 1998 who had less than 100 carries in each of their first two seasons. My data only goes back to 1989, so if a player started their career before 1989 and played until 1998, their first season would be before the first year of our data; however, to my knowledge, I don’t know of any running backs who played in 1998 and started their careers before 1989, so we should be safe.

Once I had this list of players, I looked at the best Fantasy seasons for this group of players (i.e. the running backs who barely played their first two seasons), which you can find below. The list contains the Top 100 Fantasy seasons for players of this group.

If Heath is right, especially since our population is relatively small and only goes back to 1998, we shouldn’t recognize any of the names at the top of this list; they should be players that are irrelevant and never produced at a meaningful level.

PlayerYearAgeTmFantPt
Ahman Green200326GNB338
Jamal Anderson199826ATL309.5
Michael Turner200826ATL273
Garrison Hearst199827SFO262.5
Ahman Green200124GNB259.1
Ahman Green200023GNB245.4
Robert Smith200028MIN242.9
Peyton Hillis201024CLE235.9
Lamar Smith200030MIA227
Rudi Johnson200526CIN225.8
LaMont Jordan200527OAK224.8
Rudi Johnson200425CIN221.8
Dorsey Levens199929GNB215.7
Michael Turner201028ATL215.6
Michael Turner201129ATL213.8
Ahman Green200225GNB213.3
Rudi Johnson200627CIN209.3
Brandon Jacobs200826NYG199.5
Ahmad Bradshaw201024NYG197.9
Robert Smith199826MIN194.8
Reuben Droughns200426DEN191.1
Ahman Green200427GNB189.6
BenJarvus Green-Ellis201025NWE187.3
Michael Pittman200429TAM185.7
Moe Williams200329MIN184.9
Garrison Hearst200130SFO184.3
Ladell Betts200627WAS183.9
Chester Taylor200627MIN181.4
Earnest Graham200727TAM181.2
Garrison Hearst200231SFO180.9
Ahman Green200629GNB175.2
Adrian Murrell199828ARI175.1
Jamal Anderson200028ATL172.6
Joique Bell201428DET166.2
Reuben Droughns200527CLE166.1
Rudi Johnson200324CIN164.3
Joique Bell201327DET163.7
Nick Goings200426CAR162.5
Lamar Smith200131MIA162.2
Stacey Mack200126JAX161.2
Michael Pittman200025ARI160.8
Ahmad Bradshaw201125NYG159.6
Mike Tolbert201025SDG158.1
Michael Turner201230ATL156.8
Ahmad Bradshaw201226NYG156
James Allen200025CHI154.1
BenJarvus Green-Ellis201227CIN151.8
Derrick Ward200828NYG150.9
Mike Tolbert201126SDG150.3
Chester Taylor200728MIN149.5
Tony Richardson200029KAN149.5
Brandon Jacobs200725NYG149.3
BenJarvus Green-Ellis201126NWE148.6
Jerome Harrison200926CLE148.2
Michael Turner200927ATL146.6
Michael Pittman200328TAM142.8
Darren Sproles201229NOR141.1
Justin Fargas200727OAK140.7
Brandon Jacobs201028NYG140.2
Gary Brown199829NYG138.9
Rashad Jennings201328OAK138.5
Ahmad Bradshaw200923NYG137.5
Michael Pittman200126ARI136
Brandon Jacobs200927NYG135.9
Derrick Blaylock200425KAN132.5
Amos Zereoue200226PIT132.3
Moe Williams200228MIN131.5
Lamar Smith200232CAR130.4
Leroy Hoard199931MIN130.1
Sammy Morris200831NWE129.8
Robert Smith199927MIN129.1
Danny Woodhead2010252TM127.6
Brandon Jackson201025GNB127.5
Richard Huntley199927PIT127
Leroy Hoard199830MIN126.7
Tim Biakabutuka199925CAR123.7
Michael Pittman200227TAM122.5
Garrison Hearst200332SFO119.9
Chester Taylor200829MIN118
Brandon Jacobs201129NYG116.9
Tim Biakabutuka200026CAR116.8
Ahmad Bradshaw201428IND116.5
BenJarvus Green-Ellis201328CIN115.8
Jason Snelling200926ATL115.2
Donnell Bennett199927KAN113.8
Shane Vereen201425NWE113.8
Maurice Morris200728SEA113.1
Adrian Peterson2200728CHI112.4
Reuben Droughns200628CLE111.7
Najeh Davenport200728PIT109.3
Brandon Jacobs200624NYG109.2
Richie Anderson200332DAL108.9
Rashad Jennings201429NYG108.5
Amp Lee199827STL107.2
Terrell Fletcher199825SDG107
Darren Sproles201431PHI105.6
Stacey Mack200227JAX105.5
Joique Bell201226DET103.9
Richie Anderson200029NYJ103.6
Chester Taylor200425BAL100.8

Wow.

Not only do we recognize a lot of the names on this list, but we can also see a lot of quality players in this group.

We now know that it is possible for a running back to turn into a good player after seeing limited carries in their first two years, but we have also learned that it’s somewhat common for it to happen. It amazes me how often players come out of nowhere to have productive careers; C.J. Anderson was an undrafted free agent and is now a first or second round pick in most Fantasy drafts this year; Cameron Wake was cut by the Giants, out of football, and in the CFL, and still turned into one of the best edge defenders in the NFL at age 27. Our ability to predict the future performance of NFL players is poor, and the more we realize this, the better we will become at our forecasts.

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