Ezekiel Elliott had a standout season, but there was an additional big-time rookie runner last year. Given the situation he was in, Jordan Howard’s initial season was arguably even better.
Howard wasn’t even a starter at the beginning of the year, but once he got in, he cranked out the same kind of yardage – 96 rushing yards, on average, in the 13 games he started. And he did it behind a far inferior offensive line (and on a 3-13 team).
Both backs were remarkable, going for over 1,000 yards and averaging over 5 yards per carry. That’s hard to do. Since the merger in 1970, only 10 other backs have done it.
|STANDOUT ROOKIE RUNNERS|
|1971||John Brockington, G.B.||216||1,105||5.12||5|
|1972||• Franco Harris, Pitt.||188||1,055||5.61||11|
|1974||Don Woods, S.D.||227||1,162||5.12||10|
|1988||Ickey Woods, Cin.||203||1,066||5.25||15|
|1989||• Barry Sanders, Det.||280||1,470||5.25||14|
|2000||Mike Anderson, Den.||297||1,487||5.01||15|
|2002||• Clinton Portis, Den.||273||1,508||5.52||17|
|2007||• Adrian Peterson, Minn.||238||1,341||5.63||13|
|2010||LeGarrette Blount, T.B.||201||1,007||5.01||6|
|2014||Jeremy Hill, Cin.||222||1,124||5.06||9|
|2016||Ezekiel Elliott, Dall.||322||1,631||5.07||16|
|2016||Jordan Howard, Chi.||252||1,313||5.21||7|
Following up on such a season, of course, is difficult. Defenses will likely make them more of a target, and running backs have to stay healthy while running the gauntlet every week.
Of those 10 previous backs, four went on to be truly great players. (I’ve got them tagged in the chart – Franco, Barry, Portis and AP.) Two of the others had serviceable enough careers, but with only more more 1,000-yard season each – Mike Anderson and LeGarrette Blount.
John Brockington opened his career with three 1,000-yard seasons, then faded away. The three other backs haven’t had any more 1,000-yard seasons (with both of the Woods, injuries contributed; it’s too early to write off Jeremy Hill, but he hasn’t been nearly as good in his second and third seasons).
I’m not a big believer in the “sophomore slump”, but truth is it’s hard for any back back to match a great season, and going for 1,000 yards and averaging 5 yards per carry is notoriously tough. Of these 10 previous backs, only two ran for more yards in their second season (Portis and AP). Only two averaged more yards per carry (Sanders and Portis). And only three scored more touchdowns (Sanders, Hill, Brockington).
We’ll see how it plays out. We’re early in the process, but I expect both of these running backs will be top-5 players at their position on my board.