Thirteen running backs had been taken in the top 10 of the NFL Draft since 2000. That number is now up to fifteen after former LSU star Leonard Fournette and Stanford standout Christian McCaffrey were selected 4th and 8th respectively by the Jaguars and Panthers.
The success of first round running backs taken in the top 10 has been spotty, and there is usually a link between a player’s situation (e.g. the strength of their quarterback, offensive line, etc.) and their NFL success. And with that in mind, I’ll explain why it’s more likely that McCaffrey has a more successful career–at least in the short and medium term–than Fournette.
First, let’s look at the thirteen running backs taken previously in the top 10:
- 2016, 4th overall: Ezekiel Elliott, Dallas
- 2015, 10th overall: Todd Gurley, St. Louis (now Los Angeles)
- 2012, 3rd overall: Trent Richardson, Cleveland
- 2010, 9th overall: C.J. Spiller, Buffalo
- 2008, 4th overall: Darren McFadden, Oakland
- 2007, 7th overall: Adrian Peterson, Minnesota
- 2006, 2nd overall: Reggie Bush, New Orleans
- 2005, 2nd overall: Ronnie Brown, Miami
- 2005, 4th overall: Cedric Benson, Chicago
- 2005, 5th overall: Cadillac Williams, Tampa Bay
- 2001, 5th overall: LaDainian Tomlinson, San Diego
- 2000, 5th overall: Jamal Lewis, Baltimore
- 2000, 7th overall: Thomas Jones, Kansas City
There’s a broad range of talent here, so let’s break it down. On the high end of the spectrum, there are two Hall of Famers: LaDainian Tomlinson and Adrian Peterson (likely). Then there are six other Pro Bowlers: Elliott, Gurley, Spiller, Brown, Lewis, and Jones. That leaves five other backs–Richardson, McFadden, Bush, Benson, and Williams–in the “non-Pro Bowl” category. Richardson is the only surefire bust of that group. But while I wouldn’t necessarily call McFadden, Bush, Benson, or Williams busts, they certainly didn’t live up to the hype given their terrific college careers and expectations entering the NFL.
Moreover, I’d be remiss to mention that even some of the guys that have made at least one Pro Bowl aren’t exactly the greatest success stories. Thomas Jones flamed out for the team that drafted him before finding success later in his career. Meanwhile, Ronnie Brown and C.J. Spiller made just one Pro Bowl appearance each and had a relatively short period of success. The book is also still out on Todd Gurley after he regressed mightily in his second season after a Pro Bowl rookie campaign. However, in fairness to Gurley, he didn’t have any help around him. The Rams had easily the worst passing offense in football last season and a poor offensive line that ranked 29th in both run and pass-blocking.
With Gurley’s situation in mind, I think the difference between many of these top 10 picks succeeding or disappointing largely comes down to their respective environments upon entering the league. Take Elliott, because he’s the most recent example of a top 10 running back that has thrived thus far in the NFL. ‘Zeke is great, no doubt. You could tell he would he would be a good NFL player after he did this in the College Football Playoff back in 2015. But he also lucked into running behind arguably the best offensive line in football that boasts multiple Pro Bowlers in Zack Martin, Travis Frederick, and Tyron Smith. Gurley, on the other hand, has been stuck with a poor line and awful quarterbacks.
Other recent disappointments had similar circumstances as Gurley. In Darren McFadden’s time in Oakland from 2008-14, the Raiders’ average ranking in run-blocking was 23rd. It surely didn’t help that JaMarcus Russell was the team’s starting quarterback for McFadden’s first two seasons, either. As for the three backs drafted in the top five in 2005–Brown, Benson, and Williams–all three also played behind middling offensive lines and had quarterbacks that, at best, were merely competent like Chad Pennington and Jeff Garcia.
To be clear, this isn’t to excuse someone like, say, Cedric Benson, from having a poor stint with his first team. However, it is revealing that a player as disappointing as Benson was for his first three years of his career could produce three consecutive 1,000+ yard seasons in Cincinnati alongside quality offensive players like Carson Palmer and Chad Johnson. And even when you look at Hall of Fame backs like Tomlinson and Peterson who were responsible for much of their own success, it can’t be disregarded entirely that they benefitted from having respectable offensive lines and, especially in Tomlinson’s case, good quarterbacks like Drew Brees and Phillip Rivers.
Referring back to the two backs taken in the top 10 of this year’s draft, it’s clear that McCaffrey has the far more ideal situation than Fournette. It’s not necessarily because McCaffrey’s situation is great. The Panthers’ offense is coming off a down season in which they only averaged 5.2 yards per play (22nd in NFL) and ranked 25th in run-blocking. But he’ll still be playing alongside the 2015 NFL MVP in Cam Newton. Plus, Carolina undoubtedly has their fair share of weapons with the likes of Kelvin Benjamin and Greg Olsen, not to mention a Super Bowl-caliber defense (when healthy). And if their offensive line can return to their form from two years ago, McCaffrey will certainly find himself on the short-list of Offensive Rookie of the Year candidates.
Fournette doesn’t have nearly the same help around him. The Jaguars have a lackluster offensive line and they have done little to improve it this offseason. For a back that has been praised leading up to the draft for his power but knocked for his inability to create space against comparably-sized defenders, Fournette may experience some serious growing pains while dodging defensive lineman in his first season in the NFL. Moreover, it doesn’t help that Blake Bortles has yet to find his way as a pro. With reports surfacing last year that he is a “basket case” and had lost the locker room, new GM Tom Coughlin was reportedly even flirting with the idea of drafting a quarterback with the number four pick in order to pave the way for Bortles’ exit after next season. But since Bortles is still Jacksonville’s projected starter heading into next season, that’s one less reason to think that Fournette is poised to emulate last year’s number four pick, Ezekiel Elliott.
Simply put, Fournette is clearly entering the same situation as other recent top 10 backs who struggled to live up to their pre-draft hype. McCaffrey’s environment, on the other hand, is conducive to success. Given their respective positions, I have no problem going so far as to say that McCaffrey will have more success than Fournette in the NFL. Yet since it’s oftentimes pointless to make such long-term prognostications immediately after that draft, I’ll predict that next season McCaffrey will total over 1,400 rushing and receiving yards while the latter will struggle to average more than 4.0 yards per carry.