The 2014 Rookie Running Back Class: Who Is the Best?

Who has been the best rookie running back this season? Isaiah Crowell? Jeremy Hill?

There is no denying that 2014’s rookie wide receiver class has been astonishingly great. From the big guys - Mike Evans, and Kelvin Benjamin - to the smaller wideouts such as Odell Beckham, Jr. and John Brown, this is probably the best wide receiver class of all-time.

From top to bottom and with freak athlete gems like Donte Moncrief and Allen Robinson sprinkled in, there is a chance for a bunch of these rookies to become absolute superstars in the NFL.

But what about the running back class? Due to the de-valuation and replaceability of the position, rookie running backs are being used more than ever. This year’s class is currently on pace to handle 1,911 carries over the course of the 2014 season. That would be more than the rookie class of 2013 (1,679 total carries), come close to the class of 2012 (1,919), and would obliterate the 2011 class (1,219).

The running back position has become a “use, rinse, repeat” structure in the NFL, and the majority of teams employ a running back by committee approach. Teams have gameplan-, situation-, or team-specific running backs at their disposal. With this in mind - are there any stud running backs in this years class? How do some of these rookies stack-up? Are there any “work horse” backs in this years crop like Dallas’ DeMarco Murray or Chicago’s Matt Forte?

Rookies: Cream of The Crop?

Unfortunately, this year’s rookie running back class isn’t as loaded up top as the wide receiver class. Without Jeremy Hill looking like the best Cincinnati running back, Isaiah Crowell nudging Ben Tate out of Cleveland, and Tre Mason rendering Zac Stacy obsolete in St. Louis, this years class has been in many ways, uninspiring.

Here are the 18 rookie running backs who have at least 20 carries on the season sorted by relative Rushing Net Expected Points (NEP) and Success Rate. NEP measures a player’s productivity above or below expectation, and Success Rate indicates the percentage of carries that add positively to a team’s expected point outcome.

NameRushesYardsYPCTDsRush NEPSuccess Rate
Jeremy Hill1446834.768.8347.92%
Juwan Thompson451934.337.9060.00%
Isaiah Crowell1084754.470.8346.30%
Ka'Deem Carey361544.400.4541.67%
Jerick McKinnon1135384.80-0.8239.82%
Storm Johnson20643.22-1.2735.00%
Lorenzo Taliaferro612474.34-2.1744.26%
Tre Mason1225694.73-5.7333.61%
Damien Williams311003.20-6.1735.48%
Terrance West1335023.83-6.6438.35%
Darrin Reaves32772.40-7.0521.88%
Bishop Sankey1234803.92-8.4539.02%
Carlos Hyde752743.74-9.0842.67%
Charles Sims32872.70-9.8131.25%
Alfred Blue1284353.40-11.0635.16%
Andre Williams1333922.95-14.3735.34%
Branden Oliver1184303.72-14.8434.75%
Devonta Freeman481893.90-16.6925.00%

And here are what those same 18 rookie running backs have provided in the passing game this season sorted by Reception NEP.

NameRecYardsTDsRec NEPTargetsTarget NEP
Branden Oliver27195110.56327.30
Damien Williams119909.87138.60
Devonta Freeman2215517.85270.13
Jeremy Hill2118007.55245.35
Alfred Blue97617.16125.79
Tre Mason1211216.44183.32
Charles Sims118506.00140.43
Andre Williams118605.4824-2.30
Bishop Sankey1410405.29174.03
Lorenzo Taliaferro79403.5892.03
Isaiah Crowell66102.94100.41
Terrance West95212.29101.60
Darrin Reaves53101.9880.85
Jerick McKinnon2713501.6841-12.11
Ka'Deem Carey21800.733-0.04
Carlos Hyde11600-0.4315-2.89
Juwan Thompson3110-1.104-1.72
Storm Johnson1-40-1.511-1.51

In fairness, some of the rookies have flashed this year. Freak-athlete Jerick McKinnon has certainly looked the part with his touches and could easily be the most talented back in this years assortment. Despite not having scored a touchdown this season, his 4.8 yards per carry is the best of the bunch.

The Chargers also found a solid replacement - Branden Oliver - during the middle of the season when Ryan Mathews went down with a knee injury. Oliver was a fantasy waiver wire gem in Weeks 5 and 6, posting back-to-back 100-yard rushing performances against the Jets and the Raiders. With Mathews back, Oliver has been relegated to a change-of-pace, passing-down role and is probably not a future every-down NFL back.

Big-man Terrance West has had some solid run this season in his spot-starts and complementary role to fellow-rookie Isaiah Crowell. He’s produced when given opportunity but isn’t a huge asset in the passing game and doesn’t have the best lateral agility in the world.

Devonta Freeman was drafted in the fourth round out of Florida State and has proven to be a solid contributor in the passing game but has been a major liability running the ball for Atlanta. Freeman has the rookie class’ worst Rushing NEP overall of -16.69. He may get his shot to be the “guy” in 2015, but his outlook is a bit murky due to the utter lack of success he has had running the ball this year behind one of the worst offensive lines in football.

Outside of the aforementioned names, the rest of the class just hasn’t been that great. Andre Williams flashed in the preseason, but he has a paltry 2.9 yards per carry and continually runs into the backs of his offensive linemen when given a chance. That’s why he has a dreadful Rushing NEP per carry of -0.11.

Charles Sims missed nearly two-thirds with ankle injury of the season and hasn’t had anywhere to run in his limited opportunities behind a terrible offensive line in Tampa. And, Alfred Blue has gotten a few spot starts when Arian Foster misses time but hasn’t proven he’s anything special.

The Disappointing Young Backs

The two biggest frustrations this season have unequivocally been Bishop Sankey and Carlos Hyde. Despite being the first (Sankey) and third (Hyde) running backs off of the board and being drafted inside of the top-60 overall picks, both have severely under-performed given their offseason hype.

Carlos Hyde has just been straight-up disappointing this season. He was likely drafted to be the aging Frank Gore’s replacement but has not been consistent enough to label him as a sure-thing starting option. His Rushing NEP of -9.08 is sixth worse in this class - but the 49ers offensive line has not been playing as well as they have in recent past.

Bishop Sankey has probably been the most mystifying of the rookie running backs this season. I think, in a way, Sankey deserves a pass because of his head coach, Ken Whisenhunt. Whiz is likely the least imaginative head coach in the NFL and has routinely given Shonn Greene more work when he is healthy. He’s given Dexter McCluster more snaps in four out of 13 weeks - which makes zero sense in any stretch of the imagination.

Despite the situation, offense, and poor coaching, Sankey hasn’t been excellent but has certainly shown flashes of his ability. After sorting out his “footwork issues” early in the season, Sankey should not be written off. Ken Whisenhunt will likely be fired at some point, and maybe the Titans will give Sankey a long, well-deserved look next year.

Any Hope For This Year’s Running Back Class?

Unless Hyde and Sankey make a second-year leap, there is a decent chance the only viable starting NFL running backs in 2014’s class are Jerick McKinnon, Isaiah Crowell, Tre Mason, and Jeremy Hill.

McKinnon, Mason, and Crowell probably present the most long-term upside given their relative athleticism and skill-set, but Jeremy Hill has been without question the most stable rookie back this year. He’s been the better running back in Cincinnati and while the Bengals drew some ire for drafting Hill, they have been proven correct. Gio Bernard is likely not an every-down back, and Hill has a drive-sustaining skill-set, good lateral agility, and rock solid hands out of the backfield.

Even though there aren’t any “superstars” in this years running back class like the 2007 class that boasted Adrian Peterson and Marshawn Lynch, some of these young guys have produced when given opportunity. It hasn’t been an awesome bunch - but it definitely hasn’t been horrible, either.