In the last 10 NFL seasons, 13 running backs have rushed for over 1,000 yards in their first year. Given the numbers, we shouldn't expect more than two rookies to achieve that feat in any given season.
But what about this season, which follows the first draft in NFL history in which no running backs were selected in the first round? Is anyone in this crop of rookies good enough to contribute from the start?
I believe so. Below are four rookies with good odds to be lead backs in their first season as a pro.
Eddie Lacy and Johnathan Franklin, Green Bay Packers
The Packers did well to address arguably their biggest weakness on offense by drafting two running backs. Unfortunately, their success comes at the expense of both running backs they drafted, as Eddie Lacy and Johnathan Franklin must now compete with each other for playing time and touches.
Matthew Berry thinks Lacy is the front-runner, tweeting that he has one of the clearest paths to playing time among rookie running backs:
When looking at the quality of the rest of Green Bay's backfield, that statement is understandable. But you have to wonder if the sheer quantity of backs, which in addition to the two rookies includes DuJuan Harris, Alex Green and James Starks, will prevent such a thing from happening.
Ultimately, I think the Packers have seen enough of the three veterans to know they probably aren't the answer at running back, which led them to draft two backs in the first place. The two youngsters may end up with the most carries, and while Lacy is the favorite to lead the pack, I wouldn't be surprised if Franklin threatened his top spot at any point.
Montee Ball, Denver Broncos
Like Lacy and Franklin, Montee Ball is in a bit of logjam. However, also like Lacy and Franklin, he appears to be at the top of the group. Head coach John Fox has certainly been impressed, according to the NFL Network:
John Fox: "From what I've seen thus far, Montee Ball has been tremendous." #NFLTotalAccess— NFL Network (@nflnetwork) July 19, 2013
The Denver Post's Mike Klis described a favorable situation for Ball. He said Knowshon Moreno is suited to be the third-down back, but "the Broncos want Ball and [Ronnie] Hillman to get most of the carries this year."
However, I don't think either of Denver's other options have as bright of a future as Ball. In Fox's two seasons with the Broncos, Moreno has only managed to play 15 games due to injury, so I don't expect him to continue to rely on such an inconsistent option.
Hillman, meanwhile, failed to shine last year even when given the chance. In games with double-digit carries, he managed a mediocre 3.8 yards per carry.
I think Ball will be given every opportunity to be the lead back in Denver.
Le'Veon Bell, Pittsburgh Steelers
The earlier tweet from Matthew Berry already mentioned Le'Veon Bell as having one of the easiest paths to gain playing time. In fact, Bell may have the best situation of all four rookies; he doesn't have as much competition as Lacy or Franklin, and his competition isn't as strong as Ball's.
The Steelers' leading rusher from 2012, Jonathan Dwyer, is not even guaranteed a roster spot according to the Pittsburgh Post-Gazette's Ed Bouchette. Bell's toughest competitor is Isaac Redman, who ran for just 410 yards last season.
In a recent article on potential breakout teams in 2013, I wrote that Bell could be the X-factor for a Steelers team in need of a solid running game, and I still stand by that statement. A work horse in college who led FBS with 382 carries in 2012, Bell will be relied upon heavily from the start of his NFL career.
Every NFL season has its breakout performers. With a good combination of talent and opportunity, Lacy, Franklin, Ball and Bell could be those guys.