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Saturday, October 20, 2007
Addai, Jones-Drew in select company

By Aaron Schatz

Last year was a good one for a number of rookie running backs, but the two best seasons probably belonged to Joseph Addai of Indianapolis and Maurice Jones-Drew of Jacksonville.

This week, the two will square off on Monday Night Football. To get an idea of where each player's career might be headed, we decided to look at their numbers using similarity scores.

Similarity scores were first introduced by Bill James to compare current baseball players to players from the past, and the idea has spread to other sports. Similarity scores play a major role in John Hollinger's NBA analysis, and we've developed our own version that we use to look at career progressions.

Similarity scores are far from perfect, of course. They compare standard statistics like yards and touchdowns, so they are subject to all kinds of biases from strength of schedule to the quality of each player's offensive line. Nevertheless, they're fun to study and do tell you some things about players.

We've projected each player's numbers for the 2007 season based on their play so far -- adding a receiving touchdown, since each guy is likely to get one eventually -- and looked at players with similar numbers over a two-year span, as well as players who enjoyed similar rookie seasons.

Joseph Addai
Year Games Runs R-Yds R-TD YPC Rec
2006 16 226 1,081 7 4.78 40
2007 15 315 1526 18 4.85 41

The most similar player to Joseph Addai over his first two seasons is Terrell Davis. His yards-per-carry-average doesn't quite match, but he is very similar otherwise.

Terrell Davis
Year Games Runs R-Yds R-TD YPC Rec
1995 14 237 1,115 7 4.71 49
1996 16 345 1538 13 4.46 36

Earl Campbell's stats in 1979 are similar to the projection for Addai over the rest of 2007, but he ran a lot more than Addai as a rookie -- and, of course, the two players are completely different in terms of size and style.

One player does come out somewhat similar if you compare his second and third seasons to Addai's first two -- Barry Sanders. Sanders was actually younger than Addai, even though he had more experience:

Barry Sanders
Year Games Runs R-Yds R-TD YPC Rec
1990 16 255 1,304 13 5.11 36
1991 15 342 1,548 16 4.53 41

Other players who came out mildly similar: Willie Parker (2005-2006), Curt Warner (1985-1986), Fred Taylor (1999-2000), and Ottis Anderson (1979-1980).

If you only look at Addai's rookie season, the best comparison is not one Colts fans would get excited about. Kevin Mack averaged nearly five yards per carry for the 1985 Browns, but struggled with injuries the rest of his career and only had one other season above five yards per carry. Addai's old partner Dominic Rhodes also appears on the list of most similar rookie seasons, and considering they played in the same offense, that's not a coincidence.

Impressive Rookies
Player Year Team Games Runs R-Yds R-TD YPC Rec
Joseph Addai 2006 IND 16 226 1,081 7 4.78 40
Kevin Mack 1985 CLE 16 222 1,104 7 4.97 29
Terrell Davis 1995 DEN 14 237 1,117 7 4.71 49
Corey Dillon 1997 CIN 16 233 1,129 10 4.85 27
Terry Miller 1978 BUF 16 238 1,060 7 4.45 22
Dominic Rhodes 2001 IND 15 233 1,104 9 4.74 34

Finding players similar to Maurice Jones-Drew is extremely difficult, because he's had such a unique start to his career. Not many rookies average 5.67 yards per carry, but are unable to win a starting job. Jones-Drew is also one of only 11 players since 1978 to score double-digit touchdowns with fewer than 200 carries.

Maurice Jones-Drew
Year Games Runs R-Yds R-TD YPC Rec
2006 16 166 941 13 5.67 46
2007 16 173 982 10 5.69 42

Similarity scores work by starting at 1000 and subtracting the differences between players, and 52 different backs have a similarity score of 700 or more when compared to Addai's 2006 and projected 2007. Only five are that high when compared to Jones-Drew. The closest is Barry Sanders in 1989-1990, but he's not that close -- Sanders had 280 carries as a rookie, compared to just 166 for Jones-Drew.

One player does end up somewhat similar to Jones-Drew, if we look only at their rookie seasons: Ickey Woods, with the 1988 AFC champion Bengals. Woods, of course, was injured the next season and only played 21 more games the rest of his career. Here are Woods and two other players who are at least in the same ballpark as Jones-Drew:

Running Comparison
Name Year Team Games Runs R-Yds R-TD YPC
Maurice Jones-Drew 2006 JAC 16 166 941 13 5.67
Ickey Woods 1988 CIN 16 203 1,066 15 5.25
Clinton Portis 2002 DEN 16 273 1,508 15 5.52
Ricky Watters 1992 SF 14 206 1,013 9 4.92

One way to see how unique Jones-Drew is would be to run the similarity scores without considering age or career experience. When we do this, five of the top six seasons belong to two players: Former Bengal James Brooks and Former Cardinal Stump Mitchell. Both players averaged 180-200 carries per season, but gained more than five yards per carry, and both players were extremely active in the passing game. A sample year for each:

Running Comparison-2
Name Year Team Games Runs R-Yds R-TD YPC
Maurice Jones-Drew 2006 JAC 16 166 941 13 5.67
Stump Mitchell 1985 STL 16 183 1,006 7 5.50
James Brooks 1989 CIN 16 221 1,239 7 5.61

Just like Jones-Drew, both Brooks and Mitchell were seen as committee backs who couldn't necessarily handle a larger workload. Neither one ever had over 221 carries in a season. The difference is Jones-Drew was putting up numbers as a rookie that match what Mitchell and Brooks did in the prime of their careers, and he found the end zone nearly twice as often.

Note: The specifics of our similarity scores system are found here. It's important to note that we don't start looking for similar players until 1978, the year the 16-game season began and passing rules were liberalized.

Aaron Schatz is president of Football Outsiders, Inc. and the lead author of Pro Football Prospectus 2007 and 2008.