Editor's note: This is Part 2 of a two-segment look at the best running back draft classes of all time. For Part 1, click here.
This season seems like a great one for rookie running backs. Some of them, like Darren McFadden and Matt Forte, are probably going to start in their first seasons. Others, like Rashard Mendenhall and Chris Johnson, will be part of a committee with a more veteran back. With all this talent, does 2008 stand a chance of eventually ranking as the greatest running back draft class in history?
In Part I, we looked at one aspect of that question: listing the best draft classes in their rookie seasons. In Part II, we'll look at the running back classes that produced the most value over their careers. The method I used to tally the value of each class is described a bit in Part I. It is based on the numbers from the essay "Greatest Running Back Seasons of All Time" from Pro Football Prospectus 2007, and it attempts to normalize numbers to adjust for changes in running back usage over the course of NFL history.
Here is the resulting list of the top running back draft classes in modern NFL history, since the AFL and NFL merged drafts in 1967:
5. 1989: Barry Sanders, who had six of the top 100 seasons in the PFP 2007 article, pretty much puts this class in the top five by himself. His classmates included Marion Butts, Bobby Humphrey and Dave Meggett.
4. 1995: Third-rounder Curtis Martin will make the Hall of Fame, while sixth-rounder Terrell Davis might join him. Tyrone Wheatley, James Stewart and Napoleon Kaufman also had good careers, but this class would be higher if top overall pick Ki-Jana Carter had not been derailed by injury.
3. 1988: Another class where lower-round picks did better than the first-rounders. The first couple of backs, Gaston Green and John Stephens, washed out early, but second-round pick Thurman Thomas is in the Hall of Fame and Lorenzo White and Craig Heyward had good careers. This draft also produced an excellent fullback, Brad Muster of the Bears, and an underrated situational back, Robert Delpino of the Rams. This draft year would rank higher if we counted Ickey Woods' charisma as more important than his career longevity.
2. 1969: Eighth-overall pick Larry Smith was a disappointment, but otherwise this draft is pure gold. O.J. Simpson went No. 1 overall, and other first-rounders included Ron Johnson and Calvin Hill. Miami got Mercury Morris in the third round, Washington got Larry Brown in the eighth round and Pittsburgh got "Frenchy" Fuqua in the 11th round. Also in this draft: Dave Hampton, who famously became Atlanta's first-ever 1,000-yard rusher. He then lost that distinction by losing five yards on his final carry of the season.
1. 1994: Only two running backs went in the first round, Marshall Faulk and Greg Hill. Yet this draft also produced valuable players like Charlie Garner, Jamal Anderson, Bam Morris, Dorsey Levens and William Floyd. Even the guys who weren't that good, like Lamar Smith, managed to stick around a long time.
Honorable mention: 1986 (Neal Anderson, Keith Byars, Bo Jackson); 1997 (Tiki Barber, Corey Dillon, Warrick Dunn); 1972 (Franco Harris, Lawrence McCutcheon).
And the worst . . . .
1987: Seven running backs were chosen in the first round of this draft. Not one had a single season with at least 1,000 rushing yards. In fact, only two of the seven -- Brent Fullwood (Green Bay, fourth overall) and Rod Bernstine (San Diego, 25th overall) managed to rush for 1,500 yards over their entire careers. The rest of the first round featured flops like Alonzo Highsmith and D.J. Dozier. Christian Okoye went in the second round of this draft, but the other two second-rounders, Kenny Flowers of Atlanta and Don Smith of Tampa Bay, combined for a career total of 250 rushing yards.
Other than Okoye and Merril Hoge, the only other back from this draft with a reasonable career was Bo Jackson. Jackson probably should count more for the 1986 draft (when Tampa Bay took him first overall) than the 1987 draft, when the Raiders used a seventh-round pick to gamble on talking him into making football his "hobby."
Here's hoping the class of 2008 will end up looking nothing like the class of 1987.
Aaron Schatz is president of Football Outsiders Inc. and the lead author of Pro Football Prospectus 2008, now on sale online and in bookstores everywhere.