Four Years In, Ray Rice, Chris Johnson Stand Atop 2008 Running Back Class

There were 23 running backs selected in the 2008 NFL Draft. Bookended by the Oakland Raiders taking Darren McFadden at number 3 and our Baltimore Ravens selecting Allen Patrick with the 240th selection, a whole lot of rock-toting talent was packed into that draft class.

However, only four of the running backs selected have gone on to become Pro Bowl-caliber performers over their first four seasons in the NFL, and if that same draft class was made available to teams today, the order in which the players were chosen would certainly be rearranged quite a bit.

Let’s first take a look at some of the selections, where they were taken, and their numbers through the 2011 regular season.

Darren McFadden – Oakland Raiders – Round 1 Pick 3

Rushing yards: 2627

Yards per carry: 4.8

Receptions: 116

Receiving yards: 1191

Total touchdowns (rushing + receiving): 20

Total yards from scrimmage: 3818

Jonathan Stewart – Carolina Panthers – Round 1 Pick 13

Rushing yards: 3500

Yards per carry: 4.8

Receptions: 81

Receiving yards: 702

Total touchdowns (rushing + receiving): 29

Total yards from scrimmage: 4202

Felix Jones – Dallas Cowboys – Round 1 Pick 22

Rushing yards: 2326

Yards per carry: 5.1

Receptions: 102

Receiving yards: 800

Total touchdowns (rushing + receiving): 9

Total yards from scrimmage: 3126

Rashard Mendenhall – Pittsburgh Steelers – Round 1 Pick 23

Rushing yards: 3367

Yards per carry: 4.1

Receptions: 68

Receiving yards: 599

Total touchdowns (rushing + receiving): 30

Total yards from scrimmage: 3966

Chris Johnson – Tennessee Titans – Round 1 Pick 24

Rushing yards: 5645

Yards per carry: 4.8

Receptions: 194

Receiving yards: 1426

Total touchdowns (rushing + receiving): 42

Total yards from scrimmage: 7071

Matt Forte – Chicago Bears – Round 2 Pick 44

Rushing yards: 4233

Yards per carry: 4.2

Receptions: 223

Receiving yards: 1985

Total touchdowns (rushing + receiving): 29

Total yards from scrimmage: 6218

Ray Rice – Baltimore Ravens – Round 2 Pick 55

Rushing yards: 4377

Yards per carry: 4.6

Receptions: 250

Receiving yards: 2235

Total touchdowns (rushing + receiving): 29

Total yards from scrimmage: 6612

Kevin Smith – Detroit Lions – Round 3 Pick 64

Rushing yards: 2212

Yards per carry: 3.9

Receptions: 113

Receiving yards: 1003

Total touchdowns (rushing + receiving): 20

Total yards from scrimmage: 3215

Jamaal Charles – Kansas City Chiefs – Round 3 Pick 73

Rushing yards: 3027

Yards per carry: 6.1

Receptions: 117

Receiving yards: 1046

Total touchdowns (rushing + receiving): 18

Total yards from scrimmage: 4073

Tim Hightower – Arizona Cardinals – Round 5 Pick 149

Rushing yards: 2054

Yards per carry: 3.9

Receptions: 128

Receiving yards: 879

Total touchdowns (rushing + receiving): 25

Total yards from scrimmage: 2933

Johnson, Rice, Forte, and Charles are clearly the cream of the crop, and as such are the only players on that list to have been selected to a Pro Bowl.

Johnson leads the group in touchdowns, rushing yards, and total yards from scrimmage. Rice is tops in receptions, receiving yards, and is second in rushing yards and yards from scrimmage. Forte falls second in receptions and receiving yards, and third in rushing yards and total yards. Charles leads the way in yards per carry, and were it not for an injury that severely limited his 2011 season and some perplexing coaching decisions in Kansas City regarding his playing time, he would very likely be much higher in every category.

Were NFL teams drafting from this same group today, the likely order of selection would be:

1-2. Chris Johnson/Ray Rice (in some order)

3. Jamaal Charles

4. Matt Forte

This is a far cry from where they were actually taken, as the 5th, 7th, 9th, and 6th running backs selected, respectively, back in 08.

As a Ravens fan, I’d probably take Rice first, but I’m trying to be objective here. “Cop Speed,” despite his relatively quiet year, did enough over his first three seasons to warrant being in the conversation of “Class of the Class.”

At the same time, though, CJ has started since his rookie year, while Rice was used almost exclusively as the Ravens’ third-down back during the 2008 season. In his three years as a starter, Rice has averaged 1962 yards from scrimmage per season; if you extrapolate that number through four seasons as the team’s primary option, his total yards would be up in the 7800-range…far above Johnson.

In fact, since 2009, Johnson has bested Rice in total yards only once – during his 2000+ rushing yards season in ’09. Over the last two years, Rice has piled up 770 more yards than Johnson, on just 58 more touches (or 13.3 yards per additional touch).

After further review, I’d argue that, four years in, Ray Rice is the best running back to come out of the 2008 NFL Draft.

Regardless of whether you would rather have Rice or Johnson on your squad, the fact remains that the teams that took guys like Felix Jones and Rashard Mendenhall (:snicker:) over those two would certainly like a do-over.


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