Illinois' Rashard Mendenhall may turn out to be an outstanding NFL running back, but if he does, he'll be bucking a lot of history.
Mendenhall is considered one of the top running backs in this year's draft, and he's pegged by some to be a mid to late first-rounder. But he'll have to overcome a somewhat accurate stigma that Big Ten backs are more trouble than they are worth.
in a season
I picked 10 years as a simple round number. But if you go back further it doesn't get any better for the Big Ten. The conference does get to add Eddie George's greatness, but that gets washed away by busts like Tim Biakabatuka and Ki-Jana Carter. Going back even further gives you epic busts like Blair Thomas, Darrell Thompson and Vaughn Dunbar.
If you're looking for a theme, most of the Big 10 busts have been power backs who have pounded their way between the tackles to big college careers. Dayne, Duckett and Enis were all among the biggest backs in their draft. They all proved unable to hit the hole quick enough to be a consistent every-down back in the NFL. The argument that the Big Ten is a slow-man's league seems to gain some credence from their struggles. Mendehall isn't nearly as big as Dayne or Duckett, but his scouting report mentions questions about his lack of breakaway speed, which should be a concern considering the league's past history.If you're scoring at home, that's five 1,000-yard seasons from 10 first and second-round Big Ten picks. That's one elite player and five busts in 10 picks at one of the positions that's supposed to be easiest to draft. The ineptness of Big 10 backs stands out even more when you compare them to the rest of the first and second-round backs.
There have been 42 other tailbacks taken in the top two rounds over the past decade. Those 42 tailbacks have piled up 69 1,000-yard seasons, with 13 of the backs having two or more 1,000-yard seasons. For the sake of this study, we'll call any back who had two or more 1,000-yard seasons elite. It's a low-bar, but it's safe to say that a team that drafts an early-round back is probably relatively happy if they get a couple of 1,000-yard seasons out of them. That doesn't include Adrian Peterson, who has only one 1,000-yard season right now, no matter how gaudy that one season was.
The elite backs from the rest of the college ranks include most of the best backs around the NFL over the past several years. It includes LaDainian Tomlinson, Jamal Lewis, Edgerrin James, Joseph Addai, Fred Taylor, Clinton Portis, Deuce McAllister, Steven Jackson, Willis McGahee, Thomas Jones and Ricky Williams.
Now there have been some other busts, of course. But among those 42 other tailbacks, there are only seven who stand out as clear busts (Trung Candidate, J.J. Arrington, J.J. Johnson, Eric Shelton, William Green, Mike Cloud and John Avery). Beyond the fact that this proves you should never trust a guy named J.J., it also shows that the conventional wisdom is true--it's usually a pretty safe bet to draft a tailback early, as long as they don't come from the Big Ten.
If you're looking for a safer bet, check out backs from the Southeastern Conference. Over the past 10 years, 13 SEC backs have been drafted in the first two rounds. They have combined for 29 1,000-yard seasons. Eight of them have at least one 1,000-yard season and six have had two or more 1,000-yard seasons. Only two of them (Johnson and Avery) were busts. While Kevin Faulk sits somewhere in between. He has never had a 1,000-yard rushing season, but he has been a valuable third-down back. The jury is still out on 2007 second-round pick Kenny Irons.
That's good news for Darren McFadden and Felix Jones--a pair of SEC backs who could be first-round picks.