5 Best Seasons by NFL Rookie Running Backs

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No matter what Ezekiel Elliott accomplishes in his NFL career, whether he plays three seasons or has a 10-year run that takes him to Canton, he’s having a rookie season for the ages. The Cowboys running back is on pace for 16 touchdowns and 2,000 yards from scrimmage, and he’s averaging almost 5 yards per carry. Only a handful of first-year running backs in the game’s history have had anywhere near that kind of statistical impact. Among the factors we considered in compiling this list were total yards and touchdowns, yards per attempt, the player’s impact on the league, importance to his team, and the team’s improvement from the previous year.

 

5. Adrian Peterson (2007)

Adrian Peterson set an NFL record for rushing yards in a game early in his rookie season.  Mike Morbeck

Adrian Peterson set an NFL record for rushing yards in a game early in his rookie season.  Mike Morbeck

Rushing Yards: 1,341
Yards per Rush: 5.6
Total Yards: 1,609
Touchdowns: 13
Bottom Line: In Peterson’s fifth NFL game he rushed for 224 yards and three touchdowns against the Bears. Just three weeks later, he rushed for an NFL record 296 yards and three touchdowns against the Chargers. He essentially established himself as the league’s most dynamic running back in his first few weeks, a status he’s held, injuries aside, until this year. That 5.6 yards per attempt as a rookie really stands out. This was a tough call here, but Peterson gets the nod over Barry Sanders (1,470 rushing yards, 5.3 average, 14 TDs) for the No. 5 spot on this list.

 

4. Clinton Portis (2002)

Clinton Portis rushed for 5.5 yards per carry as a rookie.

Clinton Portis rushed for 5.5 yards per carry as a rookie.

Rushing Yards: 1,508
Yards per Rush: 5.5
Total Yards: 1,872
Touchdowns: 17
Bottom Line: The mid-second-round pick immediately became a dominant force for the Broncos. Some critics argue that Portis owed his success to Mike Shanahan’s legendary blocking scheme, but those are still incredible stats for a rookie. The fact he went on to have a number of good seasons with the Redskins prove he was much more than just a “system back.”

 

3. Edgerrin James (1999)

The Colts improved from 3-13 the previous season to 13-3 in Edgerrin James' rookie season.

The Colts improved from 3-13 the previous season to 13-3 in Edgerrin James’ rookie season.

Rushing Yards: 1,553
Yards per Rush: 4.2
Total Yards: 2,139
Touchdowns: 17
Bottom Line: Despite the low yards per attempt, James played a vital role as the Colts improved from 3-13 the year before to 13-3 in his rookie season. Only Eric Dickerson has had more yards from scrimmage as a rookie.

 

2. Gale Sayers (1965)

Gale Sayers scored 22 touchdowns in his rookie season.

Gale Sayers scored 22 touchdowns as a rookie.

Rushing Yards: 867
Yards per Rush: 5.2
Total Yards: 1,374
Touchdowns: 22 (including two special teams TD returns)
Bottom Line: Sure, his rushing total doesn’t look that impressive by today’s standards; even prorated out to a 16-game schedule that’s still only 1,000 yards. But it’s hard to argue with 22 total touchdowns, and his explosiveness as a receiver (17.5 yards per reception on 29 catches).

 

1. Eric Dickerson (1983)

Eric Dickerson racked up more than 2,200 yards as a rookie.

Eric Dickerson racked up more than 2,200 total yards as a rookie.

Rushing Yards: 1,808
Yards per Rush: 4.6
Total Yards: 2,212
Touchdowns: 20
Bottom Line: The Rams star was even better his sophomore season (an NFL-record 2,105 yards), but his rookie year was pretty special, too. The Rams improved from a last-place team to make the playoffs in his rookie season.

 

One More: Earl Campbell (1978)

Earl Campbell led the NFL in rushing as a rookie.

Earl Campbell led the NFL in rushing as a rookie.

Rushing Yards: 1,450
Yards per Rush: 4.8
Total Yards: 1,498
Touchdowns: 13
Bottom Line: Campbell led the NFL in rushing yards as a rookie, despite the fact everyone in the stadium knew the Oilers were going to run the big back right at the heart of the defense. Yet the Oilers were still a very average offense (14th in the NFL in scoring) even with Campbell blowing through holes.

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The author is a longtime professional journalist who has interviewed everyone from presidential contenders to hall of fame athletes to rock 'n' roll legends while covering politics, sports, and other topics for both local and national publications and websites. His latest passions are history, geography and travel. He's traveled extensively around the United States seeking out the hidden wonders of the country.