It’s often said that productive NFL running backs are a dime a dozen – you can find a quality one pretty much anywhere in the draft and you don’t need to risk your first-round pick on one. With that being said, some teams ignore that fact and take the risk regardless of the consequences.
Sometimes it pays off. Just look at Marshall Faulk, Jerome Bettis, Emmitt Smith, Tony Dorsett, Barry Sanders, Eric Dickerson, Earl Campbell, Marcus Allen, Walter Payton, and O.J. Simpson – all of whom are Hall of Fame NFL running backs taken in the first round.
That’s not to mention some of the other top NFL running backs taken in the first round – including LaDainian Tomlinson, Adrian Peterson, Marshawn Lynch, Jamal Lewis, Steven Jackson, Shaun Alexander, Chis Johnson, Mark Ingram, Deuce McAllister, and more.
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Which NFL Running Backs Didn’t Pan Out?
On the other end of the spectrum, you have the NFL running backs that entered the league with high expectations, yet never lived up to them. Most of these running backs were taken in the first round of the NFL Draft and were coming off incredible careers at the collegiate level.
Some of them only lasted a few years in the league, while some of them stuck around for a while. Either way, their production never quite lived up to the hype and it resulted in a lot of disappointment among coaches, teammates, fans, front office members, and much more.
A running back that flops can set a team back several years – especially when you consider who else was available on the draft board. At the end of the day, you have to be 100% certain that NFL running backs are ready for the challenge before taking them in the first round.
20. Reggie Bush
Drafted: Round 1, Pick 2 (2006)
Years Active: 2006-2016 (11 seasons)
Teams: New Orleans Saints, Detroit Lions, Miami Dolphins, San Francisco 49ers, Buffalo Bills
Some people might be surprised to see Reggie Bush on this list. He was in the league for 11 years, had over 5,000 rushing yards, 36 rushing touchdowns, and a career 4.3 yards per attempt. If he were drafted in the third round, that would be a fine career for a running back.
Unfortunately, Bush wasn’t a third round draft pick – he was drafted second overall. As a former Heisman winner and someone who was supposed to be the next all-time great, Bush never lived up to that hype. Instead, he flopped and only turned out a couple of good seasons.
19. Rashaan Salaam
Drafted: Round 1, Pick 21 (1995)
Years Active: 1995-1999 (4 seasons)
Teams: Chicago Bears, Cleveland Browns
The Chicago Bears drafted Rashaan Salaam with the 21st overall pick and it looked like it was going to be a home run for the team. He finished his rookie season with 296 rushes, 1,074 rushing yards and 10 rushing touchdowns in just 11 starts – he played in all 16 games.
His second season wasn’t as impressive, unfortunately. He played in just 12 games and started six of them, recording 496 rushing yards and three rushing touchdowns. The decline continued and he only ran for 114 yards over the next two years. He only lasted four seasons in the NFL.
18. Tommy Vardell
Drafted: Round 1, Pick 9 (1992)
Years Active: 1992-1999 (8 seasons)
Teams: Cleveland Browns, Detroit Lions, San Francisco 49ers
Tommy Vardell was a top-ten draft pick of the Cleveland Browns in 1992. At the collegiate level, he earned the nickname ‘Touchdown Tommy’ because he had a knack for getting in the end zone. The Browns were hoping he’d live up to that nickname in the big leagues, but he didn’t.
In his first four seasons with the Browns, he ran for 1,070 yards and scored three touchdowns. He started to see some opportunities with the 49ers and Lions over the next three seasons, scoring 15 touchdowns. After one more season with the 49ers, he was out of the league.
17. Sammie Smith
Drafted: Round 1, Pick 9 (1989)
Years Active: 1989-1992 (4 seasons)
Teams: Miami Dolphins, Denver Broncos
Speaking of NFL running backs that flopped after being drafted ninth overall, Sammie Smith was expected to dominate the big leagues when the Miami Dolphins took him out of Florida State. He looked good in his first two seasons, rushing for 1,490 yards and 14 touchdowns.
His third season in Miami didn’t go as planned, only recording 297 yards and 1 touchdown in 12 games. He tried to reinvent himself with the Denver Broncos the following season, but only played in three games and rushed for 94 yards. That was his final season in the league.
16. William Green
Drafted: Round 1, Pick 16 (2002)
Years Active: 2002-2005 (4 seasons)
Teams: Cleveland Browns
The Cleveland Browns, who have never been good at drafting players and evaluating talent, drafted William Green with the 16th overall pick in 2002. It wasn’t a bad choice at the time, but it’s a choice that didn’t age well for Cleveland. In fact, Green only lasted four years in the NFL.
His rookie year was good, putting up 887 yards on the ground, another 113 yards receiving, and six rushing touchdowns in 16 games (10 starts). After rushing for 1,144 yards and three touchdowns over the next two years, Green played just eight games in his final NFL season.
15. Darren McFadden
Drafted: Round 1, Pick 4 (2008)
Years Active: 2008-2017 (10 seasons)
Teams: Oakland Raiders, Dallas Cowboys
Darren McFadden is a similar case as Reggie Bush. McFadden spent 10 years in the league, ran for over 5,000 yards over his career, added another 2,000+ yards receiving, and scored 33 total touchdowns in 103 games. He’s not on this list because he had a terrible NFL career.
He is, however, on this list because he was drafted fourth overall in 2008 out of Arkansas and was expected to be an all-time great – at least that’s what the Oakland Raiders throat. He ran for over 1,000 yards twice, but never materialized into that dominant back we were hoping for.
14. Chris Perry
Drafted: Round 1, Pick 26 (2004)
Years Active: 2004-2007 (4 seasons)
Teams: Cincinnati Bengals
Chris Perry was drafted near the bottom of the first round, going to the Cincinnati Bengals with the 26th overall pick in 2004. He played just two games his rookie season, rushing twice for just one yard. He started to see opportunity the following season, playing in 14 games (two starts).
Unfortunately, he only rushed for 279 yards that season – though he added 328 yards and two touchdowns receiving. Another down year followed, but he started to make a comeback in 2007 (269 yards, 2 touchdowns). It wasn’t enough and he hasn’t played a down in the NFL since.
13. D.J. Dozier
Drafted: Round 1, Pick 14 (1987)
Years Active: 1987-1991 (5 seasons)
Teams: Minnesota Vikings, Detroit Lions
D.J. Dozier was the Minnesota Vikings’ 14th overall draft pick in 1987 and, boy, were they excited to have him on board. That excitement didn’t last very long as he only recorded 257 yards on 69 rush attempts his rookie season. He did, however, score seven total touchdowns.
He started to decline in his second season, rushing for just 167 yards and two touchdowns. The next two seasons were even worse, combining for just 219 yards and zero touchdowns. He tried to make a comeback with Detroit in 1991, but only had 51 total yards in six games.
12. Cedric Benson
Drafted: Round 1, Pick 4 (2005)
Years Active: 2005-2012 (8 seasons)
Teams: Cincinnati Bengals, Chicago Bears, Green Bay Packers
2005 was a rough year for incoming NFL running backs. Three running backs were taken in the top-five, one of which being Cedric Benson to the Chicago Bears at fourth overall. Like Bush and McFadden, he didn’t have that bad of a career – but not one worthy of going fourth overall.
His rookie season was derailed due to injuries, but he had at least 647 yards over the next three seasons – including 12 total touchdowns. He had another impressive three-year stretch, rushing for at least 1,067 yards and six touchdowns each season, before hanging them up in 2012.
11. Ronnie Brown
Drafted: Round 1, Pick 2 (2005)
Years Active: 2005-2014 (10 seasons)
Teams: Miami Dolphins, San Diego Chargers, Philadelphia Eagles, Houston Texans
Remember when we said there were three NFL running backs taken in the top-five in 2005? Ronnie Brown was taken second overall that year, just two spots ahead of Cedric Benson. His career turned out similar – not terrible, but definitely not worthy of the second overall pick.
Brown had a productive six seasons with the Miami Dolphins, rushing for 4,815 yards and 36 touchdowns over that span. Unfortunately, his success ended there and he only recorded 576 yards and two touchdowns over the next four seasons – he played for three teams in that span.
10. Cadillac Williams
Drafted: Round 1, Pick 5 (2005)
Years Active: 2005-2011 (7 seasons)
Teams: Tampa Bay Buccaneers, St. Louis Rams
We’ve already talked about two of the three NFL running backs taken in the top-five in 2005, but we’re not done yet. Cadillac Williams was the third and final running back – he was drafted by the Tampa Bay Buccaneers with the fifth overall pick that year. He didn’t quite pan out either.
His rookie season was great, rushing for 1,178 yards and six touchdowns in 14 games. He followed that up with 798 yards and one touchdown in 2006, but injuries derailed his career for the next two seasons. He started to make a comeback in 2009, but it didn’t last very long.
9. Alonzo Highsmith
Drafted: Round 1, Pick 3 (1987)
Years Active: 1987-1992 (6 seasons)
Teams: Houston Oilers, Dallas Cowboys, Tampa Bay Buccaneers
Imagine drafting a running back third overall and watching them rush for 1,103 yards and seven touchdowns over the next three seasons. Ideally, those are the numbers you would expect out of his rookie season, but that’s not what the Houston Oilers received out of Alonzo Highsmith.
That’s not even the worst of it. After saying farewell to Houston, Highsmith spent the next three seasons with the Dallas Cowboys and Tampa Bay Buccaneers. He played in just 25 games, rushing for just 92 yards and zero touchdowns. Disappointment is an understatement.
8. Brent Fullwood
Drafted: Round 1, Pick 4 (1987)
Years Active: 1987-1990 (4 seasons)
Teams: Green Bay Packers, Cleveland Browns
The Green Bay Packers trusted Brent Fullwood enough to draft him fourth overall in 1987 – one spot ahead of Highsmith. He spent the next three and a half seasons with the Packers and was a touchdown machine, racking up 18 rushing touchdowns in 45 games (30 starts).
With that said, he was never known for racking up yards and only had 1,702 in those 45 games with Green Bay. He was eventually traded to the Cleveland Browns and played just one game with the team in 1990. It was the last time he would ever see any action on an NFL field.
7. Tim Biakabutuka
Drafted: Round 1, Pick 8 (1996)
Years Active: 1996-2001 (6 seasons)
Teams: Carolina Panthers
Tim Biakabutuka was drafted eighth overall by the Carolina Panthers in 1996. He didn’t see much action in his first two seasons, only playing in 12 games and making six starts. In that time, he racked up 528 rushing yards and two touchdowns – not what Carolina was expecting.
The next three seasons were much better for Biakabutuka and the Panthers. He played 33 games, had 1,772 rushing yards, and 11 rushing touchdowns in that span. His final season came in 2001 when he played just five games, had 230 yards, and just one touchdown.
6. Blair Thomas
Drafted: Round 1, Pick 2 (1990)
Years Active: 1990-1995 (6 seasons)
Teams: Carolina Panthers, New York Jets, Dallas Cowboys, New England Patriots
Blair Thomas was the second overall draft pick by the New York Jets in 1990 after an impressive college career at Penn State. He was decent in his first two seasons, racking up 1,348 rushing yards and four rushing touchdowns. Unfortunately, that wasn’t good enough.
The next two seasons were even worse – he only played in 20 games, had just 661 rushing yards, and one rushing touchdown. The struggles continued in 1994 and 1995 as he finished out his quick career with the Cowboys (2 games), Patriots (4 games), and Panthers (7 games).
5. Lawrence Phillips
Drafted: Round 1, Pick 6 (1996)
Years Active: 1996-1999 (3 seasons)
Teams: St. Louis Rams, Miami Dolphins, San Francisco 49ers
We already talked about Tim Biakabutuka, who went No. in 1996. Two spots ahead of him was Lawrence Phillips, who was drafted sixth overall by the St. Louis Rams despite his off the field troubles. Those troubles haunted him throughout his life – even after he stopped football.
In 25 games with the Rams, Phillips had 1,265 rushing yards and 12 rushing touchdowns. Unfortunately, the Rams didn’t want to deal with his off-the-field antics and cut him before the end of the 1997 season. He spent time with the Dolphins and 49ers before retiring in 1999.
4. Curtis Enis
Drafted: Round 1, Pick 5 (1998)
Years Active: 1998-2000 (3 seasons)
Teams: Chicago Bears
Curtis Enis was the fifth overall draft pick of the Chicago Bears in 1998, so you know expectations were high already. Unfortunately, Enis never lived up to those expectations and only spent three seasons in the NFL. Even worse, not much happened in those three years.
His rookie season saw him rush for just 497 yards and zero touchdowns in nine games – he only started once. He had a decent second year, finishing just 84 yards short of 1,000 yards and three rushing touchdowns. He only had 84 yards and one touchdown in his final NFL season.
3. Ki-Jana Carter
Drafted: Round 1, Pick 1 (1995)
Years Active: 1996-2004 (7 seasons)
Teams: Cincinnati Bengals, New Orleans Saints, Washington Redskins
Ki-Jana Carter was highly rated out of Penn State, so much that he was the No. 1 overall draft pick by the Cincinnati Bengals in 1995. After missing his rookie season, he played in 31 games in the next two seasons. He had plenty of opportunity, racking up 728 yards and 15 touchdowns.
The touchdowns were nice, but they weren’t enough. He only played four games over the next two seasons before the Bengals gave up on him. He spent the final years of his career with the Saints and Redskins, but only had 407 yards and four TDs on the ground in three seasons.
2. Ron Dayne
Drafted: Round 1, Pick 11 (2000)
Years Active: 2000-2007 (7 seasons)
Teams: New York Giants, Houston Texans, Denver Broncos
Ron Dayne was drafted by the New York Giants with the 11th overall pick in 2000. He spent the next four seasons with the team, but his production dropped every single year. He had 1,460 yards and 12 touchdowns in his first two years, but just 607 yards and four TDs in the next two.
After an unimpressive season with the Denver Broncos, he spent the final two years of his career with the Houston Texans. He was productive, racking up 1,385 yards and 11 touchdowns in that span. Unfortunately, that was the last we ever saw from Ron Dayne in the big leagues.
1. Trent Richardson
Drafted: Round 1, Pick 3 (2012)
Years Active: 2012-2014 (3 seasons)
Teams: Cleveland Browns, Indianapolis Colts
Perhaps no NFL running back has ever flopped as hard as Trent Richardson. The amount of hype surrounding him in 2012 after being drafted third overall by the Cleveland Browns was insane. Unfortunately, it never materialized after a rather productive rookie year with Cleveland.
He racked up 950 yards and 11 touchdowns on the ground as a rookie – adding 51 receptions, 367 yards, and one touchdown as a receiver. He played two games for the Browns the following season before being traded to the Colts, where he played the next two seasons before retiring.
Who Are the Worst NFL Running Backs Right Now?
Running backs have always been a hit or miss. Those that are hits go on to have long and successful careers. Those that are a miss don’t last long in the league – if at all. In fact, there are a few running backs today that could see their opportunities slip away if they don’t wake up.
The worst NFL running backs in the league right now (statistically) include Myles Gaskin, Tevin Coleman, Phillip Lindsay, Chase Edmonds, Devin Singletary, David Johnson, Mark Ingram, Mike Davis, and Chuba Hubbard. They’ve had opportunities, but haven’t been able to produce.
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Time will tell if those NFL running backs turn it around, but it’s clear they need to step it up. It’s unlikely that they find themselves on our list of NFL running backs who flopped, but they might want to turn it around if they want to keep their jobs in the NFL. After all, that’s important!
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