The latest Running Back from Nowhere

Once again Sunday, NFL fans watched slack-jawed as another Mystery Running Back darted and dashed all over the field. This time it was Branden Oliver, the Chargers’ undrafted rookie, who amazed the masses, racking up 114 yards rushing, 68 receiving and one touchdown — in just his third game as a pro — as San Diego routed the Jets 31-0.

This is becoming almost an annual event now, pro football’s version of Punxsutawney Phil emerging from his hole to forecast the weather. Oliver’s emergence, of course, just reminds everybody that scouting is a woefully inexact science, especially when it comes to running backs.

We know this because good ones go unclaimed in the draft all the time. Indeed, there have been 17 1,000-yard rushing seasons in the 2000s by backs who weren’t selected. Practically every year, it seems, an overlooked runner makes personnel departments cringe by leading the NFL in rushing, yards from scrimmage, touchdowns or otherwise distinguishing himself. Check out this list:


Running back, Team Best Year Att Yds Avg TD
Arian Foster, Texans 2010 327 1,616 4.9 16
Priest Holmes, Chiefs 2002 313 1,615 5.2 21
Willie Parker, Steelers 2006 337 1,494 4.3 13
Ryan Grant, Packers 2009 282 1,253 4.4 11
James Allen, Bears 2000 290 1,120 3.9 2
Dominic Rhodes, Colts 2001 233 1,104 4.7 9
BenJarvus Green-Ellis, Bengals 2012 278 1,094 3.9 6
Fred Jackson, Bills 2009 237 1,062 4.5 2
LeGarrette Blount, Bucs 2010 201 1,007 5.0 6

Note: League leaders in bold face. Foster (2,220) and Holmes (2,287) also led the league in yards from scrimmage.

It’s not just these guys, either. It’s all the other guys, the ones who were drafted as afterthoughts in the late rounds. There are plenty of those, too. Such as:


Running back\ Team Round Best Year Att Yds Avg TD
Michael Turner, Falcons 5th 2008 376 1,699 4.5 17
Alfred Morris, Redskins 6th 2012 335 1,613 4.8 13
Mike Anderson, Broncos 6th 2000 297 1,487 5.0 15
Ahmad Bradshaw, Giants 7th 2010 276 1,235 4.5 8
Chester Taylor, Vikings 6th 2006 303 1,216 4.0 6

Oliver, built along the lines of the Eagles’ Darren Sproles at 5-foot-7, 201 pounds, came out of the same University of Buffalo program that produced James Starks. Starks, you may recall, was one of the nicer stories of 2010. After being drafted in the sixth round by the Packers and spending most of the season on the Physically Unable to Perform list, he pulled a Punxsutawney Phil in the playoffs and rushed for 315 yards to help Green Bay win the Super Bowl. It’s the third-highest rushing total by a rookie in the postseason since 1960.

There’s no telling what lies ahead for Oliver. Sunday could be the highlight of his career or it could lead to even better things. With Donald Brown now questionable with a concussion, Ryan Matthews (knee) still out and Danny Woodhead (broken fibula) on injured reserve, there’s plenty of opportunity for the rookie.

But if it is his one, brief, shining moment, it was an awfully good one. His 182 yards from scrimmage are the third most by a running back this season (and include a 50-yard reception).

But getting back to our previous subject — why are so many good backs drafted so low (or not at all)? — it’s interesting to compare the Top 5 rushers this season with the Top 5 passers in terms of what round they went in.


Yds Running Back, Team Round (Pick)
670 DeMarco Murray, Cowboys 3rd (71)
460 Le’Veon Bell, Steelers 2nd (48)
404 Arian Foster, Texans UFA
396 Rashad Jennings, Giants 7th (250)
365 Frank Gore, 49ers 3rd (65)


Rating Quarterback, Team Round (Pick)
116.3 Philip Rivers, Chargers 1st (4)
114.8 Aaron Rodgers, Packers 1st (24)
112.9 Russell Wilson, Seahawks 3rd (75)
109.0 Peyton Manning, Broncos 1st (1)
100.3 Andy Dalton, Bengals 2nd (35)

Huge contrast, no? On the quarterback side, you’ve got three No. 1s (two of them very high), a near No. 1 and a No. 3. And on the running back side, you’ve got a second-rounder, two third-rounders, a seventh-rounder and an undrafted free agent.

You hear all the time that the hardest position evaluate is quarterback. Well, on the basis of this, running backs may be even harder to get a read on.