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Recruiting Analysis: What was the Best Running Back Class Since 2002?

Darren McFadden

Darren McFadden

The era of the superstar running back is coming to a close.

Or is it about to be re-started?

In the last two NFL drafts, no team felt it necessary to take a running back with a first-round pick. The 2008 draft class that included five first-round running backs seems to be ages ago.

NFL teams have learned that effective runners can be found just as much in the later rounds or outside of the draft entirely.

At the same time, though, the college game as seen a resurgence in superstar runners. The 2014 signing class produced 10 1,000-yard rushers last season, indicating that the next two seasons might belong to the running backs.

Since 2002, we’ve seen our share of superstar running back recruiting classes. To help us sort them out, we asked Mike Farrell, national recruiting director from for his input on the best running back singing classes since 2002.

1. Class of 2004

The Stars: Adrian Peterson, Marshawn Lynch, Matt Forte, Arian Foster, Chris Johnson

Best of the Rest: Jerome Harrison, Mike Hart, Peyton Hillis, Brandon Jackson, Rafael Little

What the class of 2004 lacks in numbers compared to the 2006 class at No. 2, it makes up for in NFL stardom. This class amassed 20 Pro Bowl selections, six first-team All-Pro selections, four NFL rushing titles and an NFL MVP. The class also included Michigan’s all-time rushing leader (Mike Hart) and a consensus All-American out of Washington State (Jerome Harrison).

Farrell’s take: “The best 1-2 punch we have ever seen at running back with AP and Lynch but also some huge surprises like Foster and Chris Johnson. Those two guys couldn’t get looks at all for different reasons. Hart was a guy we had as a three-star and we got a lot of heat for that but top-end speed was not his thing. However, he had a great college career.”

2. Class of 2006

The Stars: Darren McFadden, Jamaal Charles, Ray Rice, Kevin Smith, Steve Slaton, Rashard Mendenhall

Best of the Rest: Jonathan Stewart, Felix Jones, James Davis, Javon Ringer, Donald Brown, Shonn Greene, Montario Hardesty

Star power, depth, college studs and NFL feature backs — the running back class of 2006 had it all. The headliner is Arkansas’ Darren McFadden, a two-time consensus All-American, two-time Doak Walker winner and two-time Heisman finalist. This is the same class that produced Arkansas’ other great running back, Felix Jones, who would have been a superstar in any other backfield. The class produced five first-round draft picks (McFadden and Jones, Oregon’s Jonathan Stewart, Illinois’ Rashard Mendenhall, UConn’s Donald Brown), two Doak Walker winners (McFadden and Iowa’s Shonn Greene), and five consensus All-Americans (McFadden, Green, Michigan State’s Javon Ringer, UCF’s Kevin Smith and West Virginia’s Steve Slaton).

Farrell’s take: “Ray Rice was a guy who really stepped up his game as did Donald Brown, both were really under-recruited as was Slaton. McFadden and Stewart were special and the second group there of Davis, Charles and Mendenhall were all very well thought of.”

3. Class of 2003

The Stars: Reggie Bush, Maurice Jones-Drew, Laurence Maroney, LenDale White

Best of the Rest: J.J. Arrington, Chris Henry, Tony Hunt, Michael Bush, Tashard Choice

This class was awfully kind to the state of California, helping the Pac-10 re-establish itself as a national power. Heisman-winner Reggie Bush led the way at USC, but the Trojans also picked up his backfield mate LenDale White in this class. UCLA signed a future NFL rushing champ (Maurice Jones-Drew), and Cal signed a consensus All-American (J.J. Arrington).

Farrell’s take: “Reggie Bush was the real deal and I wanted him to be No. 1 but [Florida State signee and eventual linebacker] Ernie Sims won out. Jones-Drew we liked a lot despite his lack of size. I remember how fast Choice was and how big Bush was. He was one of the biggest backs I’d seen with good feet like that. LenDale White was a big deal in that class as well and Maroney was a big deal as well.”

4. Class of 2006

The Stars: LeSean McCoy, C.J. Spiller, Toby Gerhart, DeMarco Murray

Best of the Rest: Knowshon Moreno, Beanie Wells, Mike Goodson, Dexter McCluster, Anthony Dixon, Ben Tate, Evan Royster

This class produced the last two NFL rushing leaders in LeSean McCoy and DeMarco Murray, though neither were consensus All-Americans in college. The biggest collegiate stars in this class were Clemson’s C.J. Spiller, the ACC’s all-time leader in all-purpose yards by a wide margin, and Stanford’s Doak Walker winner Toby Gerhart.

Farrell’s take: “McCoy was special but we didn’t know how he’d recover from that awful ankle break he suffered. He was a five-star talent, that’s for sure. Spiller was a five star as was Beanie Wells and Moreno. Murray and Goodson were all high four stars as was Ben Tate who a lot of people didn’t know about at the time. This could be the most talented class at the top of all of them as far as talent coming out of high school.”

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5. Class of 2009

The Stars: Trent Richardson, Montee Ball, Eddie Lacy

Best of the Rest: Carlos Hyde, Christine Michael, Lamar Miller, David Wilson, Knile Davis, Charles Sims, Rex Burkhead, Dion Lewis, Mike Gillislee, Stepfan Taylor

This class has been full of surprises on the NFL level. A fourth-round pick from Miami (Lamar Miller) has rushed for more pro yards than All-American Trent Richardson, and a fifth-round pick out of Vanderbilt (Zac Stacy) has rushed for more yards than FBS career touchdown leader Montee Ball. The career leading rusher out of this class so far is Green Bay’s Eddie Lacy, who played second fiddle to Richardson in Tuscaloosa.

Farrell’s take: “Richardson was a beast. He was special and looked like an NFL back already. Hyde really got a lot faster in college than he was in high school, Lacy was a beast as well, he would mule kick anyone who came near him. David Wilson was a great athlete, Michael was a five-star kid who had so much potential. and Ball and Taylor were also big deals. This was a really good class as well as far as depth.”

6. Class of 2008

The Stars: Mark Ingram, LaMichael James, Ryan Williams, Kenjon Barner

Best of the Rest: Jonas Gray, Isaiah Pead, Jaquizz Rodgers, Chris Polk, Andre Ellington, Mike Leshoure, Daniel Thomas (junior college)

What the 2003 running back class was to California’s Pac-12 schools, the 2008 class was the same for the Pacific Northwest. Oregon picked up two consensus All-Americans in this group (LaMichael James and Kenjon Barner), Oregon State and Washington both picked up their No. 2 career rushing leaders (Jacquizz Rodgers and Chris Polk). Oh, and the class produced Alabama’s first Heisman winner, Mark Ingram.

Farrell’s take: “This class is an interesting one because James was a speedster from Texas and a perfect fit for Oregon, Ryan Williams was an amazing talent and Ingram went south to play for ‘Bama, but no one knew he would be a Heisman winner. Gray was an absolute beast, we loved him and Barner was a sleeper for sure. Ellington was the most athletic of the group.”

7. Class of 2011

The Stars: Melvin Gordon, Ka’Deem Carey, Tre Mason, Jeremy Hill, Ameer Abdullah

Best of the Rest: Bishop Sankey, Jay Ajayi, Malcolm Brown, Dee Hart, Devonta Freeman, De’Anthony Thomas

The pro potential of this class hasn’t been tapped yet, but it’s off to a good start. LSU’s Jeremy Hill led all rookies in rushing with more than 1,000 yards for a playoff team. The best of the bunch, though, may be Gordon, whose 2,587 yards is the second-best rushing total in college football history.

Farrell’s take: “Gordon was tall and has the look of a linebacker coming out of high school but turned into a great back, Hill was coming off heaps of trouble out of high school but was very talented. Hart had a lot going for him but those knee injuries hurt him. Carey and Sankey were both excellent. Mason and Freeman were both excellent out of Florida, and Thomas was probably the most talented of the group when it came to explosion and getting you out of your seat. He was just small.”

8. Class of 2014

The Stars: Nick Chubb, Samaje Perine, Leonard Fournette, Dalvin Cook

Best of the Rest: Nick Wilson, Sony Michel, Royce Freeman, Nick Wilson, Jalen Hurd, Justin Jackson

It’s not too early to heap praise on this group of running backs who were only true freshmen a year ago. This group produced 10 1,000-yard rushers (Oklahoma’s Samaje Perine, Georgia’s Nick Chubb, Arizona’s Nick Wilson, Oregon’s Royce Freeman, Northwestern’s Justin Jackson, New Mexico State’s Larry Rose III, USF’s Marlon Mack, LSU’s Leonard Fournette, Florida State’s Dalvin Cook) and the FBS single-game rushing leader (Perine). This class may end up No. 1 by the time it reaches the NFL.

Farrell’s take: “Chubb is a guy I’m kicking myself for not making a five star and looks like he will have a great career, Fournette was the consensus No. 1 back while Michel, Cook and Hurd were all five-star talents. Perine was a four star but is playing above his ranking, and Freeman was another guy who just missed five-star status and was under scouted because he was so far down south in Cali. This is an amazing crop and could turn out to be No. 1 before all is said and done.”

9. Class of 2007 

The Stars: Doug Martin, Ryan Mathews, Kendall Hunter, Shane Vereen, Stevan Ridley

The Best of the Rest: John Clay, Jonathan Dwyer, Jahvid Best, Boom Herron, Alfred Morris, Daniel Thomas, Roy Helu, Chris Rainey, Noel Devine

Few classes ended up as upside down as this one. The best pros in this class ended up at Boise State (Doug Martin), Fresno State (Ryan Mathews) and FAU (Alfred Morris) while the can’t-miss prospect at the top of the class, Joe McKnight, was hardly the second coming of Reggie Bush at USC.

10. Class of 2010

The Stars: Marcus Lattimore, Gio Bernard, Le’Veon Bell, Andre Williams

Best of the Rest: James White, Lache Seastrunk, Michael Dyer, Silas Redd, Storm Johnson

The class was well-traveled that’s for sure. Four of the top 10 running backs in the class transferred — Michael Dyer (from Auburn to Louisville), Lache Seastrunk (from Oregon to Baylor), Silas Redd (from Penn State to USC) and Storm Johnson (from Miami to UCF). Marcus Lattimore had the most potential of the group before his career was interrupted by injuries, Boston College’s Andre Williams was a Heisman finalist and North Carolina’s Gio Bernard and Michigan State’s Le’Veon Bell turned out to be solid pros.

Farrell’s take: “Lattimore was special, he was a three-down back who could make you miss, run you over and catch the ball and such a great kid as well. Bernard had some injury issues to overcome, but he did a great job showing durability after being hurt often in high school. Andre Williams was a big, fast kid that BC stole and kept hidden, Dyer and Seastrunk were five-star talents, and I loved Redd’s strength and cutting ability. Bell was too big to be a running back — oops.”