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In Defense of Drafting Running Backs (Not Named Trent Richardson)

 

It’s a pass-happy NFL, but that doesn’t mean those taking running backs with their first picks are burning draft value. We look back at two decades of how win-loss percentage has immediately worked out for teams prioritizing the ground game on draft day.

By: Kevin Chroust

No running back has been taken higher than No. 24 overall in either of the last two NFL drafts,  which makes sense in the context of today’s NFL. It follows a period in which teams seemed to have a renewed interest in spending early picks on the position: Todd Gurley in 2015, Ezekiel Elliott in 2016, Leonard Fournette and Christian McCaffrey in 2017, and Saquon Barkey in 2018. But following two drafts in which no RBs were selected in the first round (2013-14), that mid-decade flirtation now appears to have been the anomaly.

The reason is obvious: Running the ball has become less of a priority in the NFL. Nine of the 10 years with the most passing attempts per game (68.3-71.5) occurred between 2011-19, and the NFL seasons with the fewest rushing attempts per game league-wide (51.8-54.6) all took place in the past decade.

The 10 seasons with the most rushing attempts (75.0-82.5) all occurred from 1935-51, which was hardly the same sport. With fewer runs, the value of a good running back appears to have plummeted. After 43 backs were taken in the first round of the NFL draft between 1970-79 and 50 were selected from 1980-89, that number dropped into the 30s in the ’90s and 2000s before falling all the way to 16 between 2010-19. Ki-Jana Carter was the last RB drafted first overall in 1995.

But the perception that a team is missing an opportunity to fill a more important, less replaceable role elsewhere by using an early pick on a running back is one that deserves more scrutiny.

So let’s reconsider those top-10 picks from earlier drafts in the past decade – Gurley, Elliott, Fournette, McCaffrey and Barkley – and we’ll even throw in Josh Jacobs, the first running back taken last year at No. 24. None of those players would be considered a serious disappointment, each made significant contributions to his team, and some were even part of MVP discussions. Most significant for purposes of this discussion, all of their teams improved the following season, and some made substantial gains.

The 2015 Rams went 7-9 after a 6-10 season after selecting Gurley 10th. The Dallas Cowboys took Elliott fourth and went from 4-12 to 13-3 in 2016. The Jaguars went from 3-13 to 10-6 after taking Fournette fourth in 2017. The Carolina Panthers took McCaffrey eighth the same season and went from 6-10 to 11-5. The New York Giants went from 3-13 without Barkley in 2017 to 5-11 with him the next. The Oakland Raiders were 4-12 in 2018 before going 7-9 last season[1].

That’s not to say those RBs were the sole reason for that improvement.  But it sure makes it difficult to claim that their teams suffered by not using those picks at other more fashionable positions.

While four seasons is a lifetime in the NFL, identifying five running backs from 2015-18 is not a large enough sample size to make broader claims. No one’s going to argue Cleveland’s Cleveland-esque decision to use the No. 3 overall pick on Trent Richardson in 2012 is in retrospect justified. So here’s a deeper dive into the past two decades of how each team’s first picks have worked out in Season 1, classified by position with win percentage differential from the previous season measured:

First, from 2010 on:

2010-2020 Average Win % Increase Based on Position of First Player Drafted

PositionPicksAvg. Win % Before PickAvg. Win % Next SeasonAvg. Win % Difference
Running Back14.460.540.080
Safety19.510.574.064
Linebacker34.509.570.061
Tackle38.466.507.041
Defensive End43.503.540.037
Quarterback26.349.361.012
Center9.538.535-.003
Guard13.519.514-.005
Cornerback43.557.509-.049
DT/NT36.503.452-.050
Tight End10.531.466-.066
Wide Receiver35.548.456-.092

It’s certainly not in line with the perception around running backs in the current NFL climate, but looking at a 14-RB sample isn’t definitive.

Next, looking at it from 2000 on:

2000-2020 Average Win % Increase Based on Position of First Player Drafted

PositionPicksAvg. Win % Before PickAvg. Win % Next SeasonAvg. Win % Difference
Running Back46.497.559.062
Quarterback47.344.394.049
Safety38.522.553.031
Tackle69.449.476.027
Linebacker65.522.541.019
Defensive End77.481.497.016
DT/NT71.497.502.005
Center13.531.524-.007
Cornerback87.550.519-.030
Wide Receiver81.523.467-.056
Kicker2.563.500-.063
Guard19.602.521-.081
Tight End22.577.493-.084

The average differential comes back toward the middle some, but RBs still top the list.

It’ll be interesting to see how this plays out in 2020. The only teams to use their first pick on a RB were Kansas City at the very end of the first round and the Los Angeles Rams in the second round. Stats Perform’s Advanced Analytics team didn’t have any running backs projected in their first-round mock, which was one pick away from being correct. To be fair, there was no Barkley-type RB profiled in this year’s draft, and after the year Derrick Henry had, the trend probably isn’t going to favor 5-foot-8 running backs, which is the approximate size the first two taken this week.

With the final pick of the first round, the Chiefs selected LSU’s Clyde Edwards-Helaire, who ran for 1,414 yards at a clip of 6.6 yards per carry in 2019. Edwards-Helaire forced 99 missed or broken tackles last season, most in this draft class. His 4.60 40-yard dash isn’t going to draw comparisons to Chris Johnson, but it’s similar to the similarly sized Aaron Jones and Alvin Kamara (both 4.56). His combine comparison was Devonta Freeman. We think the Chiefs would sign up right now for Freeman’s productivity from their recent first-round pick.

Georgia’s D’Andre Swift remained on the board until the second pick of Friday’s second round to the Detroit Lions and seems like more of a steal. ESPN ranked Swift as the No. 18 overall talent in the draft. He averaged 6.55 yards per carry in his college career, second best in SEC history behind Bo Jackson’s 6.62 (minimum 400 carries). His 4.48-second 40-yard dash was better than Nick Chubb and equal to McCaffrey. His prospect grade projects him as a quality starter in Year 1. His combine comparison was Frank Gore, the NFL’s No. 3 all-time rusher, who was picked in the third round of the 2005 draft.

Perception is reality on draft day for NFL running backs and has been for the better part of two decades. But the Sunday afternoon reality may be there’s more value there than we tend to see.

Research support provided by Sam Hovland and Aaron Charlton.

[1] It’s also important to note the Raiders had three first-round picks last year and Jacobs wasn’t their first.