It Is A Fact That Drafting Running Backs High Is A Bad Idea, Right? Turns Out, Not So Much.
There are few myths posing as facts that have as much traction in football as the lack of relative value in top-tier talent at the running back position. Ever since the Denver Broncos pulled a hall of fame running back out of the sixth round of the 1995 draft, analysts like Mel Kiper have used such outliers to push a false narrative.
You can find a running back easily later in the draft they say. I say that’s a lie designed to drive clicks and ratings. Running backs are worn out by the time they reach age 30, they say. I say caring about that sort of thing is what gets a lot of general managers fired.
The biggest lie that NFL fans have swallowed hook, line, and sinker? That because it is a passing league, the running back position doesn’t matter enough to use a first-round draft pick on it.
I looked at every player drafted in the first round between 2005 and 2014 and used a statistical model to create what I consider a good performance at each position. I have drawn the conclusion that if a running back has first-round talent, a team should not be hesitant to pick them. Even in a committee, one of the running backs touches the ball more than any player on the team but the quarterback. They also outperform first-round wide receiver picks in every category I tested.
Running backs perform at a high level with a combination of regularity and velocity matched by few other positions.
The Nature of the General Manager’s Job
There are a few teams that have an owner, or family member of the owner, acting in the capacity of the team’s general manager. For those people, a player’s twilight years matter. Barring injury, most other general managers will lose their job before their first draft pick with the team retires.
General managers normally hire their first head coach mere days after they get the job. That coach usually loses his job within three seasons. General managers ordinarily have the opportunity to hire a second coach. Those head coaches are also typically fired within three seasons. General managers do not often have the opportunity to hire a third head coach. They are almost always fired after their second coaching hire that does not work out.
General managers also almost never find a second opportunity. Everyone else in the NFL can find a way to move back to the highest level of their craft. Wade Phillips has been the head coach, interim or otherwise, for six franchises. Sam Bradford has been a poor starting quarterback for three different franchises. Only six of the NFL’s current general managers hold that position with their second franchise. An NFL general manager needs to take advantage of their opportunity because they only get one.
An NFL player is an unrestricted free agent within five seasons of their draft year. Even their second contract will normally only take them to age 30 or 31. In the salary cap era, the percentage of players who spend their entire career with a single team is minuscule. So why should the potential for a player to still be playing into his 30s matter for their draft status if they will not be doing it with the team that drafted them? The obvious answer is that it shouldn’t matter. For an NFL GM the fact that running backs fall off a cliff at 30 is irrelevant on draft day; at least it should be. That only matters for when considering free agent options.
Running Backs Are Worth First Round Picks
Approximately 15 running backs manage 1100 yards from scrimmage in most seasons. I set that as the baseline for a productive season for an NFL running back. Thirty or so wide receivers gain 800 yards from scrimmage yearly. There are more of them but I could not justify using a lower number than that to represent a productive receiver. Ninety-two percent of running backs selected in the first round manage to reach that plateau at least one time during their career. Eighty-seven percent of wide receivers drafted in round one manage 800 scrimmage yards in a season.
Another standard I set to judge prospects in the draft is whether or not they made it to the end of their fourth season. The reason I set this standard is that other than injury or simply not wanting the player, there is no reason for a team to let a player go before that point. Players do not reach unrestricted free agency until after their fourth season at the earliest. Additionally, if a player has not managed most of the other criteria by year four, they rarely do. First round running backs make it through their fourth season with the team that drafted them 83% of the time. Wide receivers manage that feat only 75% of the time.
The third criteria I used was whether or not a player managed to get to the pro bowl. A pro bowl trip generally means that the player was one of the best in the NFL at what they did for at least one year. A first round running back makes one or more pro bowls 45% of the time. A wide receiver who goes in round one does so 38% of the time. Despite all of these things nobody ever says that wide receivers are not worth first round picks.
Can You Get Running Backs Later In the Draft?
The short answer is yes, but it’s not a good bet. Twenty-four running backs were taken in round one during the selected period, 27 in the second, and 25 in the third. More running backs are taken on day three: an average of 28 in each round. Kiper thinks you can just pluck a productive back out of any round in the draft, but that is simply not true. There are individuals who go later in the draft that succeed, but they are outliers. They are not something a smart general manager would rely on. A day three running back has about as much chance of success as hitting on 17 in a game of blackjack.
Round two running backs manage a single 1100 yard from scrimmage season is only 45% of the time, most never do. For round three running backs that number drops to 36%. Only 18% of running backs selected on day three of the draft, rounds four through seven, ever manage the feat. I will remind you that this number was 92% for the first round. Waiting for even one round results in a drop of that percentage by more than half.
Four season retention drops to 63% for second round running backs. The third round drops slightly further to 60%. Every round of day three running backs makes it through four seasons with the team that drafted them less than 30% of the time. For round one that was 83% if you will recall.
Only 22% of second-round running back picks resulted in a single pro bowl berth. Third round picks netted a pro bowl only 18% of the time. Rounds 4-7 made a single pro bowl only 7% of the time almost half were as special teams players. The truth is that for every Devonta Freeman, there is a Ka’Deem Carey, Andre Williams, De’Anthony Thomas, James White, and Lorenzo Taliaferro. Each of those backs outside Freeman had a shot at grabbing the brass ring and failed. All were taken in the fourth round of the 2014 draft.
The Injury Issue
Forty-six running backs ended the season on injured reserve and 70 wide receivers. While the wide receiver number is bigger, there are normally two or three wide receivers on the field, greatly increasing their collective opportunity for risk. Of course, the running back position is significantly more physical, involving more injury risk per snap. Most of the players on injured reserve, however, are bench players who were put on IR so that their team would be able to sign another player as much as the serious nature of their injury.
There is no question that the physical toll on the body for running backs is significantly higher over the long haul. As I have said, it is overly optimistic for a general manager to think they will see the end of a first-round pick’s career with their own job intact. There is a risk here. It is, however, overcome by the fact that most other positions bust entirely at three times the rate that running backs do. Backs succumb to the hardships of their position, but other positions simply fail more often. Defensive backs, linebackers, edge rushers and most notably quarterbacks, who bust at a rate of 50% in round one, are all significantly more likely to never realize their talent.
What Impact Do Running Backs Have?
The most important thing about any draft strategy is whether or not it works. On average teams that drafted a running back in the first round moved up the rushing yardage rankings by 5.8 spots the following year. The important question to Lions fans is not whether adding a talented running back improves all rushing attacks, however. The question Lions fans need to be concerned with is whether adding a top-tier talent at running back helped the teams that had been really bad at running the ball the previous year.
Middle of the road rushing attacks had varying results from a talent infusion but moved up overall. Teams with top ten rushing attacks, a sample size of three from 2008 moved down. Jemarcus Russell started his first games for the Raiders. Rashard Mendenhall only played four games for the Steelers. The Titans actually got more yardage from their running backs, but moved on from Vince Young, losing his 400 yards on the ground. Teams that had finished outside the top 20 in the league in rushing yardage moved up an average of 11.5 spots the year after they drafted a running back in round one.
That would have been higher, if not for the 2009 Indianapolis Colts. Jim Caldwell replaced Tony Dungy as the Colts head coach in 2009. The player they drafted was Donald Brown. Brown was one of the two running backs that never managed to have a single productive season. The Colts were the only team finishing in the bottom five the previous season that did not improve their ranking. The perfect storm of bad coaching and a bad pick dropped the Colts one spot.
So the Lions Should Draft A Running Back Right?
There are three factors that determine the success or failure of a team’s running game. The first is coaching and game planning. The second is game day playcalling. The third is the team’s personnel and execution. For a team to be as bad as the Lions have been, all three have to be broken. The Lions finished 28th, 32nd, 30th, and 32nd in the four seasons of the Jim Caldwell era. They finished 17th the season before Jim Caldwell arrived.
The Lions have fired the head coach and his pet offensive line coach. Bob Quinn seems to have held the two men responsible for the game planning accountable. It appears that Jim Bob Cooter will get another opportunity to fix the gameday playcalling problems that plagued the team for the entire Caldwell era. The team has been unable to effectively match players with duties that fit their abilities under Cooter or his predecessor Joe Lombardi.
That leaves personnel. The offensive line has no starters remaining under contract from the Mayhew era. Quinn has revamped the entire line in two years. Quinn’s additions at running back, however, have included one sixth-round draft pick and an undrafted free agent. It is an area of the roster that has been ignored by the Lions general manager to this point. He has received precisely the results he earned.
I am not arguing that the only possible option for improving the running game is to draft a running back in round one. I am, however, trying to illustrate that in situations like that of the 2018 Detroit Lions, it has immediately been an effective method of fixing the problem. The Lions have swapped out the line and the coaching. A talent infusion at the running back position could be what ends the cycle of failure.
Hit me up on Twitter @a5hcrack and in the /r/detroitlions subreddit. All I ask is that if you’re going to contradict me you have something resembling a coherent argument. I love talking ball, but I don’t feed trolls.