Don’t do it. Like, ever.
This year, Penn State’s Saquon Barkley is being touted by many as the best player in the draft, and perhaps should be considered by the Cleveland Browns with the number one pick, maybe not falling out of the top three. Last year, Leonard Fournette went fourth overall and the Jacksonville Jaguars made it to the AFC Championship game. Christian McCaffrey went eighth, and the Carolina Panthers improved from 6-10 to 11-5. The year before that, Ezekiel Elliott went fourth and the Dallas Cowboys found themselves with that season’s leading rusher. And the year before that, Todd Gurley went 10th, and he just led the NFL in total yards and touchdowns.
All of this has given the running back position a bit of a renaissance of late after a period in which teams shied from ever using a first round pick at the position. But I’m here to tell you that teams were right before, not now. They should not be using early picks on backs if they want to increase their odds of overall success. Even the Seattle Seahawks, who have a top 20 pick in the upcoming NFL draft (number 18, to be exact), and are perhaps the least-talented in the league at RB, should avoid using that pick on any back. Here are the reasons why.
1. Rushing carries little value in the modern NFL
In the NFL, passing is king. Rushing barely matters:
Rush efficiency explains only 4.4% of the variance in wins. You might as well guess randomly […] Pass efficiency explains 62% of the variance in wins in the NFL […] In college football, rush efficiency correlates more strongly with wins than in the NFL. Teams like Alabama, Stanford and Wisconsin have won with a power running game and a physical front seven on defense. The insignificance of running the ball is unique to the NFL.
A recent study from Pro Football Focus found that the four RB measurements that best predict team wins in the following year are PFF pass-blocking grade, pass blocking efficiency, yards per receiving route run, and PFF receiving grade. That’s right: RBs only help their teams win to the extent that they matter in the passing game.
Premium draft picks should be spent on what matters: improving a team’s passing game or pass defense.
2. Highly-drafted RBs are not any better at rushing
If rushing were valuable (it’s not), a natural question would be the extent to which highly-drafted RBs are better at rushing than other RBs. I used Pro Football Reference to look at the average yards per carry of all RBs drafted in the top 20 since 2004, when a heightened emphasis on illegal contact increased the efficiency of the passing game. Since then, the 17 RBs drafted in the first 20 picks have carried the ball 18,991 times for an average of 4.2 yards per carry. NFL teams combined have rushed the ball 195,381 times for an average of…4.2 yards per carry. Of the 17 players drafted in the top 20, only 7 have at least 4.3 career yards per carry. With an enormous sample size, there is no difference between these RBs and everyone else.
3. First-round RBs have high bust rates
A study from a couple years ago on Arrowhead Pride found that among offensive players, no position had a higher 1st round bust rate than RB:
The numbers show us the following outline for finding consistent starters:
1st Round – OL (83%) LB (70%) TE (67%) DB (64%) QB (63%) WR (58%) RB (58%) DL (58%)
1st round RBs are high risk for little reward: a bad bet.
4. We are bad at evaluating running backs
Every year, some new RB is touted as a generational prospect. Last year it was Leonard Fournette, whose NFL.com draft profile lists Bo Jackson as his NFL comparison. In 2012, it was Trent Richardson, who was touted as “as compact and coiled an athlete as the position has seen since Adrian Peterson“. In Fournette’s rookie season, he was below league average in yards per carry and success rate despite being drafted at #4 overall. Richardson was drafted at #3 overall and is already out of the league.
Whenever I share these arguments, the response I always get from Seahawks fans is “but what about Marshawn Lynch“? This response is misguided for two reasons.
First, you cannot know ahead of time if a given prospect is the next Marshawn Lynch. If you think you can, we have mountains of evidence that you are wrong: we have a nearly 20,000 carry sample size of top 20 RBs not being any better than league average. I like how Josh Hermsmeyer put it: “Statistics is really just a way of quantifying how dumb we are.” When it comes to scouting RBs, we are very dumb.
And second, the Seahawks did not spend a high draft pick on Marshawn Lynch: they traded for him after his value fell. Which brings me to my next point: RBs are cheap to acquire.
5. RB rookie contracts are bad values
The reason draft picks are so valuable in the NFL is that teams get to sign players to below-market contracts for their first 4-5 seasons. Let’s take Jalen Ramsey, for example. As the #5 pick in 2016, he will carry a $6.4 million cap hit in 2018, which is the 26th highest cap hit among CBs in 2018, per overthecap.com. For a player regarded as a top 5 CB, that is a great value.
Now compare Ramsey’s contract to Ezekiel Elliott, the player who was drafted one spot before Ramsey. Elliott will carry a $6.9 million cap hit in 2018, which places him as the third-highest cap hit among RBs in 2018. Even if you believe that Elliott is a top 3 RB, paying a top 3 RB with top 3 RB money does not provide value like Ramsey’s contract does.
There is one RB whose cap hit exceeds $8 million in 2018 (LeSean McCoy). For comparison, there are 20 QBs, 25 WRs, and 26 edge rushers whose cap hits exceed $8 million in 2018. Running backs are cheap to acquire. Spend your high draft picks where they provide value, not on a RB.
6. RBs are fragile
RBs suffer serious injuries (defined as at least 4 games missed in a season) more than any other offensive position. Even if rushing mattered in the NFL (it doesn’t), and even if RBs picked in the top 20 were better at rushing than all other players (they aren’t), RBs still miss games more than other positions.
7. RBs have short shelf lives
A recent study found that 77 percent of RBs had their peak seasons at age 27 or younger. A glance at the top 5 in rushing DVOA in 2017 shows Alvin Kamara (age 22), Dion Lewis (27), Alex Collins (23), Todd Gurley (23), and Kareem Hunt (22) leading the league. Not only are these players extremely young as a group, but only Gurley was drafted in the 1st round. RBs decline so quickly that after spending a 1st round pick on a RB, it might not even be worth picking up their 5th year option, and it almost certainly won’t be worth giving him a huge second contract. When brings me to my final point.
8. RBs don’t change the fortunes of a franchise
If your first thought is “but what about Ezekiel Elliott or Leonard Fournette?”, go read this. If you’re wondering about Marshawn Lynch, Seattle’s offense didn’t take off until they drafted Russell Wilson:
— ben (@guga31bb) August 9, 2017
There are countless examples of players drafted in the middle of the 1st round (picks 12-20) who have had meaningful impacts for the teams that drafted them, with the older ones being worth signing to second contracts: Maurkice Pouncey, Jason Pierre-Paul, Earl Thomas, Brandon Graham, Nate Solder, Melvin Ingram, Fletcher Cox, Zack Martin, Aaron Donald, Odell Beckham, Marcus Peters, and on and on. None of these players are RBs. The Chargers drafted Melvin Gordon with the 15th pick, 3 picks ahead of Peters. Yet Gordon has never topped 4.0 yards per carry or had positive rush DVOA in any season and in 2017, Gordon had lower rushing and receiving DVOA than his teammate, undrafted free agent Austin Ekeler (albeit at very different volumes). In 2018, Gordon’s cap hit will be six times as large as Ekeler’s. Yes, Gordon is active in the Chargers’ passing game, but so is Ekeler, and the Chargers acquired Ekeler without using a premium draft pick (or any draft pick at all).
As mentioned in Point #1 above, RBs can help their teams win to the extent that they are valuable in the passing game. But how many running backs are valuable enough in the passing game alone to be worth a top 20 pick, especially given how easy pass-catching RBs are to find in later rounds? The list of RBs who are useful in the passing game who were recently drafted in the 5th round or later (or not drafted at all) is long: Matt Breida, Corey Clement, Isaiah Crowell, Benny Cunningham, Ekeler, J.D. McKissic, Danny Woodhead, and Jordan Howard.
Every year, we fall in love with RB prospects based on their college tape. I get it: watching players like Leonard Fournette destroy amateur competition is a lot of fun. But what we keep forgetting when it comes to draft season is that rushing stops being important at the NFL level. The free agency market for RBs shows that teams have already recognized this to some extent, but when it comes to the draft, teams just can’t help themselves.