As most sports are shifting towards analytics, the NFL is no different. While baseball seems to have embraced them full-tilt and basketball is pushing them towards their mainstream, football hasn’t quite gotten that far just yet. However, the use of analytics in football is still at an all-time high. That’s a good thing, for most aspects of the game.
With it, though, our understanding of the game changes. Our understanding of positional value changes. The position group most notably hurt by this? Running backs.
The NFL used to be a ground-ruled league. Hall of Famer Troy Aikman had six consecutive seasons being selected to the Pro Bowl and being an All-Pro. He never topped 3500 passing yards. In fact, he never did that ever. All-Pro quarterbacks today either need to throw for a lot more than that or supplement it with a lot of rushing yards- a la 2015 Cam Newton and 2019 Lamar Jackson.
Running the ball- with your running back- was the name of the game forever. The running game and defense are how teams won games. Until recently, anyway. Sometime in recent memory, the game really flipped the switch. The majority of teams now are predicated on elite aerial attacks with a supplemental running game. Run and gun is the new name of the game- at the detriment of our poor running backs.
This revolution has caused a reevaluation of the running back position. Running backs are finding it harder to get second contracts on their teams and even harder to hit that elusive big payday after their rookie contracts. What is objectively a smarter way of doing business and playing football has hurt a whole position a lot more than any other.
The consensus now is that running backs alone have little to no value. It’s all about the men in front of them. After all, if there’s no hole to run through or a defender in the backfield all the time, what good are they? Well, they’re not. Take Saquon Barkley, for example.
In most rankings, he should really never be considered lower than the 5th best running back in the league. Based on talent, I’d have him at 2nd or 3rd. Do his stats back that up? Absolutely not. His yards per carry in 2020 was a paltry 1.8 before getting hurt. Why do you ask? The same reason he got hurt in the first place- the Giants’ offensive line is bad.
Now, some running backs might be able to transcend this problem. When I say some, I really mean an impossibly small number. There might be one in the league currently. Derrick Henry might be the exception to that rule. He tends to run over any and everyone that’s in his way, so having a poor offensive line might not hurt him that much. For everyone else currently playing, they’re going to need blockers a lot more.
Additionally, running backs can provide other value that might make them worth having even if the offensive line isn’t good. Having a quality receiver out of the backfield is useful. It gives quarterbacks a safety valve and can create mismatches with linebackers in coverage. This provides some value, but for most guys, it doesn’t do enough to warrant a first-round pick or that ever-looming payday.
The ones that could arguably switch to wide receiver and still produce well have a case, though. Unfortunately for running backs everywhere, that list begins with Christian McCaffrey and ends with Alvin Kamara. Sure, some other backs can produce out of the backfield, but not like those two. It’s still questionable whether or not they should get that big extension, because the Panthers extended McCaffrey to a record level, won more games without him than with, and then restructured his contract.
As for the original question of whether or not a running back should go in the first round? Well, let’s look at the evidence.
The Bills drafted Devin Singletary in the third round. This works out just fine for them because he costs less than a first-round guy would on a rookie contract and he does the job for them. The Bills have actually employed an interesting model as they also drafted backup running back Zack Moss in the 3rd round, keeping a revolving door of young running backs on rookie contracts without spending high draft capital just might represent the future of the running back position.
New England Patriots
Sony Michel was a very late first-round pick. He hasn’t produced quite to that level yet and in his absence last year, third-round pick Damien Harris might have run him out of a job- thus pushing the envelope further. If the Patriots can get better success from their third-round draft pick, what’s the use in spending a much more valuable pick?
Cleveland took Georgia back Nick Chubb in the second round in 2018. He was the fourth running back selected- and arguably the best in the entire class. However you feel about Saquon Barkley, Chubb has outproduced him thus far. The other two first-round running backs? Rashaad Penny and Sony Michel. Yikes.
The Colts took Johnathan Taylor in the second round in 2020. He averaged five yards per carry for over 1100 yards. The second round seems to be a good place to get a running back, but it’s also a testament to what a good offensive line can do. Indy sports one of the best lines in all of football.
The Jaguars might be the best anecdotal evidence against drafting a running back in the first round. They waived former 4th overall pick Leonard Fournette in the offseason. They then signed undrafted rookie James Robinson who shattered records for them.
As mentioned, Derrick Henry might be the exception to all the running back rules and even he wasn’t a first-round pick. The Titans nabbed Henry in the second round in 2016. Evidence against first-round running backs is piling up.
Los Angeles Chargers
One of the biggest reasons the Chargers moved on from Melvin Gordon (a first-rounder) was Austin Ekeler. Ekeler’s no Christian McCaffrey, but he provides a lot more upside than Gordon out of the backfield. Ekeler went undrafted, too.
Washington Football Team
Antonio Gibson had a stellar rookie season for the Football Team. Gibson was a third-round selection in 2020, proving more and more that finding a strong running back doesn’t require a first-round draft pick.
Green Bay Packers
Aaron Jones was a fifth-round pick for the Packers and thoroughly outplayed that draft position. Again, later rounds tend to hold better options for running backs. Whether or not it was a good idea for the Packers to extend him, well, we’ll have to see.
There are probably not five running backs better than Dalvin Cook. There might not even be three better than him. And he was a second-round pick for Minnesota. Evidence.
New Orleans Saints
Alvin Kamara was a third-round pick, but like McCaffrey and Derrick Henry, they could be the only backs that were worth a first-round pick. He and McCaffrey’s big extensions will be a case study into whether or not those big extensions can ever work out, too.
Those are the starters that prove that first-round picks are rarely a good idea for running backs. McCaffrey is the only one who is somewhat justified. Let’s take a look at the other first-round picks that proved it wasn’t a good idea:
- Trent Richardson, 3rd overall in 2012
- Doug Martin, 31st overall in 2012
- David Wilson, 32nd overall in 2012
- Todd Gurley, 10th overall in 2015
- Melvin Gordon, 15th overall in 2015
- Ezekiel Elliott, 4th overall in 2016
- Leonard Fournette, 4th overall in 2017
- Christian McCaffrey, 8th overall in 2017
- Saquon Barkley, 2nd overall in 2018
- Rashaad Penny, 27th overall in 2018
- Sony Michel, 31st overall in 2018
- Josh Jacobs, 24th overall in 2019
- Clyde Edwards-Helaire, 32nd overall in 2020
Now, most of these guys aren’t bad running backs. Most of them are either starters or still have a role with the team they’re on. Does this mean they were worth a first-round pick? No! Maybe McCaffrey is the only one who is. The rest are average starters at best who could’ve been taken in a much later round.
Others have met or exceeded their expectations, but most of them weren’t first-round picks like McCaffrey. The extension was questionable but after having just jettisoned franchise icon Cam Newton and fan-favorite Greg Olsen (not to mention Luke Kuechly retiring) the Panthers needed someone to keep the fans on board.
Ezekiel Elliott had a long run atop the running back ranks, but last year was pretty bad for him. Fumbling issues cropped up among other things. It seems to be getting clearer by the year that Zeke needs Dak Prescott and a good offensive line to really produce. Worth that first-round pick and the rich extension? Probably not.
As a side note, I’m not sure the Raiders know what they’re doing. Jacobs was a first-round guy, and this offseason they spent a lot of money bringing in Kenyan Drake this offseason. Jacobs had an up and down season last year and ended up losing some carries to backups. The Raiders boast a top-notch offensive line, so spending one of the picks they got from trading Khalil Mack on a running back was most likely not the best choice.
The jury remains out on Edwards-Helaire, though he plays with Patrick Mahomes, which helps any running back. And Saquon Barkley is really, really good. But he hasn’t performed nearly well enough for a second overall pick.
The jury, however, does not remain out on drafting running backs in the first round. Don’t do it. For every Christian McCaffrey, there are several Trent Richardson’s. So for teams looking at Najee Harris, Javonte Williams, or Travis Ettienne, pump the brakes.