Apr 25, 2011
One of the most prevalent talking points leading up to the NFL Draft is the idea of the running back position being devalued. With the move toward more timeshare/RB-by-committee approaches in the NFL, the belief is that a team is better off waiting until the middle rounds to grab a RB who can be plugged in alongside a veteran and split time while receiving 10-12 touches per game. In other words, taking a RB in the 1st round isn’t worth it because you can draft someone of similar value to your offensive approach later.
In theory, the committee approach is rational. RBs have the shortest shelf life in the NFL, and by rotating backs and splitting carries, a team can reduce the wear and tear suffered by a RB and possibly extend careers. Of course, for “volume” runners like Marion Barber, the system isn’t very helpful, and for fantasy owners, it’s the source of endless frustration. But, as always, coaches and GMs aren’t concerned with helping your fantasy team.
We’re still in the early stages of the RBBC era, so it’s impossible to know how drafts will play out with RBs in the next few years. However, over the last several years, very little has actually changed in terms of drafting RBs early. Just 15 RBs were taken in the 2010 NFL Draft, and that’s the fewest that have been taken in any of the last 10 drafts. But of those 15, six were selected in the first two rounds – the highest percentage of backs taken early in the last 10 years:
As the above chart shows, there’s been very little consistency in terms of how many RBs were taken early. Both C.J. Spiller and Ryan Mathews were selected in the top 15 picks last season, but there were no top-15 RB picks in 2002, 2003, or 2004. In other words, teams haven’t shied away from taking RBs early despite the recent RBBC trend.
And for those arguing against RBs being taken early, the league’s most productive back last season was the undrafted Arian Foster and the most productive rookie back was the undrafted LeGarrette Blount. Meanwhile, all three 2010 1st round picks had their struggles, as Spiller never got going and Mathews and Jahvid Best showed signs of life but couldn’t stay healthy. Still, it’s far too early to pass judgment on any of them after just one season.
Will any of the three become true featured backs during their NFL careers? It’s possible, but the odds are against them, with Mathews standing out as the possible exception. After just one season, the Lions may opt to take another back this year to pair with Best, such as Illinois’s Mikel Leshoure.
Of the 32 teams in the NFL, just nine had one RB with 60% or more of his team’s carries last season:
(Note: Had Frank Gore stayed healthy, he likely would have been on the list too, but injuries are going to come into play somewhere every season).
In 2006, 13 teams had a RB with more than 60% of the team’s carries:
And, 10 years ago in 2001, 14 teams had a RB with more than 60% of the team’s carries:
What can you take from these three charts? Well, clearly, fewer players received a high percentage of their teams’ carries last season compared to 2006 and 2001, as expected. Exactly half (18/36) of the 60% seasons in those three years were recorded by 1st round picks, and 75% were taken in the first three rounds. Not surprisingly, nearly all of the high-percentage seasons were recorded by bigger RBs. Of the 34 players represented (only Steven Jackson and LaDainian Tomlinson appear on multiple lists), just two weigh less than 210 pounds: Tiki Barber and Chris Johnson. Also, with only Jackson and LT appearing on multiple lists, RBs who handle a significant share of carries don’t usually do it for long.
So, back to the original topic: the draft. Right now, it’s impossible to know whether or not RBs are getting devalued in early rounds. We’ll find out in the next several years. Still, as the original graph at the top shows, the number of early-round RB selections has been inconsistent over the last 10 seasons. Really, like most other positions (except QB, which gets overvalued), the number of early picks depends on the quality of prospects available. Alabama’s Mark Ingram is a 1st round talent, and just because there are more RBBC approaches in the league, that doesn’t mean Ingram will suddenly fall 30 picks. Fewer teams are looking for a back who can receive a full load of carries, yet plenty of draft prognosticators have pegged Ingram to New England (BenJarvus Green-Ellis, Danny Woodhead) or New Orleans (Pierre Thomas, Reggie Bush, Chris Ivory) in the 1st round despite the fact that Ingram is one of the few prospects potentially capable of getting 60% of a team’s carries. He’s a 1st-round talent, and he’ll likely get picked on Thursday night.
Based on size and skillset, Ingram, Ryan Williams, Mikel Leshoure, and Daniel Thomas may be the only 2011 prospects with the potential to appear on one of those charts in the next few years. While it’s possible that a smaller prospect like Kendall Hunter will develop into a true #1 back, the odds are against him, and teams like St. Louis with an aging Jackson, Atlanta, and Chicago could opt to take a back like Hunter or Jordan Todman as a complementary player in the 3rd round.
Nine teams had a RB receive 60% or more of the carries in 2010. Will that number continue to decrease? If so, maybe it will actually become tougher for a RB to get picked in the 1st round. If not, 1st round RBs are taken in the 1st round for a very simple reason: They have the talent and are most capable of being big-time producers in the NFL.
In this year’s draft, there just aren’t many RBs worth taking early. Arguments can be made for Ingram, Williams, and Leshoure as 1st round picks, but Ingram will likely be the only one taken, and as a few as 3-4 RBs might be taken in the first two rounds combined.
If Ingram is the only 1st round pick at RB, Kevin Acee of the San Diego Union-Tribune points out that it will be the first time just one has gone in the 1st round in the last 25 years. As the RBBC era really gets going, maybe the 2011 draft will end up being the start of a trend. We’ll see. Last year’s top-two-round selections Best, Spiller, Mathews, Toby Gerhart, Montario Hardesty, and Ben Tate combined with the success of the undrafted Blount didn’t exactly help the case for early-round RBs.
Up for discussion in the comments: Generally speaking, would you rather take Ingram in the 1st round or wait for a guy like Todman or the speedy Taiwan Jones in the 3rd?
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