Growing up a Chicago Bears fan gave me a pretty good understanding of the ‘ground-and-pound’ style of football that characterized the team for decades. For the Monsters of the Midway, having a feature running back to carry the team through winter at Soldier Field was seen as more of a necessity than a luxury. The franchise invested draft picks in first round running backs like Rashaan Salaam, Curtis Enis, and Cedric Benson from 1995-2005 – an era when running the ball with authority was popular and effective. Interestingly enough, none of those players were even remotely successful in their time with the Bears, and the organization’s draft philosophy came into question.
Although tunnel vision for my hometown squad often made it seem as if the Bears were the only team in the league completely incapable of drafting a productive running back in the first round, a look around the NFL revealed a different story. Not only were other teams struggling mightily with their own first-round running backs, but the performance of these backs seemed to be getting worse with time. After all, Ronnie Brown, Cadillac Williams, and Benson – who were all taken in the top-5 of the 2005 draft – combined to produce just two 1,000-yard rushing seasons with their original teams.
These consistently poor results seemed to make it clear that drafting a running back with a first round pick was not a good idea in the NFL. That is, until Todd Gurley and Melvin Gordon were each selected in the top-15 of the 2015 draft. The selection of these two players bucked a two-year trend of teams avoiding backs until the second round, and once again raised the question of whether drafting a running back in the first round is a good idea for an NFL franchise.
To answer that question, I decided to examine the backs taken among the top 32 players of their draft year from 2010-20151 and compare them to players across the league. The first thing I did was measure these players against the golden-standard of production for backs in the NFL: the 1,000-yard rushing season. I found that 34 different players had rushed for over 1,000 yards since 2010, yet only three of those players (C.J. Spiller, Ryan Mathews, and Doug Martin) were first round picks during that time period. Meanwhile, players who were taken lower in their draft years such as Eddie Lacy, Lamar Miller, Alfred Morris, Jeremy Hill, and Demarco Murray were all significantly more productive than their highly touted peers. This trend was most clearly seen in 2014 when Marshawn Lynch was the sole former first rounder among the league’s 13 1,000-yard rushers.
Examining the production level of the seven highest-drafted RBs since 2010 also paints a disappointing picture for teams interested in taking backs in the first round.
As can be seen in the above graphic, those seven players produced an average of just 736 yards of total offense per season since their draft years. Additionally, their average of 560 rushing yards per season is less than that of the 31st highest rusher in 2014 – former second-rounder Bishop Sankey. All said, none of these players maintained a level of production much higher than that of a low-end starter.
Granted, producing at that level is better than not producing at all, but it doesn’t represent a significant increase from the level of success teams were seeing from players they took in the second and third rounds. Instead of waiting and using a mid-round pick on their running back, these teams cost themselves the chance to select another high-impact player earlier in the draft.
Another stat that jumps out among the players shown above is the disappointing average of 10.79 games played per season. Every player on that list has struggled with injuries since coming into the league, and Wilson and Best were forced to retire prematurely due to health concerns. Running back is already one of the most injury-prone positions in the NFL, but backs taken in the first round might be even more susceptible to sustaining a serious injury than their counterparts taken later in the draft. This is mostly due to modern NFL drafting philosophies. With teams having to invest so much in players right out of college, it is very important for them to draft a player with a proven track record who they feel confident can produce at the next level. Unfortunately for running backs, the players with the most-proven college track records are also the guys with the most carries.
This high number of carries, while helping players gain exposure to NFL teams, also exposes their bodies to more punishing hits and can lead to long term injury problems if compounded over time. Doug Martin had 684 offensive touches at Boise State before struggling with various injuries since 2013; Ryan Mathews took 534 handoffs in three years at Fresno State and played all 16 games just once in his career with the Chargers. Their inability to stay healthy has forced both of their careers off track and overshadowed their high levels of production when they were able to play a full season.
It’s just hard to argue for the lasting success of running backs taken in the first round. Of the projected starting backs for every NFL team right now, only 5 (15.6%) were first round selections of the teams they currently play for. Of those 5, Melvin Gordon has never played a regular season snap, while Jonathan Stewart, Mark Ingram, and Doug Martin have combined for two 1,000-yard seasons in their time in the league so far. The other back on that list is Adrian Peterson, the player every team hopes to draft when choosing a runner with their top pick. Peterson was an undeniable homerun-pick for the Vikings back in 2007, but players of his ilk are a rare breed, and attaining a level of production even close to his is a gaudy task for young backs.
Those sole five players represent how running backs rarely stick around with the same team for an extended period of time, which makes investing a first round pick in one an even tougher pill to swallow.
One of the major reasons for this turnover is that teams recognize how important good offensive line play is to the success of their running game. In fact, of ProFootballFocus’s 10 best run-blocking teams in 2014, only the Buccaneers (mostly thanks to Martin’s ineffectiveness) and the Vikings (thanks to Peterson’s absence) failed to register a 1,000-yard rusher. Teams need to be sure to develop a strong offensive front before throwing a young back on the field to both maximize the back’s production and minimize the wear on his body by avoiding big hits in the backfield.
From what I can see in my research, it actually makes far more sense for a team to draft an offensive lineman in the first round over a running back. Backs have proven to be most productive when running behind a good O-line, and elite players can often be had in the mid rounds anyways if they are properly developed.
Of course, none of this is to say that drafting a young halfback is a universally horrible idea. A good player at the position can transform an offense and push contending teams over the proverbial hump needed to win a Super Bowl. But the middling production, increased chance of injury, dependence on the offensive line, and even the further advancement of the passing game in the NFL makes it difficult for teams to get the most out of their investment when drafting first round running backs.
that range was chosen to take into account the NFL’s new pass-happy tendencies ↩