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Declining Running Back Value in the Draft

A first round pick in '08, an afterthought in '14

A first round pick in '08, an afterthought in '14.

Running backs had a very rough time on the open market this year. To be fair, other than perhaps Chris Johnson, the market was full of question marks, platoon guys, or second stringers. And while players like Johnson and Maurice Jones-Drew were big names, they were devalued because of the “tread on their tires.” After all, we have been told time and time again that running back is a young man’s game, and that’s mostly true.  But one might argue that college running backs should be viewed as substitutes for veteran running backs. If teams are spending less capital on veteran running backs, they would start spending more capital on college running backs.

Except that’s not the case. It appears as though veteran running backs and college running backs are like Coke and Pepsi at a time when a lot of consumers have decided to stop drinking soda. In 2013, for the first time since 1963, no running back was selected in the first round of the draft. The top back off the board was Giovani Bernard at 37, the longest a draft had ever gone without hearing a running back’s name called. That was until this year, when the first 53 picks came and went without a single running back being selected. Bishop Sankey was the first back off the board to Tennessee with the 54th pick, although Jeremy Hill, and Carlos Hyde were drafted with two of the next three picks.

You’ve heard a lot about how running backs are being devalued in the draft. By nature, I’m a bit of a contrarian, but even I can’t spin this graph, which shows the percentage of draft capital spent on running backs in each NFL draft since 1950:

That looks pretty similar, but not identical to, this graph of percentage of offensive plays that are running plays by year:

That spike you see at the left end of the chart represents the 1956 season, which was when the forward pass was on life support.  As it turns out, more draft capital was spent on running backs in 1956 than any other year since 1950, too. But we might be able to learn something from some of the nonconforming years. From 1972 to 1977, teams passed on 56% of all plays, a significantly higher ratio than in the ’60s. Yet during that time, draft capital used on running backs decreased.

The 1972 draft was a bad one, but Franco Harris fell to 13, Lydell Mitchell was a late second round pick, and Lawrence McCutcheon fell to the end of the third. The NFL was about to embark on its halcyon era of rushing, but just five backs went in the first 45 picks (Dallas, curiously enough, took two of them: Bill Thomas and Robert Newhouse).1

One explanation? Running back by committee was very common in the early ’70s; even if many teams were running on 60+ percent of all plays, that doesn’t make any one running back all that valuable. As a result, league-wide rushing totals can be high but draft capital could be low, and that appears to be what happened.

The percentage of average rushing yards by a team’s top running back has been slowly rising, and it is in almost direct opposition to the draft capital chart at the top of this post. What’s interesting is that despite the increased reliance on a single ballcarrier, more draft capital was not being allocated to running backs.

Part of the reason is the decline of the fullback position. Players like Dick Bass, Alan Ameche, and Jim Brown were selected with top six picks in the pre-merger era. Even in the 1980s, a pair of fullbacks from Florida – James Jones and John L. Williams — were top 15 picks. But the amount of capital spent on fullbacks (who are included as running backs in all the charts) is sharply declining. In the 1990s, only Jarrod Bunch and William Floyd were first round picks.  And in the last 20 drafts, only one fullback has gone in the top 50 (Rob Konrad).

The “stud running back” era lasted for around a decade, beginning in the late ’90s. What’s interesting, at least to me, is how other than in 2005  and 2008, there was no corresponding increase in draft capital allocated to backs. In 2005, Ronnie Brown, Cedric Benson, and Cadillac Williams were top-five picks. The 2008 class was a great one — Matt Forte, Ray Rice, and Jamaal Charles were had in the second and third rounds, and five players (Darren McFadden, Jonathan Stewart, Felix Jones, Rashard Mendenhall, and Chris Johnson) went in the first round. But even still, that pales in comparison to the way running backs used to be valued.

Everything is stacked against running backs now: not only are teams passing less often, but more teams are re-embracing the committee approach. In that light, the de-emphasis on the position in the draft isn’t that shocking. The more interesting question might be why teams teams didn’t spend more draft capital in the early ’00s on running backs compared to what they were doing a decade or two earlier? But that’s fodder for another day.2 In any event, we can safely conclude that not only are college running backs not being viewed as substitutes for veteran running backs, but the position as a whole is being severely devalued. Part of that is the decline of the fullback, part of it is the increase in emphasis on the passing game, and part of it is the shift towards running back by committee. And I don’t see any of those elements changing significantly in the near future.

  1. The Cowboys were the defending Super Bowl champions, but got into a contract dispute with lead back Duane Thomas. The solution? Ship him to New England for the 35th pick in the draft, and draft Newhouse. []
  2. I’ll note that while the 2014 draft looked worse than last year’s draft because no running back was taken in the first 50 picks, because so many runner went in the second and third rounds, slightly more draft value was used on running backs in 2014 than in 2013. []
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  • http://myweb.lmu.edu/ahealy Andrew Healy

    Great post. On your question in the conclusion: I think most teams were finally figuring things out at RB (that you don’t need to draft an RB high). It looks like until very recently, though, teams were still falling in love with a RB at the top of the draft (top 5 or 10) at around the same rate as earlier. The one year since 1984 with three backs in the top 5 was the 2005 draft that you mentioned. The first-round drop seems like it started in the middle of the round sometime in the last ten years or so. So maybe a bunch of teams figured things out around then, with now everyone catching up.

    I still kind of think we’ll see the occasional top 10 back, as some team thinks they have the next AP (just as likely to have the next Trent Richardson), but the days of the mid-first round Ron Dayne are probably over forever.

  • Ajit

    There are a few different issues going on with running back decline. One is that backs are fungible and that its a position you can get by without a big star with later round picks. There’s also the issue of long term durability. But then to separate that from running game value becomes trickier. Is the running game itself being devalued? I think if you ask that question now, the answer is yes, but will it be in the future? Is it a given that once Brady, Manning, and Brees leave the league that a new set of elite passers will necessarily emerge? And if not, is it still optimal to build an elite passing game if your qb isn’t elite? And then, with everyone’s defense being driven in the direction of speed safeties and pass rushing linebackers, won’t switching to the run be a more optimal approach?

    Long story short – could it be that this is cyclical?

  • Richie

    I think another factor is the usage of RB in college football. I don’t follow college football much, but I usually have heard of the top 2 or 3 RB’s. I had never heard of Bishop Sankey before. I don’t think I could name a single RB from college football last year.

    College football has gone pass-wacky, so we probably aren’t getting as many of the Ricky Williams type of RB who dominate college football.

    I have no data to back this up.

    Or, my theory could be totally wrong because I just don’t follow college football enough.

  • mrh

    The rise in the importance of the passing game as increased the % of cap devoted to QBs. If your biggest chunk of cap is in your QB, then it makes sense to invest in players to protect the QB or increase his production (OL/WR/TE). After that, it makes sense to invest in stopping the other team’s QB by spending on DBs and pass rushers. It would seem that this would devalue RBs and the components of the defense focused on stopping the run.

    A 2nd order effect: to the extent that good pass blockers are also good run blockers, investing in OL helps RB performance. More OL spending not only takes away from spending on RBs, it also may make it less necessary.

    Since draft capital is a proxy for cap space, the decline in draft investment in RBs makes sense. Does the investment at other position groups also track this trend? Obviously, if less draft capital is invested in RBs more is invested in something else.

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  • Adrian

    I think teams have worked out that in the salary cap era you’re better off spending first round draft picks on offensive linemen than RBs, for three main reasons:
    1. OL help you more in the passing game than RBs do.
    2. RBs are more likely to suffer a devastating injury than OL.
    3. Success rate of a player is more closely linked to draft position for OL than it is for RBs.

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