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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. []