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First round talent

First round talent.

In 1990, there were 22 running backs who rushed for at least 700 yards. Of those players, Barry Sanders, Ottis Anderson, Sammie Smith, John L. Williams, Emmitt Smith, John Stephens, Lorenzo White, James Brooks, Cleveland Gary, and Neal Anderson were former first round picks. In addition, Bobby Humphrey, Mike Rozier, and Kevin Mack were selected with first round picks in supplemental drafts, bringing the number to thirteen.

Christian Okoye and Thurman Thomas were second round picks, Barry Word was a third round pick, and the rest of the 700+ yard group (Herschel Walker1, Johnny Johnson, Marion Butts, Merril Hoge, Derrick Fenner, and Earnest Byner) was drafted after the fourth round.  But the majority of the top running backs were former first round picks.

1990 was a bit of an outlier year.  That season, 48.9% of all rushing yards by NFL running backs came from backs selected among the first 30 picks.  If you also include the rushing yards produced by Anthony Thompson, Dalton Hilliard, and Ickey Woods — each of whom was drafted 31st overall — the total jumps to 51.1% of all rushing yards by running backs that season. That means the 31st pick in the draft was the tipping point, or median draft slot, for rushing yards by running backs that season.

Using that same method, pick 64 was the cut-off in 2012, and it’s the cut-off in 2013 (through 15 weeks), too. Frank Gore and Shonn Greene were selected with pick 65 and would represent the median draft pick in that sense that roughly half of all rushing yards came from running backs drafted below them and half from running backs drafted later than them (or not drafted at all). So far this season, only 48% of all rushing yards by running backs have come from players selected in the first 64 picks.

How does that compare historically?

The first thing you might notice is the 2001 peak. That season, Priest Holmes, Curtis Martin, Stephen Davis, and Ahman Green had great years, while Dominic Rhodes, Lamar Smith, Stacey Mack, and Michael Pittman all had over 800 rushing yards. In addition, Maurice Smith, Terrell Davis, Mike Anderson, Richard Huntley, Terry Allen, and Duce Staley each topped the 600-yard mark. That was just a funky year.

But the trend over the last 25 years is pretty clear: more and more rushing yards are coming from backs drafted outside of the top two rounds. Part of that is due to the prominence of the running-back-by-committee approach, which also resulted in higher medians in the 1970s. But part of it is also due to the fact that in the modern NFL, only a few teams are finding their running backs early in the draft.

Some players drafted outside the top 64 picks having productive years include Jamaal Charles, Alfred Morris, Frank Gore, DeMarco Murray, Zac Stacy, Fred Jackson, Chris Ivory, Rashad Jennings, BenJarvus Green-Ellis (hey, he’s started 14 games!), Stevan Ridley, Lamar Miller, Bilal Powell, Andre Ellington and Joique Bell. And that’s even with UDFA superman Arian Foster having a down season. Twenty-three years ago, running backs in the top 32 accounted for over half the rushing yards in the league produced by running backs; this year, backs in the top 64 have less than half of all rushing yards.

  1. Who, of course, was morally a first round pick, but fell in the draft because he was in the USFL at the time. []
  • Jamie burner

    But the major question that needs to be answered to support this is how many running backs are getting selected in the first round? If I recall correctly there used to be many more rbs having their names called early on. You need to compare am out of rbs drafted early on then vs now to make this argument valid.

    • Chase Stuart

      Part of the conclusion is that teams are not spending first round picks on running backs anymore.

  • An interesting idea, one I can likely just do myself with PFR, is to look at the average spot the #1, #2, #3, #4, and #5, RB was taken in each draft to see if it’s remained the same or dropped as time has passed. I’ve done a lot of work with NFL trends in terms of on the field production but draft trends aren’t something I’ve looked into.

    • Dan

      Another idea is to repeat the analysis in the post, but using the order that RBs were taken instead of their draft slot. For example, you might find that (in one season) the median rushing yard was gained by a RB who was the 6th RB taken in his draft class. Then you could look to see how much that number has gone up or down over time.

      • Thanks for the idea, a good project for this weekend.

    • Chase Stuart

      An interesting idea. If you don’t get around to it, remind me and I’ll put it on my to-do list.

  • Jamie burner

    Let me know of your results I’ll check back here

  • Nate

    “…But part of it is also due to the fact that in the modern NFL, teams are finding their running backs early in the draft….”
    Do you meant that NFL teams are finding their running backs *later* in the draft?

    As the NFL becomes more pass-friendly and pass-oriented, we would expect that running backs feature less in the draft as well as on the field. I expect that other more passing oriented positions – quarterback, wide receiver, tight end, and left tackle – have climbed on the draft boards.

    • Chase Stuart

      Thanks Nate – yes, I meant only a few teams are finding running backs early in the draft.

  • Richie

    I wonder if there just happened to be a run in the late-70s and 80s of teams hitting on their RB draft picks? (The top 9 RB’s of the 80s were 1st round picks: Payton, Dickerson, Dorsett, Ottis Anderson, Riggs, Marcus Allen, George Rogers, Freeman McNeil and Curt Warner.)