Over the last 15 years, NFL teams have put less emphasis on drafting running backs. The amount of draft capital used on the position had been on a steady decline, although there was a notable reversal this year. In fact, 2017 falls behind only 2005 (where Ronnie Brown, Cedric Benson, and Cadillac Williams went in the top 5, and Frank Gore, Brandon Jacobs, Marion Barber and Darren Sproles went in the later rounds) and 2008 (Darren McFadden, Jonathan Stewart, Felix Jones, Rashard Mendenhall, and Chris Johnson all went in the first round, and Matt Forte, Jamaal Charles, Ray Rice, and Justin Forsett went in the later rounds) in terms of draft capital used on running backs and fullbacks.
There are a couple of factors that make the running back position unique, and they tend to have opposite results when it comes to the draft. The running back position is simply devalued in today’s game — the variance between the best and worst players is small, and the impact a single running back has on the game is low. As a result, the position is just not that valuable, which is why you see the general trend showing the decline.
On the other hand, running back is also a young man’s position. Consider that 10 players last year averaged at least 75 rushing yards per game: two were rookies (Ezekiel Elliott and Jordan Howard), and two more were 23 year olds (Melvin Gordon and Jay Ajayi). Another three (Le’Veon Bell, David Johnson, and Carlos Hyde) were on their rookie contracts. The only three running backs not on their rookie contracts that were in the top 10 in rushing yards per game last year: LeSean McCoy, a 25-year-old Lamar Miller, and DeMarco Murray.
So if you want a good running back, grabbing one in the draft is a pretty good idea: counting on veteran running backs to help your team is generally a short-term fix.2 What would make sense, then, is to see a number of teams use midround picks on running backs, and we saw that in the 2017 Draft.
There were 27 running backs selected, but the round that saw the most running backs go off the board was the 4th, with seven. And another 12 went in rounds 5, 6, and 7. There were, however, two premium picks spent on running backs in the first round, and two other picks spent on backs in the top half of the second round. Those require a bit more discussion.
The Fournette pick felt straight out of 1975, or perhaps 2016. With the 4th pick last year, the Cowboys selected Elliott, and given his success, it’s probably not a coincidence the Jaguars took Fournette in the same spot. It’s hard to justify selecting a running back in the top 5, but the Jaguars clear needs were not great fits for this draft which is why so many mocked Fournette to the team. Jacksonville is in great shape at wide receiver and has one of the most talented defenses in the league. Given the lack of top end talent in this year’s draft at QB and OL, Jacksonville was forced into looking more closely at running back and tight end. Fournette feels like an overreach, but may have been the best option to immediately improve the struggling offense (Jacksonville did select Alabama offensive tackle Cam Robinson near the top of the second round.)
The Panthers took McCaffrey at 8, but this seems like a rare case when the value makes sense to take a running back so high. The Panthers offense is run-heavy and the team almost never throws to its backs. Indeed, Carolina running backs, as a group, ranked 32nd in targets, receptions, and receiving yards last year. And Panthers running backs ranked 31st or 32nd in those three categories in 2015, too. McCaffrey’s versatile playing style seems to be a perfect fit for the Panthers offense that could use a pass-catching back and a powerful inside runner all in one player.
The Vikings took Cook with the 9th pick in the 2nd round, and had to be shocked that Cook was still there. With Adrian Peterson is now in New Orleans and a questionable quarterback situation, the Vikings understandably were looking for the next great running back. Many viewed Cook as a first round pick, so this was a great match of a sliding player meeting need to justify a premium pick.
Finally, the Bengals selected Mixon in the middle of the second round. Cincinnati took wide receiver John Ross in the first round, and doubled down on offense with Mixon in the second. This probably reflects a few things — doubts about both Jeremy Hill and Giovani Bernard, the departure of Rex Burkhead — along with having a high grade on Mixon. Most viewed this year’s class as having four top running back prospects, so the Bengals had to use a second rounder to get the last member of that group.
But on a 30,000 foot view, NFL teams certainly invested in running backs this year. Given that there is, on average, only about 1.0 running backs on the field on any given play, you can make a convincing case that no position was more highly valued in the 2017 Draft on a per-snap count basis.
- Note: This excludes the three fullbacks: Alex Armah (West Georgia) went in the 6th round (192) to Carolina, Sam Rogers (Virginia Tech) went in the 6th round (206) to the Rams, and Marquez Williams (Miami FL) went with the 240th pick to the Jaguars. [↩]
- Which, I suppose, is fine. But most teams don’t have a long-term plan of a bunch of short-term fixes at running back. [↩]