After the Jaguars drafted Leonard Fournette with the 4th pick in the 2017 Draft, NFLResearch tweeted the following:
Since 2000, teams drafting RBs in Top 5 (2017 Jaguars) have improved by more wins the next season than teams to draft any other position pic.twitter.com/qpN9G4Bcpb
— NFL Research (@NFLResearch) May 4, 2017
That was, at least for me, a surprise. And it is true: there have been nine running backs drafted in the top 5 since 2000, and those teams have improved by 43 wins. There is some natural regression to the mean built in to any analysis like this, along with two big outliers: the 2016 Cowboys and 2006 Saints used a top five pick on a running back, but also added Dak Prescott and Drew Brees, producing two of the greatest improvements in passing efficiency in NFL history. Those two teams produced 16 of those 43 wins; without those two teams, the average increase drops to a still-impressive 3.9 wins.
The year 2000 does make top-5 running backs look good. 1999 brings in Edgerrin James (+10 win improvement!) but also Ricky Williams (-3); Curtis Enis (0) was drafted the year before. If you go back to 1967, the first year of the common draft, the average improvement (pro-rated non-16 game seasons to 16 games) was +3.2. The average team jumps from 4.1 wins per 16 games in Year N-1 to 7.3 wins; that’s substantial, and more than you would expect simply due to regression to the mean.1
In the table below, I’ve listed every running selected in the top five since ’67. I’ve included his team’s Year N-1 winning percentage and Year N winning percentage, along with the (pro-rated) improvement in total wins. The final column shows the (pro-rated) rushing yards produced by that player as a rookie. As you can see, there’s a lot of big jumps:
|Player||Year||Team||Yr N-1 Win%||Yr N Win %||Win Imp||Rush Yds|
Five teams improved by at least 7 wins per 16 games, including the ’16 Cowboys and ’06 Saints. The 1999 Colts made huge strides, too, but that also had a lot more to do with Peyton Manning than the arguably downgrade the team made at running back. The 1980 Lions had Gary Danielson return from a knee injury that caused him to miss all of 1979: Detroit ranked 3rd to last in ANY/A in 1979, but jumped back up to 8th in ’80. The other team to to make a huge leap in wins was the ’81 Jets, but McNeil didn’t have a huge rookie season: instead, the team’s defense was the big driver.
So what do you think? On one hand, the big improvement is real; on the other, with such a small sample, it’s hard to know how much of that is actually due to the running back. There is one thing does feel clear: the Jaguars went 3-13 with the 27th-ranked passing game in 2016. Regardless of how good Fournette is, Jacksonville isn’t going to post a winning record unless the team’s passing game improves significantly. The real question, though, is whether Fournette — solely due to his rushing ability — can help drive that improvement.
- Whether the following is noteworthy I leave to you: remove the 2016 Cowboys and 2006 Saints, and those numbers become 4.1 wins and 7.1 wins. [↩]