[I would like to start off by saying this is in no way a bashing of 2010 1st round pick C.J. Spiller. I view him as a game-breaking prospect that can still become one of the league’s best. It’s rare seeing a player with his speed, quickness, and hands with the leg strength to run through tackles, which he displayed at Clemson. Once he learns to start running more decisively, he’ll be dangerous and explosive.]
Running back is one of the “early impact” positions of the draft, meaning they have a tendency to contribute to their respective teams early in their careers. 4 out of the past 10 offensive rookie of the year awards have gone to a RB. The position is a demanding one, which takes its toll on the longevity of an individual’s career. The widely-discussed age for the demise of a back is 30, which means most good to great running backs can give you 8-9 years of production.
Keeping that in mind, is there value in taking a RB in the 1st round?
First of all, the value of the position is scheme-specific. A team like the Patriots views it as a plug-in position, while a team like the Panthers has designed their entire offense around running the football. Since Bill Belichick took over in 2000, they have drafted seven running backs (including fullbacks, considering New England has involved them heavily in the past, such as Patrick Pass). Laurence Maroney was his earliest pick, going 21st overall in 2006. His second highest? Arizona State RB J.R. Redmond 76th overall in 2000. The rest of the picks were taken in the 4th round or later. Belichick prefers bringing in hungry veterans towards the end of their career to fill the void. From 2006-2009, the Panthers drafted four running backs between rounds 1-4: DeAngelo Williams (27th), Jonathan Stewart (13th), Mike Goodson (111th), Tony Fiammeta [FB] (128th). Clearly, the Panthers value the position much higher than the Patriots. Of course, the Panthers are drafting 1st overall while the Patriots went 14-2. Hmm…
My theory is that the game has been evolving and the position is just not as important as it used to be. If we look back from 1991-2000, the offensive rookie of the year percentage increases dramatically. 8 out of 10 were running backs, which doubles the past decade’s figure. The number dropped from 80% to 40%, with the quarterback (4) and wide receiver (2) positions increasing. There has always been a premium on QBs, but the need for being deep at the receiver position has become more relevant. The league has become more and more pass-oriented the past decade and I don’t see the game returning to a run-first league anytime soon. For some teams, a dynamic #1 receiver has become more valuable than a workhorse RB.
With the running game becoming less of a focus for many teams, should their first round pick be used to address other positions? With a first round pick, a team would like to find a player they can retain for 10 or more productive seasons. A running back can get burned out relatively early, while an offensive lineman, for example, can play until their mid-30s.
Bill Polian is one of the greatest general managers the league has and will ever see, which makes me feel terrible making this next point. However, the Colts have now used two 1st round picks the past 5 drafts on running backs: Joseph Addai (2006, 30th) and Donald Brown (2009, 27th). While you could argue that they wouldn’t have won the Super Bowl without Addai and that they’ve been very pedestrian running the ball, I’d argue they aren’t playing to their strengths. With Peyton Manning and his targets, their biggest need has been the offensive line, which became glaringly obvious this season. I’ve always felt that a good offensive line can make average backs look good and a bad one can make good backs look average. In 2006, instead of Addai, they could have drafted T Andrew Whitworth or G Daryn Colledge. In 2009, instead of Brown, they could have had C/G Eric Wood or T Phil Loadholt. I admit the 2009 class was overrated at tackle, but Loadholt would still be an improvement. I’ve never really viewed Brown as a full-time back, but we’ll never know playing behind that line. It has been such a talented team that, again, you can’t really knock their draft strategy, especially with a QB that doesn’t take sacks. However, they’ve relied on taking players that are better pass blockers than run blockers, which makes sense considering their system. If you’re going to do that, though, why take two running backs in the first round? If not the offensive line, any position would really make more sense. Can you imagine if Manning had Hakeem Nicks and Reggie Wayne on the outside?
The point I’m getting at is whether or not teams can find production running the ball in other ways without spending such a premium pick.
Let’s analyze the top running teams in the NFL.
1. Kansas City Chiefs (164.2 yards per game): Jamaal Charles (2008 3rd round pick, 73rd overall) and Thomas Jones (free agency)
2. Oakland Raiders (155.9): Darren McFadden (2008 1st round, 4th overall) and Michael Bush (2007 4th round, 100th overall)
3. Jacksonville Jaguars (149.7): Maurice Jones-Drew (2006 2nd round, 60th overall) and Rashad Jennings (2009 7th round, 250th overall)
4. New York Jets (148.4): LaDainian Tomlinson (free agency) and Shonn Greene (2009 3rd round, 65th overall)
5. Philadelphia Eagles (145.2): LeSean McCoy (2009 2nd round, 53rd overall) [and essentially Michael Vick, but McCoy was productive]
With the exception of the Raiders, none of the top five rushing teams in the league have a feature back taken in the 1st round. With the league also moving towards committee backfields, it is becoming more difficult for personnel guys to take a player that early in the draft that is only on the field for 15-18 snaps a game.
If a team wants to make that commitment to the running game by spending a high pick on a player, there is some reward. Chris Johnson (1,364), Adrian Peterson (1,298), Rashard Mendenhall (1,273), and Steven Jackson (1,241) were among the top eight rushers in the league and were first round picks. However, as for the other four: 1. Arian Foster (undrafted) 2. Jamaal Charles (3rd round) 3. Michael Turner (5th round, though the Falcons picked him up as a free agent) 5. Maurice Jones-Drew (2nd round). Ahmad Bradshaw and Ray Rice round out the top ten, with Bradshaw being a 7th round pick and Rice a 2nd round pick. The first round is clearly not the only place to find productive backs. In fact, it’s apparently less likely at 40% of the league’s top ten rushers. There are only seven in the top 20 that were former first round picks, with LT and Cedric Benson signed in free agency as opposed to still being productive for the team that drafted them.
Unless there is a really special guy available, I’d probably fill other needs before addressing the running back position in the first round. As much as I like C.J., that’s another reason why I “drafted” Iowa OT Bryan Bulaga at 9 last season. The running back needs 3-4 good lineman opening up holes for him. As my favorite back Adrian Peterson found out this season, you can be the best back in the league, but your production won’t match the talent level playing behind a mediocre line with a poor QB. He has Hall of Fame talent, but he can’t carry the entire team. The running back position needs more help than other positions to be productive, which, again, is why I would need the guy to be pretty special to choose him over other team needs.