To avoid making future draft mistakes we must first learn from the past. Although every draft is different, there have been some trends that have played out over the years. Based on draft results from 2000-2009, here are some of the facts we’ve encountered about the running back position.
Every team in the NFL would love to hand the ball to a healthy Adrian Peterson or a Maurice Jones-Drew 25 times per game. A great running back makes the jobs of the quarterback, offensive line and even the defense much less taxing.
The Cleveland Browns, Tampa Bay Buccaneers and Miami Dolphins are among the teams who have a need at running back. Cleveland at the very least, and potentially all three teams will have a chance to take Alabama running back Trent Richardson, who many rate as the finest prospect at his position since Adrian Peterson.
Although Richardson seems like a can’t miss prospect, the question that must be answered is whether it’s worthwhile to spend a first-round pick on a position that the rule book is trying to depreciate?
Recent history simply tells us no. Although running backs selected in round one have a respectable 46.4 percent chance of working out (13 of 28 chosen from 2000-2010), the needs that a team might have at another area would likely better represent the value of a position that is being phased out by the rule book, as the NFL is primarily a passing league.
The elite drafting teams in this league try to maximize value at every selection to better their franchises. The more recent trend of choosing running backs past the first round speaks to this value.
Adrian Peterson and Chris Johnson were outstanding first-round picks that the Minnesota Vikings and Tennessee Titans respectively would make over and over again. But what about the bang for the buck?
Four of the league’s top five rushers in 2010 were selected in the draft after the first round. Houston’s Arian Foster (undrafted), Kansas City’s Jamaal Charles (third-round pick, 73rd overall) and Atlanta’s Michael Turner (fifth-round pick, 154th overall) finished 1-2-3 in rushing, while Jacksonville’s Maurice Jones-Drew (second-round pick, 60th overall) was fifth despite missing his team’s final two games. During the 2010 season, 17 running backs surpassed the 1000-yard mark. 11 of those 17 backs were selected after round one.
Last year, none of the NFL’s top six rushers were first-round draft picks (Maurice Jones-Drew, Ray Rice, Michael Turner, LeSean McCoy, Arian Foster and Frank Gore). The trend of elite backs after Round 1 seems to be continuing.
As stated above, our research says that 46.4 percent of first-round running backs over the past ten years have worked out. Although that percentage dips in the second round to 31.8 percent (7 of 22), the 14.6 percent dropoff from first-round success to second-round success is one of the lowest differences of any offensive position. In fact, the average drop from first-round draft success to second-round draft success amongst all offensive positions is nearly 20 percent. The success rate of second-round running backs in recent years nearly matches the first round as teams have hit on four of nine selections including the aforementioned Maurice Jones-Drew, Chicago’s Matt Forte, Baltimore’s Ray Rice and Philadelphia’s LeSean McCoy.
Is it possible to still find a quality back after the first two rounds? Although the percentage of draft hits takes a tumble to just 13.6% (3 of 22) in the third round, recent history shows us that both Jamaal Charles and Shonn Greene have become solid starters. After the third round, the percentages plummet to just below 10 percent of running backs selected being solid picks. Amongst those late-round guys you’ll find former Pro Bowlers Arian Foster, Michael Turner, Marion Barber and Rudi Johnson, with former 1000-yard backs Ahmad Bradshaw, Ryan Grant and Brandon Jacobs.
Amongst those enshrined in Canton, the vast majority shows former first-round draft picks. Actually 12 of the Top 13 and 16 of the Top 20 of the all-time rushing leaders heard their names called in the first round. But in today’s game, in which there is more running back by committee and an emphasis on the passing game the better value is to take your running back after the first 32 picks.
Charlie Bernstein is the NFL Insider for ESPNFlorida.com and ESPN 1080 and 1040 in Orlando/Tampa and Editor-in-Chief of Sports Media Interactive, covering the National Football League, NCAA, and National Basketball Association. Charlie covers the Jacksonville Jaguars for FoxSports and has been featured on the NFL Network and Sirius NFL Radio. Charlie is also a member of the Pro Football Writers of America. You can follow Charlie on Twitter @nflcharlie