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The Problem With First Round Running Backs
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The problem with drafting running backs in the first round of the NFL draft is that the position is just a small part of the equation even when it comes to the running game. Start with the fact that passing efficiency in the NFL is a lot more explanatory of winning percentage, then add to that the fact that running backs are just part of the equation in creating a good running game. After all, the first excuse trotted out for running backs that do poorly is that their line isn’t blocking for them.

Then add this graph to those two points:

Median Games Started by Draft Round (1990-2012)

Rplot28

The median expectation for games started that you get out of a first round RB is a little more than half the expectation for a tackle, and is about 55 percent of the median expected games started for a guard drafted in the first round. Teams that want to improve their run game should forget about RBs for a few rounds and just draft linemen instead. Also, the linemen don’t just help the run game. They also help in the pass game as well.

Let’s think about some objections to what I’ve written, which I’ll list in order:

1. ADRIAN PETERSON

So what? Seriously, so what if you missed out on Adrian Peterson? The Vikings have been living in the middle of the league in offensive efficiency since they drafted AP. Except for one season when Brett Favre had a career year and they finished second in points/drive, and except for one season when Peterson had 1600 yards from scrimmage and the Vikes still finished 29th in points/drive, they’ve pretty much been in that 14-16 range in points/drive since they drafted him. The Peterson Truthers are now reaching for their excuse that the Vikes were held back by poor quarterback play and BOOM… they’ve made my point for me. The Vikings drafted a generational RB talent – who, by the way was only known to be generational after the fact as he went 7th in the draft when other running backs had been drafted higher previously and have been drafted higher since – and yet that got them to about middle of the league in offensive efficiency.

2. I’ve ignored the impact that RBs have in the pass game both as receivers and pass blockers

That’s fine, but those traits can also be drafted much later in the draft whereas teams use early picks on RBs that they feel have transcendent qualities as runners.

3. Games Started as a measuring stick ignores positional value of the players involved

That’s fine if we’re talking about kickers. The Raiders shouldn’t have used a first round pick on Sebastian Janikowski just because he was likely to start in a bunch of games. I could have/should have used snaps data in this graph but the games started data was just a lot easier to come by. If you used snaps data it would be even more lopsided in favor of linemen because RBs rotate out based on situation. Also, again we’re talking about a position whose biggest impact is in the run game, while passing efficiency is the better explanation of overall offensive efficiency.

4. The Seahawks were led to a Super Bowl by Marshawn Lynch, who was at one time a first round pick.

Were they? I think that’s an easy narrative for the faithful who have been eagerly awaiting the earthly return of smash-mouth football. But an explanation that fits the facts a lot better in this case is that even the Seahawks run game was impacted the most by the addition of Russell Wilson and the read option. We know Seattle was 23rd in points/drive in 2011 when they had Lynch and not Wilson. We know that Lynch’s yards/carry average was 4.2 that year, which up until that point was a career high (while also being league average). But since Wilson has been added to the team Lynch has gone 5.0, 4.2, and 4.7 in rushing average. Meanwhile the Seahawks have been top ten in points/drive each year. So is the best explanation for the Seahawks success that a running back who had struggled to be league average in rushing YPC over a five year period suddenly just figured out how to run? Or is it more likely that Russell Wilson’s threat as a running QB, and his ability to actually keep defenses honest contributed more to Lynch’s success? We know what a Lynch-led offense looks like. It was 23rd in the league in offensive efficiency in 2011.

There’s another problem with using Lynch as a positive example though. It’s basically that you could use a first round pick on a player, have that player under-perform to the point that you’re willing to take a fourth round pick back in a trade, and then a few years later that player could be a key part of another team’s Super Bowl run. How is that a positive example?

The question that teams who are thinking running back in the first round should ask themselves is simply: What’s the point?

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