“Draft capital” is a term used to describe the value of the draft pick spent on any player — it’s also a valuable predictive indicator of that player’s career. This article focuses on running backs; the first part of this two article series, on wide receivers, can be found here.
Last year, Jon Moore wrote about how many of each skill position we can expect to be drafted in any given year, and where in the draft we can expect them to go. While weighing how to evaluate a player’s chance of sustained NFL relevance, I have found myself wondering about the followup question to Moore’s article: how many of those players ever become productive? More specifically, I wanted to expand on something Jacob Rickrode and Ty Miller have written about, and try to find a straightforward way to contextualize reasonable expectations for a player being successful.
Below are tables that detail the production of every running back drafted in the last ten years, by what round they were drafted in. Because so many of these players are still active, I broke out the numbers on a per game basis in an effort to normalize the results.
DRAFTED RUNNING BACKS
There were 227 running backs drafted from the years 2006 through 2015. These are the averages of all those players, by round:
|Round Drafted||Number of RBs Drafted||Age||Career Rushes per game||Career Rushing Yards per game||Career Receptions per game||Career Receiving Yards per game||Career Total Touchdowns per game||Career PPR FPS per game||Career 16 game PPR pace|
1st Adrian Peterson 2,211.20 PPR fantasy points, 120 games played
2nd Marshawn Lynch 1,859.10 points, 127 games
BEST PER GAME:
1st Adrian Peterson 18.43 PPG, 120 games played
2nd Todd Gurley 16.18 PPG, 13 games
Contrary to wide receivers, there is very little gap between running backs drafted in the first round and the second round. The 24.83 percent dip of fantasy points per game in wide receivers from the first round to the second is more than twice the 11.46 percent difference between first and second round running backs. This probably shouldn’t be a huge surprise as the second round has several massive hits in the past decade including Matt Forte, Le’veon Bell, LeSean McCoy, Ray Rice, Maurice Jones-Drew, and Eddie Lacy. This speaks to the polarizing idea that running back is a position that NFL teams can wait to draft, something we have been rather obsessively insisting on.
The first round is still consistently solid, with 22 of the 23 (95.7 percent) running backs drafted in the last ten years having a career average of at least 7.15 PPR PPG, and 16 of the 23 (69.6 percent) having a career average of at least ten PPR PPG. That is, surprisingly, higher than the rate of 10 PPG first round wide receivers. That consistency is increasingly impressive in the running back group because as a whole the position generates far fewer points, with 55 wide receivers having above ten PPR PPG last season, compared to only 42 running backs.
Other than 2015 rookies Gurley and Melvin Gordon, no running back drafted in the first round in the last ten years has played in fewer than 21 games. Other than the injury-shortened careers of Jahvid Best and David Wilson, no first round running back drafted in the last ten years, that isn’t Gurley or Gordon, has played in fewer than 46 games. Other than Gurley, Gordon, Best, Wilson, and Laurence Maroney, none have started fewer than 23 games.
Mirroring wide receivers, we see a steady rise by round in the age column. It’s clear that NFL teams are heavily factoring in age to their draft decisions, at least as it relates to wide receivers and running backs. If you’ve ever read any article on this website, you can probably guess that this not only doesn’t surprise us, but it makes us very happy.
1st Matt Forte 2,142.80 PPR fantasy points, 120 games played
2nd Maurice Jones-Drew 1,931.10 points, 126 games
BEST PER GAME:
1st Le’veon Bell 20.02 PPG, 35 games played
2nd Matt Forte 17.86 PPG, 120 games
While the overall average is close to the first round, we don’t see the same consistency in the second. Only ten of the 28 (35.7 percent) second round running backs drafted in the last ten years boast a career average of at least ten PPG, just above half the rate of first round running backs. However, eight of the 28 (28.57 percent) second round backs have a career average of at least thirteen PPG, which is far closer to the rate of first round running backs hitting that threshold, with nine of 23 (39.1 percent) accomplishing it thus far. If we raise the number to fifteen PPG, we see five instances in the second round, compared to only three in the first round. This further cements the idea that the consistency is not as close as the averages suggest, but the likelihood a superstar comes from the second round doesn’t seem materially lower than the first.
The second part to this is, obviously, that there are quite a few more instances of disastrous misses in the second round than in the first.
Kenny Irons, the 49th overall pick in 2007, tore his ACL in the preseason during his rookie year and was never heard from again, recording zero career game appearances. Chris Henry, the next overall selection in the 2007 draft at 50th overall, made eleven game appearances in his career, totaling just 38 total touches. Ryan Williams, the 38th overall pick in 2011, ruptured his patella that summer, and went on to make only five game appearances in his four year career, totaling just 65 career touches. There’s also Isaiah Pead, with 33 total touches in 27 career games, and LaMichael James, with 49 total touches in 18 career games. Then there’s players who have played for a long time but never sniffed fantasy relevancy with career averages under five PPG, including Toby Gerhart, Montario Hardesty, Brian Leonard, and Christine Michael.
As detailed in the first round section, there really are no instances like this among that group, while the second round is just littered with them. The odds a second round back will be a superstar may be similar to the first as a group, but the odds a first round running back will be relevant is far, far greater than the second.
ROUNDS 3 THROUGH 7
1st Jamaal Charles 1,621.30 PPR fantasy points, 100 games played
2nd Ahmad Bradshaw 1,117.10 points, 103 games
BEST PER GAME:
1st DeMarco Murray 16.24 PPG, 68 games played
2nd Jamaal Charles 16.21 PPG, 100 games
We see the significant dips a round later in the running backs than we do in the wide receivers. The two largest drops occur between the first and second, and then second and third, rounds for wide receivers, compared to the second and third, then the third and fourth, rounds for running backs. The numbers become fairly consistent beginning in the fourth round for running backs, with few instances of relevancy.
Of the 151 running backs drafted after the third round in the last ten years, only seven (4.6 percent) have a career average above ten PPR PPG. What’s worse is that only 24 of the 151 (15.9 percent) hold career averages that are at least seven PPR PPG. That 16 game pace of 112 points would have been RB45 last season, or Antonio Andrews. Meanwhile, 69 of the 151 (45.7 percent) hold career averages under two PPG, and 28 of the 151 (18.5 percent) never recorded a fantasy point.
To phrase that another way: a running back drafted after round three, based on the last ten years, is roughly three times as likely to never produce a fantasy point as he is to average ten PPR PPG in his career. He is also roughly ten times as likely to average under two career PPG than he is to average at least ten.
The third round benefits from a bevy of hits that the later rounds are missing as a combined group. This includes the outstanding careers of Charles and Murray, the rising lightning rods of David Johnson and Duke Johnson, receiving dynamo Charles Sims, and a couple guys you probably forgot how good they actually were, in Steve Slaton and Kevin Smith. Da. Johnson has the third best career PPG average of the third round, but would be the best overall from rounds four through seven combined.
Other than Bradshaw, Devonta Freeman, Lamar Miller, Karlos Williams, Alfred Morris, and Tim Hightower, it’s mostly sadness from these rounds. Andre Ellington is depressingly the third best RB in PPG from this group, with names like Andre Brown, Wali Lundy, Ryan Torain, Vick Ballard, Zac Stacy, Michael Bush, James White, and Roy Helu among the top twenty.
I know, you’re a running back whisperer and master prognosticator. You’re basically the love child that resulted from Gary Kubiak fucking some fantasy football version of Nostradamus, and the only guys you’re taking from these rounds are the Devontas, Lamars, and Karloses of the world. Let’s assume that’s true: only three running backs drafted in rounds three through seven in the last ten years have even eight hundred career fantasy points; compare that to wide receivers, two of which drafted in that range, in that time period, have over two thousand career fantasy points. The top ten in career fantasy points from this group includes Shonn Greene and Justin Forsett; the top fifteen includes Leon Washington and Jason Snelling.
Throw your darts. Take your shots. Do it with confidence. Just understand that the likelihood of prospects becoming even relevant, nevermind superstars, is not high. If you do happen to hit on a running back drafted in the later rounds, you probably want to consider selling while the selling is good.