Running backs. Every team wants a great one, but predicting who will be great is as tough a task as their is in scouting. Dominant college players can be just another guy when faced with an NFL defense in front of them. Scheme and usage is just as important as the player, and the offensive line and passing game that surrounds the back can create daylight or snuff it out before the snap is even taken.
It has been a while since the last major bust at the running back position, Trent Richardson, was taken 3rd overall in 2012. Teams have grown used to their high picks at running back working out. From Todd Gurley to Ezekiel Elliott and Leonard Fournette, the Rams, Cowboys, and Jaguars could hardly be happier with the way their picks worked out.
However, the Rams aren’t the only team that is happy with their 2015 running back, just as the Cowboys and Jags are not the only team happy with the RB spot from those drafts. Three years on there is more than a few lessons to be learned from the 2015 draft when it comes to the running back spot.
The value of waiting
With the 73rd pick the Atlanta Falcons selected Tevin Coleman. With the 86th pick the Arizona Cardinals selected David Johnson. With the 149th pick the Miami Dolphins selected Jay Ajayi.
Three running backs taken long after Todd Gurley was off the board that made their teams very happy. Three running backs that allowed their teams to take starters elsewhere in the first round and still have productive running games.
In the case of Arizona they got a back who is, at worst, 90% the player Gurley is. Johnson is every bit the pass-catching threat and dynamic ball carrier that Gurley is, but he didn’t come from a SEC school, he was a product of Northern Iowa.
No one is doubting that Gurley is incredibly talented or that he was a good pick for the Rams, but while he used up the Rams first round pick he is also counting $4.4 million against their cap in 2018, just a few $100k less than the combined cap hits of Coleman, Johnson, and Ajayi.
The Falcons were able to add Vic Beasley by waiting on running back. Miami got DeVante Parker, the Cardinals took DJ Humphries. What did the Rams get? They spent their third-rounder (#72) on Jamon Brown, a guard who received a “poor” grade from Pro Football Focus this year.
There is value in waiting.
The swing and miss
Picking a running back high is ok if you hit. After all, who wouldn’t have want Adrian Peterson to spend his career on their team? Who wouldn’t want to watch Todd Gurley in their colors every week?
The problem comes when that pick does not work out. Cleveland we able to escape their bust thanks to the Indianapolis Colts, but most teams aren’t so lucky.
You may have noticed that I am yet to mention the other first round running back, Melvin Gordon. By no means is Gordon a bust, but is also far, far from the level that Todd Gurley, David Johnson, and the others are on as well.
With a career 3.8 yards per carry and a tenuous part in the passing game, the pick has not worked out for the Chargers. It is also hard to say that scheme and surrounding talent has been a problem because both Danny Woodhead and 2017 rookie Austin Ekeler found solid production on the ground while Gordon was on the team.
Ekeler posted 5.5 yards per carry last year and was a full two yards per catch better than Gordon. While it was in a smaller sample size than Gordon, it also points to the fact that Gordon’s lack of production stems from his own issues, not that of the team.
Where the Rams at least got an elite talent for passing on players like Marcus Peters and Arik Armstead, the Chargers did not. They received an average back for their investment, and that is perhaps the worst of all outcomes, because they have to pay him $3.3 million this season, more than guys like Chris Ivory who could do exactly the same job for them, and way, way more than an Alvin Kamara or Kareem Hunt who are game-changing backs.
All of which brings us to this years Todd Gurley, or this years Trent Richardson, Saquon Barkley.
Barkley is the top back on every board, and among the top players on almost every board. His stellar Combine performance only increased the buzz around him, but he comes with risks, especially for anyone spending a top five pick on him.
The financial and opportunity cost of taking Barkley add up to an incredible investment for a position that, in the end, is not overly important in the modern game of football.
Barkley looks like a can’t-miss prospect. So did Reggie Bush in 2006 and he never ran for more than 1,100 yards in a season. Barkley is not safe, he is not impervious to seeing his production disappear at the pro level just as many backs have before him.
There is no guarantee either that a mid-round pick in a months time will get you a Kamara or Hunt of your own, but the risk you take by waiting is much less while the reward remains the same.
If the 2015 draft class has one lesson three years on, it is that you draft backs high at your peril, and are better off waiting.
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