The last decade has seen many changes in draft thinking. Interior offensive linemen have gone from super safe prospects to as volatile as anyone else, safeties have proven a wise investment, and the stock of running backs has been more volatile than the price of Bitcoin.
The recent history of running backs
In 2008 we saw Darren McFadden go fourth overall. Jonathan Stewart came off the board soon after at 13 before we had a rash of running backs taken late as Felix Jones, Rashard Mendenhall, and Chris Johnson came off the board in a three-pick run from #22.
Five first round picks were running backs, only offensive tackles (8) saw more players come off the board in the first round while cornerback matched it. Obviously this individual class was a unique talent pool, but it was a sign of the times. Along with the four premium positions (QB, LT, CB & DE), running back was a highly sought after commodity. After all in 2005 and 2006 record-breaking backs had carried their teams deep into the postseason.
As time moved on though, so did the thinking of NFL teams. Passing exploded and the weapons that could improve your passing offense or defense saw their draft stock go through the roof, and as a result the running game dipped. 2013 saw no running backs taken in the first round, despite some of the talent available.
Recently though, the highly drafted running back has been in vogue. The success of the backs taken high in each of the last three years has swung opinion back the other way. The evolution of NFL offenses has opened up opportunity for more athletic backs. The days of a bruising bus are long gone, and players who can attack space and beat isolated defenders are all the rage. Which brings us to Saquon Barkley…
The 2018 star man
Barkley is arguably the top prospect in the 2018 NFL draft class. Our own Rebecca Rennie ranked him as such on her big board at the end of January. He has a size-athleticism combination that makes offensive coordinators drool and can catch the ball out of the backfield as well as run between the tackles. He has no character red flags and can beat defenders with speed, agility, or power.
That sort of player draws comparisons to the best talents in the league today, and who wouldn’t want a Todd Gurley type on their team?
If the draft truly was the best players being selected in order there would be little doubt that Barkley should be taken almost immediately. However, that is not what the draft is, and he shouldn’t be taken even in the top 20 come April 26.
The rookie contract
Part of the great value of the NFL draft is the cheap contracts that rookies are bound to thanks to the 2011 Collective Bargaining Agreement. After years of rookies coming in with record-setting contracts, they are now extremely cost-controlled.
2017 Defensive Rookie of the Year Marshon Lattimore was taken 11th overall and was one of the best cornerbacks in the NFL. He counted as just $2.8 million on their salary cap last year, which was the 47th highest cap hit among corners. That is terrific value for the Saints.
Jalen Ramsey, taken fifth overall in 2016, was probably the best cornerback last season. He carried the 25th highest cap hit for corners at a hair over $5 million.
Carson Wentz was on his way to the 2017 MVP and, as the second pick in 2016, carried a $6 million cap hit, 28th in the NFL for quarterbacks and less than 38-year-old journeyman Josh McCown.
The value of having elite production at a cheap cap number is enormous. The Jaguars had cheap All-Pro talent and it allowed them to add great free agents. The Eagles paid their starting quarterback less than basically every other team and so could build an incredibly deep roster and ride it all the way to the Super Bowl, just like the Seattle Seahawks did in 2013.
Now let’s look at the running backs. Ezekiel Elliott and Leonard Fournette were drafted fourth overall in 2016 and 2017 and have been vital parts of their teams offense. Their cap numbers? Elliott was eighth in the NFL at $5.6 million, and just $1.3 million behind the #3 cap hit of DeMarco Murray. Fournette was barely any cheaper, ranking 11th with a cap hit of $4.9 million.
While highly drafting a cornerback or quarterback, or really any position, gives you a remarkable discount at the position and gives you cap flexibility to use elsewhere, taking a running back high makes that advantage disappear entirely.
Let’s go back to that 2013 draft class where no backs were taken in the first round. You know who was in the draft class that year? Le’Veon Bell. He went 48th to the Steelers and had been brilliant. 2014 also saw no backs taken in the first round. That class included Carlos Hyde, Devonta Freeman, and Isaiah Crowell.
2017’s leading rusher was Kareem Hunt, a third-round rookie. Half of the top 10 were first round picks, but the other half were not. LeSean McCoy and Bell were second round picks, Jordan Howard a fifth rounder, and CJ Anderson went undrafted.
Compare that to the new generation of quarterbacks. If we exclude the old-timers of Tom Brady and Drew Brees, you have a whole bunch of first round picks and just one or two late-round outliers like Russell Wilson and Kirk Cousins.
Just a quick glance around the leaders running back DYAR on Football Outsiders shows a huge range of draft picks. Only two highly drafted players were in the top 10, with Mark Ingram being a third first-round pick, but as a #28 pick he doesn’t really come under the “high” umbrella.
Conversely, the best teams against #1 receivers, Jacksonville, Denver, New Orleans, Cincinnati, Minnesota, Baltimore, have all invested heavily in the cornerback position and seen it pay off.
Every position group has its busts at the top, but no group has more consistent production from low draft picks or undrafted players than running back does.
Running the ball just isn’t that important
It has been a long time since running the ball was crucial to the success or failure of a team. Do you have to do it? Absolutely. Do you have to do it brilliantly to succeed? No.
This year saw teams with great passing attacks or great passing defenses make the conference championship games. So did 2016. So did 2015. I could go on, but you get the point. The modern NFL, like it or not, is built to reward throwing the ball, not running it.
Jacksonville may have drafted Leonard Fournette fourth overall, but by DVOA they had a worse running game than Cleveland, who leaned on the undrafted Isaiah Crowell. The Chargers and 2015 15th overall pick Melvin Gordon ranked 27th in rushing DVOA.
The top ten teams by rushing DVOA were New Orleans, Dallas, New England, Green Bay, Kansas City, Pittsburgh, Baltimore, Tennessee, the Rams and Cleveland, and their fortunes varied massively. Six made the playoffs, only one making the final four, and then there is obviously Cleveland’s 0-16 misery.
Conversely, of the top ten passing attacks eight made the playoffs, with three in the conference finals and #1 and #5 battling it out for the Super Bowl. In 2016 it was passing attacks #1 and #2 in the Super Bowl, in 2015 it was #9 and #25, but they were supported by the #1 and #2 passing defenses.
Success comes from passing the ball and stopping teams passing the ball, and while you need to be competent on the ground to take advantage of a bad running defense, you don’t have to have a great back to do that. The Patriots have run the ball all over Indianapolis in 2014 and 2015 with the undrafted LeGarrette Blount leading the way in the playoffs twice and in the regular season the undrafted Jonas Gray hung 201 yards on them.
Each case individually
While in the long run drafting a running back high is a bad bet, there are obviously exceptions. Adrian Peterson did pretty well for the Vikings as a top pick, so did LaDainian Tomlinson for the Chargers. Despite not giving them the same cap advantage as other positions, both Todd Gurley and Ezekiel Elliott have been big factors in their teams success.
But when it comes to Saquon Barkley and your team is on the clock, just remember that there is far more to be gained by passing him up and waiting until day two than there is by taking him off the board in the top five. The draft is about building a roster that can win, and winning in the NFL is about passing offense and defense. The players that help those two things the most should be drafted highly, and compared to the likes of Denzel Ward, Roquan Smith, or Josh Allen, Barkley is not nearly as important a risk to take.
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