Why Your Team Shouldn’t Draft a RB in the 1st Round

Leonard Fournette, a back expected to go early in next week's draft. Image shared from Geaux247. 

Leonard Fournette, a back expected to go early in next week's draft. Image shared from Geaux247. 

Intro

The 2017 NFL Draft is rife with talent at Running Back (RB). As few as three RB’s (Leonard Fournette, Dalvin Cook, Christian McAffrey) are expected to go in the 1st round, with Alvin Kamara and Joe Mixon possibly being in the mix as well. Each of these players has a body of work and game tape that prove their worth in the NFL—however, history says a team ought to reconsider before pulling the trigger in the 1st round.

Of all NFL positions, RB's have the shortest average NFL career length-- a mere 2.57 years [Source], a reflection of the brutal amount of physical contact absorbed by players at the position. 

The ethereal nature of the position is reflected in the track record of 1st round RB's. In the last decade alone (2007 – 2016), teams have invested 19 first round picks in RB’s—and the results have been largely underwhelming. What the data shows, is that teams can expect short NFL careers, slim to no chance of winning a Super Bowl ring with a 1st round RB, and an average of 4 games per season missed-- a substantial amount of time when playoffs often hang in the balance of a game or two. 

This post seeks to assess the performance of the 19 1st round RB's taken in the last decade, the RB's Super Bowl teams are winning with, and how the league is moving away from running attacks.

Summary Data

  • The average 1st round RB has missed 3.66 games per season, or roughly 25% of every season.
  • The average 1st round pick’s career will last 9.3 years [Source]. Only Adrian Peterson and Marshawn Lynch have met or exceeded that length, with 9 of the RB’s drafted in the 1st in subsequent years either retired or unemployed. 
  • Not a single RB drafted in the 1st round from 2007 - 2016 won a Super Bowl with the team that drafted them.
  • The average 1st round RB will produce an average of 851 yards from scrimmage per year. The RB who most closely aligns to your “average” 1st round NFL RB is Rashard Mendenhall. He averaged 839 yards per season while missing an average of 4 games.
  • Only 7/19 RB’s produced two or more 1,000+ rushing yard seasons. 5/19 produced 0, and 7/19 were able to produce only one.
  • 11/19 of the RB’s have either retired or are currently unsigned by a team.

Super Bowl Champions are Winning Without Them

Of the last ten Super Bowl Champions, only one team had a 1st round RB they drafted serve as the feature back—that was Reggie Bush with New Orleans in 2009, and even he had a split backfield with Pierre Thomas, a 2007 UDFA.

Besides Bush, the only players drafted in Day 1 to Day 2 of the draft to win a Super Bowl with the team that drafted them is Ray Rice with the Ravens in 2012. The rest? A mix of trade acquisitions, UDFA’s, or later round picks. It's safe to say you can win with a late rounder-- or even a UDFA.   

Year

Champs

Feat. Back

Team Investment

2016

Patriots

Legarrette Blount

UDFA (traded Jeff Demps to Acquire)

2015

Broncos

C.J. Anderson

UDFA

2014

Patriots

Legarrette Blount

UDFA (traded Jeff Demps to Acquire)

2013

Seahawks

Marshawn Lynch

4th and 5th Round Pick (Originally a 1st - Buffalo)

2012

Ravens

Ray Rice

2nd Round Pick

2011

Giants

Ahmad Bradshaw

7th Round Pick

2010

Packers

James Starks

6th Round Pick

2009

Saints

Reggie Bush

1st Round Pick (2006)

2008

Steelers

Willie Parker

UDFA

2007

Giants

Brandon Jacobs

4th Round Pick

The League is Moving Away From the Run

The 2010's show a clear trend that shows teams favoring the pass far more than the run. Both the percentage of passing calls and the number of passing yards per game are on the rapid ascent, while rushing yards and run play calls are on the steep decline. RB's are a great resource to turn to to run out the clock and perhaps punch it in from the goal line, but their utility is diminishing in value. 

Passing vs. Rushing yds/Game

Data only goes back to 2010. Source: http://operations.nfl.com/stats-central/chart-the-data/

% of Pass versus Run Calls

Data only goes back to 2010. Source: http://operations.nfl.com/stats-central/chart-the-data/

The Full Dataset: RB's Drafted in Round 1 from 2007 - 2016

Average Yards From Scrimmage/Yr

From 2007 - 2012, Average Productivity is 851 yards/yr for 1st round backs

Career Productivity: 1st Round Running Backs

# of Seasons w/ 1000+ Yards

Only 7/19 RB’s produced two or more 1,000+ rushing yard seasons. 5/19 produced 0, and 7/19 were able to produce only one.

Average Games Missed Per season versus career length

Conclusion

Running Backs: you can live with them, you can live without them. Teams are winning with interchangeable late round picks and UDFA's, and the high injury risk associated with the position means that they'll only play 75% of a season-- on average. 

Your average 1st round pick will last nearly 10 seasons in the NFL, and for teams looking for longevity, reliability, and even Lombardi trophies, RB is position that least fits the profile for what a team needs in a 1st round draft choice.