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Is drafting a running back in the top 2 rounds sound strategy?

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Let’s look at the data from the last decade.

Missouri v Georgia Photo by Carmen Mandato/Getty Images

If you’ve followed me throughout the offseason via the PODcast or Twitter, you’ve probably heard or seen me rant about the follies of drafting a running back early. I don’t like it. I think it’s a poor use of resources, and I’m always confused that it’s hard to convince Detroit Lions fans of this when presenting them with the mountain of evidence from this franchise itself. Kerryon Johnson, Ameer Abdullah, Mikel LeShoure, Jahvid Best, Kevin Jones. Those are the last five times the Lions have made this decision, and none have come close to justifying the pick.

So you could imagine my frustration when the Lions decided to take D’Andre Swift with the 35th overall pick in the 2020 NFL Draft. I have no issues with Swift as a prospect. He’s an extremely well-round player that is undoubtedly going to be fun to watch on Sundays—in the same way that Kerryon Johnson, Ameer Abdullah and Jahvid Best were fun to watch before... well, you know.

The reasoning for my line of thinking expands beyond just Lions history. Sports analytics have been drawing this conclusion for years. Our friends at Field Gulls have been obsessed with this topic. And just general observations about the league seem to suggest the running game just isn’t as important as it used to be.

You can think of it as basically as this: the best running backs in the league average around 5.0 yards per carry. The worst quarterbacks in the league 6.1 yards per pass. So why the hell run the ball or put resources into the running game?

Is that an oversimplification? Sure. Passing also comes with more inherent risks. Sacks and interceptions are more likely than negative rushing plays or fumbles. Still, even for run-loving people like Matt Patricia, it’s hard to ignore that passing is king in today’s NFL.

But I wanted to get in on the research. Depending on the opinions and research of others is a good way to grow complacent, boring and perhaps even outdated. After all, every link I used above came from articles that were at least two years old. The NFL is ever changing, and some people believe it’s cyclical. Maybe the running game is enjoying a comeback? After all, the Titans, Ravens and 49ers just made some serious noise in the NFL last year, and they happen to be the three top rushing teams in the league.

So let’s break down some figures to see if my preconceived notions of running back value are out of date.

Presumption: Running game isn’t important in today’s NFL

Let’s look at how the most successful running games have fared in the NFL over the past three seasons. For this, I charted Football Outsiders’ run offense DVOA against win percentage for each of the 2017, 2018 and 2019 seasons.

There’s a slight correlation, but the R-squared number—which measures how much one variable impacts the other—ranged from .14 to .33 in the past three years. That’s not a very convincing number (the closer to 1.0, the better the causation).

Now let’s look at the passing game.

With R-squared figures from .40 to .54, there really is no comparison. Though the numbers were interestingly close in 2018 (.33 for run, .40 for pass), it’s clear the passing game reigns supreme. Still, there’s enough evidence to suggest that maybe the running game does have some significant value in today’s NFL.

Presumption: RBs from top two rounds don’t ever see a second contract

This is an easy one to test. Let’s just look at the recent examples. I didn’t want to go too far back because even 2000s football is a different era of the game than today’s game. But I also didn’t want to cut the sample too short to make the data meaningless. So I decided to take running backs taken from a five-year sample: 2012 to 2016. That range was used because it’s as close to the modern era of football, and all those draft picks were given a shot at second contract.

That sample provided us with 20 running backs taken in the first or second round: Trent Richardson, Doug Martin, David Wilson, Isaiah Pead, LaMichael James, Ronnie Hillman, Giovani Bernard, Le’Veon Bell, Montee Ball, Eddie Lacy, Christine Michael, Bishop Sankey, Jeremy Hill, Carlos Hyde, Todd Gurley, Melvin Gordon, T.J. Yeldon, Ameer Abdullah, Ezekiel Elliott, Derrick Henry.

Of those 20 I broke them down into four different categories:

Re-signed with original team (4 of 20)

Martin, Bernard, Gurley and Elliott were the only four running backs to sign a new deal with their original team. Of those four, only Bernard lasted the entirety of the second contract (he actually got at third contract, too!). Gurley was cut two years into his four-year extension, while Martin was cut two years into a five-year extension. Ezekiel Elliott got a six-year extensions. We’ll see how long that lasts.

Note: There was a fifth running back in this category: Ronnie Hillman. Hillman signed a one-year extension with the Dolphins, but he was cut before the regular season began.

Franchise Tagged (2 of 20)

Derrick Henry and Le’Veon Bell received franchise tags (Bell twice) after their rookie deals ended. For Bell, it eventually ended in an ugly divorce and a struggling season in New York. We’ll see what the future holds for Henry.

Lasted rookie deal with original team, but signed elsewhere after (6 of 20)

(Note: I put Hillman in this category)

Just over one fourth of running backs drafted in the first two rounds end up riding out their entire rookie deals but signed with another team after.

However, these running backs rarely found success with their new teams. Jeremy HIll carried the ball four times after leaving Cincinnati. Carlos Hyde jumped to three different teams after leaving San Francisco and is currently a free agent. Eddie Lacy was out of the NFL one year after leaving Green Bay. T.J. Yeldon carried the ball 14 times after leaving Jacksonville. We’ll see how Melvin Gordon does in Denver after an ugly holdout in 2019.

So not much production after their rookie contract, even with other teams.

Cut or traded within 3 years (8 of 20)

Yes, nearly half of running backs drafted in the top two rounds were gone from their original teams after Year 3. Here’s the breakdown:

  • Trent Richardson: Traded after two seasons (although Browns got a first-round pick in return)
  • David Wilson: Cut after 2 years
  • Isaiah Pead: Cut after 2.5 seasons, only had 19 carries
  • LaMichael James: Cut after 2 seasons
  • Montee Ball: Cut after 2 season, end of career
  • Christine Michael: Traded after 2 years (7th rounder)
  • Bishop Sankey: Cut after 2 years, end of career
  • Ameer Abdullah: Cut after 3 seasons

So, to the original presumption, yeah, it’s pretty true that running backs are a short-term investment. When nearly half don’t even see the final year of their rookie deal, that should raise some red flags.

But, how does that compare to other positions?

Well, I wasn’t about to track the contract situations of all 320 first and round draft picks over the same time period. I have time, but not that much time. Instead, I used a different measurement.

Pro Football Reference has a metric called Approximate Value (AV). There’s a lot of complicated things that go into AV, but here’s the simplest way to think of it:

“Essentially, AV is a substitute for --- and a significant improvement upon, in my opinion --- metrics like ‘number of seasons as a starter’ or ‘number of times making the pro bowl’ or the like. You should think of it as being essentially like those two metrics, but with interpolation in between.”

In essence, it’s a way to measure the value of a player over the course of their entire career.

So instead of just looking at longevity, let’s look at the value of these running backs as they compare to the rest of the draft class. Using the same date range as above (2012 to 2016), I took the average AV of these 20 running backs and compared them to the rest of the first and second round picks in that era. The results were different, but not by much.

Non running backs: 26.1 average AV
Running backs: 24.5 average AV

But here’s where things got interesting. I decided to run the same AV averages for running backs drafted since that era. So from 2017 and beyond, I wanted to see if there was potentially a shift happening in the NFL. And look what I found.

Approximate value of first and second round picks taken from 2017-2019:

Non running backs: 12.1
Running backs: 18.3

That’s a huge difference. But before I start jumping to the conclusion that running backs are suddenly amazing and I was wrong and I owe D’Andre Swift an apology. Let’s talk about some limitations of this data.

  1. This is an incredibly small sample size. We’re literally talking about 13 running backs here.
  2. This data doesn’t address long-term issues with these players—which is the main concern I have.
  3. It make sense that early in their careers, running backs are more valuable than other positions. Running backs are plug-and-play positions. Whereas positions like offensive line or cornerback often take years to develop.

So what does it all mean?

Well, I’m willing to loosen up my position that no team should ever draft a running back in the top two rounds. Data shows that investing in a running back provides excellent short-term value. So when a team like the Super Bowl-winning Kansas City Chiefs drafts Clyde Edwards-Helaire in the first round, I can accept it, because the team is in a position where they need to maximize their immediate value to take advantage of their current “contender’s window.”

However, I do remain stout in my belief that drafting a running back is poor long-term value. It’s closer than I believed, but the hard truth is that it’s quite unlikely we see D’Andre Swift in a Lions uniform beyond 2023.

Now, for Bob Quinn and Matt Patricia, maybe the short-term investment makes sense. Entering their third year together, they are desperate for results after a 9-22-1 record over the past two seasons. With a pseudo-ultimatum in place, the Lions can’t afford the time it takes to develop some rookie positions. They need production—especially out of a 35th overall pick—right now.

So, to conclude, yeah, I can see the rationalization for a pick like this, but teams in similar situations to the Lions probably shouldn’t be making short-term investments like this unless they’re sure they can contend for a title (or their jobs are on the line).