NFL Draft 2018 – Striking Gold With Mid-Round Running Backs

Michael Nania on the problem with drafting running backs in the first round of the NFL Draft…

Saquon Barkley’s magic at Penn State has carried over to draft season – and with just two weeks until the NFL Draft, he has the football world considering him not only the best back in the draft, but a potential top two selection. While Barkley certainly possesses a tantalizing array of skills and traits, are NFL teams simply ignoring logic by valuing the running back position that highly?

Running back is what some would call a “sexy” position. They carry your fantasy team. They put huge numbers in the box scores. They dance in the end zone. They carry the rock down the field and the dreams of an entire fanbase along with it.

More so than seemingly any other position besides quarterback, it seems that the running back position carries a perception that an upgrade there can provide a team with an instant boost of invigoration, production, and energy. You’ve heard it before. “Saquon would spark the Jets offense.” “Fournette would give the Jets offense an identity.”

And, don’t get me wrong, a great running back is a wonderful thing for a franchise! Running back is far from a valueless position, and if you can get a superstar back at the top of the draft, it’s a big win. Ezekiel Elliott has carried the Dallas Cowboys for two years. Leonard Fournette could still bounce back from a low-YPC rookie year and become a pounding force; he already took on a huge workload for an AFC Championship team. Barkley just might be the real deal. Todd Gurley was an MVP candidate in Los Angeles.

However, the fact of the matter is, while the idea of bringing in a juicy talent like the three mentioned is enticing, it’s going against the history of the draft that tells you loud and clear: good running backs are among the easiest commodities to find in football.

Just look at the 2017 draft. The two leaders in scrimmage yards among the running backs selected in that class were Kareem Hunt (1,782) and Alvin Kamara (1,554): both third round selections. Of the top eleven rushers in the class, eight were selected in the third round or later.

The year prior in 2016, two of the four backs with 1,000+ yards over their first two seasons were fifth round picks: Jordan Howard (2,435) and Alex Collins (1,098).

Back in 2015, Todd Gurley and Melvin Gordon both went in the top fifteen, and they currently stand as the class leaders in rush yardage. However, the following three on the list are Jay Ajayi (5th round pick), David Johnson (3rd round pick) and Tevin Coleman (3rd round pick). While none have gotten the touch volume that Gordon and Gurley have for various reasons, they have all been electric playmakers and very key components on their respective teams; two of them went to the Super Bowl. Is the dropoff between those top two and the next three that big as to where they are worth multiple rounds of draft position? Of those top five rushers from the 2015 class, Gurley and Gordon own the lowest YPC averages.

The bottom line is simply that running back has not proven to be a position where premium resources need to be spent to find elite production, like positions such as quarterback, left tackle, cornerback, and pass rusher.

Of the top 40 individual rushing seasons over the past 5 years, only 14 of them were by former first round selections. Let’s compare that to the “premium positions.” At quarterback, of the top 40 individual passing yardage seasons over the past 5 years, 30 of them were by first round selections; Drew Brees and Tom Brady made up 8 of the 10 others. If you exclude Tom Brady, only 1 of the top 40 passing yardage seasons were by a QB picked outside the top two rounds: Kirk Cousins in 2016.

Of the 40 best individual single season sack totals over the past 5 years, 24 were by first round picks. At cornerback, of the 46 individual seasons with 9+ Approximate Value (an estimate of value from Pro Football Reference), 28 were first round picks. At tackle, of the 46 Pro Bowlers selected over the past 5 seasons, 31 were first round picks.

Those qualifiers are far from exact in determining value, but they contribute to illustrate how much more difficult it is to find diamond-in-the-rough talent at other important positions compared to running back.

The 2018 draft class is stacked from top to bottom with promising names. Beyond Bronx native Saquon Barkley, you have Derrius Guice, Sony Michel, Rashaad Penny, Ronald Jones, Nick Chubb, Kerryon Johnson, and a number of other very impressive prospects out of the backfield. It will be fun to watch where all of these players land, then to see if they can live up to the hype and augment the fast growing faction of superstar ball carriers selected in the middle of the draft.

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Author: Michael Nania

You can follow me on Twitter @Michael_Nania. I'll be hosting the weekly Jets opponent preview podcast, Know Your Foe, starting with the 2018 regular season. I've been writing for Turn On The Jets since January 2018, and you can also check out more of my work on the Jets over at Gang Green Nation.