Fact or Fiction: Can Good Running Backs Be Found Anywhere in the Draft?

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The myth: You can find number one backs anywhere in the draft.

I’ve been hearing a lot of talk lately that you shouldn’t bother taking a running back early because you can find good backs late in the draft. While most believe this too be true, how much fact is in that statement? In this article I’m going to take a look at the top 15 running backs in the league in rushing yards each year and then look at when each was drafted. This will give us a good indication of where in the draft you could find a top 15 back. I’ve been hearing this thought for years now and I thought it was about time I delved a little deeper in the draft.

I decided to look at the running backs for the past 10 years to give us a big enough sample size that it won’t be thrown off by one or two players. I looked at the top 15 rushers over a 10 year period, so this gave me 150 points of reference. Over that 10 year period, 65 different running backs finished in the top 15 in rushing yards for a given year.  This tells me that each running back finished in the top fifteen 2.3 times. Now obviously some of the running backs finished in the top 15 more years than that, but there were quite a few who were only there one year which brought that number down.

The results followed along with my original thought and went against what I had been told for years. Of the 150 points of reference I looked at, 75 of the rushers were picked in the first round. In addition to that, 50 were picked in rounds two and three. That meant that just 25 of the rushers or just over 16% were picked from rounds four through seven or were undrafted. That doesn’t go along with the narrative that you can get a number one running back anywhere in the draft.

After that I decided to look at how many of those rushers were repeat top 15 guys to see if just a couple guys were having long term success or if there were a lot of one year wonders among the later guys. Out of the 150 rushers I looked at, only 10 of them were undrafted, though that was the highest for any round after the third. Of those 10 rushers, there were five different running backs. Of those five rushers, Willie Parker had the longest success with three years in the top 15. Ryan Grant had two years as well as Arian Foster has had two years. He will probably end up as the best of the bunch if he can stay healthy. Rounding out the undrafted running backs are BenJarvus Green-Ellis and Fred Jackson, each having one season in the top 15.

Moving on to the seventh round, it doesn’t look nearly as good as the undrafted running backs did. `Of the 150 points of reference I looked at, a running back picked in the seventh round only finished in the top 15 rushing 3 times in the past 10 years. Of those three times, each times was a different running back. Peyton Hillis did it with the Browns, Ahmad Bradshaw did it once as did Derrick Ward. None of the three ever duplicated that type of success again.

Looking at the running backs taken in the sixth round, again only three of the 150 reference points finished in the top 15 rushers in the past 10 years. Chester Taylor did it once and Alfred Morris has done it both of the past two years. Taylor was never a feature back, but was a nice compliment back. Morris has just been in the league two years and has finished in the top 15 both times. We will see just how good of a back Morris really is now that Mike Shanahan isn’t there anymore.

Looking at the fifth round now, only four times did someone drafted there finish in the top 15 rushers for a given year. Of those four times, three of them were Michael Turner. He had a good four year stretch with the Falcons where he was one of the better backs in the NFL. The other year was accomplished by Zac Stacy this past year as a rookie with the Rams. It will be interesting to watch Stacy and see if he can continue to improve or falls off like many of the other late round backs.

The fourth round only ended up with a back finishing in the top 15 five times and those five times were done by three different backs. Brandon Jacobs and Domanick Williams were both in the top 15 for one season, but never duplicated those results. Rudi Johnson was in the top 15 three times in his time with the Cincinnati Bengals. Johnson was never considered one of the best backs in the NFL, but he was a solid, hardworking starter who did a lot of things well.

The third round is really where the numbers start to look better. Of the 150 reference points for top 15 rushers in the past 10 years, running backs that were drafted in the third round finished there 23 times. Eleven different running backs contributed to those 23 times. There is a lot of talent and success out of the running backs drafted in the third. Two running backs who didn’t really have success and aren’t young enough to have success in the future are Justin Fargas and Steve Slaton, each of whom was only in the top 15 one year. Reuben Droughns is another who didn’t have a ton of success over his career, but he did have two seasons in the top 15. Ahman Green and Curtis Martin both only had one year in my time frame, but both of them had a lot of success prior to 2004. Brian Westbrook is another who had more success prior to 2004, but he still had two seasons in the top 15 in the years I looked at.

Stevan Ridley and DeMarco Murray have also both only had one season in the top 15 so far, but both are young and have prominent roles on their team. Shonn Greene finished in the top 15 twice over this time period and is still young enough to have some success, but he isn’t a number one back.  Frank Gore and Jamaal Charles are the best two out of this group. Gore has had seven years in the top 15 rushers and looks to still be going strong. Charles has had four years in the top 15 and is still young enough that he should be there many more years to come. As you can see, the talent that was drafted in the third round was a lot better than that in rounds four through seven and the undrafted running backs.

Looking at running backs taken in the second round, 27 times did one of them finish in the top 15 rushers in the league. Out of those 27 times, there were 12 different running backs that contributed. There were a few running backs that didn’t have any type of sustained success in the league as a number one back. Travis Henry, LaDell Betts, LenDale White and LaMont Jordan all four only finished in the top 15 one time. Corey Dillon only finished in the top 15 once in the past 10 years, but he had sustained success before the years I looked at. The same thing is true with Tiki Barber, who still finished in the top 15 three times in the past 10 years.

The rest of the guys picked in the second round have all had sustained success or look on their way to good careers. Clinton Portis was one of the best backs in the league for his time in Denver and had some success in Washington as well. In the past 10 years, he finished in the top 15 four times. Maurice Jones-Drew and LeSean McCoy have both finished in the top 15 three times and are young enough that they should finish there a few more times. Both are considered top backs in the league. The same thing can be said for Matt Forte and Ray Rice who have been in the top 15 four times. The only running back left is Eddie Lacy who finished in the top 15 last year as a rookie. His best years still look to be ahead of him.

Now it’s time to look at the largest sample out of any round, the running backs drafted in the first. Of the 150 top 15 rushers I looked at, a whopping 75 came from guys drafted in the first round. Those 75 times were accomplished by 27 guys. Out of all of those guys, only five of them didn’t have any type of sustained success. Kevin Jones, Joseph Addai, Beanie Wells and Cadillac Williams only finished in the top 15 one time. Rashard Mendenhall is another who didn’t have a lot of long term success, though he finished in the top 15 twice. Cedric Benson is an interesting name to talk about. He was largely considered a bust before the Bengals signed him and he had three good years with him. Benson has some sustained success, but wasn’t what I would call a top back.

Some of the guys who were picked in the first round only had one or two years in the top 15 in the past 10 years, but had sustained success before then. Shaun Alexander and Larry Johnson finished there twice, Jamal Lewis and Ricky Williams each finished there once. There were some more guys who had a lot of success during the years I looked at that had success beforehand too. Fred Taylor finished in the top 15 three times, as did Warrick Dunn. Two more guys who had great success during the years I looked at as well as the years before I looked were Edgerrin James who finished in the top 15 four times and LaDainian Tomlinson who finished in the top 15 five times. All of the guys who I just talked about had sustained success as a number one back.

Before I talk about the cream of the crop of these guys I am going to talk about some guys who haven’t had a ton of long term success yet, but are still young and talented enough to have that success. DeAngelo Williams, Ryan Matthews, Reggie Bush and C.J. Spiller all have finished in the top 15 rushers twice in the past 10 years. Jonathan Stewart, Darren McFadden, Knowshon Moreno and Doug Martin are all guys who have shown the talent to be a top back in the league, but for one reason or another haven’t had sustained success.

The cream of the crop of this group is six guys. Willis McGahee is at the bottom of this group. He finished in the top 15 four times, but had numerous other good years. After that is Thomas Jones, who had a very good six year run in the middle of his career, finishing in the top 15 five of those years. Now Super Bowl Champion Marshawn Lynch finished in the top 15 five times and doesn’t look to be slowing down anytime soon. Steven Jackson has been one of the top running backs in the league since he was drafted. He has finished in the top 15 six times in the past 10 years and had good years even in the years he wasn’t top 15. Chris Johnson is another guy who has finished in the top 15 six times, but he is still young enough that he should have a few more years there. Last, but certainly not least is the best running back in the league Adrian Peterson. Peterson has finished in the top 15 every season that he has been in the NFL except the season that was shortened with an injury.

If you look at it strictly from a numbers perspective, 75 of the 150 top 15 rushers or 50% were drafted in the first round. The number drops significantly to the second and third rounds, which come in 27 and 23 of the 150 top rushers or 18% and 15%. The numbers fall off completely after that. You are highly unlikely to find one in rounds four through seven. Of the 150 top rushers only 5 or 3% were found in round four, four were found in round five or 2.6%, and three were found in each rounds six and seven or 2%. The numbers show that you are more likely to find a top 15 rusher in the undrafted running backs than you are any round four through seven. Ten of the 150 top rushers were undrafted backs or 6.6%.

If you look at the 65 different backs that accounted for all the top 15 rushers over the past 10 years the numbers look pretty similar. Of the 65 backs in this group, 28 different backs or 43% were drafted in the first round. Again the numbers drop pretty far off to the second and third rounds. In the second round there were 12 backs drafted or 18.5% and in the third round there were 11 backs drafted or 17%. Again, much like the numbers in the previous paragraph, the numbers take another significant drop when looking at rounds four through seven. There were three backs drafted in both rounds four and seven, accounting for 4.6% each. Then there were two backs drafted in both rounds five and six, accounting for 3.1% each. The numbers again jumped a little bit for the undrafted running backs where there were five signed. That accounts for 7.7% of the top 15 running backs.

If you add up the numbers and split the group after the third round you see that only 23% of the different backs that were in the top 15 in rushing in any of the past 10 years was drafted after the third. That means you are slightly more than three times as likely to get a top 15 running back in the first three rounds. Looking at the data you will also notice that those backs drafted after the third didn’t have much long term success, few of them having more than one year in the top 15 and three of them having more than two years. If you just look at the raw 150 points of data, 125 of the 150 top rushers or 83.3% were drafted in the first three rounds. That shows that the backs taken earlier have more long term success and a much greater chance of being a top 15 back.

The Truth: After I looked at the running backs in the NFL that have finished in the top 15 rushers in the league for each of the past 10 seasons it seems pretty obvious that you can’t really just find a number one running back anywhere. Out of all the running backs that were taken in rounds four through seven and the undrafted guys, there were only four or five running backs that are true number one backs. That tells me that despite the chance you may find the next Alfred Morris or Arian Foster, you just aren’t very likely to do so. However, if you take a running back in rounds one through three the odds skyrocket. Essentially all of your top backs in the league were taken in the first three rounds and if you want a big time running back the numbers strongly suggest you spend a pick in the first three rounds on it.

All of my information that I accumulated can be seen here:

https://docs.google.com/file/d/0B1So67Dlwnr7dDhyQXMxejladnM/edit

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