Football Outsiders
Innovative Statistics, Intelligent Analysis

ESPN: Never Draft a Running Back Early

In recent years, great running backs haven't done much to carry teams through the playoffs. The best teams have gotten by with later-round picks and undrafted free agents. Plus, looking at the last decade of top 16 picks suggests that drafting defense is the best way to turn your team around.

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18 comments, Last at 29 Feb 2012, 5:02am

1 Re: ESPN: Never Draft a Running Back Early

This entire article reminds me of the "quarterback wins" statistic. So much goes into a successful playoff team besides the pedigree of one player that it's foolish to conclude anything by correlating draft position with playoff wins.

2 Re: ESPN: Never Draft a Running Back Early

Not saying you are wrong, but:\

2010 - Steelers (Mendenhall), Jets (Tomlinson)
2009 - Colts (Addai, Brown), Jets (Jones), Saints (Bush), Vikings (Peterson)
2008 - Ravens (McGahee), Cardinals (Edge James)
2007 - Patriots (Maroney), Chargers (Tomlinson)
2006 - Colts (Addai), Patriots (Maroney), Bears (Benson, Jones), Saints (Bush, McAlister).

So, in the five years before 2011, fourteen of the twenty teams to make 'The Final Four' had a major running back in the 1st round.

Tomlinson and Reggie Bush were basically the back-up runners for the 2010 Jets and 2009 Saints, but then again, the 2009 Colts and 2006 Saints had a pair of 1st round running backs.

Sure, some of these running backs weren't that great (Brown, Maroney), but therein lies the problem with using the rate which 1st round draft picks make the playoffs as a way of evaluating their worth.

4 Re: ESPN: Never Draft a Running Back Early

Benson was on the team that drafted him (Bears). That said, the rest of those were still productive (well, Edge was in the playoffs). The were productive their whole careers. Tomlinson (and Edge) had already made a Title Game in the place that they were drafted (SD, IND).

Either way, I think grading how successful a draft pick, especially a RB, is by if his team makes the playoffs is s bit silly.

6 Re: ESPN: Never Draft a Running Back Early

Don't know if you have access to Insider but he restricts the analysis to the top of the first round.

Not sure if that is a good or bad idea but it sheds light on why you and the article arrive at different conclusions as Mendenhall, Brown, Addai, McGahee, Maroney and McAllister won't be included. (Also, Tomlinson, James, and Jones weren't drafted by the team you have cited)

10 Re: ESPN: Never Draft a Running Back Early

Sure, some of these running backs weren't that great (Brown, Maroney), but therein lies the problem with using the rate which 1st round draft picks make the playoffs as a way of evaluating their worth.

The crux of the article, as the chart points out, is that in recent history, bad teams that have drafted running backs have rarely been successful going forward, compared to bad teams that have drafted other players early. The key point is that we're evaluating the teams that have done the drafting, not the player being drafted. That's why we limited the study to the top 16 picks.

Although, if you do include all first-round picks, the chart remains virtually the same, except that tight ends vault to the very top. Why? Because Indianapolis drafted Dallas Clark, and New England drafted Daniel Graham and Ben Watson, and those two teams proceeded to rack up multiple playoff berths.

You are 100 percent correct when you point out that 2011 was an anomaly, with no prominent first-round RBs in the conference championship games. However, of the runners you listed, most were drafted in the second half of the first round (joining good teams, not turning around bad teams) or drafted before 2002 (and thus can't really be included in "recent history"). The only recent top-first-half guys in your list are Peterson, Benson, and Bush. So I think, if anything, your evidence backs up the article.

13 Re: ESPN: Never Draft a Running Back Early

My suspicion would be that while drafting a running back early may in itself be somewhat damaging, most of any correlation between using high draft picks on running backs and failure may well stem from a more general correlation between choosing to draft running backs high and front office incompetence. If your personnel department is stuck in the 70s, it's probably bad at everything, and that will make your team suck far harder than one high draft pick expended on a lower value position.

Also, teams are probably still looking for the wrong things in a running back: his receiving skills are far more important than a lot of teams yet acknowledge, hence guys like Forte and McCoy going too low while Cedric Benson and Jamal Lewis go too high. A Marshall Faulk clone would still be worth the #1 overall pick in many drafts.

I also wonder if top RBs are less likely than other positions to bust through lack of skill (promoting confidence from GMs in their ability to identify good ones) but far more likely to bust through injury (making drafting them a bad proposition even if you have reason to be confident they're good). Williams, Brown, McFadden . . . Or is that just coincidence?

5 Re: ESPN: Never Draft a Running Back Early

The stats in the chart seem to suggest that you're better off drafting defense and quarterbacks, if I'm interpreting it correctly. Given that the number of elite quarterbacks is going to be small, if there isn't a qb worth the pick go defensive.

7 Re: ESPN: Never Draft a Running Back Early

This is just an initial thought which has not been fully refined due to not having read the article itself yet. However, I think the bigger issue is draft value as it relates to compensation. It pays to "pay big" to get elite quarterbacks or pass-rushers or middle linebackers or shutdown corners. You have to pay a premium, most often, to get that elite production from these spots but it is worth taking a risk on these positions. In terms of the return per dollar, a running back drafted high simply does not "return that much more" compared to later picks. This is obviously true at all positions on some level in that the draft is set up to get the players with the highest likelihood of succeeding being drafted high. However, while you may still apply that to running backs, the questions that need to be asked which look especially particular to running backs is whether or not they are a.) THAT MUCH better to justify the costs of selection and expected return at this draft slot compared to another slot as well as another player to his next ranked counterpart and b.) is the probability of getting a back who is that much better all that much greater than if selecting a back in the range I'm hearing recommended (again, I need to read the article as I'm only basing this comment off of previous comments).

Particularly under the old collective bargaining agreement, ANY PLAYER picked in that top 10 range was paid a huge sum of money. That old system promoted minimizing buyer remorse for the selections in that range of the draft whereas now rookies are a clear value even in the top ten.

8 Re: ESPN: Never Draft a Running Back Early

I meant to say another player at another position compared to his next ranked positional counterpart, i.e. is the drop from CB1 to CB2 so steep that we should take CB1 here rather than try to get CB2 later versus the same scenario for RB1 to RB2.

Ultimately, you always "pay more" for expected certainty so the question is where is it best to pay that premium. Again, that old system was set up to strongly discourage paying for an elite back but, as all the various statistical analysis seems to point to, it appears having an elite to good edge at RB just isn't as valuable as at other spots.

12 Re: ESPN: Never Draft a Running Back Early

The wheel turns, and as ever such statistical analysis is great for telling you how the last 5 or 10 SBs have been won. As a predictive element, I tend to cultivate a professional doubt, since coaches are paid to be visionaries who can recognize and exploit oversights by other coaches. Last years' trash might end up being next years' harvest.

16 Re: ESPN: Never Draft a Running Back Early

That would apply to analysis on the bulk of acquired talent (e.g., the whole draft and UDFA, plus FA). For example over the years variations of defensive or offensive scheme worked because you could get guys that were not the right size for 'traditional' schemes for cheap.

But when analyzing the top half of the first round it is about what known quantities are best to take, not what hidden gems there are. If you have a secret creative vision for exploiting weaknesses in how others value players, you play that card later, not with an early pick. The early pick is your only chance to get a player that you _and everyone else_ suspect is very good.

14 Re: ESPN: Never Draft a Running Back Early

I would think this is a bit of sample size theatre, among other things (not to mention that under the old CBA, the top of the first round was an objectively bad place to draft, no matter who you chose). I'd like to see a complete analysis of all draft picks in the first two rounds by position, correlating with overall games won, or better yet, point differential.

I would still think that drafting defense works, but I suspect that may -still- be correlation meets causation, since teams draft defense when a stellar QB is carrying their offense (unless they're Bill Polian, in which case they draft offensive skill position players in bunches).

17 Re: ESPN: Never Draft a Running Back Early

I agree.

It doesn't matter that the top of the draft was 'bad' no matter who you took with the old CBA. Some choices are 'less bad' than others.

Then again, this whole thing could be influenced by two very bad GM's always taking offensive players very high in the draft. Tip #1 don't draft like Oakland or Detroit did between 2003 and 2009.

18 Re: ESPN: Never Draft a Running Back Early

"under the old CBA, the top of the first round was an objectively bad place to draft, no matter who you chose"

That's just not true. It was high risk/high variance, but the first overall pick was still the best pick to own. It's by far the easiest place to find a franchise quarterback, and essentially the only place to find a dominant left tackle. Most people would say the best three wide receivers in football are Andre and Calvin Johnson and Larry Fitzgerald; all three were top three picks. The historical performance of top draft picks is skewed to the downside by the fact that such picks are frequently held by franchises with incompetent personnel departments, but even without making any allowance for that, the Loser's Curse concept is simply mistaken.