Writers of Pro Football Prospectus 2008

12 Apr 2018

BackCAST 2018 (ESPN version)

FO's BackCAST projections for running backs are here, led by Saquon Barkley. Barkley gets the second highest projection since 1998, behind only Ricky Williams. The Barkley debate is fascinating: we don't advise taking running backs high, but what do you do when there aren't great prospects at the positions we usually advise taking high? Backing the idea of taking Barkley higher than other running backs: he's also by far the best receiving back in this year's class, giving him plenty of value even if the passing game is by far more important than the running game.

Posted by: Nathan Forster on 12 Apr 2018

20 comments, Last at 16 Apr 2018, 12:46pm by jtr


by jtr :: Thu, 04/12/2018 - 12:56pm

If he's really as good as he's projected to be, of course he's worth a high pick. People sometimes get so tied up in positional value that they lose sight of the quality of the player in their analysis. An All Pro RB is going to be worth more than an average WR, even though receivers might be worth more on average than backs. We'll see the same thing with O-line this draft, where there may be two guards taken before the first tackle, because a great guard is more valuable than a bad tackle.

Take a look at the 2013 draft class (link below, spam filter always eats my inline links), where LeVeon Bell was taken with the 48th overall pick. How many players taken in the top 47 have been more valuable players than Bell? You have DeAndre Hopkins and several great corners (Rhodes, Trufant, and Slay), but besides that most of the best players of the class have been at less-valuable positions. Bell certainly wouldn't have been bad value as a top-5 pick in that class. Bell's talent and versatility have been a huge part of what has made the Steelers offense so successful since he got picked. Barkley has the potential to be even better; OF COURSE he would be worth a top pick.


by Otis Taylor89 :: Mon, 04/16/2018 - 11:18am

The problem with drafting a RB early is that they often get injured and then you are screwed.

by jtr :: Mon, 04/16/2018 - 12:46pm

It's football, though; everybody gets injured sooner or later. Barkley has been healthy (27 games played in the last two years), so I don't think it makes much sense to discount him over injury concerns.

I've been thinking about this another way; if you have an opportunity to get a top-3 player at his position, you've got a gamechanger who is worthy of a top-5 pick no matter what his position is (outside of fullback or punter or whatever). This draft class is a weird one, because the top non-QB prospects are largely at less valued positions. The three top non-QB prospects might very well be a running back, a guard, and a slot corner. SackSEER isn't madly in love with any of the top edge rushers, and nobody seems all that excited about any of the offensive tackles. It will be interesting to see how that plays out in a week and a half.

by TimK :: Thu, 04/12/2018 - 1:40pm

I think that since the rookie pay scale came in there might be a better case for drafting the very good RBs fairly early. As long as very good includes them being useful in the passing game too. Running backs tend to be able to slot into the pro-game from day 1 if they are good enough and then you 5 years of prime production from a position that tend to wear down faster than most at a set price.

Yes, I'm aware this is a pretty unpleasant state of affairs for the running backs : running someone into the ground on their probationary pay scale and then releasing them rather than giving them a proper job almost makes RBs the interns/project-students of the NFL. From the team point of view, especially when including jersey sales etc, it might be good sense on and off the field.

by ssereb :: Thu, 04/12/2018 - 4:17pm

I think there's a good argument that the prime spot for teams to draft running backs is the end of the 1st round. In most drafts that's still going to mean a top-tier running back at a fairly low salary for four years and a normal salary for the fifth. In the 2nd round you're getting approximately the same back without the extra year at a marginally lower price.

by justanothersteve :: Fri, 04/13/2018 - 12:30pm

I agree with that. I also think it's the best place to draft a high upside developmental QB. I will not be surprised if any or all of the following are gone by the end of the first round: Lamar Jackson, Luke Falk (I'll be stunned if he and Lauletta are picked after Rudolph), Derrius Guice, Nick Chubb, Sony Michel.

by Cogitus :: Thu, 04/12/2018 - 3:17pm

Is there a expanded list? Wondering where Kalen Ballage ranks after having such a high speedscore

by Aaron Schatz :: Thu, 04/12/2018 - 4:36pm

As with Playmaker, SackSEER, and QBASE, there will be an FO version in a week or so that gives an expanded list of players.

by Sixknots :: Thu, 04/12/2018 - 8:59pm

Did I miss SackSEER?

by Aaron Schatz :: Fri, 04/13/2018 - 3:51pm

Nope. Hasn't run yet.

by Will Allen :: Thu, 04/12/2018 - 6:01pm

If a running back can force the opposing d coordinator to scheme first and foremost to stop that running back, even when that team's passing attack, outside of that running back, is at least average, then that running back is worthy of a picked near the top of the 1st round.

Very, very, few running backs meet that standard, probably one or two a decade. To start with, such a player has to be a legitimate threat to score a td on every touch, anywhere on the field. Hardly any combine sufficient speed and power, but Barkley appears to be one of them.

by Aaron Brooks Go... :: Fri, 04/13/2018 - 11:36am

Are they that rare?

Consider 1989-2001 (a super-decade).

You had Sanders (89-98), Smith (90-04), Faulk (94-05), Davis (95-01), Martin (95-05), Holmes (97-07), James (99-09), Williams (99-11), Alexander (2000-08), Lewis (2000-09), and Tomlinson (01-11).

That's 11 guys in 12 years. Other than the gap between Smith and Faulk, that's around 1 per year. And that gap is closed if you include Jerome Bettis. Thurman Thomas ('88) just misses the cut.

Basically, there's usually one 1st-round back each year. Sometimes two.

by Eddo :: Fri, 04/13/2018 - 12:04pm

Were defenses really scheming around those guys?

Sanders, yes; Faulk, yes; Holmes, I think so; Tomlinson, probably.

I can maybe squint and see Smith and Davis, too.

But the rest, while great, were simply things the defenses had to worry about, not the primary thing.

by Will Allen :: Fri, 04/13/2018 - 12:11pm

Tomlinson makes the grade, I'm pretty sure.

by Will Allen :: Fri, 04/13/2018 - 12:16pm

Adrian Peterson in 2009 kind of best demonstrates what you are looking for, even though receiving and pass blocking were very secondary to his rushing. Even with Favre playing at a very high level, opposing defenses were just overstacked to keep Peterson in check, which made life for Favre much more pleasant, even with a very mediocre receiving corps.

by justanothersteve :: Fri, 04/13/2018 - 12:45pm

Favre's receiving corps wasn't that mediocre. Sidney Rice was becoming an excellent WR. Shiancoe was a perfect TE for Favre, a big end zone target like Mark Chmura and Bubba Franks. Percy Harvin was an amazing talent when his head didn't get in the way; he actually listened to advice his rookie season. They also had a decent line anchored by All-Pro Steve Hutchinson. Unfortunately, Rice was injured the next year and never the same after that, Harvin's ego destroyed his career (at least Minnesota got draft picks), and Shiancoe and Berrian (a decent #2/3) were close to the end of their peaks. That 2009 offense was pretty talented.

by justanothersteve :: Fri, 04/13/2018 - 12:53pm

A little more on the tragic story of Sidney Rice. I honestly thought he was setting up for a borderline HoF career or as others here put it, Hall of Very Good. He was tall, fast enough, had a knack for getting open, and caught pretty much anything thrown near him. He was named to PFF's 2009 All-Pro team. Then he had a hip injury, put off surgery, and was never the same afterward.

by Will Allen :: Fri, 04/13/2018 - 2:44pm

Shiancoe was not a perfect te for anyone, because he caught the ball like he had seal flippers instead of human hands. To employ a technical term, he sucked, and lasted in the league as long as he did mostly on the basis of athletic traits that did not involve using hands to prevent the ball from hitting the ground. Rice was good, Berrian mediocre to poor, Harvin a huge athletic talent with limited route running skill. Overall, I'd say it was a mediocre receiving corps. The o-line was above average, although not nearly as good as it was in 2008.

by Will Allen :: Fri, 04/13/2018 - 12:10pm

It may sound very strange, but in today's environment, I don't think Smith, Davis, Martin, Holmes, James, Williams, Alexander, or Lewis warrant being picked at the top of the 1st. Not explosive enough. If the player isn't a threat to score on an 75 yard run on every handoff following a kickoff that results in a touchback, he just isn't going to force opposing defenses to overcompensate enough to make things easier for your qb, to the degree required.

by Aaron Brooks Go... :: Fri, 04/13/2018 - 4:27pm

This list is only from '94 on, but...


Lewis and Alexander are on the list. AP is as well. But you also get Chris Johnson, Fred Taylor, and Jamaal Charles.

TD shows up if you set the line at 70 yards instead of 75.

I tend to include Smith. As much as I think he's over-rated, I think Aikman is, too, and Dallas ran as often as they passed.