In Defense of Drafting Running Backs (Not Named Trent Richardson)
NFL

In Defense of Drafting Running Backs (Not Named Trent Richardson)

If your team picks a running back in the first round, your initial reaction might be that draft value was wasted. We took a deeper look into the past two decades of how each team’s first picks have worked out in Season 1, classified by position with win percentage differential from the previous season measured.


No running back has been taken higher than No. 24 overall in either of the last two NFL drafts, which makes sense in the context of today’s NFL.

It follows a period in which teams seemed to have a renewed interest in spending early picks on the position: Todd Gurley in 2015, Ezekiel Elliott in 2016, Leonard Fournette and Christian McCaffrey in 2017, and Saquon Barkey in 2018. But following two drafts in which no backs were selected in the first round (2013-14), that mid-decade flirtation now appears to have been the anomaly.

The reason is obvious: Running the ball has become less of a priority in the NFL. Nine of the 10 years with the most passing attempts per game (68.3-71.5) occurred between 2012-20, and the NFL seasons with the fewest rushing attempts per game league-wide (51.8-54.6) all took place in the past decade.

The 10 seasons with the most rushing attempts (75.0-82.5) all occurred from 1935-51, which was hardly the same sport. With fewer runs, the value of a good running back appears to have plummeted. After 43 backs were taken in the first round of the NFL draft between 1970-79 and 50 were selected from 1980-89, that number dropped into the 30s in the ’90s and 2000s before falling all the way to 16 between 2010-19. Ki-Jana Carter was the last RB drafted first overall in 1995.

In 2020, the only was Clyde Edwards-Helaire was the only RB taken in the first round, and he was the 32nd pick. And according to our mock draft, no running back is expected to be taken in the first round this weekend.

But the perception that a team is missing an opportunity to fill a more important, less replaceable role elsewhere by using an early pick on a running back is one that deserves more scrutiny.

So let’s reconsider those top-10 picks from earlier drafts in the past decade – Gurley, Elliott, Fournette, McCaffrey and Barkley – and we’ll even throw in Josh Jacobs, the first running back taken in 2019 at No. 24. None of those players would be considered a serious disappointment, each made significant contributions to his team, and some were even part of MVP discussions. Most significant for purposes of this discussion, all of their teams improved the following season, and some made substantial gains.

The 2015 Rams went 7-9 after a 6-10 season after selecting Gurley at No. 10. The Dallas Cowboys took Elliott fourth and went from 4-12 to 13-3 in 2016. The Jaguars went from 3-13 to 10-6 after taking Fournette fourth in 2017. The Carolina Panthers took McCaffrey eighth the same season and went from 6-10 to 11-5. The New York Giants went from 3-13 without Barkley

in 2017 to 5-11 with him the next. The Oakland Raiders were 4-12 in 2018 before going 7-9 in ’19[1].

That’s not to say those RBs were the sole reason for that improvement. But it sure makes it difficult to claim that their teams suffered by not using those picks at other more fashionable positions.

While four seasons is a lifetime in the NFL, identifying five running backs from 2015-18 is not a large enough sample size to make broader claims. No one’s going to argue Cleveland’s Cleveland-esque decision to use the No. 3 overall pick on Trent Richardson in 2012 is in retrospect justified. So here’s a deeper dive into the past two decades of how each team’s first picks have worked out in Season 1, classified by position with win percentage differential from the previous season measured:

First Draft Picks by Position With Team Win Percentage Differential, 2010-20

PositionPicksAvg. Win % Before PickAvg. Win % Next SeasonAvg. Win % Difference
Running Back140.460.540.08
Safety190.510.5740.064
Linebacker340.5090.570.061
Tackle380.4660.5070.041
Defensive End430.5030.540.037
Quarterback260.3490.3610.012
Center90.5380.535-0.003
Guard130.5190.514-0.005
Cornerback430.5570.509-0.049
DT/NT360.5030.452-0.05
Tight End100.5310.466-0.066
Wide Receiver350.5480.456-0.092

It’s certainly not in line with the perception around running backs in the current NFL climate, but looking at a 14-RB sample isn’t definitive.

First Draft Picks by Position With Team Win Percentage Differential, 2000-20

PositionPicksAvg. Win % Before PickAvg. Win % Next SeasonAvg. Win % Difference
Running Back460.4970.5590.062
Quarterback470.3440.3940.049
Safety380.5220.5530.031
Tackle690.4490.4760.027
Linebacker650.5220.5410.019
Defensive End770.4810.4970.016
DT/NT710.4970.5020.005
Center130.5310.524-0.007
Cornerback870.550.519-0.03
Wide Receiver810.5230.467-0.056
Kicker20.5630.5-0.063
Guard190.6020.521-0.081
Tight End220.5770.493-0.084

The average differential comes back toward the middle some, but RBs still top the list.

The only teams to use their first pick on a running back in 2020 were Kansas City at the very end of the first round and the Los Angeles Rams in the second round. The Detroit Lions chose Georgia’s D’Andre Swift at No. 35 of the second and the Indianapolis Colts also picked up Jonathan Taylor at No. 41. To be fair, there was no Barkley-type RB profiled in the draft.

With the final pick of the first round, the Chiefs selected LSU’s Edwards-Helaire. He made an immediate impact, running for 803 yards and four touchdowns on 4.4 yards per carry while also catching 36 passes for 297 yards and a score out of the backfield. Second-rounder Cam Akers emerged as the starter in the Rams backfield at the end of the season, rushing for 489 yards over the last five games – including 221 yards and two touchdowns over two playoff contests.

Swift played a limited role for the Lions, though he had one 100-yard effort and started four of the last five games. Taylor, however, appears to be the Colts’ workhorse of the immediate future after rushing for 1,169 yards and 11 touchdowns on 5.0 per carry in 15 games.

Perception is reality on draft day for NFL running backs and has been for the better part of two decades.


Research support provided by Sam Hovland and Aaron Charlton.

[1] Note: The Raiders had three first-round picks in 2019 and Jacobs wasn’t their first.