Offensive game plans in the National Football League are continually evolving. Years ago, teams drafted running backs to be bell-cows, rushing 20-25 times per game. A host of under center, power running offenses were prevalent, as teams tried to control the time of possession and wear out opposing defenses.
Nowadays, the majority of teams run a version of the spread offense in pass happy systems. As everything is cyclical, some teams have reverted back and committed to running the ball, while still implementing spread ideologies. Because of the evolved NFL offense, running backs are asked to perform more diverse tasks than ever before. Running the ball from a variety of under center and shotgun alignments, as well as being more involved in the passing game as receivers and protectors have become part of a typical running back’s workload. Some more athletic running backs are even being flexed out of the backfield, asked to run routes against defensive backs.
The versatility demanded of the modern running back has changed what the league looks for in drafting these players and enhanced their value. When looking at the top running backs drafted in recent years, it is abundantly clear that drafting one in the first round is just as — or more — safe and beneficial as any other position on the field, sans quarterback. On top of that, top-flight running backs can be game changers and have an immediate positive impact on a team’s win total.
Looking at the drafted running backs in the more modern NFL landscape, 12 have been taken in the first round since 2010. Those include:
2010: CJ Spiller, Ryan Matthews, Jahvid Best
2011: Mark Ingram
2012: Trent Richardson, Doug Martin, David Wilson
2015: Todd Gurley, Melvin Gordon
2016: Ezekiel Elliott
2017: Leonard Fournette, Christian McCaffrey
Since 2010, the twelve first round running backs have vastly increased their team’s rushing performance from the previous season. The average amount of team carries in the season before drafting a first round running back increased from 405 carries to 438 carries in the first round running backs’ rookie seasons. Additionally, the team rushing yards have increased from an average of 1,548 yards (3.82 yards per carry) to 1,886 yards (4.31 yards per carry). Lastly, the average number of rushing touchdowns increased from 10 to 14.25.
Most importantly, the twelve first round running backs have contributed to improving their teams’ win-loss records from the previous season. Out of 12 instances, 8 of the teams who drafted a first round running back since 2010 improved their win-loss record from the previous season, 3 teams decreased their win total, and 1 team remained the same. The total record of the 12 teams from the season before drafting a first round running back was 77-115 (.401), and the total record of the 12 teams in their first round running backs’ rookie season was 98-94 (.510).
The reasons for the first round running back having a positive impact on win-loss record are multiple. In nearly every case, the rushing attack improves immediately, which wears down the defense as the game goes along. Along with wearing out the opposing defense and imposing the offense’s will, it keeps your own defense fresh for late game situations. Therefore, the running back position has the ability to aid both sides of the ball, which is a unique trait that can dictate more than just the running game.
Looking individually at the first round running backs, Jahvid Best accumulated over 1,000 yards from scrimmage and 6 touchdowns in his rookie season. Unfortunately, Best suffered from a number of concussions that cut short his second season to just six games, and he would never play another down of football, as the symptoms persisted and ended his career. David Wilson suffered a similar fate, showing the promise that got him drafted in the first round by being named All-Pro as a kick returner and averaging 5.0 yards per carry in his rookie season. However, Wilson would suffer from a neck injury early in his second season that would end his career. (Both players, coincidentally, have turned into full-time track and field athletes).
Showing the potential of an elite player and having unfortunate injuries does not make a player a “bust.” In fact, it often validates the worth of a high draft pick because of their flashes of talent, coupled with a dip in team production after their injuries. With that in mind, Best and Wilson cannot be considered “busts” at the running back position, just victims of a series of unfortunate events.
In the first four seasons of C.J. Spiller’s career, he accumulated over 6,000 total yards, was a contributor as a productive kick returner, had 19 touchdowns, and made a pro bowl. Despite being part of a timeshare at the position for a number of years, he found multiple ways to produce while staying fresh throughout the game. Ryan Matthews lasted 7 years in the NFL before injuries caught up to him and forced him to retire. Despite being able to play in 16 games just once, Matthews accumulated 6,632 rushing and receiving yards combined and 40 total touchdowns while having elite catch rates and a healthy career yards per carry. Matthews made a pro bowl in his second season when he stayed relatively healthy, accumulating 1,546 rushing and receiving yards and 6 touchdowns in 14 games on a team that finished 7th in the league in rushing.
Putting them aside, it’s a reasonable argument that there has been just one “bust” of the 12 first round running backs taken since 2010 in Trent Richardson, who flamed out of the NFL after three seasons. The remaining running backs (Ingram, Martin, Gurley, Gordon, Elliott, Fournette, McCaffrey) have all been highly productive in their respective careers. Players like Elliott and Gurley have ascended into MVP-level play at the running back position with their versatility and nose for the end zone. It’s reasonable to suggest that Elliott and Gurley are the two best running backs in the NFL, and both were drafted in round one.
Overall, it has been proven that drafting a first round running back immediately improves your team’s rushing attack, generally improves your team’s win-loss record, and has a high hit rate, as far as nearly never producing busts. There are other positions with that type of positive impact, namely quarterback, but the bust rate for quarterbacks is astronomically higher than running backs. Therefore, overall, the running back position has become a premier position to take in round one with confidence that the player will pan out, and it will have positive impacts on the overall scope of the team.
Lastly, if Saquon Barkley were to fall to the Lions at pick 20, wouldn’t the Lions be nearly insane to pass on him and the immediate positive impact he would have on their offense? If Derrius Guice is available at pick 31, wouldn’t the Patriots be crazy to pass on that dynamic piece that could elevate their offense into all-time great potential? The rigid thinking in always passing on a first round running back, no matter their potential as a playmaker, is a historically flawed concept.