Study of the Running Back: Longevity, Draft Selections and Usage

04/08/2019
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Running backs become a forefront of discussion each draft season. These discussions do not directly concern the heralded backs in the draft pool. The discussions primarily consist of arguing over the value of a running back, especially when one to two running backs are deemed worthy of a high first round selection.

One side exclaims that the position can be  a recycling bin and a team should address other needs in the early rounds instead of wasting a pick on a ball carrier questioning longevity. The other side counters by claiming an elite running back is worthy of a high selection and can be a long-term difference maker for an organization.

History can prove both theories true.

That also means history can prove both sides with inconsistent cases and flawed analyses.

Another reason that running backs become topics of conversations during draft season is analysts and fans questioning the decision for some backs to forgo their final season(s) of NCAA eligibility and jump ship to the NFL.

Former Georgia RB Elijah Holyfield declared for the NFL Draft as a junior on Jan. 14 with only 215 career carries. (Crystal LoGiudice // USA TODAY Sports)

The usage rating of rookie running backs has steadily climbed over the past few seasons in the NFL paving way for the youngsters to make their early declarations valid.

 

Percentage of Rookie Rushing Yards by Team

The league has seen a steady climb in rookie rushing production over the last handful of years. With more spread concepts adopted by the league, the learning curve for college running backs from a similar system may not be as steep as it was years ago. However, one can make an argument for running backs going into a better situation based on overall fit and situation which can cater to a higher level of success. The table below shows the percentages of yards accumulated by rookie running backs per team over the past five years (2014-18).

 

Percentage of Rookie Rushing in the NFL

Similar to the reason above of how college running backs may feel better suited for today’s NFL, rookie running backs have seen a consistent climb of rushing yards compared to the entirety of the league. The 2018 season featured the most rookie running backs to total for over 700 yards over the past five seasons with five. This past season featured two rookie 1,000-yard rushers (Saquon Barkley: 1,307; Phillip Lindsay: 1,037) and three other backs to hit the 700-yard mark (Nick Chubb, 996; Sony Michel, 931; Gus Edwards, 718).

Despite a small dip in production in 2018 from a percentage standpoint, the rookies still had a 58-yard increase from the previous season while having to account for more league rushing yards (+2,427). The most drastic difference in consecutive years over the past five seasons was from 2016 to 2017. Even with just a 407 increase in total rushing yards, the league witness a whopping 1,328-yard increase among rookies (+2.3%).  Even with a now near cliche’ description of the NFL becoming more of a passing league, running backs are finding their place, especially the rookies.

 

Longevity of First Round Running Backs over the Past 25 years

One of the bigger arguments that takes place every draft season is how to address drafting a running back, mostly concerning the first round. Over the past 25 years, the league has witnessed many first round busts including Trent Richardson (2012), Jahvid Best (2010), Laurence Maroney (2006) and 1995’s No. 1 overall selection Ki-Jana Carter. Even though some analysts like to push the high bust narrative to validate not selecting a back in Round 1, other ounces of evidence can strongly counter that statement.  One being that 42 percent of the first round running backs selected from 1992 to 2012 have played at least 100 games in their career (2012 being the last year to be able to eligible to play 100 games).

*No running backs were selected in the first round in 2013 and 2014. 

 

Average Production for Running Backs by Round

It’s no secret that the more talented runners get drafted higher, therefore, skewing the numbers that players selected on the first three days of the draft provide more success. However, data from the five-year span of 2009 to 2013 shows that little success arises from running backs on Day 3. Role players have stemmed from Day 3 along with some long-term backs but only a handful have managed to produce starter-quality numbers. *Note: a handful of running backs drafted from 2009-13 are still active, therefore, some numbers can be fluctuated. 

The sudden increase in production for sixth round running backs is mostly due to 2013’s crop producing at a high level: Latavius Murray, Kenjon Barner, Rex Burkhead, Spencer Ware and Theo Riddick.

*All statistics accumulated from Pro-Football-Reference.com.
*Only regular season stats included

Al Messerschmidt // Getty Images

The opinion of drafting running backs early and when is a discussion that will carry on for many drafts to come despite hard evidence to convince one party over the other. But even with evidence convincing a team not to draft a running back in a certain scenario, an exception can be made even when going against the grain.

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Similar research pieces are coming soon concerning more numbers on running backs and other skill positions. Follow @_ChristianPage on Twitter for more details and questions about this article.

Christian Page is a scout and writer for Cover1.net. His scouting experience dates back to 2015. Christian has a background of radio along with collegiate athletic department experience and corporate marketing.

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