RETURN OF THE RUNNING BACK?
Synopsis: The most interesting debate from the first night of the 2015 NFL Draft involved the exchange between Chris Berman and Mel Kiper regarding the sensibility of taking a running back in the first round. As Berman pushed for teams to select highly rated running backs Todd Gurley and Mel Gordon, Kiper argued that teams shouldn’t waste a first round pick on either player. Specifically, the long-time NFL draft expert claimed productive running backs could be found in later rounds. In response, I researched early first round picks to determine which positions provide the most value.
- Quarterbacks: 30% became complete busts. 50% made at least one Pro Bowl. 20% won at least one Super Bowl.
- Running Backs: 20% became complete busts. 55% made at least one Pro Bowl. 25% ended up in the Hall-of-Fame.
- Receivers: 20% became complete busts. 50% made at least one Pro Bowl. 30% could be considered game changers
- Offensive Linemen: 5% became complete busts. 60% made at least one Pro Bowl. 25% made at least five Pro Bowls.
So, which position offers the best risk/return profile? You’ll just have to read on.
Value of a Top 10 NFL Draft Pick (Offense)
As mentioned in my very first post, I have relied heavily on the data aggregated by Pro-Football-Reference.com. In addition, I have analyzed the careers of various players by using that site’s proprietary statistic Weighted Average Value (WAV). While not perfect, WAV effectively allows a comparison of all positions by using the same metric. In fact, I used WAV as a way to identify potential Top 10 NFL Draft Busts. For this post, I have revisited my earlier analysis to break down each position into quartiles, which are groups representing the most productive 25%, 2nd most productive 25%, 2nd least productive 25%, and least productive 25% of all players.
VALUE OF TOP 10 DRAFT PICK – QUARTERBACKS
(36 Players from 1977-2007)
|Quartile||Player||Draft Pick||WAV||Yards||TD||INT||Passer Rating||Pro Bowls|
|Bottom 25%||Todd Blackledge||1983 (#7)||12||5,286||29||38||60.2||0|
|Median||Trent Dilfer||1994 (#6)||51||20,518||113||129||70.2||1|
|Top 25%||Michael Vick*||2001 (#1)||91||22,093||131||87||80.4||4|
|Max||Peyton Manning||1998 (#1)||172||69,691||530||234||97.5||14|
* Michael Vick also ran for 6,010 yards and 36 touchdowns
As a clarification, with respect to all quarterbacks taken with a top 10 overall pick from 1977-2007:
- 25% were less productive than Todd Blackledge;
- 50% were less productive and 50% were more productive than Trent Dilfer; and
- 25% were more productive than Michael Vick.
More than any other position, quarterbacks represent the biggest gamble. Despite tremendous scouting efforts, teams do the worst job evaluating quarterbacks. Out of the 36 quarterbacks selected with one of the first ten draft picks from 1977-2007, almost 30% (10) were complete busts. In fact, seven of them (19%) were selected as Top 10 Busts. Given the importance of the position, teams are willing to overlook the odds of wasting a high draft pick on a quarterback. In addition, they seem to forget that the best QBs in the last 40 years were later round picks (i.e. Joe Montana in the 3rd round and Tom Brady in the 6th round).
Evaluation of a top 10 draft pick being used on a quarterback:
- 25% chance of a player who can completely change the franchise’s fortunes.
- Greater than 25% chance of a complete bust.
- Less than 50% chance of a getting a truly productive player.
- Teams don’t have the luxury of letting an early draft pick sit and learn. Most QBs aren’t ready and don’t get a second chance after failing early.
VALUE OF TOP 10 DRAFT PICK – RUNNING BACKS
(42 Players from 1977-2007)
|Quartile||Player||Draft Pick||WAV||Yards from Scrimmage||TDs||Pro Bowls|
|Bottom 25%||Blair Thomas||1990 (#2)||20||2,749||9||0|
|Median||Gerald Riggs||1982 (#9)||55||9,704||69||3|
|Top 25%||Jerome Bettis||1993 (#10)||79||15,117||94||6|
|Max||Mashall Faulk||1994 (#2)||133||19,154||136||7|
Due to the physical beating that running backs endure, they certainly don’t have the longevity of quarterbacks. However, they don’t represent the same downside risk either. Out of the 42 running backs taken with a top ten overall pick from 1977-2007, eight (approximately 20%) were bust-worthy with WAVs of 18 or lower.
LEAST PRODUCTIVE RUNNING BACKS TAKEN WITH A TOP 10 PICK
|Curtis Enis||#5 overall pick in 1998||
|#6 overall pick in 1996||11|
|Ki Jana Carter||#1 overall pick in 1995||
|#3 overall pick in 1987||12|
|Tim Worley||#7 overall pick in 1989||
|#4 overall pick in 1987||13|
|Sammie Smith||#9 overall pick in 1989||
|Terry Miller||#5 overall pick in 1978||
Trent Richardson, the 2013 #3 overall pick, currently has a WAV of 17. He had a reasonably productive rookie season with 12 touchdowns and over 1,300 yards from scrimmage. Since then, he’s been a big disappointment. At this point, he still has time to change the trajectory of his career. However, the likelihood of him avoiding bust status is dwindling fast.
In contrast to these players, approximately two-thirds of running backs drafted early in the first round have accumulated at least 5,000 yards from scrimmage. Furthermore, one-half have been very productive with at least 10,000 yards from scrimmage. There seems to be a growing sentiment to wait when drafting running backs because productive rushers have been selected in later rounds.
For instance, the NFL’s last two rushing leaders, LeSean McCoy and DeMarco Murray were drafted in the 2nd and 3rd rounds, respectively. Despite that short-term trend, the sentiment overlooks other top rushers like Marshawn Lynch (12th overall pick) and Adrian Peterson (6th overall pick). More importantly, it ignores the all-time greats.
RUNNING BACKS: THE GREATS
- Emmitt Smith (17th overall pick) with 18,355 rushing yards.
- Walter Payton (4th overall pick) with 16,726 rushing yards.
- Barry Sanders (3rd overall pick) with 15,269 rushing yards.
- LaDainian Tomlinson (5th overall pick) with 13,684 rushing yards.
Need I go on? Okay,
- Jerome Bettis (10th overall pick) with 13,662 rushing yards.
- Eric Dickerson (2nd overall pick) with 13,259 rushing yards.
- Tony Dorsett (2nd overall pick) with 12,739 rushing yards.
- Jim Brown (6th overall pick) with 12,312 yards.
Drafted in 1957, Jim Brown played well before the sample used in my evaluation. Still, I included him in case you wondered where the all-time greatest back went in the draft.
Are you satisfied? No? Okay,
- Marshall Faulk (2nd overall pick) with 12,279 rushing yards.
- Edgerrin James (4th overall) with 12,246 rushing yards.
- Marcus Allen (1oth overall pick) with 12,243 rushing yards.
- Franco Harris (10th overall pick) with 12,120 rushing yards.
I could keep going but you get the point. Whereas teams might be able to secure a productive rusher after the first round, the very best ones deserve being a 1st round pick.
EVALUATION: TAKING A RUNNING BACK WITH A TOP 10 PICK
- 50% chance of drafting a multi-year Pro-Bowl caliber player
- 25% chance of drafting a Hall-of-Fame caliber player
- Running backs get injured more frequently than other positions.
- For example, Enis and Carter often are considered all-time busts, but I granted them exemptions from Top 10 Bust consideration due to injuries (see post regarding the Penn State Jinx).
- A rushing attack is underemphasized today. More accurately, I would argue that it’s underappreciated today.
VALUE OF TOP 10 DRAFT PICK – RECEIVERS
(42 Players from 1977-2007)
|Quartile||Player||Draft Pick||WAV||Yards from Scrimmage||TDs||Pro Bowls|
|Bottom 25%||Reggie Williams||2004 (#9)||23||2,322||18||0|
|Median||David Boston||1999 (#8)||37||4,699||25||1|
|Top 25%||Sterling Sharpe||1988 (#7)||69||8,134||63||5|
|Max||Tim Brown||1988 (#6)||104||14,934||100||9|
With respect to the top ten leaders in career receiving yards, seven were 1st round picks but only two (Tim Brown and James Lofton) were top ten overall picks.
- Jerry Rice (16th overall pick) with 22,895 receiving yards.
- Randy Moss (21st overall pick) with 15,292 yards.
- Tony Gonzalez (13th overall pick) with 15,107 yards.
- Tim Brown (6th overall pick) with 14,934 yards.
- Marvin Harrison (19th overall pick) with 14,580 yards.
- Reggie Wayne (30th overall pick) with 14,345 yards.
- James Lofton (6th overall pick) with 14,004 yards.
The other three top 10 receivers taken after the 1st round) are:
- Terrell Owens (a 3rd round pick) with 15,934 receiving yards;
- Isaac Bruce (a 2nd round pick) with 15,208 yards; and
- Cris Carter (a 4th round pick) with 13,899 yards.
Based on this list of players, the greatest receivers historically were mid to late 1st round picks. Given the increased importance of a passing attack, teams are willing to pull the trigger earlier so that trend will likely change once the careers of Andre Johnson (a 3rd overall pick) with 13,597 yards and Calvin Johnson (a 2nd overall pick) with 10,405 yards are finished.
WIDE RECEIVERS – THE BUSTS
Out of 42 receivers (including tight ends) selected with top 10 overall picks from 1977-2007, eight arguably were busts:
- Ken McAfee (7th overall pick in 1978) with a WAV of 5.
- David Verser (10th overall pick in 1981) with a WAV of 6.
- Charles Rogers (2nd overall pick in 2003) with a WAV of 4.
- Troy Williamson (7th overall pick in 2005) with a WAV of 8.
- David Terrell (8th overall pick in 2001) with a WAV of 11.
- Mike Williams (10th overall pick in 2005) with a WAV of 12.
- Junior Miller (7th overall pick in 1980) with a WAV of 14.
- Kenny Jackson (4th overall pick in 1984) with a WAV of 15
Out of this group, Rogers was a Top 10 Bust (#4) while Williamson received an Honorable Mention. As more receivers are taken early, there will be more potential candidates going forward.
EVALUATION: TAKING A WIDE RECEIVER WITH A TOP 10 PICK
- Tall and fast receivers with reliable hands have become valuable assets because they can stretch the field and contribute to a strong passing attack.
- Even the best receivers won’t be productive without a good quarterback throwing to them. At the same time, a great quarterback can turn a good receiver into a great one. There are good receivers available in later rounds.
- Some of the best receivers were taken after the first round. In addition to the players mentioned already (i.e. Owens, Bruce, and Carter), Steve Smith was a 3rd round pick with 13,262 career yards.
- Only about 1/3 of receivers drafted early were real game changers.
VALUE OF TOP 10 DRAFT PICK – OFFENSIVE LINEMEN
(46 Players from 1977-2007)
|Quartile||Player||Draft Pick||WAV||Pro Bowls|
|Bottom 25%||Eric Moore||1988 (#10)||36||0|
|Median||Bill Fralic||1985 (#2)||58||4|
|Top 25%||Chris Hinton||1983 (#4)||78||7|
|Max||Bruce Mathews||1983 (#9)||134||14|
Unlike other positions, offensive linemen don’t have the benefit of easily quantifiable statistics to evaluate their performance. That being said, a combination of WAV and Pro Bowl appearances seems to meet the eye test. Arguably, the best three offensive linemen in history were:
ALL-TIME GREATEST OFFENSIVE LINEMEN (TIER ONE)
|Draft Pick||Pro Bowls||WAV|
|John Hannah||#4 in 1973||9||
|#3 in 1980||11||133|
|Bruce Matthews||#9 in 1983||14||
Of note, they all were drafted early in the 1st round. As the following table shows, the next grouping of the all-time greatest offensive linemen includes four picks from the 1st round and three picks from later rounds.
ALL-TIME GREATEST OFFENSIVE LINEMEN (TIER TWO)
|Draft Pick||Pro Bowls||WAV|
|Randall McDaniel||#19 in 1988||12||
|#4 in 1996||11||91|
|Mike Webster||5th round in 1974||9||
|2nd round in 1994||11||99|
|Orlando Pace||#1 in 1997||7||
|#8 in 1993||11||106|
|Will Shields||3rd round in 1993||12||
With respect to the 46 offensive linemen taken with a top ten overall pick from 1997-2007, only two became busts. That exhaustive list includes 1986 #7 pick Brian Jozwiak with a WAV of 3 and 1985 #9 pick Kevin Allen with a WAV of 3. Jozwiak suffered a career-ending hip injury so he had an excuse. On the other hand Allen didn’t.
Specifically, Allen had a bad rookie year that started out with him showing up late and out of shape. After testing positive to cocaine in camp prior to his second season, he got cut. Within a week, he was charged with rape and later spent 2 1/2 years in prison. Come to think of it, I might need to revisit my Top 10 Bust list.
Evaluation of a top 10 draft pick being used on an offensive lineman:
- Less than 5% chance of drafting a complete bust.
- Top college linemen are already big and strong, which translates immediately to the NFL
- The offensive line is only as strong as its weakest link. As such, one superstar lineman can’t necessarily change his team’s fortunes.
- With eight Pro Bowl appearance in his first eight NFL seasons, Cleveland’s Joe Thomas (2007 #3 pick) may end up in the previous grouping of all-time greats. Despite Thomas’ contributions, the Browns continue to perform miserably.