I have been an avid fan of the National Football league for as long as I can remember, especially the NFL draft, which happened to be my very first exposure back in 1999. I grew up in Los Angeles County and really had no team to root for at the time. Thus, I started rooting for Donovan McNabb after how unhappy the Philadelphia Eagles fans were when their pick wasn’t running back Ricky Williams. This led to me eventually becoming a full-blown Eagles fan after they finally got onboard with their selection. Coincidentally, the very position of the player the Eagles fans wanted instead of McNabb back in the ’99 draft just so happens to be the topic of my discussion: Current NFL draft value for running backs.
First, I went through every RB drafted from 2000 and beyond via Pro Football Reference. I cut out every non-RB drafted that was listed as a “RB” (ex: FB, TE, WR, etc.) on the list. This led to a final 351 eligible draftees, which includes the 20 RBs selected in the 2018 NFL draft.
Utilizing the ggplot2 package via R, I created two visuals highlighting the amount of running backs drafted by each team and the total amount of RBs drafted per season + average round drafted since 2000:
Team with most RBs drafted: Denver Broncos (15)
Team with least RBs drafted: Oakland Raiders & Pittsburgh Steelers (8)
Overall average of drafted RBs: 11
Year with most RBs drafted: 2017 (26)
Year with least RBs drafted: 2004 (11)
Overall average of total RBs drafted each year: 18
Highest average round RBs were drafted: 4.78 (2016)
Lowest average round RBs were drafted: 3 (2001)
Overall average round RBs were drafted: 4th round
Now, with the NFL being the passing juggernaut that it is today, running backs are asked to run routes and stay back to protect their quarterback more than ever, which led me to my burning questions: How many RBs who have accumulated season totals reflecting what is asked of “today’s RBs” have been drafted since 2000? And what round did they get drafted in? First, I created a baseline to correlate season #’s for “today’s RBs” below with carries, yards per attempt, catches, and receiving yards.
“Today’s RB” Production Model
80 carries: 55 different running backs reached that total in 2016 and 2017.
3.95 YPA: PFR likes to round up their numbers, which won’t show after executing the query for greater than or equal to 4.
30 catches: This total equates to a running back catching the ball anywhere from 1-3 times a game in a single season.
150 receiving yards: 60 different running backs reached that total in 2016 and 2017.
Since the 2000 NFL Draft, only 44 of the 351 (12.53%) drafted running backs have posted these baseline parameters in at least two seasons. They are listed below in order of number of seasons achieving the baseline numbers, along with PFF’s pass blocking grade from running backs with at least 40 pass pro snaps in 2017:
*The average round all the running backs with at least two seasons from the baseline numbers above were drafted is round 2, while the average round for all the active running backs with one season from the baseline numbers above is round 3.
Interesting to see that snagging a running back with these baseline numbers above in the 2nd and 3rd round is average, especially in today’s pass-happy NFL.
On the flipside, I gathered some data backing the statement that drafting a running back in the 1st round is still viable. Below are two findings relating to the NFL’s Pro Bowl and Offensive Player of the Year:
Running backs with at least one Pro Bowl selection from every round since 2000:
1st Round: 23/44 (52.27%) *13 of the 44 players were drafted in the top 20
2nd Round: 9/43 (20.93%)
3rd Round: 7/46 (15.21%)
4th Round: 5/58 (8.62%)
5th Round: 3/36 (8.33%)
6th Round: 3/49 (6.12%)
7th Round: 1/55 (1.81%)
Since 2000, six of the seven running backs who have won Offensive Player of the Year were drafted in the 1st round: Jamal Lewis, Shaun Alexander, Ladainian Tomlinson, Adrian Peterson, Chris Johnson and Todd Gurley.
*Demarco Murray is the only non-1st rounder to win (3rd round in the 2011 draft)
Obviously, teams will draft a running back in whichever round they so please at the end of the day, but it’s interesting that you don’t have to give up as much on draft day to get a well-rounded contributor.