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(Originally posted by me at Mocking The Draft)
The success of recent 2nd round picks Matt Forte, LeSean McCoy, Maurice Jones-Drew and Ray Rice combined with the devaluation of RB’s league-wide has led a lot of draft observers to conclude that the 2nd round is the “sweet spot” for finding a RB. You get a good player, without using a 1st round pick on a position which is less valuable (in many minds) than it used to be and has a short shelf life. The 2012 draft is fairly weak in terms of early RB talent, especially once you get beyond sure-fire top 10 pick Trent Richardson and likely 1st rounder Lamar Miller(assuming he declares). But there are still a few decent prospects who should hear their name called in the 2nd round. What’s the likelihood that 2012 will produce the next Forte, McCoy, Jones-Drew or Rice?
It’s too early to judge the 2011 crop of 1st and 2nd round RB’s (Mark Ingram, Ryan Williams, Shane Vereen, Mikel LeShoure, Daniel Thomas), but the previous 10 (2001-2010) drafts give us plenty of data from which to draw some conclusions. First, here’s the overall production:
Not so surprisingly, the 1st round RB’s put up significantly more yardage than their 2nd round peers. In fact, the difference between a 2nd and 3rd round RB has been nearly half that of the difference between a 1st and 2nd round RB. One thing that stands out here is that the production difference comes mostly from rushing, and not receiving. In other words, either 1st round RB’s tend to be bad receivers or successful 2nd/3rd round backs tend to be especially good receivers.
Another way to look at the production of these RB’s is by their per-game rushing & receiving yards. Take a look at the number of RB’s, by round, to average 70+ total yards from scrimmage per game:
As you can see, more than half of 1st rounders and less than a third of 2nd round RB’s drafted between 2001-2010 have put up 70+ YPG. Other than the 4 aforementioned 2nd rounders, only Clinton Portis, Travis Henry and Ben Tate have achieved this milestone. In the same time period, there have been 12 2nd rounders and 5 1st rounders who have averaged less than 50 YPG.
And while the success of 2nd round RB’s has been greater in the last 5 years, finding a quality RB in the 2nd is still a 50/50 (or worse) proposition. Check out the 2nd round RB’s from 2006-2010:
People focus on the top 4 guys but seem to forget all about the 6 (7 if you include the perpetually hurt Hardesty) duds.
As far as the 2012 draft goes, here are 3 guys who, if they declare, I expect to see go between picks #33 and #64:
David Wilson (Virginia Tech) – Unlike most of the successful 2nd round backs of the last 10 years, Wilson doesn’t have much experience as a receiver. However, he does have an attractive skillset which is sure to get his name called fairly early in next April’s draft. Wilson is likely to be the fastest RB at the combine, with the speed and explosiveness to be a big play threat every time he touches the ball. He’ll draw some comparisons to both Jahvid Best and Chris Johnson, but his running style reminds me most of Ahmad Bradshaw. He has some untapped potential as a pass-catcher and should be able to help out immediately on kick-returns
Chris Polk (Washington) – While Wilson is flashy and will generate plenty of buzz at the scouting combine and pro days, Chris Polk will likely fly under the radar a bit. He’s a well-rounded back who doesn’t really catch your eye in any one area. He’s got good size but isn’t the prototypical power-back. His speed is adequate, but some scouts and draft experts will consider him to be lacking the needed burst to succeed in the NFL. His lateral agility is pretty good for a bigger guy but he’ll never remind anyone of Barry Sanders. His hands are solid but his lack of explosiveness and poor route-running make him an underwhelming option as a receiver. That said, Polk is a productive back who could make an excellent #2 option in a 2 back scheme. He does enough things “pretty well” to have a good shot at NFL success and while he doesn’t have the best physical tools, he’s got good awareness and instincts which allow him to get through holes quickly and break the occasional long run.
LaMichael James (Oregon) – Most people are familiar with the diminutive James by this point. Listed at 5’9 185, James will get dismissed as too small to withstand the rigors of the NFL. Which is probably accurate. While Jones-Drew and Rice are also small backs, James lacks the frame to put on weight and his lower body isn’t nearly as thick as theirs. It’s very unlikely that James ever becomes an every-down back, or even the primary guy in a multi-back scheme. He’s a true change-of-pace guy in the Darren Sproles mold. If he can stay healthy, James should find success in the NFL as a receiver, returner and occasional runner.
(Originally posted by me at Mocking The Draft)
Good size, good speed, good vision and power – Trent Richardson has virtually everything a team looks for in a starting runningback. Assuming he declares, Richardson is a good bet to be a top 10 or even top 5 pick in the 2012 draft. As talented as Richardson is, some people think that the success of low round and undrafted RB’s is making it increasingly difficult to justify using a high draft pick on a runner. After all, each of the last two Super Bowl champions heavily featured guys who were no-names coming out of school. The 2010 Green Bay Packers used 6th rounder James Starks as their main guy in the playoffs and Super Bowl. The 2009 Saints used undrafted players Pierre Thomas and Mike Bell more than former 2nd overall pick Reggie Bush. There is a new prevailing wisdom amongst many draft experts and NFL talking heads: the days of RB’s going early in the draft are coming to an end – evidenced by Mark Ingram being the only 1st round RB in 2011 and he didn’t go until 28th overall. Is this really true though? Is Trent Richardson one of the last 1st round RB’s we’ll see?
The success of the 2009 Saints and 2010 Packers, as well as Arian Foster (undrafted), BenJarvus Green-Ellis (undrafted), Peyton Hillis (7th round), Fred Jackson (undrafted), and Ahmad Bradshaw (7th round) is used to support the notion that low round or undrafted RB’s is the new trend. Of course, this ignores that the two most recent Super Bowl losers each selected a RB in the 1st a few years before reaching the Super Bowl. (the Colts’ Donald Brown and the Steelers’ Rashard Mendenhall). Additionally, the last 5 years has also seen plenty of elite-level production from 1st round RB’s like Adrian Peterson, Darren McFadden, Thomas Jones, Jonathan Stewart, Chris Johnson, DeAngelo Williams, Steven Jackson, Cedric Benson etc.
The other piece of evidence offered up to support the idea of the demise of the 1st round RB is that more teams are throwing significantly more frequently. Thus, there is less need for an “elite” caliber RB. Unfortunately, this just isn’t true. Since 1994, the percentage of plays league-wide which have been passes has been fairly consistent – usually between 55-57%:
As you can see, the number of playoff teams which are extreme pass-heavy teams (60%+) hasn’t really changed all that much since the mid 90’s. So if in general teams aren’t running less than they were 10-15 years ago, and playoff teams aren’t running significantly less either, why has the running back position fallen in value in so many people’s minds?
The reality is that there is no real evidence to suggest that 1st round RB’s are, in fact, a dying breed. Take a look at where running backs have been drafted:
2011 was the first year since 1984 where we saw only 1 RB go in the 1st round but there have been plenty of 2 RB draft classes. There were more 1st round selections used on RB’s between 2008-2010 than 2005-2007. In turn, 2005-2007 featured more 1st round RB’s than 2002-2004.
It looks to me like Ingram and the 2011 draft class was an anomaly more than an indicator that teams will be less likely to select a RB going forward. It could just be that 2011 was an unusually weak class at the top for RB’s. Or maybe the lack of 1st round RB’s was related to the strength of different positions in the draft – pushing otherwise fringe 1st round RB talent into the 2nd. These types of things happen: 2008 there were no 1st round WR’s. There was no 1st round QB in 1996 and in 1997 the only 1st round QB was Jim Druckenmiller who went 26th overall.
What seems to be happening is that fewer teams are going with a “feature” back. Between 2007-2010 only 45 RB’s had 250+ attempts in a year, compared to 67 in the prior 4 seasons. This has correlated with something of an increase in guys with 150-249 carries. So the average draft follower might think “why use a 1st rounder on a RB who isn’t going to be more than a part time player”. However, the multi-back system is something we’ve seen before – the late 80’s through the mid 90’s had a similar lack of “feature” backs. And throughout all those years, 1st round selections were used on RB’s. The mutli-back backfield trend is real (although not new), but its effect on the likelihood of a 1st round RB is probably minimal.
The “demise” of the 1st round RB – if it is a real phenomenon – is likely a result of something which has nothing to do with the RB position at all: the new rules which have opened up the passing game. Teams aren’t necessarily passing more frequently, but they are passing more effectively. Therefore, there has been an increase in the demand for pass-rushers and defensive backs in an effort to slow down these more efficient passing attacks. If we see fewer 1st round RB’s in the next few years, it is likely because teams are trying to find ways to slow down the elite QB’s in the league, not because teams have decided that good RB’s aren’t worth taking early.
What do you think? Is Trent Richardson – or any top RB prospect – worth a top 10 pick? Will we see fewer and fewer 1st round RB’s going forward? What other running backs are worth of 1st round consideration in April?
Wes Welker isn’t the only player on a torrid pace to start the season. The Bears’ Matt Forte has averaged 157 yards from scrimmage (receiving + rushing) through 5 games. That puts him on pace for 2512 total yards by season’s end, which would be slightly better than Chris Johnson’s 2509 yards in 2009. What makes Forte’s season so interesting thus far is that he is putting up big numbers in both aspects of the game, 440 yards rushing and 345 yards receiving. How does Forte’s great start compare to the best starts in history?
You’ll notice that 2009 Chris Johnson doesn’t appear on this list, he actually got off to a “slow” start putting up only 594 yards (118.8 per game) to start his record-setting season. Forte will need 2359 total yards per game to edge out Barry Sanders (2358 yards in 1997) in the top 5 seasons of all time. In order to hit that mark, he’ll need to average about 143 yards per game for the rest of the season.