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Decision Making 101: Drafting A Running Back

Earlier I did a study on drafting a quarterback and how it relates to an NFL team making decisions about this prospect & how it impacts the franchise moving forward. Today we’ll discuss drafting a running back and the influences this weighty decision has on NFL franchises.

The running back situation is much more fluid in the NFL than quarterback positions. With more and more teams going to a 2-back committee, the idea of having a bell cow running back is a little more arcane than what we are probably used to. I don’t think this is because teams don’t desire to have that one single back with unlimited upside, but rather the beating a running back takes on a weekly basis makes the Not For Long moniker of the NFL more true for running backs than for all other positions. Teams certainly desire a true #1 back. Just take a look at the Titans & Vikings. While Javon Ringer & Toby Gerhart might be great runners, they aren’t taking time away from the main attractions. I’ve been in love with Ringer since he suited up for Michigan St. & even I know I don’t buy into the perception he’s going to be eating into Chris Johnson’s carries.

Like with QBs, let’s start with each team’s starting tailback and where they were drafted. For teams that are evenly split in a two-back system, I’ll add them in as well.

1st Round (22 total; 53.7%)

Marshawn Lynch – Buffalo
Ronnie Brown – Miami

Ricky Williams – Miami

Fred Taylor – New England
LaDainian Tomlinson – NY Jets
Rashard Mendenhall – Pittsburgh
Cedric Benson – Cincinnati
Joseph Addai – Indianapolis
Donald Brown – Indianapolis
Chris Johnson – Tennessee
Darren McFadden – Oakland
Ryan Mathews – San Diego
Knowshon Moreno – Denver
Thomas Jones – Kansas City
Felix Jones – Dallas
Jahvid Best – Detroit
Adrian Peterson – Minnesota

DeAngelo Williams – Carolina
Jonathan Stewart – Carolina
Carnell Williams – Tampa Bay

Steven Jackson – St. Louis
Chris Wells – Arizona

2nd Round (5 total; 12.2%)

Ray Rice – Baltimore
Maurice Jones-Drew – Jacksonville
LeSean McCoy – Philadelphia
Clinton Portis – Washington
Matt Forte – Chicago

3rd Round (3 total; 7.1%)

Shonn Greene – NY Jets
Jamaal Charles – Kansas City
Frank Gore – San Francisco

4th Round (1 total; 2.4%)

Marion Barber – Dallas

5th Round (3 total; 7.1%)

Michael Turner – Atlanta
Jerome Harrison – Cleveland
Tim Hightower – Arizona

7th Round (3 total; 7.1%)

Peyton Hillis – Cleveland
Ahmad Bradshaw – NY Giants

Justin Forsett – Seattle

Undrafted Free Agents (4 total; 9.5%)

BenJarvis Green Ellis – New England
Arian Foster – Houston
Ryan Grant – Green Bay
Pierre Thomas – New Orleans

We get a pretty similar breakdown as we did with looking at quarterbacks. Over half of the starting runners in the NFL come from the 1st round indicating that the 1st round is where to pick off a solid runner. If you add in the 2nd round you wind up with 66% meaning two-thirds of all starting runners in the NFL are selected in the first two rounds. The intersting part here is that if you don’t get taken in the first two rounds, an NFL team has just as much luck not drafting a RB and taking one that didn’t great drafted. New Orleans won a Super Bowl last season with Pierre Thomas as their starting RB. Look at what Arian Foster is doing in Houston so far this season! Ryan Grant was a major cog in Green Bay’s offense until he went down with an injury.

Now that we’ve established the prime place for taking a runner, let’s see what our chances are of having that running back cash in on his potential. Here are the RBs taken in the 1st round going back to 1998. I’m using 1998 because that’s the year we started with the quarterbacks.

1998: Curtis Enis, Fred Taylor, Robert Edwards, John Avery
1999: Edgerrin James, Ricky Williams

2000: Jamal Lewis, Thomas Jones, Ron Dayne, Shaun Alexander, Trung Candidate

2001: LaDainian Tomlinson, Deuce McAllister, Michael Bennett

2002: William Green, TJ Duckett

2003: Willis McGahee, Larry Johnson

2004: Steven Jackson, Chris Perry, Kevin Jones
2005: Ronnie Brown, Cedric Benson, Carnell Williams

2006: Reggie Bush, Laurence Maroney, DeAngelo Williams, Joseph Addai

2007: Adrian Peterson, Marshawn Lynch

2008: Darren McFadden, Jonathan Stewart, Felix Jones, Rashard Mendenhall, Chris Johnson

2009: Knowshon Moreno, Donald Brown, Chris Wells

That’s 38 first round running backs taken over a 12-year span. I’m going to say an even 19 have made good on their 1st round status which puts us right at 50%. Much like the QBs, teams primarily look for their #1 running back in the 1st round, but unfortunately they only have a 50/50 shot at that first round runner earning their high draft value.

Who Needs a Running Back in the 2011 NFL Draft?

We’ve already discussed how a running back’s shelf life isn’t very long in the NFL unless he’s some type of incredible athlete that can take a tremendous beating & still get up after every play and run as hard as he can when the ball is snapped. We’ve seen guys like this in Emmitt Smith, Barry Sanders, Walter Payton & Jim Brown. This obviously causes some teams to consider drafting a running back despite already having one based on the fact that there is a good possibility that your top runner is going to get injured thus requiring a backup.

This is fairly evident in Indianapolis who picked up 1st round RB Donald Brown just three years after they had selected Joseph Addai in the first round. Carolina is an even better example in that they took Jonathan Stewart just two years after they drafted DeAngelo Williams. Both were first round picks. So which teams need running backs in 2011? Let’s take a look.

New England Patriots: The Patriots certainly get by without having a marquee tailback. They had Fred Taylor for awhile and they messed with Corey Dillon. Kevin Faulk was their go to receiver but an injury has put him out in 2011 and now they have called upon BenJarvis Green-Ellis to carry the load. The Patriots did use a first round pick on Laurence Maroney back in 2006, but that never really panned out & they got rid of him. With Tom Brady & his merry band of receivers, it seems unlikely the Patriots will become a running football team which precludes them from using a high draft pick on a runner.

Cleveland Browns: Peyton Hillis has been an amazing story so far this season, but to think he’s the #1 RB for a contending team might be stretching it just a bit. Jerome Harrison has been awful which has led to the surge of Hillis. Cleveland loves Hillis’s versatility and his ability to line up wherever the Browns want him. Drafting a true bell cow running back wouldn’t change that. However, Cleveland would have to be thinking 2nd round for their running back because they have a chance at stabbing Andrew Luck in the 1st round. If somehow Cleveland can’t get Luck, then they could very well look to pulling the string on a RB in the 1st round. Mark Ingram anybody?

Washington Redskins: Clinton Portis is beyond his prime so he’s likely on his way out of Washington. At best his days of being at top flight RB are over. I was a big Ryan Torain fan when he was at Arizona St. so I’d love to see him get a shot with the Redskins. Torain was a 5th round pick so the odds are stacked against him somewhat, but I think he’s got skills. The Redskins of course could also be in the hunt for a future franchise QB as McNabb is advancing in years. If they want a high profile runner with big time expectations, they’d have to draft him although I don’t think it would be awful to give Torain a shot.

Green Bay Packers: It would be tough for Green Bay to pull the trigger on this pick as they used a 2nd round draft pick not too long ago on Brandon Jackson. Plus Ryan Grant is doing a great job too. Grant is out for the season. He’ll be 29 next year so who knows if he can come back and be as good as he was in 2008 & 2009, but there isn’t a lot of wear & tear on him as he didn’t get any playing time until he was 25. Brandon Jackson hasn’t been impressive since Grant has gone down & if the Packers don’t feel Grant can bounce back from injury, the Pack might be in need of a runner. John Kuhn simply isn’t the guy.

Tampa Bay Buccaneers: This is the most viable team to snag a running back in the first round. Carnell Williams is done and I don’t think the Bucs are looking forward to a bright future with LeGarrette Blount as their starting tailback. The Bucs have done a good job at updating their skill positions. They picked up Josh Freeman to be the franchise QB. They have Kellen Winslow Jr. as their TE. They drafted Mike Williams & Arrelious Benn as WR in the 2010 draft. The Bucs are a team with multiple needs, but running back is a glaring need & they’ve already updated the offense so much anyway. It would be shame if they didn’t balance it out with a solid run game.

St. Louis Rams: Despite Steven Jackson having a choke hold on the starting job, I’m putting the Rams here for future considerations. Jackson will be 28 next year, but he’ll have 6 full seasons as a starting tailback & will have played in the NFL for 7 years. That’s a lot of damage to a body & it’s possible St. Louis could look to drafting his eventual replacement. The Rams have had a lot of high draft picks lately. They’ve gotten their franchise QB & the receivers they’ve brought in are pretty decent. Jackson will provide the balance here, but how much longer can the man hold up?

Miami Dolphins: The Dolphins have a two-headed monster in Ronnie Brown & Ricky Williams, but Brown will be 30 next season & Williams will be 34! Those are some seriously older running backs! Brown has sort of been beat up his whole life in dealing with injuries so there isn’t a ton of wear on him, but he’s never given Miami a full season so you can’t trust he all of a sudden is going to be a picture of health. Williams has dealt with injuries for a lot his career too with even more wear & tear to go along with it.

Seattle Seahawks: I’d love to see Pete Carroll hand the reigns over to Justin Forsett and let him run wild, but I’m not sure that is ever going to be 100% true. For now it definitely appears that Forsett is the #1 RB in Seattle, but Julius Jones & Leon Washington are still on the roster and you know Carroll is going to look for ways to get the ball in Washington’s hands. While it is true that Jones & Washington are getting a bit older, Forsett was a 7th round draft choice so the hype surrounding his entry into the NFL was non existent. I’m not sure Seattle would even think about the idea of taking a running back in the first round, but you never know.

Potential First Round Running Backs in the 2011 NFL Draft

From everything I’ve read there are about three first round talents for the ’11 Draft. Those players are Mark Ingram of Alabama, Ryan Williams of Virginia Tech & possibly Greg Cooper of Miami-FL. Some players who could potentially work their way into the first round are Daniel Thomas of Kansas St., Demarco Murray of Oklahoma & John Clay of Wisconsin although the big bruising backs out of Wisconsin haven’t typically played well at the professional level. Just look at Ron Dayne for crying out loud.

Ingram, Williams, Cooper, & Clay could all potentially come back. Williams could have two more years as a Virginia Hokie should have choose to put in 4-years of work in Blacksburg.

If we look at legit first round runners we are probably looking at both Mark Ingram & Ryan Williams. Williams is a pretty sweet player, but Mark Ingram in my mind is the clear cut #1 runner this year in college football. This is probably an important distinction given the probabilities of the players turning into their value based on draft pick. It’s the same way with quarterbacks as teams will have to try and pick out the QB among Luck, Locker & Mallett and hope the one they pick works out. While there is some probability that 2 of the 3 could work based on the percentages, with the runners it’s basically an either/or affair as there are only 2 first round backs with 50% chance of turning into something special.

Obviously the situation is fluid, but right now I’d say Mark Ingram is the best bet to turn out as a solid runner. Thus the big question is who takes him. The teams that are most likely to pick early from the teams needing a runner are the Browns, Bucs & Rams. From these three teams who knows how it’ll turn out. I think at best Cleveland is 4-12. Oddly enough I think the Rams could potentially be a 6-10 squad while the Bucs could get to 5-11 despite starting 2-1 and giving Bucs fans false hope. The Bills probably have the greatest chance at getting the overall #1 pick, but they have to take Luck and they don’t need a RB. That leaves Cleveland in my mind which puts them possibly taking a runner although they are going to be VERY interested in possibly taking Mallett or Locker despite the Browns pulling the trigger on Colt McCoy in the 2010 Draft.

It’s a tough one. If Ingram comes out which I think he will and is considered a first round talent, the obvious choices for him are Cleveland, Tampa Bay & St. Louis. I’d keep an eye on Washington too. They could certainly use a top shelf runner in the stable especially given Shanahan’s track record of success with runners which is probably reason enough for Washington pass on a runner. I can’t imagine Ingram falling so far that teams such as Green Bay & New England get a chance at him. At that point you’d think Seattle or Miami could be a potential target.

One thing that is really interesting about running backs is that they face a fairly easy transition into the NFL. Where the decision making process for NFL teams comes into play is how quickly a team can be competitive when they get the bell cow running back. A team doesn’t have playoff aspirations right away if they draft a new QB such as Detroit last year or St. Louis this year. We know there is developmental time that has to take place. With a running back, it’s a bit different in that they can come in right away and help produce a winning team.

The problem is that running backs don’t have an exceptionally long shelf life. Think of the Rams. Steven Jackson is a championship level running back, but he’s spent his career in St. Louis playing for an organization that fell apart after the Kurt Warner days. Steven Jackson playing for the Chargers is a lot different than playing for the Rams & San Diego was hoping for an easy transition by drafting Ryan Mathews.

That there is the tricky part in drafting a RB. If you are the Browns then it’s entirely reasonable not to want to draft a RB because you have to draft a QB and there is no reason to spend a high draft pick on a RB only to waste away the RB’s talent playing for a losing team only to find him to beaten & battered to help you win once the young QB is ready to start winning games.

This is why Ingram to the Browns probably doesn’t work. It also probably means that Ingram to the Seahawks don’t work either. Green Bay would actually be a monster fit for Ingram should Ryan Grant not be able to come back at 100%. New England is another option. Miami too. I still think the Redskins would be a good fit although as I’ve said, Shanahan might believe he can turn anybody into a 1,500 yards runner.

It’s certainly worth some thought as to how a pro football team will make the decision to select a runner. If you think a runner doesn’t have a big shelf life then it is entirely plausible to think a bad team in need of a running back will pass on a 1st round RB simply because it would almost be wasting the talent should the runner turn out to be something special because of substandard quarterback or offensive line play.

Given the ease of transition for a college back going to the NFL, a team would be much smarter to upgrade and get their offensive line & quarterback in place AND THEN pull the trigger on a 1st round running back. That certainly isn’t to say a team like Cleveland or Tampa Bay shouldn’t take a running back because you have a puncher’s chance at a late round runner making it big, but taking a running back in the first round without much structure in place for that runner to succeed is nothing more than wasting a pick.


September 30, 2010 - Posted by | Decision Making, Mark Ingram, Running Backs

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