Position Progression: Running Backs
Illustrating the fading value of first-round runners, Ben Stockwell highlights one who bucked the trend and others who stayed true.
Position Progression: Running Backs
It wasn’t all that long ago that the running back position was one that teams built around. Finding the right guy usually meant picking one high up in the draft expecting a workhorse back to carry your team to glory. In recent times, though, the running back position has become possibly the most marginalized skill position on offense with the impact of the position perhaps illustrated no more concisely than by Adrian Peterson.
Widely viewed as the best back in the league, Peterson’s astounding 2012 season, one of the best single season performances we’ve ever seen from a running back, was only just good enough to drag the Vikings to the playoffs in the final week of the regular season.
This marginalization has seen a committee approach come to the fore in favor of the workhorse back, in the belief that two or three backs will have a better combined skill set than one. This has seen the value of running backs in the draft decline and with it the first-round running back has become a rare thing.
So how has the average first round back progressed in recent years and what does that tell us about their value in the modern day NFL?
When you look at the average progression of first-round running backs in recent seasons it’s not difficult to see why teams have increasingly shied away from selecting them. This graph looks at our overall grade not just their running grade and it is this whole body of work that is so often cited as holding young runners back. They might be powerful or agile runners but if they can’t contribute in the passing game as both receiver and blocker then they aren’t an every-down back and can’t be the workhorse teams are looking for.
Is the first round still producing talented runners? You’d be hard pressed to say no with the likes of Peterson, Marshawn Lynch and C.J. Spiller coming along in recent years. However, there are talented runners available throughout the draft and in a position of attrition teams are seeing talented first-rounders worn down and unable to deliver the value they are looking for over the long term.
On average, first-round backs are recording less than 500 snaps in each of their first five seasons while collecting a career-high -1.6 grade in their rookie season, it’s all downhill from there. By comparison, only the second round picks in recent years have picked up through their respective careers and you see the evidence of just what a young man’s game the running back position is… and if you aren’t guaranteed longevity it’s hard to justify the investment of a first-round pick.
Best Case Scenario
Real success stories may be few and far between but there are still some great players being generated from the first round with Adrian Peterson the shining example. By taking both his work as a receiver and a blocker into the equation, Peterson’s career grade actually dropped through his second and third seasons, in line with what we have come to expect from first round running backs. His running grade paints a different picture, though even that was hurt by fumbling problems early in his career.
However, Peterson’s class and power as a runner is undeniable and when you tack on his sixth and seventh seasons his overall grade pulls yet further away from the competition. Peterson’s production has been consistent and his all-around game has gradually developed through his career, he is exactly what you want in a first-round running back, but he is such a rarity that he plays his own part in explaining why first-round picks are becoming fewer and farther between.
Worst Case Scenario
Whiffs at the running back position are all too common in recent seasons. Too many first-round backs in recent seasons would be easily described as talented runners who simply didn’t deliver in terms of consistency or volume of production. A step or two below that disappointment would be Beanie Wells, a big miss on someone seen as a one-dimensional player when he entered the league.
Viewed as a talented power runner coming in, Wells only topped 350 snaps once in his entire career; his third season when he notched a career-low -11.6 overall grade. The more snaps Wells got through his first three seasons the lower his grade went and the Cardinals finally gave up after he notched a -8.0 overall grade on only 152 snaps in his fourth season.
Over his entire career Wells forced only 59 missed tackles on 644 carries (including playoffs). By comparison Peterson has forced more than 50 missed tackles in four of his seven career seasons.
The Path Most Trodden
If the occasional Beanie Wells isn’t enough to scare you off of picking a running back in the first round, then the type of player you get most often probably will. His latter seasons have helped move Knowshon Moreno above the expected progression for a first-round running back, but he still hasn’t produced the sort of impact that given the chance you’d take him No. 12 overall in a re-draft.
In his rookie season Moreno put in some solid games as a runner, but struggled in the passing game. Moreno’s career progression offers an interesting insight into the development of the running back position in recent seasons and perhaps how teams view them. An average runner who struggled in the passing game was transformed into a productive runner and receiver in a well oiled offense with a future Hall of Fame quarterback at the helm.
It might be simplistic to say but if a running back’s production and performance is so dependent upon those around him (aside from the special talents like Peterson) then it is hard to justify taking them as first-rounders. Add in the trend towards a committee approach at running back and it seems clear that selecting running backs in the first round will only become rarer in the years to come.
See the progression at other positions:
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Ben Stockwell | Director of Analysis
Ben joined Pro Football Focus in 2007, and has since been in charge of the company’s analysis process. He also contributes to PFF’s weekly NFL podcast.