Why Have Teams Suddenly Stopped Drafting Running Backs In The First Round?

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The last time a running back was selected in the first round of the NFL Draft was 2012, when three were taken — Trent Richardson with the third overall selection, Doug Martin with the 31st pick and David Wilson with the 32nd pick. Richardson has been an incredibly visible failure, Martin had a stellar rookie year followed by two subpar years (partially due to injuries), and David Wilson suffered a career-ending neck injury at the end of his second season. In the years since, much has been made of the death of the running back as a first-round commodity.

Maybe it was simply a reflection of how the NFL saw the last two draft classes talent-wise — after all, most high-profile mocks have Todd Gurley and Melvin Gordon going in the first round this year — but if that was true, then why have 25 different running backs started games in the NFL from those two years? Were Giovani Bernard, Le’Veon Bell, and Eddie Lacy really seen as worse prospects than Martin and Wilson entering the draft?

Yes, Richardson has been a bust, and the Colts trading a first-round pick for him was roundly (and rightly) criticized. But if his failure to produce had a cooling effect on GMs around the league, causing teams to wait longer on prospects they would have taken in the first round in years before, that hardly seems fair to him. After all, no one stopped taking wide receivers with high picks after Charles Rogers didn’t pan out. If that has been the case, though, is it justified? Has drafting running backs in the first round been a bad investment?

To determine this, we’ll compare running back to other skill positions in the draft — where they were taken, and how they’ve produced. Outside of the skill positions, comparing relative value feels a little too much like apples and oranges. If backs have produced less coming out of the first round than other positions, or if there is less of a difference between first-rounders and later picks for backs than for other positions, then we can say that running backs deserve to be relegated to the tier reserved for centers and safeties, where only an obvious franchise talent deserves to rise to the first round.

Since 2000, a total of 157 skill players (QB, RB, WR, TE) have been selected in the first round. Of those, 40 have been running backs. Using Pro-Football-Reference’s Career Approximate Value as a rudimentary comparative tool, we can see how many of those first round running backs provided a reasonable return on investment. A CAV of over 50 will be the threshold, since that’s where names like Joseph Addai (50) and Larry Johnson (51) sit, and they both had decent-if-unspectacular careers with which their teams were probably just barely satisfied. Since CAV is calculated relative to a player’s position, it allows for a reasonable way to compare across positions.

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Todd Gurley, who could become the first RB picked in the first round since 2012.

Of those 40 first-round running backs, 14 cracked 50 CAV, a rate of 35 percent. Of the 46 quarterbacks taken in the first round, 13 had a CAV of 50 or better — 28 percent, although Andrew Luck, at 42, figures to join that group next year. A whopping 61 wide receivers were first-round selections in that time, and only 7 of them have reached 50 CAV, only 11 percent. Just one of the 18 tight ends drafted in the first round had at lest 50 CAV — Dallas Clark, with 51.

The one problem with using CAV as a measuring stick is that it’s cumulative, so superstars like Andrew Luck (42 CAV), DeMaryius Thomas (46) and others who were drafted more recently haven’t been able to reach the benchmark that’s been set. It’s not that big of a problem, however, considering that those recent picks dovetail with the decline in first round picks spent on running backs — we’re still mainly getting numbers from the years before teams seemingly changed their strategies.

And it comes as a surprise (at least to me) that running backs haven’t been noticeably more prone to busts than the other skill positions in the first round, considering that no one seems to be insisting that teams stop picking quarterbacks or wide receivers in the first round. That’s only one side of the issue, though. The other side is how much value first-round running backs have returned relative to backs picked in later rounds — if we see that first-rounders haven’t outperformed later picks, then it’ll be easy to say that taking a running back in the first round is a bad investment.

Since 2000, 24 running backs have accrued at least 50 CAV, which means that 10 of them were picked after Round 1. Is 14-10 a big enough edge to justify taking a back with a first-round pick? I’d say it isn’t, because 58 percent isn’t very much at all when you’re talking about a sample size of 24. But is it different from the other skill positions?

Thirteen of the 19 quarterbacks with 50 CAV or more were selected in the first round — 68 percent. Seven of 21 wide receivers to hit the mark were first-rounders — only a third! For tight ends, we need to drop the threshold to get numbers of any significance, so of the 10 tight ends to reach 40 CAV, five were selected in the first round. (Antonio Gates has 88 CAV and wasn’t drafted at all. I just wanted to share that.)

With the necessary caveats that CAV is not nearly an all-encompassing stat and teams have many factors to consider when making their picks, it really doesn’t seem like running backs are any worse of an investment than other skill players in the first round. There’s another factor to consider, however — the evolution of NFL offenses into a passing-first league.

Last season, two running backs finished with at least 300 carries — DeMarco Murray and LeSean McCoy. In 2000, where we started this comparison, there were nine. Rushing attempts haven’t just declined leaguewide, they’re also distributed among more running backs. Giovani Bernard may have been drafted even lower in 2000 than he was in 2013 (second round) because his short stature is seen as insufficient to carry a three-down load. But the Bengals turned around and drafted another running back, Jeremy Hill, in the second round in 2014 to pair with Bernard. They combined for 390 carries last year — one less than DeMarco Murray. And Murray was the outlier.

Maybe that’s why first round picks aren’t used on running backs any more. It’s certainly a good reason to take an every-down offensive lineman over one. But wide receivers, cornerbacks, defensive ends, etc. all use multiple starters, and they’re all selected in the first round more frequently than running backs. So while the change in NFL offenses could definitely be a factor in the decline of first round running backs, it also can’t be considered the only factor. Either way, I’m willing to say that the Trent Richardson effect is either a myth coinciding with poorly-viewed draft classes, or misunderstood by NFL GMs and the public at large. Either way, if Gurley and Gordon are taken in the first round on Thursday, and they perform well, those two years without a first round running back will be nothing but a blip on the radar.