ForeverRanger91 made a post about the success of NFL running backs and where they were taken in the draft. He analyzed based off of the league leaders over the past 10 years. He then noted that most league leaders were taken in the first round, and used this to conclude that running backs are not "a dime a dozen" and attempted to make an argument that we should draft Trent Richardson.
This response started as a simply reply, because I felt that his analysis was lacking (to say the least). There are so many more ways you can measure the success of running backs vs. where they were taken. Analyzing the league leaders over the past 10 years is only a sample size of 10 guys. I wanted something bigger...
I analyzed NFL running backs using three different methods. First I looked at the running backs over the past 3 years who have gained more than 1000 yards in a season and what round they were taken in. Second I looked at the top 50 all time running backs and what round they were taken in. Last, I looked at the past 10 years and analyzed how many career yards running backs achieve (on average) based on what round they are chosen in. That may not make any sense now, but let me talk about each method and what it showed.
Method 1: 1000+ yards in past 3 years
My first thought in analyzing running backs is, "how do you measure success?" Historically, a successful year for a running back has generally been 1000 or more yards. This point can clearly be debated and it could be argued that the bar should be pushed up to 1250, or down to 900. It could also be argued that we should base success off of touchdowns or YPC. Those are valid arguments, but I don't have unlimited time/energy to make all those analyses. I think for the most part, however, we can all agree that 1000 yards is a pretty solid year. Here are the results for running backs from the past 3 seasons:
2011: 15 running backs finished with over 1000 yards, with Maurice Jones-Drew leading the way. Of the top 10 that year, the average place they were selected in the draft was pick number 71.5. That means the average top 10 back in 2011 was selected between the 8th and 9th pick of the 3rd round! Of all the backs over 1000 yards, the average place selected was 56.1 (Round 2, pick 24). So by the 2011 numbers, good backs seem to come late 2nd round, early 3rd round.
2010: 17 running backs finished with over 1000 yards, with Arian Foster leading the way. Of the top 10 that year, the average selection spot was 92.7 (Round 3, pick 30-31). Of all the backs over 1000 yards, the average place selected was 104 (Round 4, pick 9). By the 2010 numbers, good backs seem to come late 3rd, early 4th!
2009: 15 running backs finished with over 1000 yards, with Chris Johnson leading the way. Of the top 10 that year, the average selection spot was 45.5 (Round 2, pick 13-14). Of all the backs over 1000 yards, the average place selected was 60.4 (Round 2, pick 29-30). By the 2009 numbers, good backs seem to come mid-late 2nd.
**It should be noted that when dealing with UDFA, I put their draft selection number at the final selection in the draft +1. So for Arian Foster, there were 256 players drafted before him, so I used 257 as his draft position, even though he was not drafted.
At this point, I felt that my analysis was unfair. Sure there were some great running backs popping up that were late round selections, but how do we know that they aren't 1 year wonders or the exception rather than the rule? I wanted to see if running backs taken all over the draft can still go on to have great careers. At this point, I went to the career leaders list.
Method 2: Career NFL rushing leaders
This analysis will be short. The top NFL career rushing leader is Emmitt Smith. I looked at the top 50 players. The overall average position selected was 48.7 (Round 2, pick 16-17). So by that number, the best running backs are taken mid 2nd round.
BUT WAIT!! That's not really the whole story. If you just look at the top 26 players, the average position selected is 14.7 (Round 1, pick 14-15) with only 5 players being selected later than the first round!! However, something really interesting happens between the 27th best (Clinton Portis) and the 39th best (Priest Holmes). The average of the players selected between them is 109.3 (Round 4, pick 14-15)! There is this weird pocket of players who were selected later in the draft and still went on to have excellent careers. There is still hope!
As an interesting aside, Curtis Martin was a downright steal. He is 4th all-time and he was selected 73rd overall. He is the only player in the top 26 that was selected outside of the 1st and 2nd rounds. In addition, Joe Perry, Terry Allen, Earnest Byner, and Priest Holmes were also amazing steals, being taken in positions that would put them as late 7th rounders to UDFA today. Earl Campbell and O.J. Simpson were the only two running backs in the top 50 that were taken #1 overall.
So then I got to thinking more... this still doesn't tell me what I really want to know. What production can I expect from a back based on what round I take him in. Yes it is true that if you want the best running back of all time, you probably are not going to find him anywhere but the first round (as evidenced by the top 25 of all time). But what if you just want a productive back? Based on the last 3 years, it would seem that you really can find productive backs in later rounds. Alright, time to do a little hard work.
Method 3: Looking at every running back drafted in the past 10 years, and comparing their career yards with their round taken.
Ok, so this method has some holes. First of all, there have been some very successful UDFA that were not included in this method that I included in others (Arian Foster comes to mind). Second of all, NFL.com, who I got all this info from, does not differentiate between running backs and fullbacks. You just don't expect the career yardage from FB's that you do from RB's. Last, many of the players analyzed are still playing, and thus their career yardage can't be accurately determined (though Adrian Peterson might call it quits tomorrow).
I am fully aware of these shortcomings and to be honest, I'm just too lazy to tweak my information to compensate for them. That may be a project for another day.
Here are the stats:
Players taken in the 1st round: gain on average 4388.9 yards in their career. The best has been LaDainian Tomlinson and the worst has been Chris Perry (Mark Ingram has less career yards, but I gave him a pass as he is still playing). Next I calculated what I refer to as a "bust rate". That is, what percentage of players taken in the first round do not achieve the average of 4388.9 yards in their career. Note that this bust rate isn't accurate due to the fact that some players are still playing, but because I did the same thing for all rounds, it can still be used to compare round vs round bust rates. The bust rate for 1st rounders is 58.33%. That means that of the 36 running backs taken in the first round over the past 10 years, 58.33% of them have had less production than what you would expect from a running back taken in their position.
Players taken in the 2nd round: gain on average 2388.9 yards in their career. The bust rate for 2nd rounders was actually lower than first rounders at 55.17%. The best 2nd rounder taken was Clinton Portis. The worst was Kenny Irons (gaining zero career yards). This seems to show that 2nd rounders are more consistent than 1st, in spite of the fact that they don't gain quite as many yards.
Players taken in the 5th round: gain on average 666.8 yards. Bust rate: 74.19%. Best: Michael Turner. Worst: A number of them with zero.
Players taken in the 6th round: gain on average 359.7 yards. Bust rate: 81.82%. Best: Chester Taylor. Worst: LOTS with zero.
Players taken in the 7th round: gain on average 288.7 yards. Bust rate: 77.78%. Best: Ahmad Bradshaw. Worst: Lots.
So what does all this tell us? Pretty much what any leyman would expect and what I would've told you before this analysis: on average, the best backs in the NFL come in the first round, there is still talent late, but it becomes farther and further between.
ForeverRanger91 tried to use his analysis to tell us that we should be taking Trent Richardson with our first pick (assuming he is there). Here's what the stats say: there is a good chance that we will get about 5000 yards out of Trent. That is also assuming a lot of things, including that we use him as our primary back. But what is really important here? What is important is winning Super Bowls.
So what about Super Bowl winning teams. Do they all select their running backs in the first round? I looked at one more list (last one) and over the past 10 years, only two Super Bowl winners have selected their Super Bowl starting back in the first round. Strangely enough, these two players are Corey Dillon and Antowain Smith. Both were for the Patriots, who don't often win with their running backs. It should be noted that Corey Dillon was not selected by the Pats, but that's not really what matters. Here is the most important stat. The career yards for Super Bowl winning running backs in the past 10 years? 4848.9!
That means that in spite of what people say, you had better have a first round quality back starting for your team if you hope to (statistically) win the Super Bowl. You don't have to get him in the first, but he better have first round talent.
I still don't think we should draft TR.