Penn State’s Saquon Barkley is the top running back prospect in the 2018 NFL Draft and is expected by nearly everyone to be among the first to hear his name called by Roger Goodell on Thursday night. Thanks to a nostalgic sense of tradition, there is still plenty of love for the workhorse running back — the type of guy who can run, catch passes, block and basically never leave the field. For the Nittany Lions, Barkley was just that kind of back. He accounted for 36 percent of the team’s receiving and rushing touches in 2017 and more than 39 percent in his sophomore year in 2016. In his down time, he also returned kickoffs. Who wouldn’t want a three-down player who does everything well and can become the face of a franchise?
The running back position has also had a renaissance in the draft after a decade-long stretch where backs fell out of favor. Only three running backs were drafted in the top five from 2006 to 2015, and all three — Trent Richardson, Darren McFadden and Reggie Bush — were misfires to varying degrees. But these flops are no longer fresh on front-office executives’ minds. According to the handicappers, Barkley will most likely go to the Giants at No. 2 or the Browns at No. 4. If that happens, then he will follow Ezekiel Elliott (taken fourth by the Cowboys in 2016) and Leonard Fournette (also grabbed fourth, by the Jaguars in 2017) as recent running backs drafted in the top five.
Both Elliott and Fournette helped carry their teams to at least the divisional round of the playoffs in their first season. Todd Gurley, the first running back taken at No. 10 in 2015, was the runner-up for the MVP award last season for the 11-win Rams. The NFL is a copycat league, so recent success stories might give a team enough confidence to pull the trigger on Barkley.
But a talented running back won’t bring a team success by himself. In 2017, for example, Jacksonville had Football Outsiders’ No. 1 defense and outscored opponents 95-14 in the three games that Fournette missed (all wins). And Barkley has drawn comparisons to Hall of Famer Barry Sanders, who can serve as Exhibit A for the inability of a back to carry a team alone — despite his 10 great seasons for the Lions, the team won just one playoff game. Is it a good idea for any team in the modern NFL to invest so much into Barkley when quarterbacks and pass rushers are waiting in the top 10 picks? Let’s examine.
Workhorse backs are a dying breed
There was a time when teams would do almost anything for a workhorse back. The largest trade in NFL history, in terms of the number of players and draft picks changing hands (18 total), was when the Cowboys sent running back Herschel Walker to Minnesota in 1989. A decade later, the Saints gave Washington all of their 1999 draft picks plus their picks in the first and third rounds of the 2000 draft to get Ricky Williams. Football Outsiders uses a metric called BackCAST to project success for running backs in the draft, and Williams’s BackCAST score is still the highest since 1998.
Barkley’s BackCAST score happens to be the second highest, but workhorse backs are a dying breed in today’s NFL. Williams, who was traded to Miami after three years in New Orleans, wore down quickly after leading the league in carries in 2002 and 2003. In 2003 alone, 13 running backs had at least 300 carries. In each of the last three seasons, only one running back per year has surpassed 300 carries.1 Make no mistake — teams still give their running backs plenty of touches. In 2002, the beginning of the 32-team era, teams averaged 467.5 running back touches (carries and catches) for a season. That average was still 453.7 touches in 2017.
What has changed is the distribution of touches; teams started taking more of a “running back by committee” approach rather than relying so heavily on a single back. The chart below shows the percentage of a team’s running back touches handled by its primary back compared to its secondary back from 2002 to 2017.
In every season through 2006, primary backs averaged more than 60 percent of their team’s backfield touches. That rate hasn’t topped 59 percent in the decade since, and it was down to 53.1 percent in 2017. Successful teams like the Patriots and Saints have made great use of platooned running backs who play a specific role in their offense. Splitting time between multiple backs lets the team emphasize each player’s strength and puts less wear and tear on a back’s body.
Should Barkley go to Cleveland, he would have to compete with Carlos Hyde and Duke Johnson for touches. While Barkley is considered a good receiver, Johnson has already served that role well for the Browns, and his 9.26 yards per reception ranks as the fourth highest among running backs since 2002, according to ESPN Stats & Information Group. How much more value can Barkley really provide?
First-round backs don’t separate themselves
In any study of the NFL draft, you expect to reach two conclusions if teams are successfully identifying players who will do well in the NFL and making smart picks as a result: You would see that players drafted in higher rounds are more likely to be successful, and that higher picks tend to get more opportunities to play. In most cases, a first-round pick will be given time to prove his worth, while a seventh-round pick is fortunate just to make the team.
Yet when we broke down the numbers for running backs who were drafted between 2002 and 2017 and who actually played in the NFL, we did not find much difference in performance from round to round. No matter when backs were drafted, they posted pretty similar numbers in terms of yards per carry and rushing Defense-Adjusted Value Over Average (an efficiency metric explained here).
|Round||Number of running backs||YFS/G||Yards per carry||Rushing DVOA|
One place we did see a difference by round is in yards from scrimmage per game — running backs drafted in earlier rounds performed better here, but that’s a bit misleading. These backs are not actually more efficient on a per-play basis, so their higher total yards from scrimmage may just reflect additional playing time. In fact, backs drafted in every round averaged something close to 4.20 yards per carry, and efficiency peaked at 4.33, among backs taken in the third round. Jamaal Charles was a third-round pick in 2008 and his average of 5.39 yards per attempt is the highest in NFL history (minimum 1,000 rushes). Third-round picks Kareem Hunt, who led the NFL in rushing yards in 2017, and Offensive Rookie of the Year Alvin Kamara were far more efficient than first-rounder Leonard Fournette last year.
The first round’s DVOA (-1.2 percent) is actually the second lowest in the table. DVOA peaks in the fifth round (0.5 percent) thanks to draft steals such as Jordan Howard, Michael Turner and Jay Ajayi. Dion Lewis was a fifth-round pick, snagged by Philadelphia in 2011, and he actually led all backs in rushing Defense-Adjusted Yards Above Replacement for New England last year.
And this table didn’t even consider the success of undrafted players such as Arian Foster, LeGarrette Blount, Fred Jackson and Willie Parker. It’s true that good running backs can be found anywhere. They just need an opportunity to play.
Super Bowl success: Any back will do
Lest we forget, the ultimate goal of building a football team is to compete for championships. Since televised NFL broadcasts became common in the 1950s, fans have been treated to decades of workhorse backs leading teams to success. For every legendary team, coach or quarterback, there was always a running back right there as well.
Jim Brown won a slew of rushing titles in the ’50s and ’60s, and with him on board the Browns actually won a championship in 1964. Vince Lombardi’s Packers, the dynasty of the 1960s, were known for running the ball with Jim Taylor (and Paul Hornung). The 1972 Dolphins, the only NFL team to cap an undefeated regular season with a Super Bowl win, had a run-heavy offense led by Larry Csonka. That same year, Franco Harris delivered what was perhaps the play of the decade when he nabbed “The Immaculate Reception.”
When the game changed to put more emphasis on passing in the 1980s, the dynastic 49ers featured a versatile back in Roger Craig, the first player to have 1,000 rushing yards and 1,000 receiving yards in the same season. In the 1990s, Dallas’s Emmitt Smith twice edged Buffalo’s Thurman Thomas in the Super Bowl to clinch another dynasty. The decade ended with Terrell Davis carrying the Broncos to back-to-back Super Bowls before Hall of Famer Marshall Faulk helped the Rams win their only title in 1999.
Things began to change in the 2000s. Joseph Addai is the last running back drafted in the first round to lead the team that drafted him in rushing yards and win a Super Bowl in the same season — he did it for the 2006 Colts. The following table looks at how each leading rusher on a Super Bowl winner since 2002 was acquired and how many yards they rushed for, including playoffs included.
|Year||Team||Running back||Initial draft round||Acquisition method||Rush Yards||yards/game|
|2002||TB||Michael Pittman||4||Free agent||900||47.4|
|2003||NE||Antowain Smith||1||Free agent||894||55.9|
|2005||PIT||Willie Parker||N/A||Undrafted free agent||1,427||75.1|
|2008||PIT||Willie Parker||N/A||Undrafted free agent||1,037||74.1|
|2009||NO||Pierre Thomas||N/A||Undrafted free agent||936||55.1|
|2014||NE||LeGarrette Blount||N/A||Free agent||470||58.8|
|2015||DEN||C.J. Anderson||N/A||Undrafted free agent||954||53.0|
|2016||NE||LeGarrette Blount||N/A||Free agent||1,270||66.8|
|2017||PHI||LeGarrette Blount||N/A||Free agent||896||47.2|
Only three of these 16 players were first-round picks. Seven of the last 13 champions featured an undrafted running back as the team’s leading rusher, although LeGarrette Blount alone accounts for three of those seven. These backs averaged a modest 64.8 rushing yards per game, which is just over 1,037 yards in a 16-game season.
Championship-winning teams in today’s NFL no longer require a workhorse back, let alone one drafted in the top 10.
Whether you measure importance by draft position or salary, NFL teams clearly understand the value of landing a franchise quarterback. That’s why the leading story of the 2018 NFL draft isn’t Barkley. It is where the crop of potential franchise quarterbacks — some believe as many as five could be drafted in the first round — will land.
The idea of Barkley being the savior of a team like the Browns or Giants is an especially hard pill to swallow. Cleveland would be better off to take its top quarterback at No. 1, and then add pass rusher Bradley Chubb (NC State) at No. 4. It would be shocking if the Giants did not use the No. 2 pick to take a quarterback successor to 37-year-old Eli Manning. Remember, this was a team that won a Super Bowl in 2007 right after star running back Tiki Barber retired. Running backs are highly replaceable and can be found in all levels of the draft — and outside it — but franchise quarterbacks and great pass rushers are rare commodities.
For NFL fans, it could be ideal if Barkley slips to a team that’s in a position to compete sooner rather than later, a place where he can just be another weapon rather than the hero charged with turning a team around. In a league that values passing, getting after the passer, protecting the passer, and catching passes, the workhorse back is no longer the main attraction.
On paper, Barkley may be the hero the running back position deserves, but he’s not what teams picking at the top of the draft need right now.