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Offseason Research

Teams Are Never 'a First-Round RB Away'

by Warren Sharp
Updated On: April 19, 2021, 4:53 pm ET

Of the most recent 20 running backs to be drafted in the first round, only five led their team in yards per carry as the team’s primary starter.

That statistic may shock you.

But that’s just the start of the shocking statistics if you’re of the belief that drafting first round running backs to jump start a lacking rushing attack is the solution.

I went back and analyzed the last 20 teams to draft a running back in the first round.

This most recent example: the Chiefs, already thinking they had a Super Bowl winning roster, drafted Clyde Edwards-Helaire in the first round last year.  The oldest example included was in 2009, when the Cardinals, likewise thinking they had a Super Bowl winning roster (off their 2008 trip to the Super Bowl) drafted Beanie Wells in the first round.  The complete list of all 20 is at the end of this article.

Twenty first-round running backs from 2009 through 2020.  Effectively encapsulating the new “passing era” of football where the 2010 rules changes allowed for far more offensive production via the air.  And teams began building to reflect the new rules.  But some did not.  And this is their story.

As mentioned, only 5 of these 20 RBs led their team in YPC as the team’s primary starter.

Most of these first round RBs during their years with the team were outplayed by one or more other RBs on their own team, most of whom are drafted much lower (if at all).

As a result, teams ultimately moved on after drafting first round RBs, and often did so quickly.

Of the 15 first round running backs that could have earned a second contract with a team, only five were given a second contract.

That number is less than the number of these first round running backs that were cut before their first contract ended.

That number is 6.

The primary reason two thirds of these RBs don’t even get a second contract and most are cut before their first contract concluded is because they simply didn’t make much of a difference.

And teams found that out the hard way.

The NFL average in yards per carry is right around 4.2.

Only 50% of the last 20 first round RBs drafted have even topped 4.3 yards per carry with the team that drafted them.

Just as many of these “franchise-changing” first round RBs end up delivering below average production as those that deliver above average production.

One argument from the pro-first round RB crowd is a team can run him into the ground, get all that great production, own his first five years in the NFL at a low cost and then move on and not get stuck overpaying a high-priced RB with a ton of mileage.

That’s a great argument… except it almost never happens, even when the team gets lucky to defy history and hits on the RB.

First, as we showcased before, the vast majority of these first round RBs end up being either busts or don’t deliver either average production or production that couldn’t be replaced.  Which is why 75% of these RBs don’t even lead their team in YPC.

But the teams that do hit and find a first round RB that actually delivers solid production end up giving them an expensive second contract despite having run the RB into the ground with a ton of mileage during his first contract.

And most end up giving the RB the expensive contract after only 3 years, not the 5 years that is argued in favor of drafting the first rounder:

Christian McCaffrey was drafted in 2017 and received the standard four-year rookie contract with a fifth-year team option.  After playing in 16 games in each of his first three seasons and averaging 4.7 YPC, the Panthers tore up his contract after year three (with one year remaining plus another team option year) and gave him a four-year, $64.063,500 contract which included $38,162,500 guaranteed.  McCaffrey was injured three games into his fourth season (2020) and missed the rest of the year.

Ezekiel Elliott was drafted in 2016 and received the standard four-year rookie contract with a fifth-year team option.  After averaging 4.7 YPC over his first three seasons, the Cowboys tore up his contract after year three (with one year remaining plus another team option year) and gave him a six-year, $90,000,000 contract with $50,052,137 guaranteed.  Elliott’s YPC average has steadily declined in his two years since signing the contract (4.5 YPC in 2019 and 4.0 YPC in 2020).

Todd Gurley was drafted in 2015 and received the standard four-year rookie contract with a fifth-year team option.  After playing in 44 games his first three years and despite averaging only 4.2 YPC, the Rams tore up his contract after year three (with one year remaining plus another team option year) and gave him a four-year, $57,500,000 contract with $45,000,000 guaranteed.  Gurley delivered a solid 2018 before getting injured and averaged only 3.8 YPC in 2019, after which, the Rams cut him (and ate an enormous dead cap hit to do so).

The bottom line?  In cases where the first round RB isn’t a complete bust, teams are very likely to give them a second contract.  Why?  The GM likely believes this confirms he was correct to draft the RB in the first round in the first place.

But they completely contradict their argument for using a first round pick on the player in the first place.  Getting four cheap years on a rookie deal plus a fifth-year option gives teams the ability to own these RBs for their first five years in the NFL.  But in every case, they break the bank to pay the RB after just three years expire on his rookie deal, negating the value of a rookie deal entirely.

Thus, they compound the problem.

In modern football, the only thing worse than committing substantial draft capital to a running back is committing substantial salary cap to a running back.

Running Back Stats Takeaways

Most (15 of 20) haven’t even led their team in YPC as the primary starter
Half (10 of 20) haven’t even gained above average yards per carry
Most (10 of 15) of those eligible haven’t been good enough to receive a second contract
Most (6 of 10) of those not getting a second deal were cut before the first contract expired
Most (3 of 5) that do receive a second contract get that contract after year 3 to completely nullify the benefit of drafting the RB in the first round to cheaply own his first five years

Does a team see better success after drafting a first round RB?

We’ve discussed the RBs themselves.  We’ve analyzed how poor a decision it is to draft a first round running back.

Let’s pretend you’re a GM or team owner that read up until this very sentence of this article.

Let’s pretend that you learned something new.  Your eyes were opened to the dire circumstances surrounding the drafting of a running back in the first round.

Let’s pretend you had been thinking of drafting a running back in the first round of the 2021 draft, but now you have some more thinking to do.

Ultimately, you don’t care about the 20 other RBs that were drafted in the first round – you think you’ve found THE GUY who will save your team.  You don’t know what stats he’ll put up.  Hopefully he’ll deliver above average production and lead your team in YPC.  You think he will.  But what you’re most confident in is his presence will mean more wins, and more wins mean deeper run in the playoffs and hopefully a Super Bowl.

Instead of looking at the last 20 first round RBs, why don’t we zoom out to the teams that drafted them.

How did they do?  Did they win more games?  Did they make deeper runs in the playoffs?  Did they win Super Bowls?

I undertook a study on these 20 teams that drafted first round RBs.

I looked at the year before drafting a first round RB (Y-1), the year drafting the RB (Yr1), and the next three years (Yr2, Yr3 and Yr4).

I stopped at Yr4 because that’s the RB’s fourth year, and first round rookies get four-year deals.

I looked at:

Total wins
Playoff trips
Playoff wins

Let’s start with total wins for the last 20 teams that drafted a first round RB.  

Y-1: 7.5 wins on average
Yr1: 8.9 wins
Yr2: 6.8 wins
Yr3: 7.1 wins
Yr4: 7.5 wins

Aside from a one-year bump in the RB’s rookie year, these teams wind up at the same spot as they were before making the fateful move to draft the first round RB.

Additionally, the bump in the RB’s rookie year is followed by a likely more difficult schedule and much worse results in Yr2.

Playoff trips

Y-1: 6 trips (out of 20 seasons)
Yr1: 9 trips
Yr2: 4 trips (out of 19 seasons)
Yr3: 5 trips (out of 18 seasons)
Yr4: 4 trips (out of 15 seasons)

The reason the seasons reduce over time is because teams that just took a RB recently, such as the Raiders when they drafted Josh Jacobs, haven’t seen his third or fourth year.

Again, a spike in the rookie year, but worse tendency to make the playoffs after that season.

Total playoff wins

Y-1: 12 wins (12-4 overall record)
Yr1: 11 wins (11-8 overall record)
Yr2: 1 win (1-4 overall record)
Yr3: 3 wins (3-5 overall record)
Yr4: 3 wins (3-4 overall record)

These teams performed substantially worse in the playoffs in the years after drafting their first round RB than they did prior to making that move to draft the RB.

Let’s look at a couple of those teams that did the best in the playoffs and then decided to draft a first round RB:

The 2008 Arizona Cardinals made the Super Bowl but lost.  They drafted RB Beanie Wells at #31.  They went 1-1 in the playoffs his rookie year and missed the playoffs the next three straight years.

The 2011 New York Giants won the Super Bowl.  They drafted RB David Wilson at #32.  They didn’t make the playoffs his rookie year or in any of the four years.

Two teams that stand out as having made playoff runs, then drafting a first round RB, and making another run were the 2018 Patriots and the 2020 Chiefs.

The question would be, did the Patriots win the 2018 Super Bowl and the Chiefs make the 2020 Super Bowl because of their first round RB?  Or was it because they had the two most incredible QB talents the NFL has seen in decades (Tom Brady and Patrick Mahomes)?

If we jump past the RB’s rookie year, there have been 52 seasons for teams that drafted a first round rookie RB and were within his first four years on the team.

37 non-winning seasons out of 52 (71%)
39 non-playoff seasons out of 52 (75%)
47 zero playoff win seasons out of 52 (90%)
51 non-multi playoff win seasons out of 52 (98%)

The lone exception was the Rams in year 4 after drafting Todd Gurley in 2015, when they won two playoff games and then lost to the Patriots in the 2018 Super Bowl.  Todd Gurley was on his last legs and totaled 45 yards between the NFC Championship win and the Super Bowl loss.

And collectively, these teams averaged 7.0 wins per year.

Team Record Takeaways

Drafting a first round running back has not resulted in increased on-field success but the exact opposite.

While a one-year spike was seen immediately upon drafting a RB, a team was worse the following three years than the year prior to drafting one.

Not only is their average record worse, their ceiling has been worse as well.

These last 20 teams to draft a first round RB made fewer trips to the playoffs than they did prior to drafting the RB.

75% of the seasons after the RB’s rookie year ended without a playoff berth (average among all teams is 62.5%) and only 5 of 52 teams actually won a playoff game.  None of them won a Super Bowl.  

The lone team to win a Super Bowl in a first round RB’s rookie year was led by Tom Brady.  And the running back they drafted (Sony Michel) has been relegated to a being a backup to a 3rd round RB they drafted the year after Michel, Damien Harris.

So what do you do if you have a 1st round pick and need an improved run game?

If you’re a team like the Bills, and we take you at your word, you improve your offensive line which will offer dividends to both the passing and running game.

The Bills have said they need to improve their run game, but plan to focus on the run blocking not necessarily the running back himself.

This is smart.

Why?

Well if the above analysis on the statistical inability to deliver by first round RBs isn’t enough… and if the above analysis on team success getting worse in the years after drafting a first round RB isn’t enough, lean into some of the things we’ve learned from studying NFL statistics over the last several years.

We know passing efficiency correlates more to winning than rushing efficiency.

We know that investing in the passing game leads to more wins than investing in the running game.

We know that running efficiency is driven more by run blocking and when a team chooses to run the ball (and the defensive box count they face) rather than the individual running back.

We know that investing in better linemen with ability to run block (as well as pass block) and a play caller who knows when to call run plays (situations that are more likely to deliver success) and how to deploy personnel (to dictate box count) will see substantially more success than a strong individual RB with poor run blocking and inefficient play calling.

We know that RBs on efficient rushing teams tend to be highly replaceable, as backups often deliver similar and sometimes better performance following injury to a starting RB.

There are some of many general reasons why a team that struggles to run the ball may not find success simply drafting a first round running back without addressing other weaknesses (including offensive line and play calling).

The team in the 2021 NFL Draft that has been most rumored to be looking at drafting a first round RB is the Pittsburgh Steelers.

Not only are rumors swirling in the city of Pittsburgh, but also nationwide as most mock drafts are linking the Steelers at pick #24 to Alabama’s Najee Harris.

The problem with the Steelers making this move is they won’t fix their rushing problem with Harris, because the problem is the offensive line.

The Steelers offensive line has progressively declined in run blocking over the last 5 years:

But the logic coming out of Pittsburgh is the team needs to “replace” James Connor, and the RBs they’ve been drafting in the third and fourth round aren’t good enough.

Meanwhile, compare their rushing production last year on early down runs against non-loaded boxes (less than 8 men) in quarters 1-3:

Bennie Snell: 5.0 YPC, 43% success, -0.01 EPA
James Connor: 3.8 YPC, 41% success, -0.10 EPA
Anthony McFarland Jr: 4.1 YPC, 27% success, -0.10 EPA

Both backs not named James Connor had equal or superior efficiency in at least two of these three rushing metrics.

Missing James Connor won’t be a thing in Pittsburgh.

Adding a rookie RB won’t suddenly deliver vastly superior numbers to Snell’s 5.0 YPC or near break-even rushing EPA.  

But drafting offensive linemen to help run block would improve both Snell and McFarland’s performance, not to mention help protect an aging, less mobile Ben Roethlisberger.

The Steelers are one of only 3 teams to have spent 3 picks on RBs in the first four rounds since 2017.

They’ve already heavily invested in the position.

Only twice in the last 15 years has a team drafted RBs in the first four rounds in consecutive years… and then drafted a first round RB the next year.  

Twice in 15 years!

And neither team won with that strategy.  And neither RB even received a second deal with their team.

Those RBs were Trent Richardson and Ryan Mathews.

The moral of the story if you are Pittsburgh is you’ve already invested considerable draft capital in the RB position.  You don’t want to become just the third team in the last 16 years to invest at a record rate.

The Steelers fans will tell you the mid-round RB strategy hasn’t yielded results, so draft a first round RB.

I’d argue the mid-round RBs look like undrafted RBs because the offensive line looks terrible.

And a first round RB will look like a mid-round RB with such a terrible offensive line.

I’d also argue that the evidence is overwhelming that a team built like the Steelers would benefit more with a first round offensive lineman rather than a first round running back.

Luckily, we’ll find out in just a few days what path the Steelers decide to embark upon.

Most recent first round running backs

2020 Clyde Edwards-Helaire
2019 Josh Jacobs
2018 Saquon Barkley
2018 Rashaad Penny
2018 Sony Michel
2017 Leonard Fournette
2017 Christian McCaffrey
2016 Ezekiel Elliott
2015 Todd Gurley
2015 Melvin Gordon
2012 Trent Richardson
2012 Doug Martin
2012 David Wilson
2011 Mark Ingram
2010 C.J. Spiller
2010 Ryan Mathews
2010 Jahvid Best
2009 Knowshon Moreno
2009 Donald Brown
2009 Beanie Wells

Warren Sharp

Warren Sharp is a football and betting analyst for NBC Sports. As a leading voice in football analytics, Warren writes a yearly book previewing the upcoming season from all angles at his Sharp Football Analysis website. You can follow Warren Sharp on Twitter @SharpFootball.