We've heard it said so many times over the course of the 2011 season that most of us could recite it in our sleep - "The NFL is a passing league." Statistics back this up with not one, but two, QBs breaking the all-time passing yards in a season record this year. Flying in the face of that trend, you have the 2011 Denver Broncos. Whether it was based on coaching preference or necessity, the Broncos lead the league in rushing yards and were tied for first in rushing attempts (with the Texans). The Bucs had the fewest rusing attempts with 346. The Broncos also attempted the fewest passes in the league with 429. The 49ers had the next fewest with 451. Detroit lead the league with 666 passing attempts (I told you they were evil). So that was the offense in 2011. McCoy will again be the offensive coordinator, but it remains to be seen whether the pass/run ratio will change (or by how much) next season. I tend to think that the Broncos will still rely heavily on the run, but that we will not rely as heavily as we did in 2011. So the health and effectiveness of our OL and RBs is paramount.
So now we get to the title question - How much draft capital should the Broncos invest in a RB? Anecdotally we know that good value can be found in later round RBs and that 1st and round round RBs tend to not be worth the draft capital, but I wanted to put those two assumptions to the test. So I looked at the last 5 drafts and compared the production of those RBs taken in the first 3 rounds to those taken in the 4-7 rounds. First I needed to define what the Broncos are looking for in a RB (assuming our 2012 offense is very similar to our 2011 offense)
1. Vision - this is the key difference between McGahee and every other back on the roster. McGahee has the ability to find very small creases and turn what would have been a 1-2 yard gain for Ball or KnoMo into 4-5 yards. For an offense that relies heavily on first down running success, these extra two yards make a world of difference, so, of course the Broncos need to find a RB with field vision like McGahee. The problem is that this quality is so hard to assess in college RBs, particularly in whether or not their vision can translate to the NFL where all defenders are stronger and faster than the college players that they are used to facing. What may have been superb vision and patience in college often translates to hesitation and short gains in the NFL; the window for making decisions has been compacted relative to the college game.
2. Burst (quickness to the hole and in the hole) - being able to see a smidgen of daylight is great, but if you don't have the burst to get through it, then it is useless. McGahee, even at 30, still had that burst. KnoMo only seems to have it against the Chiefs. Ball has never shown me that he has it.
3. Straight line speed - Being able to rip off 60-70 yard runs is great and like WRs who are deep vertical threats burners at RB force safeties to play back from the LOS.
4. Durability - this is only pertinent in terms of injury history, because the Broncos are not looking for a 25 carry/game RB. Most NFL teams are not looking for a 30 carry/game guy any more.
5. Willingness/ability to pass block and and ability to catch the ball - these go hand-in-hand as both contribute to the ability of a particular back to be on the field in any down and distance situation.
So that is what the Broncos are looking for in the in order is how I would rank those traits when evaluating college runners (I know many people would put straight line speed at the top).
Will all of that in mind here is a breakdown of what the NFL had done in terms of drafting RBs in the past 5 years. I will not be discussing UDFAs and will give short shrift to FBs since there contributions tend not to get recognized statistically.
2007 - 25 RBs drafted, 9 in the 1st three rounds, 16 in the last 4 rounds
The two guys taken in the first round were AP and Marshawn Lynch - both have returned good value on draft capital.
There were four guys taken in the second round:
|Kenny Irons - never made an NFL roster|
|Chris Henry - 32 total NFL rushing attempts|
|Brian Leonard - current 3rd down back for the Bengals|
|Brandon Jackson - one good year with the Packers (2010)|
The verdict from this draft is that you are almost as likely to find a high quality back in the later rounds as in the first 3. My assessment is that 3/9 RBs taken in the first three rounds were successful while 4/16 taken in the later rounds were successful. So the better use of draft capital was to take a later round guy unless you got Lynch or AP.
2008 - 27 RBs were taken. 11 is the first 3, 16 in the last 4.
This was a bumper crop for early round RBs. Of the 11 guys taken in the first three rounds 10 of them have gone on to be large contributors to their teams. Here they are (5 in the 1st rnd, 2 in the 2nd and 4 in the third).
Of these guys Slaton has had the least impact and people tend to forget that he ran for 1282 yards and 9 TDs as a rookie. His career went downhill fast after his rookie season. Hester has been a backup and solid contributor mostly at FB and KR for the Bolts. McFadden has been great against the Broncos and above average against the rest of the league, but he, like KnoMo, has trouble staying on the field - missing a minimum of 3 games every year so far.
In the later rounds there are 6 names that stand out: Tashard Choice (4th), Ryan Torain (5th), Tim Hightower (5th), Peyton Hillis (7th) and Justin Forsett (7th). Hillis was 24th RB taken in that draft. Justin Forsett has had a decent career as a 3rd down back and he was drafted in the 7th after Hillis.
The verdict on this draft is that the better RBs were definitely found in the first three rounds and that the "risk" of using draft capital on a RB in those rounds was well worth the reward. 10/11 (or 11/11 depending on how you judge Slaton) in the first 3 rounds vs 6/16 in the later rounds. You could argue that it is a push here since the "success" rate was so high for the later round guys, but I'd say the risk was well worth the reward in 2008 for the early round RBs.
2009 - 22 RBs taken, 6 in the first 3 rounds (3 in the 1st, 1 in the 2nd, and 2 in the 3rd)
|Chris "Beanie" Wells|
I would have to say that only Greene and McCoy have lived up to expectations. Wells finally contributed last year at the level that the Cardinals hoped when they drafted him (1100 total yards). Brown used more last year and had his best season (4.8 ypc) but still only has two 100-yard rushing games in his career. Coffee only lasted one year in the league.
Of the 16 RBs taken in the last 4 rounds the notable names are: Javon Ringer (5th), LaRod Stephens-Howling (7th) and Rashad Jennings (7th). Ringer and Jennings has been the #2 backs for their respective teams but they have done well in that role for the most part. Howling is mainly a KR; he has 72 rushing attempts in 3 NFL season. He has been a good KR, though, with 3 return TDs in 3 years.
The verdict on this year is that it was a better option to try and find value in the later rounds (3/16) vs spending a high pick on a RB (2/6 or 3/6 depending on how you grade Wells). Overall this was a very weak year for RB talent. Most draftniks pointed this out before the draft and they have been proven correct by history.
It gets a little bit more tricky when you get to 2010 since some players need a year or two to get fully acclimatized to the NFL. That being said...
2010 - There were only 16 taken, 7 in the first two rounds though (3 in the 1st, 4 in the 2nd, none in the 3rd)
Spiller was disappointing in his first season and a half, but started living up to his draft position (#9 overall) in the second half of 2011 (having his career day so far against the Broncos). Best has been a borderline busts mainly because of injuries (Best might be done completely due to concussions). Matthews found his groove this year and finished with 1546 yards from scrimmage this year (50 catches). McCluster was the only threat for the Chiefs on offense with Charles and Bowe sidelined for all and some of this year. Tate and Gerhart are backing up All-Pro RBs in AP and AF, but both have been good/great #2 backs. The only guy who would fall into the bust category at this point is Hardesty, who missed all of 2010 with a torn ACL and played only sparingly for the Browns in 2011 (88 car, 266 yards).
The only notable from the 9 guys taken in the last 4 rounds is James Starks. He has turned into a good #2 back for the Packers (794 total yards in 2011).
The verdict on 2010 is that there was little talent available and that which was available was found in the first 3 rounds (5/7 or 6/7 depending on how you grade Spiller) vs 1/9 in the later rounds. Admittedly John Connor (5th) is a good FB for the Jets so maybe that should be 2/9.
2011 - 28 RBs taken: 8 in rounds 1-3, 20 in rounds 4-7
Here are the RBs taken in the first three rounds (1 in the 1st, 4 in the 2nd and 3 in the 3rd)
Ingram was a solid contributor for the Saints (525 yards from scrimmage and 5 TDs) and led the team in carries. Murray and Thomas were the leading ground gainers for their teams. Williams and LeShoure were both hurt in the preseason and missed the entire year. Vereen, Ridley and Green were all very sparingly used by their teams.
Of the 20 guys taken in the later rounds five were FBs (one is actually a LB now) so we are really looking at 15 ball carriers. Of those 15 here are the guys who did well as rookies: Ryan Helu (4th), Kendall Hunter (4th), Delone Carter (4th), Jacquizz Rogers (5th), and Evan Royster (6th). Helu was the Skins leading rusher as a rookie (1019 yscrm) while Royster contributed another 404 yards from scrimmage. Hunter was the #2 back for the 49ers. Carter was the #3 back for the hapless Colts (395 yards from scrimmage). Rogers was the 3rd down back for the Falcons getting more touches than the arguable #2 back, Snelling.
The verdict so far for this draft is that better value could be found in the last 4 rounds (5/15) relative to the production to be had from the backs taken in the first three rounds (3/8). This could swing if back in the favor of the early round backs if Williams and LeShoure go on to have productive careers.
So there you have it. In the last 5 years it was better to take a RB early in two years (08, 10) and later in three years (07, 09, 11) in terms of value for the pick and return on draft capital. I find it interesting that it seems to have an on/off cycle (although that may have been an artifact of the small time frame I chose). If the cycle holds, that would argue for the Broncos to use one of our picks in the first three rounds to get a RB. I think that the answer depends on who is available when we pick (BPA) and the vision that McCoy/Fox/Elway have for the Broncos offense in 2012. What we do in FA could also dramatically alter/eliminate the need/desire for a new toy at RB.
While I would love to see another 249 carries out of McGahee in 2012, the odds are against him. He will mostly likely miss more time in 2012 than he did in 2011. Father time is not kind to NFL RBs and by NFL RB standards he is ancient.
What do you think MHR? Should the Broncos take a RB in the first three rounds or should they wait an hope to pull a "Shanahan" by grabbing a 1000 yard rusher in the 4th-7th?