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Running Backs, The NFL Draft and Value

As I noted in The Fall of the Denver Rushing Attack, there's been some romanticism when it comes to evaluating the Denver Broncos and their running backs over the years. Obviously, there are many significant factors that support this sentiment, as Mike Shanahan and Company (Bobby Turner, Alex Gibbs, Rick Dennison) turned Terrell Davis and Mike Anderson from 6th-rounders into elite NFL running backs. Mid-round picks (Denver's and other teams') like Olandis Gary and Reuben Droughns found major success in Denver as well. Clinton Portis and Tatum Bell were also quite productive as Broncos, but they were 2nd-rounders. Therein lies something of a problem. TD and Anderson begot a reputation (or myth) that Shanny and Turner could turn anyone into a quality NFL runner.

In fact, it seems that Shanny himself bought into that misguided notion himself. He proceeded to dump his leading rusher over the course of four consecutive off-seasons. First, Clinton Portis was shipped off, followed by Droughns, Anderson and Tatum Bell. Perhaps Shanny thought he could turn a lemon into a cup of lemonade each fall, then turn around and trade that cup of lemonade for something else he wanted, like a cornerback (Champ & Bly), or a Cleveland Brown (not enough room to list them here). Or maybe he decided never to dish out a big contract to a running back, a position where stars break down sooner than most. He got burned by TD's big contract (not that he had a choice) and got rid of Portis before he had to deal with paying him. Then followed undrafted players like Mike Bell, Selvin Young and Andre Hall. Each had modest success in Denver, but nothing sustained or significant. More to follow, after the break...

Of course, Shanny wasn't the only one guilty of drinking the Broncos Running Back Punch. We all did - how many of you either drafted or lobbied your friends and colleagues to draft Selvin Young or Ryan Torain for their fantasy teams? Nobody? Anyone? Just me? Okay, then. Never mind. I drank the Punch. Well, I'm pretty sure every football writer and prognosticator across the country did so as well, not to mention most Broncos fans. I am pretty confident in surmising that most of us thought to ourselves at some point (or mentioned to a buddy), "Well, you know the Broncos will be able to run the ball this year." Or, maybe it was "Of course you know Shanny is going to turn one of these bums into a thousand-yard rusher." Perhaps it was "Well, I bet you'll see big things out of this kid Quentin Griffin / Selvin Young/ Ahmaad Galloway / Brandon Miree / Maurice Clarett / Ryan Torain at some point. Shanny and Turner know what they're doing."

Look, I'm not knocking Shanny or Turner. In tandem, they did some remarkable things with runners at whom other teams turned their collective noses up. Terrell Davis and Mike Anderson will forever be known as two of the best 6th-rounders in the history of the NFL Draft. But don't forget - Portis, Tatum Bell and Droughns were all 2nd-rounders. Yes, Detroit cut Droughns loose for free - but they did think enough of his work at Oregon to spend a 2nd-round choice on him. He didn't truly come out of nowhere.

So what does any of this have to do with 2009? Well, as many of you might have noticed, it's Draftivus here at MHR! With the decimation of the 2008 Broncos running game to injury (7 runners placed on IR), many here are calling for Denver to use a draft choice on another running back. Yes, Peyton Hillis showed himself to be quite the tough runner and we all have high hopes for him. But it's fairly safe to say that he can't do it alone - many of today's teams have two starting-quality runners, the best examples being Carolina, the Giants, Miami and Tennessee.

Of course, once folks agree that we need another running back or two, the next question is "In what round do we choose said running back?" Here's where Shanny's past successes may or may not cloud our judgment. Many of us have come to believe that running backs are easily found later in the draft - we point to TD and Mike Anderson as late-rounders, while undrafted players like Priest Holmes, Ryan Grant and Willie Parker stand out in the mind. Naturally, there have been great runners unearthed at every level of the Draft and beyond. But exactly how often does that happen, and what are the chances of digging up such a gem?

I decided to look back at the RBs chosen by round, in the last ten NFL Drafts, 1999 through 2008. Naturally, you would expect a decline in quality as you go lower in the draft, but how much of a decline? And how many gems are found later on? First, let's take a look at the average season for running backs chosen in the last 10 years...

Avg. NFL Seasons of Running Backs Drafted 1999-2008
Round Picks Att Yds1 Rec Yds2 YFS TD YPG #>Avg %>Avg
1 31 192.0 806.7 26.5 202.0 1,008.7 6.9 80.1 27 87%
2 26 112.8 461.7 19.2 151.0 612.7 3.4 49.8 15 58%
3 30 77.8 323.5 16.7 134.7 458.2 2.3 38.6 12 40%
4 42 52.7 218.4 11.0 84.7 303.1 2.3 28.0 13 31%
5 29 25.5 109.1 7.0 52.1 161.2 1.1 14.6 3 10%
6 30 34.8 144.5 9.0 66.7 211.2 1.3 20.3 4 13%
7 45 11.4 50.8 4.0 33.7 84.5 0.4 10.8 4 9%
Tot/Avg 233 72.4 302.1 13.3 103.6 405.6 2.5 34.6 78 33.5


Just like my look at Shanny's Drafts, I have broken down the running backs' careers and calculated what the average season has been like - this will balance out the fact that some players' careers only began last year, while some players have been around for 8 or 9 years. Therefore, measuring each running back's career is not a fair indicator. Instead, let's look at the average season of running backs selected in each round, and then how they performed in games they actually dressed.

As always, let me first explain each category by guiding you across a row (the first two columns represent totals). Starting with the 1999 NFL Draft, there have been 31 running backs chosen (Picks) chosen in the 1st round (Round). This includes both halfbacks and fullbacks, but does not consider the Supplemental Draft (only one running back has been chosen in the Supplemental Draft since 1999 - Tony Hollings went to Houston in 2003). Now, onto the averages - over the careers of each 1st-round running back chosen from 1999 to 2008, each player's average season has looked like this: 192 rushing attempts (Att) for 806.7 yards (Yds1), with  26.5 catches (Rec) for 202 receiving yards (Yds2). Those numbers add up to 1,008.7 yards from scrimmage (YFS) and resulted in 6.9 rushing and receiving touchdowns (TD).

The last three columns refer to actual production per game played. The average 1st-round RB selected from 1999 to 2008 has produced 80.1 yards from scrimmage (YPG) in the games that he has dressed for. For illustrative purposes, LaDainian Tomlinson tops this category with 122.5 YFS per game and Brandon Jackson of Green Bay is exactly on the average of all running backs drafted, at 34.58 YFS/game. Back to the 1st-rounders...of the 31 players chosen, 27 of them have produced at least the average of 34.58 YFS/game (#>Avg). These 27 players account for 87% (%>Avg) of the 31 players drafted.

Here is what stands out to me...

  • Top heavy! I actually expected lesser results from the 1st round and more production from the 2nd and 3rd rounds. In other words, I expected the top talent to be more evenly-dispersed throughout the first 2 or 3 rounds. The 1st-rounders have outproduced the 2nd-rounders by 65% in offensive yardage and 103% in touchdowns, per player/season.
  • 1st Round, then Bust Not only is the drop-off in production a bit of a shock to me, I was stunned to see that so few of the 2nd-rounders performed up to par. 42% of the 2nd round running backs chosen from 1999 to 2008 did not/have not averaged better than 34.6 yards per game. That is mind-boggling.
  • 1st Round Production! 21 out of those 31 first-rounders have racked up at least 60 YFS/game over their careers, which is quite a surprise.
  • But what about those 1st-round Bums? Many 1st-round RBs did not live up to their billing, but most of them were at least decent NFL runners. The only 4 subpar runners have been Rashard Mendenhall, TJ Duckett, Trung Canidate and Chris Perry. Only Canidate is out of the league, while the others may still improve their numbers.
  • Where are the late-round gems?! Well, there just aren't that many, quite frankly. Our view of running backs has been colored by first-round busts like Blair Thomas and Ki-Jana Carter and late-round gems like TD and Anderson. But, a deeper look reveals that such late finds are far and few-between. In fact, out of the 104 running backs chosen in the 5th, 6th and 7th rounds from 1999 to 2008, only 5 players have amassed more than 2,000 yards of offense over their careers - Sammy Morris and Michael Turner in the 5th round, Mike Anderson and Chester Taylor in the 6th round and Derrick Ward in the 7th.
  • 5th Round is later than we thought. Like many Broncos fans, I had believed the 5th round wasn't that late to find a runner. But that's not the truth. Only 3 out of the 29 runners chosen have performed up to average - Cecil Collins is tops (anyone remember him? me, neither), followed by Michael Turner and Tim Hightower. Folks, those are some slim pickings.
  • How about 6th-rounders? Again, Mike Anderson is helping his fellow 6th round mates up. Chester Taylor, Wali Lundy and Cedric Houston are the other three players above water. Lundy and Houston racked up 3 seasons between them, so now how do the 6th-rounders look?
  • And 7th-rounders? Well, all four above-average guys are still active, so they have a reasonable chance to help improve the fortunes of their fellow 7th-rounders. Those four are yes, our very own Peyton Hillis, the guy broncobear is hoping for in Derrick Ward, Kenneth Darby and DeShawn Wynn. Impressed? I didn't think so. Perhaps Ahmad Bradshaw will contribute, but what many fail to realize is that he's done nothing yet (599 YFS in 27 games, or 22.2 yards per game).
  • 5th-7th Round = Crap Shoot. In total, 11 players chosen in those rounds have been better than average, or 10.5% - to be generous, that's a 1 in 9 chance of your late-round running back performing at a halfway-decent level as a running back. That's not so good. Granted, 2 of those 11 guys were chosen by Denver (Anderson and Hillis), but keep in mind that Hillis has done it over the course of 10 games. Yes we all love him, but please try not to crown him a stud running back just yet.

I should be clear - my point is not to say that Denver needs to use a 1st-round choice on a running back. However, I do feel that the mindset of us Broncos fans for several years now has been "Let's just pick up a running back in the 6th round, Shanny and Turner will turn him into a star." Let there be no doubt - obviously, Denver has been successful at such endeavors plenty of times, well more than their share. But it just doesn't happen all the time, and the Broncos were able to take these late-round fliers because they had the cushion of an already-strong running game. Olandis Gary was chosen immediately after TD's MVP performance of 1998, and Anderson was selected with TD coming back from injury and Gary already having proven himself.

Today, the Denver running corps is in a different state, coming off a difficult and injury-filled season. Whether Peyton Hillis proves to be "The Man" or McD utilizes him as half of a running back tandem, Denver needs at least one more starting-quality runner. But the notion that "excellent running backs are easy to find" isn't all that accurate, even for the Broncos - I'm hoping that Denver chooses another year to gamble on late-rounders.