Never draft a running back early
Ball carriers may put up big numbers, but history shows they don't win championships
By Vince Verhei
In three seasons with the Alabama Crimson Tide, Trent Richardson ran for 3,130 yards and 35 touchdowns, averaging 5.8 yards per carry. At 224 pounds and with a reported 4.5-second time in the 40-yard dash -- he won't run at the combine due to a recent knee surgery -- he's bound to tempt most of the teams in the top half of the NFL draft's first round. But if they think he'll bring them the kind of success he brought to Alabama, they're in for a rude awakening.
In today's NFL, running backs just aren't important enough to warrant an early first-round selection.
Consider this: Adrian Peterson of the Minnesota Vikings leads all players over the past five seasons with 6,752 rushing yards, followed by Maurice Jones-Drew, Steven Jackson, Chris Johnson and Michael Turner. These men have dominated the NFL's rushing statistics since 2007, but in that five-year span, they've won a total of two playoff games as starting running backs. (Turner won two more as LaDainian Tomlinson's backup with the 2007 Chargers.) As great as Peterson and his peers have been, they have failed to carry teams far into the playoffs.
On the flip side of things, look at the backfields of the four teams that played in the conference championship games this season. In the NFC, the New York Giants' top rushers were Ahmad Bradshaw (a seventh-round draft pick) and Brandon Jacobs (fourth round), and the San Francisco 49ers were led by Frank Gore (third round) and Kendall Hunter (fourth round).
In the AFC, the New England Patriots were led by a pair of undrafted players (BenJarvus Green-Ellis and Danny Woodhead) and a third-round rookie (Stevan Ridley). The Baltimore Ravens were the only team in the NFL's final four to use a former first-round running back with any regularity, but that running back was Ricky Williams, and A) they didn't draft him, and B) he gained only 444 yards on the ground last season. The bulk of Baltimore's ground attack was produced by Ray Rice, a second-round pick in 2008.
None of these teams has drafted a first-round running back recently, choosing instead to invest in offensive linemen, defensive backs and front-seven players. The results speak for themselves.
It's not surprising that running backs are so irrelevant in 2011, one of the most pass-happy seasons on record. However, this trend is not entirely new. Plenty of great running backs throughout history have struggled to win playoff games or, in some cases, to make the postseason at all.
O.J. Simpson played in one playoff game in his 11-year career. Walter Payton's Chicago Bears teams made the playoffs just twice in his first nine seasons before Buddy Ryan and the defense helped make the postseason an annual event. Eric Dickerson and Barry Sanders each retired as the second-leading rusher in NFL history, but between them they won only three playoff games.
The point isn't that these men were not great running backs. Instead, it's that a great running back, by himself, isn't nearly enough to contend for a championship.
So, if losing teams shouldn't draft running backs, who should they draft instead?
Judging on recent history, it seems that picking the best available defensive player is never a bad idea. In the past 10 years, 18 teams have drafted linebackers in the first half of the first round. In the seasons after making those selections, those teams made the playoffs 40 times in a combined 90 seasons, a rate of 44 percent -- the best for any position group in the past decade. Defensive positions dominate the top of the charts:
Top-16 draft picks, 2002-11
Position Number Drafted Future Seasons Made Playoffs Missed Playoffs Playoff Rate LB 18 90 40 50 44% DL 44 234 92 142 39% DB 24 144 49 95 34% QB 20 108 35 73 32% TE 3 24 7 17 29% OL 22 111 31 80 28% RB 12 62 15 47 24% WR 17 107 21 86 20%
A few notes about this data:
• We're looking only at the first 16 selections of the first round. This helps us focus on those players who helped or failed to turn bad teams around, not those who joined perennial playoff teams such as the Patriots or Colts and just went along for the postseason ride.
• The "Future Seasons" column includes all seasons after a given player was drafted, whether that player was still on the team or not.
• Each season, 12 of 32 teams make the playoffs, so the average playoff rate for all teams would be 38 percent. The teams represented in this table were drafting high in the first round, which means they were bad teams to start out with. That's why their future playoff rates are so low, even after adding early first-round picks.
So while Richardson has the highest grade of any Alabama player in this year's draft, don't be surprised if he slides to the later part of the first round. A handful of Crimson Tide defenders could go first, such as linebackers Courtney Upshaw and Dont'a Hightower, safety Mark Barron, and cornerback Dre Kirkpatrick. The teams that take those defenders will miss out on some Richardson highlight runs, but they'll make more playoff appearances in the long run.