In football time, 2012 seems like a distant past. That’s the side effect of dizzying offseason moves, a half dozen or so coaching changes each January, and other such ridiculousness that actually keeps our attention in the dreary months when football isn’t played.
But in human time 2012 wasn’t long ago at all. Go ahead and look back at the individual performances of that NFL season, and observe something odd when they’re compared to 2013. It was a year Drew Brees was doing all his passing for 5,177 yards and Matthew Stafford was only just behind him with 4,967.
Yet still overall there was league-wide balance, and the running game was very much present. Although 2012 will rightfully be remembered as the season when Adrian Peterson came just nine yards short of breaking Eric Dickerson’s single-season rushing record, a total of six running backs had 1,400 rushing yards or more that year. Expanding our net further, every running back in the top 10 had at least 1,200 yards.
We’re only one season removed from those rushing numbers. Yet for the second straight year, offensive draft approaches will be almost exclusively airborne in the first round.
What changed in 2013? The passing trend continued upwards, but rushing plateaued, with the number of +1,400 yard rushers falling from six to one.
That could mean absolutely nothing and be a one-year blip, similar to others we’ve seen in years past. But when it’s combined with the swift devaluing of running backs at the top of the draft, we’re given a nod towards where league thinking could be headed, and we’re left to answer a few questions. Or at least make an attempt.
Let’s go on a little journey together, and tell the story of a still productive and valuable offensive asset. Just not on draft day.
What’s the most recent sign of running back decline during the draft?
A year ago a running back wasn’t selected in the first round of the draft, the first time that’s happened since 1964. And barring a leap up by Ohio State’s Carlos Hyde over the next six weeks, it’s highly likely 2014 sees the second straight RB-less first round. In the NFL, two years is a trend.
While 2013 also wasn’t a banner year for quarterbacks in the opening round (E.J. Manuel was the only first-round quarterback), the first-night focus still lied primarily with either growing or stopping the passing game. Of those 32 picks, three of them were wide receivers, five were tackles, five were pass rushers, and four were defensive backs.
Flashback again to that faraway 2012. Even with the aforementioned rise in passing it was a draft year when Trent Richardson began fighting fate (and losing) as the third overall pick. Then at the tail end of the first round we may have seen ground zero for the recent running back draft decline. Doug Martin was selected with the 31st overall pick and David Wilson came off the board right behind him. They both had booming rookie campaigns, especially Martin with his 1,926 total yards and 12 touchdowns.
Then they followed that up by combining to miss 21 games in 2013.
Expected future gains don’t warrant a high draft pick?
Nope. Because of groupthink, partly, which means I’m not helping here. But mostly, breaking.
Wilson and Martin are prime recent high pick examples, but consider the broader list of running backs who missed significant time this past season. Beyond those two there was also Arian Foster, Steven Jackson, and Ahmad Bradshaw. Two ended their season on the injured reserve, and in total (including Wilson and Martin) they collectively logged 43 total man games lost.
That’s well over two seasons of missed time in just one calendar year split between five running backs, all of whom entered last season either atop their respective depth charts, or slated to receive the bulk of the workload on the high end of a split.
Injuries aren’t predicable, and they never will be for anyone who isn’t really in touch with their spirit animal. But for general managers who are filling a need at a position known to be far more combustible than the rest and they’re also prioritizing passing needs, waiting to make a much smaller draft investment is just common sense.
Common sense and logic should always win the day.
First-round running backs have sucked recently though too, right?
Awful picks and busts can happen at any time early in the draft. Despite the months upon months of evaluation, randomness is the hidden draft monster we don’t want to acknowledge. There’s a bouncing dice at play here to a certain extent each spring, and it’ll getcha.
Of course, a wasted pick is much easier to tolerate when it’s further down in the draft, and going back over the past five years isn’t a kind exercise for the first-round running back. During that time period nine backs were selected in the opening round. Here’s the tale of woe attached to five of them:
- Jahvid Best: out of football after repeated concussions (three in just a two-year career)
- Knowshon Moreno: An average of just 820.8 yards from scrimmage over the first four years of his career before being saved by Peyton Manning.
- Donald Brown: Although he salvaged a lost career this past season, Brown’s single-year high is still just 645 rushing yards.
- Beanie Wells: After an ACL tear and now an Achilles injury, Wells remains a free agent. In 2009 he was selected 22 picks ahead of LeSean McCoy.
- Trent Richardson: T-Rich will be responsible for the barring of running backs from the top five for at least a decade. The new Browns regime already deemed him expendable enough to trade, and now over two seasons and 455 carries he’s averaged just 3.3 yards per attempt.
There are other lesser but still significant failures during that time period too. Take C.J. Spiller, as after averaging an incredible 6.0 yards per carry in 2012, that pace fell to a still fine though far less Herculean 4.6 in 2013. What’s more troubling is that on nearly the same amount of touches in 2013 Spiller’s total yards fell from 1,703 to 1,118.
How has all of this affected the bottom line?
In the draft, risk has been managed simply by waiting, and sometimes waiting some more. At this time a year ago we were having a similar discussion about the possibility of a draft without a first-round running back, and Eddie Lacy played Carlos Hyde. Then Lacy fell nearly to the third round before being selected by the Packers with their 61st overall pick, and being named the offensive rookie of the year after 1,435 total yards, four +100 yard games on the ground, and 11 touchdowns.
Although he led his class, Lacy wasn’t an outlier. Giovanni Bernard was the first RB off the board at 37th overall, and he finished his rookie season with 1,209 yards, and 5.3 per touch. Then there’s Pittsburgh’s Le’Veon Bell (48th overall), who had 1,259 yards despite missing three games.
The real measure of running back value and a lack thereof comes on the open market. Ben Tate entered free agency this year as the top running back available, and he was given just $6.2 million over two years, and only $2 million of that is guaranteed. A year ago Reggie Bush was one of the most highly sought commodities on the open market, yet although he was rewarded with a longer term at four years and $16 million, just $4 million of that is guaranteed. Tate, Rashard Jennings, and Darren McFadden were commonly the top three running backs ready for hire this year, and they were worth just a combined $17.95 million.
As Todd McShay and other guru-like talking heads have noted, this year’s running back class is admittedly weak. That may be true, but seeing a still core offensive position likely shutout during the first round of two straight drafts nods at a larger trend, as does the severe lack of financial compensation free agent running backs are receiving.
It’s far easier to justify the draft home run cuts on wide receivers, the cornerbacks who defend them, or the left tackle who gives them time to get deep. That’s the reality of both the passing boom, and a football worldview which considers a running back to be middle aged at 26, and nearing the twilight at 28.
— Evan Silva (@evansilva) March 24, 2014