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2017 NFL draft: Why it's a bad idea to wait on running backs

From left: Latavius Murray, Jordan Howard and Ahmad Bradshaw. [Times photo illustration/Getty Images]
From left: Latavius Murray, Jordan Howard and Ahmad Bradshaw. [Times photo illustration/Getty Images]
Published Apr. 26, 2017

You can find a running back here.

Jordan Howard and Jay Ajayi in the fifth round.

You can find a running back there.

Alfred Morris and Latavius Murray in the sixth round.

You can find a running back anywhere.

Ahmad Bradshaw and Rashad Jennings in the seventh round.

It seems good running backs are easy to find in the NFL draft. In the fifth round. The sixth. The seventh. The nonexistent eleventh. Wave a magic wand! They appear, like coupons from Bed Bath & Beyond!

Except when they don't. Because, often, they won't.

I'm sorry to say so, but, sadly, it's true. The conventional wisdom has fooled you.

In advance of Thursday's draft in Philadelphia and amid speculation about the Buccaneers' interest in running backs, the Tampa Bay Times studied a decade's worth of drafts. We found that teams don't find difference-making running backs late because there's an abundance of them; they find running backs late because they take a lot of them late.

RELATED STORY: Tom Jones: What the Bucs absolutely should not do in the first round

To be sure, there are hits.

In 2016, Howard slid to the Bears in the fifth round because of questions about his durability. By Week 4, he supplanted Jeremy Langford as the starter.

In 2013, Murray wasn't even invited to the NFL combine. After three seasons running behind the Raiders' offensive line, he signed with the Vikings in March.

In 2007, Bradshaw was the sixth-to-last player drafted. All he did was win two Super Bowls and rush for more yards than all but five players in Giants history.

But they're outliers, not points in a trend.

In our analysis, we compared the career "Approximate Value," or AV, of each player drafted between 2004 and 2013. Think of AV as Pro Football Reference's attempt to assign a score to a player's season. (Doug Martin and Jacquizz Rodgers, for example, each posted an AV of 4 last season. Ezekiel Elliott led all running backs with an AV of 16.) It's based on games played, games started and individual statistics. It's not a perfect metric, but it gives us a starting point when comparing players across positions and across seasons.

In that decade, teams drafted more than 200 running backs. For every hit, there's a miss. About a quarter produced a career value of at least 20. Another quarter failed to produce any value at all. (In this report, we'll call players who produced a career value of at least 20 "high value." An example: Shonn Greene, who was the Jets' starter in 2011 and 2012, has an AV of 23.)

Of the 57 high-value running backs, 22 were drafted in the first round. Half as many were drafted in the fifth, sixth and seventh rounds combined. That's a low hit rate by itself, but it's even worse when you consider the volume of picks in the later rounds.

Running back draft picks, 2004-2013

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RoundPicksHigh-value picks
12722
22810
3217
4347
5293
6412
7486
Source: Pro Football Reference

Justin Forsett is one of the seventh-round success stories. Drafted by the Seahawks 233rd overall in 2008, he spent four seasons in Seattle and since has had stints in five other cities, most notably in Baltimore, where he rushed for more than 1,200 yards in 2014. Suggesting his selection is anything other than pure luck, however, is like buying $100 worth of scratch-off lottery tickets and celebrating when you win $10.

If teams could find running backs in the later rounds, you'd figure the hit rates would be higher than at most other positions. They are not.

Fifth, sixth and seventh-round draft picks, 2004-2013

PositionPicksHigh-value picksHit rate
Quarterback6046.7%
Running back118119.3%
Receiver136128.8%
Tight end7833.8%
Offensive line2093315.8%
Defensive line1902613.7%
Linebacker143139.1%
Defensive back2362510.6%
Source: Pro Football Reference

When you scan the list of running backs who rushed for 1,000 yards last season, you'll see fifth-round picks Howard and Ajayi near the top. Their appearances, in conjunction with the lack of first-rounders other than Elliott and Mark Ingram, would seem to support the theory that teams should avoid investing early round picks on running backs.

Last season, though, was a bit of an aberration. Over the past five seasons, more than three-quarters of the 1,000-yard rushers were drafted no later than 103rd overall. One-third were first-round picks. (We could have used the third round as the cutoff, but that would have excluded Devonta Freeman, whom the Falcons drafted three picks into the fourth round in 2014.)

You could attribute some of that production to opportunity. Early picks are going to get more chances than later picks. But that's not exclusive to running backs.

There's no question offenses have become more pass-centric and teams have drafted fewer running backs in the first round in recent seasons. This philosophical shift has inspired the notion that the later rounds are teeming with running back talent. As it turns out, teams are no more likely to succeed in drafting a running back late than they are a receiver, linebacker or defensive back. Despite the de-emphasis on the position, running backs are not exempt — at least not yet — from this obvious draft principle: the earlier, the better.

It might not be wise to build a team around a running back, but if a team believes it needs one to optimally operate its offense, it's most likely to find that player in the first 100 picks.

Contact Thomas Bassinger at tbassinger@tampabay.com. Follow @tometrics.

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