In what was widely regarded as a deep running back draft, the Buccaneers waited until the fifth round to take a ball carrier — Jeremy McNichols from Boise State. He was one of four drafted in the round Saturday.
Teams usually don't expect fifth-round picks to be much more than productive backups. They hope, though, that those picks surprise, exceed expectations and develop into productive starters.
How often does that happen, particularly at running back?
Michael Turner did it. During his nine-year career, split between San Diego and Atlanta, he rushed for more than 1,300 yards three times. He scored double-digit touchdowns five times.
You have to go back to 1997 to find a fifth-round running back of comparable value. That season, Dorsey Levens took over as Green Bay's lead back after Edgar Bennett tore his Achilles in July. He rushed for more than 1,400 yards and scored 12 touchdowns on a Packers team that reached the Super Bowl.
After Turner and Levens, the list thins out quickly. Sammy Morris had a few solid seasons in Buffalo, Miami and New England. Tim Hightower got a crack at starting in Arizona in 2009 and 2010, but since then he has done little more than appear on fantasy football handcuff lists.
More recently, Jay Ajayi, who also played at Boise State, and Jordan Howard have burst onto the scene. Each rushed for more than 1,200 yards last season and seem to be the best of the 11 running backs chosen in the fifth rounds of the 2015 and 2016 drafts. Whether they can sustain that success remains to be seen.
We revisited two decades' worth of draft classes and used Pro Football Reference's "Approximate Value" to compare players. AV is the database's attempt at boiling down a player's season to one number, similar to baseball's Wins Above Replacement statistic. Because we were interested in players' contributions beyond a single season, we used their career AV. For example, Doug Martin's best season — his rookie season of 2012 — was worth 13 AV, and his career has been worth 33 AV.
Between 1994 and 2013 (this sample excludes the Ajayi and Howard drafts because it's too early to draw conclusions about their careers), teams picked 59 running backs in the fifth round. Turner had a career value of 54, as did Levens. Morris, Hightower and Jacquizz Rodgers were the only other players to reach 20, which is roughly the equivalent of two productive seasons as a team's primary back.
Consider again that Martin's first season was worth 13 AV. Fifty-three players — 90 percent — didn't accumulate that much value over their careers.
Some big names have emerged from the sixth and seventh rounds, too. Terrell Davis. Jamal Anderson. Ahmad Bradshaw. Alfred Morris. Bear in mind, though, that they represent a sliver of the 166 running backs taken in the draft's final two rounds. Every now and then, teams hit the jackpot, but it's rare.
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High-value* running backs, 1994-2013
*Career AV of 20 or more
|Round||Running backs taken||High-value running backs|
|Source: Pro Football Reference|
Fifth-round running backs drafted during this 20-year span didn't stick with their original teams for very long — an average of 2.3 years. So even when they pan out, and sometimes it takes awhile, other teams often benefit from the player's better seasons, as the Falcons did with Turner.
For now, it seems that the Bucs expect McNichols to be productive in pass situations but see the potential for him to eventually contribute as an every-down player.
"We'll see, in time," general manager Jason Licht said of McNichols' ability to become a workhorse type of running back. "We do think that he has value as a first and second down ball carrier. What jumps out at you the most, though, is his ability on third down and in the receiving game."
Contact Thomas Bassinger at email@example.com. Follow @tometrics.