The term “generational talent” gets thrown around about draft-eligible running backs more than any other position, I feel. Running backs have been one of the most oddly-valued positions for a very long time, at least since around 2004 when the league rules started to begin favor the passing game. Saquon Barkley of Penn State, fresh off a stellar NFL Combine performance, is one such running back getting that label.
It seems like every single year, folks get enamored with one running back, call him a generational talent because they watched the film of him destroying lesser competition, and there are a lot of problems with going after such a player, at least in the top 15 or so picks.
I sat down to write this article a couple days ago, and then today I was made aware of a wonderful piece that cites literally every single thing I was going to cite, so I’m going to link that, and then talk about some of the points. The piece is written by Ben Baldwin of Field Gulls, and while I know San Francisco 49ers fans will have trouble listening to a Seahawks fan, I promise it makes some great points.
It’s not just about Trent Richardson, and it’s not just about Leonard Fournette being mostly average (as a runner) as a rookie. It’s not just about the fact that rookie contracts for running backs are disproportionate to the value teams typically get out of the new rookie wage scale, since even the best running backs don’t make more than most positions.
And it’s not just about the fact that highly-drafted running backs have a high bust rate. The two most important things from the piece that stick out to me are these two things: highly-drafted running backs are not any better at rushing using a large sample size, and rushing simply isn’t that valuable to a team’s success in the NFL these days.
I used Pro Football Reference to look at the average yards per carry of all RBs drafted in the top 20 since 2004, when a heightened emphasis on illegal contact increased the efficiency of the passing game. Since then, the 17 RBs drafted in the first 20 picks have carried the ball 18,991 times for an average of 4.2 yards per carry. NFL teams combined have rushed the ball 195,381 times for an average of...4.2 yards per carry. Of the 17 players drafted in the top 20, only 7 have at least 4.3 career yards per carry. With an enormous sample size, there is no difference between these RBs and everyone else.
That’s the bit about highly-drafted running backs not being any better than those drafted later. There are a couple exceptions, but the so-called “generational talents” are massive overstatements every single time. People were talking about Fournette in the same vein as Bo Jackson a year ago.
The other bit talks about the fact that rush efficiency explains “only 4.4 percent of the variance in wins,” (via this article) while passing efficiency explains 62 percent. It’s much different in college football, where power running teams dominate. To drive home the point, a study from Pro Football Focus is referenced:
A recent study from Pro Football Focus found that the four RB measurements that best predict team wins in the following year are PFF pass-blocking grade, pass blocking efficiency, yards per receiving route run, and PFF receiving grade. That’s right: RBs only help their teams win to the extent that they matter in the passing game.
Premium draft picks should be spent on what matters: improving a team’s passing game or pass defense.
This piece suggests that drafting a back in the top 20 is a bad idea. The 49ers will pick at No. 9 overall, and while there is a lot of talk about Saquon Barkley potentially going first overall, him falling to ninth wouldn’t be the most surprising thing. The NFL Draft is weird, and running backs are valued all over the place by every single team.
I don’t think the 49ers should take someone like Barkley at No. 9 overall. He’s not a guarantee by any means (to be fair, nobody is, but the bust rate for running backs is such a drag). I wouldn’t expect them to draft Barkley at No. 9 anyway, as I feel the position will be addressed in free agency.
Give the full piece a read, and then let’s chat about this.