Thursday, April 25, 2013

Thousand-Yard Rushers: First-Round Backs Still Rule

It being NFL Draft Day and the Packers being at least outwardly in the latest phase of their perennial need at running back, I thought I’d take a look at where most good NFL runners are taken. I went to the NFL stats page and looked up every running back from the past five years who’d posted a 1,000-yard season; both numbers are necessarily arbitrary, but all I wanted was a crude snapshot. With guys like Alfred Morris (sixth round) and Arian Foster (undrafted) tearing up the league and coloring my expectations, I thought it’d be a fairly egalitarian position. Wrong again. Not unlike offensive tackles, first-round backs dominated the field of forty different runners (18 of 40, 45%). Backs taken in the first three rounds made up seventy percent (28 of 40).

Here’s my data, with the backs organized by round and by position in that round. The number of 1,000-yard seasons they had within the marking period follows in brackets. It’s a bit odd to count only one thousand-yard season from guys like LaDanian Tomlinson and Thomas Jones, but I couldn’t really exclude them, either. My crude count did not forgive injuries, because that’s part of being a running back. Production was the only criterion I used.

Reggie Bush (1-2) [1]
Cedric Benson (1-4) [3]
Darren McFadden (1-4) [2]
Ricky Williams (1-5) [1]
LaDanian Tomlinson (1-5) [1]
Jamal Lewis (1-5) [1]
Thomas Jones (1-7) [1]
Adrian Peterson (1-7) [4]
C.J. Spiller (1-9) [1]
Marshawn Lynch (1-12) [3]
Ryan Mathews (1-12) [1]
Jonathan Stewart (1-13) [1]
Rashard Mendenhall (1-23) [2]
Willis McGahee (1-23) [1]
Chris Johnson (1-24) [4]
Steven Jackson (1-24) [5]
Doug Martin (1-31) [1]
Chris “Beanie” Wells (1-31) [1]

Matt Forté (2-44) [3]
Clinton Portis (2-51) [1]
LeSean McCoy (2-53) [2]
Ray Rice (2-55) [4]
Maurice Jones-Drew (2-60) [3]

Frank Gore (3-65) [4]
Shonn Greene (3-65) [2]
Jamaal Charles (3-73) [3]
Stevan Ridley (3-73) [1]
Steve Slaton (3-89) [1]

Brandon Jacobs (4-110) [1]

Michael Turner (5-154) [3]

Alfred Morris (6-173) [1]

Peyton Hillis (7-227) [1]
Derrick Ward (7-235) [1]
Ahmad Bradshaw (7-250) [2]

Arian Foster [3]
BenJarvus Green-Ellis [2]
LeGarrette Blount [1]
Ryan Grant [2]

First-round backs produced 34 of the 75 seasons (45.3%), and backs taken in rounds 1-3 accounted for 58 of 75 (77.3%), which is spookily on par with the earlier percentages. Moving away from statistics, most of the electrifying talent is in the first three rounds as well; Turner had a ridiculous combination of power and speed in his prime, Morris is perfect for the Redskins’ zone scheme, Bradshaw is a great, scrappy pass-blocker and solid runner, and Foster is Foster. The rest of the fourth-round or later backs are fairly uninspiring.

The second- and third-round backs, and the cluster of running backs at positions 23 and 24 in the first round, speak to the depreciation of value at the running back position. It is possible to get a solid guy around where the Packers are picking, or to pick someone up in the second or third round, although it’s less likely. I’d like to go back and do this again including busts, but we’re out of time. Bottom line: the Packers have invested two high picks at this position since 2007, those being Brandon Jackson and Alex Green. They’ve been content to get by with dirt-cheap options through most of Thompson’s tenure, including UFA Samkon Gado, for-nothing trade Vernand Morency, a cheap free-agent Ahman Green, seventh-round DeShawn Wynn, undrafted Grant, sixth-round James Starks, the younger Green, and now UFA DuJuan Harris. They’ve gotten by at this position without a 1,000-yard runner or a true No. 1 back since 2009, when Grant was in his prime. If the Packers are serious about upgrading the position, we’ll see them reach high for a back during this draft. If not, we’ll get by with an assortment of mediocre or limited options once again.

Stray notes:

The Buffalo Bills are freakishly good at this, having drafted or signed four different 1,000-yard rushers (Spiller, Lynch, Jackson, McGahee). Meanwhile, the Giants have made a freakish amount of more with less (Bradshaw and Ward are seventh-rounders, Jacobs was a fourth and Martin was 1-31, while Ryan Grant was undrafted).

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