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When Is a Running Back Worth a First-Round Pick?

Amid all the buzz about the “Zeke Effect,” here are three guidelines for teams to determine whether a top running back prospect is really worth the sticker price

(Getty Images/Ringer illustration)
(Getty Images/Ringer illustration)

Over the past two years, it’s seemed as if picking a running back in the first round of the NFL draft has experienced a renaissance. On the heels of two consecutive drafts (2013 and 2014) in which no backs came off the board in the first 32 picks, the 2015 draft saw both Todd Gurley (no. 10) and Melvin Gordon (no. 15) go in the first half of Round 1. A year later, Dallas took Ezekiel Elliott with the fourth overall pick, turning its ground game into a mindless, yards-eating machine in the process.

Based on most projections, that first-round trend should continue Thursday night. Both LSU’s Leonard Fournette and Stanford’s Christian McCaffrey look like potential top-10 picks, while Florida State’s Dalvin Cook could sneak into the back half of Round 1. Yet for all the talk that teams have again become willing to gamble on a back early, there isn’t much evidence that points to the prudency of doing so.

The notion of a "Zeke Effect" has come up often in the lead-up to this year’s draft, as many wonder whether Elliott’s excellent rookie season could sway NFL decision-makers toward selecting either Fournette and McCaffrey in the top 10. Elliott’s monster debut (1,631 rushing yards with 15 touchdowns on 5.1 yards per carry) was undeniably impressive, but it also came behind the best offensive line in football. If his statistics and the Cowboys’ ruthless efficiency are proof of anything, it’s that putting a bunch of good players together in the same huddle usually turns out well.

The sophomore campaigns from Gordon and Gurley appear to bolster contrasting sides of the argument. After a dizzying start to his career, Gurley’s second season was a crushing disappointment. For players with at least 275 carries, his average of 3.18 yards per carry was the fifth-worst mark since 1970. Among all the crimes against offensive football that former head coach Jeff Fisher’s staff perpetuated with the Rams, breaking the guy who’s capable of a game like this may be the most unforgivable.

Meanwhile, compared with his nightmarish rookie season, Gordon’s 2016 brought dramatic improvement. He ran with tenacity, power, and burst that were absent in his first go-round. Still, a vastly superior version of Gordon managed only 3.9 yards per carry on an offense that ranked 24th in Football Outsiders’ rushing DVOA.

Devaluing Gordon and Gurley — who played behind two of the league’s worst offensive lines last season — because they couldn’t carry shoddy supporting casts feels wrong, but it’s the same line of thinking that has caused many to ask whether Elliott’s rookie star turn could spark a draft trend. Unlike quarterbacks, edge rushers, and players at other high-value positions, running backs often succeed or fail in large part because of the talent around them. That’s why taking one in the first round — or in the case of Fournette and McCaffrey, in the top 10 — is such a dicey proposition.

Finding a single stat to compare NFL players across positions is next to impossible, but the wonderful folks at Pro Football Reference have created a metric called Approximate Value (AV) that assigns one number to each player in an effort to quantify the value of their overall contributions. It isn’t perfect, but taking stock of guys’ weighted career AVs is useful in discussions like this.

Looking at drafts from the past decade (the period during which the NFL’s passing craze has really taken hold) we can pinpoint some running backs whose career AVs rank among the best 10 to 15 in their respective draft classes — the expectation for any player selected in the first 15 picks. And by identifying what makes those running backs special, we can lay out three questions for franchises to consider if they’re thinking about selecting a back in the top half of the 2017 first round.

1. As a runner, can Player X transcend — or at least enhance — the entire infrastructure of an offense?

The list of recent running backs with exceptional career AV isn’t surprising. Adrian Peterson ranks third among his 2007 draftmates with an AV of 88. Marshawn Lynch is tied for ninth that class with an AV of 68. LeSean McCoy, a 2009 second-rounder, is third in his draft with an AV of 71. Le’Veon Bell sits atop the AV rankings for the 2013 draft at 43.

One trait all of these guys — and most of the other running backs with AVs in the top 10 of their classes — share is that scheme and offensive line talent haven’t completely dictated their NFL success. It’s not as if Peterson played behind five All-Pros in the 2012 campaign when he rushed for 2,097 yards. The state of the Seahawks’ line has been underwhelming in recent years; that didn’t stop Seattle from finishing in top five in rushing DVOA nearly every season that Lynch was on the team.

The situations aren’t as clear cut with McCoy and Bell, both of whom have benefited having solid groups up front (and in Shady’s case, some of the best-designed rushing schemes in football). Still, each back boasts a style that’s allowed him to occasionally step outside or elevate the talent that’s around him. McCoy’s rare vision and ability to find holes lessens the need for perfect execution on every block. Bell’s patience and the way he sees the field often fit his linemen directly onto defenders.

Those four backs provide an interesting case study for which types of runners can find success independent of their teammates or schemes — an essential quality in a first-round-caliber back. In the cases of Peterson and Lynch, they’ve thrived on physicality. Lynch is an excellent decision-maker as a zone runner, but his main value as a runner is that he just doesn’t go down. Since 2013, Lynch has 66 more broken tackles than any other back in the league. He even didn’t play last season. With Peterson, the greatness doesn’t come down to a single factor. That’s how things work with once-in-a-lifetime talents — they get it done in a variety of ways.

Any team eyeing Fournette with a top-10 pick must believe that he can make a similar impact to the ones Peterson and Lynch did. For a player with Fournette’s running style to warrant a first-round selection, he’ll need to become the sort of back who can leave cleat marks on a defender’s chest and cause linebackers to want to call in sick any time he’s on the schedule. Those kinds of guys don’t come around often, but Peterson and Lynch are excellent examples of what can happen when they do.

McCaffrey, for his part, won’t grind defenders into dust. As a runner, he’s dangerous because of his knack for finding cutback lanes and wiggling around defenders — similar to another guy we’ve already mentioned.

There are shades of both McCoy and Bell in the way that McCaffrey runs. For teams considering taking him in Round 1, those shades will have to transform into similar levels of production.

2. Can Player X stay on the field and thrive in passing situations?

Bell can be downright ridiculous as a runner, but what sets him apart as an offensive weapon is his ability as a receiver. The Steelers added a dimension to their passing game by lining Bell up in the slot, an area from which he’d torch linebackers on slants and run angle routes to exploit open areas of the field. Last season, Bell’s pass-catching proficiency even led Pittsburgh to deploy him as its de facto no. 2 receiver.

Cardinals star David Johnson (whose AV of 24 is tied for tops in the 2015 draft, alongside Jameis Winston) is similarly versatile. As a cyborg who barrels through most arm tackles, Johnson has the physicality to transcend his surroundings as a rusher. But what puts him in the conversation as maybe the best back in football is the value he brings to Arizona’s passing game. The volume is there, as Johnson racked up a ridiculous 120 targets last season. He made the most of them. He finished fourth in receiving DVOA among backs despite his massive workload as a receiver.

As teams try to decipher McCaffrey’s overall value, his contributions as a pass catcher are the key. It requires hardly any imagination to picture him filling a role like the one Bell has in Pittsburgh. Teams have already seen it. McCaffrey was used as a receiver in a number of packages at Stanford, and he routinely left opposing linebackers in his wake on option routes of the backfield. For him to be worthy of a top-15 pick, though, he has to be more than just a reliable slot receiver; he has to be a weapon, like Bell, who is equally devastating as a rushing threat.

Fournette’s receiving talents have been a topic of discussion for the wrong reasons this spring, but that’s partly a result of just how much McCaffrey brings to the table in that regard. LSU was comfortable using Fournette on swing routes and the like during his time in Baton Rouge, and he never seemed uncomfortable catching the ball when asked to do so. Like many skill-position prospects who played under Les Miles in college, it can be difficult to parse where Fournette’s shortcomings start and the limits of Miles’s notoriously conservative offensive approach end.

There’s one other factor to keep in mind here: Backs who can stay on the field in passing situations have value for that alone. Elliott was lauded for his pass blocking coming into the league; according to Pro Football Focus, he allowed just one sack on 108 pass-blocking snaps during his final season at Ohio State. His understanding of protection schemes (and underrated efforts as a receiver, as he ranked fifth in receiving DVOA among running backs in 2016) meant that third-down back Lance Dunbar turned into an afterthought. Dallas may not deploy Elliott in as many ways as the Steelers and Cardinals use their backs, but the amount that he’s on the field is still an argument in favor of drafting him with an early pick. When it comes to separating top-15-worthy backs from top-50-type ones, everything matters.

3. Is Player X worth reaching for in his particular draft class?

One of the most frustrating aspects of determining draft value is the notion that a prospect is or isn’t a first-round pick based solely on his individual scouting report. The talent pool of every draft is different, and as such, the appeal of a player rises or falls based on what else the draft has to offer. Part of the reason Fournette and McCaffrey are being tabbed as top-10 picks is this year’s crop lacks prized prospects at highly valued positions. Based on projections, it’d be a surprise to see an offensive tackle come off the board in the first 10 picks. That hasn’t happened since 2005, when former Oklahoma tackle Jammal Brown was the first lineman taken at no. 13. What happens with the quarterbacks is still an unknown. And outside of Myles Garrett, there’s no true edge defender who’s a lock to go in the top 10.

Where a player does — or should — go in a given draft is decided largely by who else is available. Bell leading the 2013 class in career AV is a perfect example. His stint in Pittsburgh has been stellar no matter how you slice it, but part of why he ranks first among 2013 draftees is because the rest of that draft was an absolute disaster. Any redraft of the 2013 class would include Bell, who went 48th overall, in the top three — if not first overall. Johnson, who went 86th in 2015, would probably go in the first 10 picks if that draft happened today. McCoy would go early in the first round if the 2009 draft took place all over again.

The fact that Bell, Johnson, and McCoy all went after the first round would seem to lend credence to the idea that running backs aren’t smart top-15 picks, but that’s also somewhat misleading. Bell was the second back off the board in his class. For the most part, high-impact backs are drafted in the first three rounds, and many (Bell, McCoy, and Matt Forte among them) have been snapped up in the second.

If teams believe that Fournette and McCaffrey can make Peterson- or Bell-type impacts, they shouldn’t shy away from grabbing them in the top 10. In the modern NFL, it’s not that finding running backs is easy. It’s that finding the ones who warrant early first-round picks is incredibly hard.