Soon after being selected by the Detroit Lions in the second round of the 2018 draft, Auburn running back Kerryon Johnson revealed that he wishes he had been alive to watch Barry Sanders play (Johnson was born in 1997). Then there’s new Falcons running back Ito Smith, whose real name is Romarius but whose nickname is Ito because when he was born, his family thought he looked like O.J. Simpson murder-trial judge Lance Ito. You are old, I am old, and if your team is still operating under the strategies it employed when Johnson and Smith were born, it is behind.
Each year, the NFL draft teaches us about where the league is. It is a snapshot of everything the sport believes in. A center was picked first overall in 1939, ending a two-year stretch in which a fullback went first. Since 2001, 12 quarterbacks have gone first overall, the same number as between 1965 and 2001. Since the draft began, running backs are the second-most-popular first-overall pick, but that pick hasn’t happened in 23 years.
In some ways, this year’s draft suggested that the league is as forward-thinking as it’s ever been: Baker Mayfield, an undersized quarterback from an Air Raid system, was selected first overall. Teams also didn’t let the apparently “too smart” Josh Rosen or Lamar Jackson drop out of the first round. But in other ways, the league looks like it always has: A running back was picked second overall by a general manager who mocked analytics and admitted he never even considered trading out of the spot, and there was, just generally, Josh Allen.
The league is at a crossroads when it comes to how teams understand player value, draft strategy, scouting methods, and, well, basically everything else. You could watch two separate general managers give a press conference and almost wonder whether they were talking about the same sport. In that sense, there is no modern NFL.
There is a modern NBA—it’s 3-pointers and efficiency. Modern baseball is strikeouts and homers. But there is no coherent modern NFL. In a league where passing has ruled the past decade, five running backs went in the top 40 picks—including one selection by the New England Patriots, the consensus smartest team in the league. Coming off a Super Bowl whose winners (and runners-up) are famous practitioners of analytics, some teams still openly mock them. The league constantly contradicts itself. When you think you understand the era, the era changes.
The thing to remember is that no one path is right. If you use analytics without watching the games, you’ll end up with a bunch of über-athletes who can’t actually diagnose plays. If you just use tape, you’ll end up with a bunch of guys who can diagnose plays all day but can’t get to the ball. The key to the future of football is understanding that there are no absolutes.
There is, against common sense, a looming culture war in the NFL when it comes to team-building and on-field strategy. The easiest way to win this war is to embrace both sides. There will never be a time when analytics can tell the entire story of football, because schemes at every level vary too greatly, a player’s role in said scheme can explain his numbers as much as his talent, and the college game is vastly different from the pro game. So you have to marry the numbers with everything else.
If you want to, as Giants general manager Dave Gettleman said over the weekend, value players’ big butts, you can. You just need to include everything else in your evaluation, too. During a press conference last Thursday when addressing the idea that a running back shouldn’t be drafted as high as no. 2 overall, Gettleman dismissively mimicked typing at a keyboard when mentioning those who “got into the analytics of it” and criticized the team’s selection of Penn State’s Saquon Barkley. As an example of a successful high running back pick, he cited now-Giant Jonathan Stewart, who was drafted 13th overall in 2008 and who, Gettleman claimed, has not lost a step. According to Pro-Football-Reference’s career-value metric, Stewart is the fifth-best running back … from the 2008 draft class. In addition to Gettleman’s latest broadside, Jon Gruden’s hearty mocking of “data” at the owners meetings did little to prevent some sort of divide between new and old thinking. Plenty of traditional scouts feel they are being marginalized by centralized front offices that value on-the-ground scouting less than previous eras—and that’s likely to cause an even greater schism, similar to the one that used to exist all across baseball.
Browns beat writer Mary Kay Cabot said that Mayfield was the top quarterback for at least six teams. This comes only six drafts after Russell Wilson dropped to the third round due in large part to height concerns. Drew Brees, a second-round pick, was knocked for the same reason. It’s a minor football miracle that all of the dumb reasons teams talk themselves out of prospects—their measurables, their college offense, their attitude—were no longer a problem for Mayfield. This is progress. After all, quarterbacks who are between 5-foot-10 and 6-foot-1 have a higher winning percentage than quarterbacks 6-foot-6 and taller. Mayfield is 6 feet and ⅝ inches tall.
The real beauty of this pick is that it was made in the way it should be: with a blend of data and old-school scouting. The Browns clearly value analytics—I have spoken with Browns general manager John Dorsey about his emphasis on athletic testing numbers and data when it comes to scouting. But it is also clear that they scouted the person. “When [Mayfield] walked into a room, you knew he was there,” Browns executive Alonzo Highsmith told CantonRep.com.
However, just six picks later came Wyoming’s Josh Allen, whose entire existence seems to indicate that scouting has not advanced particularly far. I like the Bills a lot. I think their front office is forward-thinking and that they have a great coaching staff. Allen, though, is an inaccurate college passer whose key trait—throwing the ball a long way—is used very rarely among current NFL offenses.
Allen’s selection came five picks after the Giants took Barkley, a great running back whose pass catching will make him a threat in the NFL. He’s also the third running back taken in the top five in the past three years, and my guess is the first two teams who made those picks wish they could have them back. The Cowboys would be better now with Jalen Ramsey rather than Zeke Elliott, and the Jaguars had no noticeable decline when Leonard Fournette was out injured last year. The important thing about the top of the draft is you can get a cost-controlled star for five years at a fraction of the price of comparable players. This is the reason that quarterbacks and pass rushers—two of the most expensive assets on the open market—are so popular with high picks. Not so with running backs: Barkley, as ESPN’s Bill Barnwell points out, will have the most guaranteed money of any back in the league. Running backs aren’t paid as much as quarterbacks or edge rushers simply because they’re typically not as valuable. According to NumberFire, over the past five seasons, the average pass attempt resulted in 7.15 yards gained. The average running play has yielded 4.10 yards per rush.
My problem is not with having Barkley high on a draft board or having him on a roster. It’s about value. It’s about not auctioning off the pick to a quarterback-needy team (taking, for instance, the deal the Jets gave the Colts for pick no. 3) and instead trying to get Barkley a few picks later. It’s not like this wasn’t an option: Gettleman said the team got a “very reasonable offer” for the pick. There are any number of ways the Giants could have maximized the value of the pick. They could’ve just taken a quarterback and groomed him behind Eli Manning, who is 37 years old and whom they’ve inexplicably committed to going forward, or they could’ve just traded down. Taking a running back, however good he is, was not the play. It may be a short-term boon. By all accounts, Barkley is the type of player who will start his career hot and improve the Giants offense immediately. But using the no. 2 pick is about extracting as much value as possible over multiple years.
Now that teams will get leaguewide tracking data for the first time this season, we are going to hear a lot in the coming years about “new school” vs. “old school” in the NFL. Except the smartest teams—the Patriots and Eagles among them—use both schools of thought. Teams across the league are operating in vastly different universes from one another, and I am not smart enough to know what the proper balance is. But I do know that the teams who figure it out are about to have a huge advantage.