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2021 R1 RB Debate: An alternate perspective

The 1st-round RB debate has been raging lately here on Revenge of the Birds. Here is one writer’s perspective on why drafting an RB at #16 this year would be a mistake.

NCAA Football: CFP National Championship-Ohio State vs Alabama
RB Najee Harris won a National Championship with the Crimson Tide last season. Should Cardinals fans be hoping he’s wearing a different shade of red next season?
Kim Klement-USA TODAY Sports

With the 2021 NFL Draft just three weeks away, draft talk is heating up around the league—including here at Revenge of the Birds. A few days ago, our own Walter Mitchell published a piece urging the Cardinals to consider drafting an RB with their 1st-round pick.

Here was the conclusion he offered:

“While a strong argument can be made for teams finding star RBs on Days 2 and 3 of the draft, there is ample evidence to suggest that R1 RBs can be very much worthy of the pick if they have the talent and are drafted by the right team.”

Much of Walter’s evidence for this assertion revolved around recent rushing-yardage leaders and whether or not they were drafted in the 1st round. I decided to do a little research myself and see if RBs drafted in the 1st round in recent years were really “worthy” of the pick for the teams that drafted them. I used 2010 as a cutoff, since it’s a neat endpoint and includes the timeframe when teams made a pronounced shift toward backfield committees.

I looked at each of the 17 RBs drafted in the 1st round since 2010, analyzing where they were drafted, by which team, and what kind of team success those teams had after using their 1st-rounder on an RB. I then looked at the top-10 rushing yardage leaders for each season in that same timeframe to see how many were 1st-round picks, and whether the teams with those top rushers had any kind of postseason success.

Through this research, I drew a few interesting conclusions that should help answer the two main questions we’re considering here: Is it generally worth it for a team to spend a 1st-round pick on an RB? Should the Cardinals consider doing so this year? Read on to find out.

Note: The analysis below only includes what a given RB did with the team that drafted him. So, for example, Leonard Fournette’s Super Bowl win with the Buccaneers last season isn’t considered, since the Buccaneers didn’t draft him. It wouldn’t say or prove much if the Cardinals drafted Najee Harris this season but he goes on to win a Super Bowl with, say, the Chargers in 2025, right?

The Raw Data

The table below shows each of the 17 RBs drafted since 2010 with their team, draft position, some simple statistics with the team that drafted them, Pro Bowl appearances, and their team’s playoff appearances/record with that RB on the roster. We also have some average and aggregate stats that we’ll get to in a bit.

RBs Drafted in 1st Round Since 2010

Year Name Team Pick Seasons Yards TDs Pro Bowls Playoff Appearances Playoff Record
Year Name Team Pick Seasons Yards TDs Pro Bowls Playoff Appearances Playoff Record
2010 C.J. Spiller Bills 9 5 3,321 18 1 0 N/A
2010 Ryan Mathews Chargers 12 5 4,061 24 1 1 1-1
2010 Jahvid Best Lions 30 2 945 9 0 0 N/A
2011 Mark Ingram Saints 28 8 6,007 55 2 4 4-4
2012 Trent Richardson Browns 3 1 1,055 12 0 0 N/A
2012 Doug Martin Buccaneers 31 6 4,633 28 2 0 N/A
2012 David Wilson Giants 32 3 504 6 0 0 N/A
2015 Todd Gurley Rams 10 5 5,404 60 3 2 2-2
2015 Melvin Gordon Chargers 15 5 4,240 47 2 1 1-1
2016 Ezekiel Elliott Cowboys 4 5 6,384 56 3 2 1-2
2017 Leonard Fournette Jaguars 4 3 2,631 19 0 1 2-1
2017 Christian McCaffrey Panthers 8 4 3,145 45 1 1 0-1
2018 Saquon Barkley Giants 2 3 2,344 23 1 0 N/A
2018 Rashaad Penny Seahawks 27 3 823 6 0 3 0-1
2018 Sony Michel Patriots 31 3 2,292 15 0 2 3-1
2019 Josh Jacobs Raiders 24 2 2,215 19 1 0 N/A
2020 Clyde Edwards-Helaire Chiefs 32 1 803 5 0 1 1-1
Average 18 4 2,989 27 1 1
Total 64 17 18 16-14
Note: All statistics are from the player’s time with the team that drafted him only.

Looking at these names, it’s an interesting assortment of players, but I think they can be grouped into three tiers: Busts, Useful Backs, and Studs. Busts and Studs should be self-explanatory, and I’ll define Useful Backs as players who were solid starters/committee members for multiple years. I’m putting Edwards-Helaire into this category for now after his underwhelming rookie year. I also wouldn’t protest if you put Gordon in the “Useful Backs” tier instead. But here’s how I’d group them:

1st Round RB Tiers

Busts Useful Backs Studs
Busts Useful Backs Studs
Jahvid Best C.J. Spiller Mark Ingram
Trent Richardson Ryan Mathews Todd Gurley
David Wilson Doug Martin Melvin Gordon
Rashaad Penny Leonard Fournette Ezekiel Elliott
Sony Michel Christian McCaffrey
Clyde Edwards-Helaire Saquon Barkley
Josh Jacobs

So we have 4/17 Busts (24%), 6/17 Useful Backs (35%), and 7/17 (41%) Studs. So just looking at things from a bird’s-eye view—without considering where these backs were drafted or what team drafted them—the Cardinals would appear to have about a 75% chance of getting a Useful Back or Stud with their 1st-round pick, with a sizeable chance that it’s the latter—and most of the Busts being picked much later than where the Cardinals are drafting at #16. Not too bad.

But does drafting such an RB translate into team success, especially for a team like the Cardinals?

Team Success

Again just looking at the surface numbers, these 17 RBs have made 18 combined playoff appearances for the teams that drafted them in 64 total seasons. That’s about a 28% clip—and remember that 37.5% of teams (12/32) made the playoffs under the old playoff format. (It increased to about 44%, 14/32, starting in 2020.) So teams that used a 1st-round pick on an RB since 2010 have made the playoffs at a lower rate than your generic NFL franchise. Hmmm.

Of course, many of these teams were in various stages of rebuilding—like the Cardinals. You can put 11/17 teams in that category: 2010 Bills and Lions, 2012 Browns and Buccaneers, 2015 Rams and Chargers, 2016 Cowboys, 2017 Jaguars and Panthers, 2018 Giants, and 2019 Raiders. The groups of teams that have attempted to build around or get over the hump with a 1st-round RB have made just 7 playoff appearances in 41 appearances, a ghastly 17% clip. Yikes—although this does include one Super Bowl appearance for the Rams with Gurley as their lead back.

The other 6/17 teams (2010 Chargers, 2011 Saints, 2012 Giants, 2018 Seahawks and Patriots, and 2020 Chiefs) fared much better, making 11 playoff appearances in 23 seasons, a robust 48% clip. This includes a Super Bowl win for the Patriots in Michel’s rookie season, with Michel putting up huge numbers in three postseason games. But this shouldn’t be surprising, as these were contending teams who might not have had many needs elsewhere on the roster. These are the “RB as the final piece” type of teams (which the Cardinals are not).

How important is a “Stud” RB?

If you’re drafting an RB in the 1st round, you’re obviously expecting (or at least hoping) that they’ll be a “Stud” RB—a workhorse/bellcow RB, an RB who can crack the top-10 in rushing, a Pro Bowler. For the final piece of this analysis, I wanted to look at the top-10 rushing leaders for each season going back to 2010—the “Studs” of those seasons. How many of them were drafted in the 1st round? What kind of postseason success did those teams have? Here’s what I found out:

Yearly Top-10 Rushers and Playoff Success

Year Top-10 Rushers Drafted in 1st Round Top-10 Rushers Who Made Playoffs Super Bowl Results Round Drafted
Year Top-10 Rushers Drafted in 1st Round Top-10 Rushers Who Made Playoffs Super Bowl Results Round Drafted
2020 2 6 N/A N/A
2019 4 4 N/A N/A
2018 5 3 Todd Gurley (L) 1
2017 5 6 N/A N/A
2016 1 6 LeGarrette Blount (W), Devonta Freeman (L) Undrafted, 4
2015 6 3 Jonathan Stewart (L) 1
2014 1 6 Marshawn Lynch (L) 1
2013 3 6 Lynch (W) 1
2012 5 6 Frank Gore (L) 3
2011 4 5 N/A N/A
2010 4 4 Rashard Mendenhall (L) 1

For this 2010–2020 timeframe, 36% of the top-10 rushing seasons per year were from 1st-round picks. This outsized percentage would seem to be a point in favor of the RB enthusiasts, considering there are far fewer 1st-round RBs than any other kind of RB. If you want a “Stud,” the 1st round seems to be the most sure way to get one.

Looking at the playoffs, an even 50% (55/110) of the top-10 rushers went to the postseason in this timeframe. To put it another way, of the 134 teams to make the playoffs in this timeframe, 55 of them had a top-10 rusher—a 40% clip. That seems to be another point for the RB enthusiasts—I won’t break down the math, but teams with a top-10 rusher make the playoffs proportionally more often than teams without a top-10 rusher. So teams with a “Stud” RB have a better chance of making the playoffs than teams without.

Getting to the playoffs is one thing—advancing to the Super Bowl is another. As you can see above, only 8/55 (just 15%) of these top-10 rushers made it to the Super Bowl, with just 2(!) winning it. Of those two, only one was a 1st-round pick—former Cardinals nemesis Marshawn Lynch (who was a goal line interception away from a second ring). So in this 11-year period, there has only been one instance of a 1st-round RB who finished in the top-10 in rushing yards in a season winning a Super Bowl in that season. There are likely injury situations that affected this, but RB is one of the most injury-prone positions on the field. It would appear that drafting an RB in the 1st round is not a likely way to build a Super Bowl winner.

Conclusions

There are a few interesting things one could take away from this basic analysis. One is that the 1st round is the most likely place to find a “Stud” RB, as 1st-round RB have accounted for an outsized share of top-10 rushing seasons since 2010. In general, “Stud” RBs—regardless of where they were drafted—have also led their teams to the playoffs proportionally more often than other RBs. These points favor the RB enthusiasts out there.

But “Stud” RBs—drafted in 1st round or not—have had far less success advancing in the playoffs and, especially, winning Super Bowls, with just two RBs who finished in the top 10 in rushing winning a ring that season: LeGarrette Blount, who you’d put more in the “Useful Backs” tier, and Marshawn Lynch, a clear 1st-round “Stud” RB. Super Bowl winning RBs in that same timeframe include such luminaries as James Starks (Round 6), Ahmad Bradshaw (Round 7), C.J. Anderson (undrafted), and Damien Williams (undrafted).

Looking specifically at RBs drafted since 2010, only two drafted in the 1st round since 2010 have made two Super Bowl appearances for the teams that drafted them, with both losing: Gurley in 2019 and Edwards-Helaire this past season. (With Ingram and Fournette also making conference title games with the Saints and Jaguars, respectively.) This number doesn’t mean a ton in a vacuum—the sample size is small with just 17 such RBs, which is only one of 22 starting positions on a team—but it’s still interesting to note. These 17 teams have also made the playoffs at a lower rate than the average team, which seems to indicate that, in general, drafting an RB in the 1st round has not paid off for teams.

That’s especially true of rebuilding teams, who have greatly struggled to make the playoffs with their 1st-round RBs. Consider fantasy beasts like Zeke, CMC, Saquon, and Jacobs. They have just three playoff appearances in 14 seasons between them, with just one win. Of course, these are still young players, and those numbers will probably increase in the next few seasons, but RB shelf lives are often perilously short—just ask Todd Gurley, the one RB drafted by a rebuilding team since 2010 to make a Super Bowl with the team who drafted him. He’s only 26 years old but has yet to sign with a team this offseason and looks much closer to the end of his career than the beginning of it. (Again, those injuries.)

It’s a different story for contending teams, who have made the playoffs at a very strong rate after drafting 1st-round RBs. As mentioned earlier, this isn’t surprising—these teams already had strong rosters. But this seems to be a point for the “draft an RB as the final piece” crowd, rather than the “draft an RB to get over the hump” crowd—as there is no evidence to support that the latter has actually happened in recent years. Even with the Gurley example, the Rams didn’t become a contender until they got their coach and QB figured out—the RB was a big part of the team’s success, yes, but he didn’t turn the Rams into a contender—they became a contender around him.

Final Thoughts

Let’s bring this full circle and answer the two questions posed in the beginning of this article: Is it generally worth it for a team to spend a 1st-round pick on an RB? Should the Cardinals consider doing so this year?

Those answers seem to pretty clearly be “No” and “No.”

Even the teams that have drafted a “Stud” RB in recent years—the Cowboys, Panthers, Giants, and Raiders come to mind—haven’t had much postseason success. Yes, the Rams did with Gurley, but he was gone after 5 seasons and looks like a shell of his former self at just 26. Not exactly a shining success story. And how long until the Cowboys and Panthers regret the Zeke and CMC contracts? (It could be as soon as this season for the Cowboys.)

If the Cardinals were “just an RB away,” it would be a slightly different story—contending teams like the Saints and Patriots have had success with their (late) 1st-round RBs. But if you think this Cardinals team—improved as it is—is “just an RB away,” you might want to take a look at our CB and WR depth chart, to name just two bigger needs. It might be tempting to imagine Najee Harris, Travis Etienne, or Javonte Williams taking handoffs and passes from Kyler Murray for the next few seasons, but recent history shows this isn’t a viable way to build a true contender.

The NFL is constantly changing, and one undeniable change that’s been happening is the shift away from true “Stud” bellcow RBs toward a more committee-based approach. With this shift, it is easier—and cheaper—for teams to find productive RBs outside of the 1st round. Draft trends reflect this: from 2000 to 2009, there were 32 RBs taken in the 1st round, including at least two in every draft. Compare that to those 17 from 2010 to 2020, including two years where no RBs were drafted in the 1st round. (That Trent Richardson bust must have really scared teams in 2013.)

I’ve been saying all along that the Cardinals should find a cheap back—either in the middle round of the draft or a mid-tier free agent—to pair with Chase Edmonds next season. The numbers seem to back that approach up. Spending valuable draft capital on an RB that might wind up being just “useful” instead of a true “Stud” just isn’t worth it in today’s NFL.

Let’s face it: Steve Keim makes enough mistakes in the 1st round as it is. Let’s hope he’s at least is smart enough to avoid this antiquated pitfall. Drafting an RB in the 1st round just isn’t worth it.