NFL Teams Need to Stop Drafting First-Round Running Backs
A couple of years ago, our own Jim Sannes wrote an article titled, Why the Minnesota Vikings Should Trade Adrian Peterson.
No, Jim didn't have a time-traveling DeLorean that allowed him to see that Adrian Peterson would be suspended the following year. But he had logic, and that logic still holds true in 2016.
If you've looked at mock NFL drafts this offseason, you may have noticed pundits and analysts pegging Ezekiel Elliott as an early first-round pick, possibly to the Cowboys at pick number four. And if you search Twitter, you'll find a lot of fans backing up the idea that Elliott deserves to be drafted high because he does everything right. He does it all.
That's true, he does do it all. He could be another Le'Veon Bell-type back who sits atop fantasy rankings each season. And he could end up being a household name like Adrian Peterson has become.
But does that even matter?
The running back position in football is dying, but it's not just because teams are choosing to throw the ball more. There's actually a reason teams are throwing the ball more than they did a decade ago.
Passing is far more efficient.
Don't Ignore the Metrics
We commonly use a metric at numberFire called Net Expected Points (NEP), which perfectly demonstrates this idea.
Let me ask something simple: Why should a 10-yard gain on 3rd-and-10 count the same as a 10-yard gain on 3rd-and-15? It shouldn't. One results in a first down, while the other ends up as either a punt or a potential field goal.
Essentially, NEP looks at the real impact an offensive player is making for his team. If a pass-catcher is targeted on that 3rd-and-10 play and converts for the first down, he's increasing his team's chances of scoring on that drive. He's credited with the difference in expected points from one play to the next. The same can be said for running backs and quarterbacks, then, as well. (Before you go on, feel free to read more about NEP in our glossary.)
Intuitively, this makes it more difficult for running backs to make as big of an impact on the field as, say, a quarterback. A lot of times, rushers are only gaining three or four yards per carry. Quarterbacks have the benefit of throwing it downfield and, thus, creating a lot of expected points on a deep completion.
But what this also shows us is that running backs just don't matter as much as teams probably think they do. Or, what they do on the ground isn't as impactful as what happens through the air.
Let's look at a quick example. The following table shows the Passing NEP per drop back (points added through the air with each drop back) rate by quarterbacks over the last 15 years compared to the Rushing NEP per rush average by all running backs.
|Year||Passing NEP per Drop Back||Rushing NEP per Rush (RB)|
What the table shows is what your television set has said over the last five or so years: this is a pass-friendly NFL. But it's not just in volume -- it's in efficiency.
We've yet to have a season since the turn of the century where rushing with a running back was more efficient than throwing with a quarterback. And while the efficiency numbers have remained relatively constant over the years at running back, things keep booming at quarterback.
Passing, For the Win
To be clear, this isn't to say that rushing is completely irrelevant in today's NFL. You need to (somewhat) balance an offense to keep defenses honest, and you need guys to be able to grind clock at the end of games.
That's not what this exercise is about. Instead, it's to show that a team's running game really isn't that important. And when something isn't that important, we -- in anything, really -- shouldn't pay a high cost in obtaining it.
To shed some more light to this idea, take a look at the charts below that show the relationship between team schedule-adjusted Passing NEP and wins, as well as team schedule-adjusted Rushing NEP and wins.
The trendlines here are showing the association between team wins and team passing and rushing effectiveness. The steeper the trendline, the bigger the impact these phases of the game are having. To put this another way, teams with stronger passing games have seen a much better win total than teams with stronger running games over the last five years.
(For you math nerds, the r-value between Adjusted Passing NEP and wins since 2011 has been 0.66, while it's at 0.30 with Adjusted Rushing NEP.)
The other interesting piece to this is that the Adjusted Rushing NEP numbers include quarterback rushing, which is historically more effective than running back rushing. That means the lack of correlation between wins and schedule-adjusted Rushing NEP should actually be worse than the graph displays.
I'm not trying to be combative when I ask this, but here's a really simple question to think about: If Adrian Peterson is such a transcendent talent, then why is his offense almost always mediocre?
If your brain told you that it's because he's rarely had a good passing game, you're not wrong. But that's exactly what the information above is saying: no matter how good the running back, it may not really matter.
According to our numbers, the Vikings' offense has actually ranked in the top-10 in efficiency on a per play basis exactly once since AP entered the league. The year? 2009, when Brett Favre was under center and put together a Pro Bowl season.
Doesn't anyone wonder why the Steelers and Chiefs were able to sustain their offense this past season when Jamaal Charles and Le'Veon Bell fell to season-ending injuries? I know our own Anthony Amico did -- he showed us that both teams actually got better offensively without their stud running backs.
That isn't to say Charles and Bell don't make their offenses better. They certainly do -- a piece of the reason the Chiefs and Steelers offenses were better last year without their backs was schedule-related. But a larger chunk to this is that passing has just become so efficient that running the football is now less important.
Get Your Running Backs, But Get Them Late
There was a great piece over on rotoViz.com last month that showed how receiving backs are a lot more valuable to today's game than people realize, while backs who don't necessarily catch a lot of passes -- like Todd Gurley -- are probably overrated by the masses.
That couldn't align better with what we've looked at here.
Todd Gurley could end up being one of the best rushers of his generation, but that's also like saying a particular episode of Fuller House is the best of Season 1. If they all suck, who cares?
What's good about Ezekiel Elliott, at least, is that he can do it all. He can contribute to a team's passing attack. But considering what running backs mean to the game today, are we sure a team should really be spending a first-round pick on him? At the very least, an early first-round pick?
I know I'd rather bolster my team's passing game.