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The Value of Things: What About Running Backs?

The password is fungible.

Houston Texans v Miami Dolphins Photo by Ronald C. Modra/Getty Images

“On a long enough timeline, the survival rate drops to zero.” — Tyler Durden

The Texans have had the worst running game in the NFL over the past two years. Their struggles go well beyond that. Arian Foster was their last rusher to rush over 1200 yards and that happened at the very beginning of the Bill O’Brien era. Carlos Hyde barely eclipsed the 1000 yard barrier in 2019, but otherwise that entire time period was a dearth of a good rushing attack.

So, the Texans probably will draft a running back at some point. This is where conventional wisdom and actual statistics collide. This column is about the debate between the two. In a contest between wisdom and stats, I will almost always choose stats. So, I did a deep dive into the running backs drafted since 2002 and came away with some interesting information to pass along.

Before we dive into various numbers, I should take a minute and evaluate our methods. I only included the first four rounds. The reasons why should be obvious, but it feeds into our particular draft setup. We have two first rounders, two third rounders, and two fourth rounders. So, it would seem that it would more likely be there. Also, the results will bear out why as well. I took two stats for each running back. I calculated the number of Pro Bowls they were elected to and their WAV (weighted average value).

Running backs are split into groups. Backs with a career WAV under ten are labeled as misses (those with zero are busts). Backs with a career WAV of 25 or more are considered hits. Backs with a WAV of 50 or more are considered home runs. Now, that we have that figured out, let’s take a look at the raw data.

20 Years of Drafts

First Round: 42 players, 45 pro bowls, 29 hits, 12 home runs, 3 misses, 1 bust, 36.86 WAV

Second Round: 50 players, 28 pro bowls, 19 hits, 6 home runs, 14 misses, 2 busts, 23.90 WAV

Third Round: 47 players, 22 pro bowls, 12 hits, 5 home runs, 19 misses, 2 busts, 19.96 WAV

Fourth Round: 78 players, 18 pro bowls, 12 hits, 1 home run, 47 misses, 10 busts, 11.45 WAV

We should begin with our usual caveats and disclaimers. The one bust was Travis Etienne and that was simply because he hasn’t played yet. The moment he touches a ball in a live game he likely transfers over to the misses pile. It should be noted that the way WAV is calculated tends to harm younger players. It needs a minimum of three seasons to get to a full range of value. So players like Jonathan Taylor are considered hits, but not home runs because they haven’t put in the time.

Still, when we look at numbers like these we are looking at the aggregate. Obviously, first rounders are a lot more successful than the other rounds and that is to be expected. However, that flies in the face of convention wisdom. Conventional wisdom says that you can get your star running back later in the draft. The numbers above would seem to indicate that you CAN get your star running back later in the draft, but in all likelihood you won’t if you wait too long.

Something peculiar also happened in the fourth round. The pro bowls that were found were charged to guys that really weren’t full-time running backs at the NFL level. They may have been drafted as running backs, but they made their bones on special teams. The best running back in the round by WAV was Darren Sproles. Sproles was at least a part-time running back while being a special teams star and third down back. So, the results would be even more skewed if we removed those players.

Reverse Engineering

Many of you might be thinking that all of these fancy numbers are great and all, but let’s move back to reality. Sure. So, what we will do is take running backs that gained 1200 or more yards in a season since 2002. To get a full picture we will include the total number of such seasons for players drafted before 2002 just so their careers can come into full focus.

By my count, 62 different running backs gained 1200 or more yards in a season since 2002. 26 of those running backs did it in three or more seasons. I think we could easily say that those running backs were hits in the draft. Eleven of those running backs were taken in the first round, 8 of them were selected in the third round, and two of them were taken in the third round. Oddly enough, three of them were undrafted free agents, so that left only two taken in the fourth round or later.

Ten backs gained 1200 or more yards in two seasons or more. Some of these players are still active (like say Derrick Henry and Nick Chubb). Four of them were taken in the first round, three in the second round, and two in the third round. That list also includes one undrafted free agent. So, of the 36 backs in question we see the following:

1st rounders: 15

2nd rounders: 11

3rd rounders: 4

4th rounders: 1

Undrafted Free Agents: 4

In other words, you are more likely to hit on an undrafted free agent then you are on anything below the third round. I counted nine potential Hall of Famers in that group of 36 guys. Six of the nine guys were first rounders. Does this mean that we should draft a running back in the first round? I’d say no. It clearly looks like the second round might be the sweet spot for taking one. Every draft is different and past results are not always an indicator of future performance, but if the Texans want a bell cow they probably can’t afford to wait until the fourth round.