The Senior Bowl and East-West Shrine Game haven’t even happened yet. The combine is still to come. Every major university is going to have their own pro day. So, getting into specific players and specific draft strategies is at best premature. However, that doesn’t mean we can’t go through some historical deep dives to prove or disprove assumptions we all have about the draft.
For instance, how many times have we heard the expression that you should never draft a running back in the first round? Their careers are too short on average and you can always find quality backs later. After all, the Houston Texans found Dameon Pierce in the fourth round. He was pretty good. So, could the Texans just repeat the same strategy a second year and get a second running back almost as good as Pierce? Sure, anything is possible.
In order to tackle this question we are going to have to lay out some parameters. The first parameter is simple. We will assume the Texans draft a quarterback at number two overall. That leaves the 12th pick to add another offensive skill position player to support that quarterback. Naturally, the Texans could select a player at almost any other position there, but for our purposes we are choosing between running back and wide receiver. Historically, are you better off taking a running back or a wide receiver with your first round pick?
The answer exists on two dimensions. The first dimension that everyone immediately thinks of would be the length and effectiveness of that player’s career. This is where the bias against running backs comes in. Most don’t get a second contract and the ones that do get a second contract rarely live up to that contract. That’s fair. However, there is another dimension. If you hit on that quarterback, you have three or four seasons before that quarterback begins to become expensive. So, which of those positions has the most immediate impact?
In order to study this we are going to take all of the running backs taken in the first round in the past ten seasons and compare them with all of the receivers taken in the first round over the past ten seasons. Eleven running backs have been taken in the first round. 43 different wide receivers have been taken in the first round. To keep this simple we will combine their rushing and receiving yards in their rookie season and their total touchdowns and come up with a positional average.
Running Backs: 860 rushing yards, 273 receiving yards, 7 TD
Wide Receivers: 636 receiving yards, 25 rushing yards, 4 TD
The numbers above for running backs look very similar to the numbers for Pierce. That’s 1,133 yards combined for the eleven running backs. Pierce had 1,104. They averaged 4.5 yards per carry. Pierce averaged 4.3 yards per carry. It should be noted that those eleven also include Travis Etienne who had zero yards rushing and receiving in his first season. If we remove him then we are looking at 946 yards rushing and 300 yards receiving. 1,200 all-purpose yards looks pretty good.
Obviously, both groups have picks that turned out to be clairvoyant and others that turned out to be pitiful. Seven of the eleven running backs had 1,000 or more all-purpose yards in their rookie season. It becomes eight of eleven if you consider 2022 as Etienne’s rookie season. Nine of the 43 receivers had 1,000 or more all-purpose yards in their rookie seasons.
Naturally, this is only half of the equation. We can set up any statistical study any way we want, but receivers typically last longer than running backs. There is no doubt about that. Receivers also have a more difficult time adjusting to the NFL. A number of them went nuts in their second seasons while more than a few of the running backs stagnated or got worse. So, let’s tackle the second part of the equation. How many of those guys are potential Hall of Famers?
Hall of Fame Running Backs?
Ezekiel Elliott— 8,262 yards rushing, 68 TD, 2,336 yards receiving, 12 TD
Christian McCaffrey— 4,736 rushing yards, 38 TD, 3,756 yards receiving, 22 TD
Saquan Barkley— 4,249 rushing yards, 29 TD, 1,820 yards receiving, 8 TD
Josh Jacobs— 4,740 rushing yards, 40 TD, 1,152 yards receiving, 0 TD
Obviously, Elliott might be the only running back here to go in once all is said and done. Jacobs is only four years into his career and the other two have spent nearly as much time on the shelf as they have on the field. However, you could say that if each of these players maintains their level of play for at least three or four more seasons they could be well on their way to Canton.
Hall of Fame Receivers?
Deandre Hopkins— 853 receptions, 11,298 yards, 71 TD
Mike Evans— 683 receptions, 10,425 yards, 81 TD
Odell Beckham— 531 receptions, 7,367 yards, 56 TD
Amari Cooper— 595 receptions, 8,236 yards, 55 TD
There are five or six wide receivers that are just too young to put here, but Justin Jefferson, Ja’Marr Chase, Jaylen Waddle, Devonte Smith, Garrett Wilson, and Chris Olave are all off to really good starts. So, let’s say all of them put up similar numbers over their first seven or eight seasons. Let’s say that Beckham comes back and produces two or three more strong seasons. Let’s say Amari Cooper surpasses 10,000 yards receiving and 70 career touchdowns. That’s ten Hall of Famers out of 43 players drafted. I’m not that great at math but four out of eleven seems like better odds than ten out of 43.
Who are we talking about in 2023?
Obviously, mock drafts range somewhere between educated guesses and wild speculation. However, if you peruse enough of them you can see the same names listed in the first round. University of Texas running back Bijan Robinson finds his way in the first round fairly consistently. Quentin Johnston, Jordan Addison, Jaxon-Smith-Njigba, and Zay Flowers find their way in at wide receiver. Will all of those go in the first round? We don’t know. Will any of them be big time players in the NFL? Again, we don’t know. However, it seems most people assume we need a number one wide receiver, but dismiss the possibility of putting a talented one-two punch at running back. I wouldn’t.
Most running backs in the modern game are weapons in the run game and the passing game. There have been more than a few experts that think Robinson could be used in the slot. We certainly have seen great offenses move their weapons around to get the most out of them and exploit mismatches. It also should be pointed out when your best running back rolls his ankle or tweaks his hamstring that you want someone better than Rex Burkhead filling in for him. In fact, having three capable backs would not be outrageous. I don’t know if Robinson is good value at 12, but in the abstract it is something to consider.