While teams and media trumpet the importance of drafting the highest-rated players, the truth is that a lot more goes into drafting (or at least it should) than blindly selecting the top player on the board. One of the most important of those is scarcity. In any type of market, the draft being one of them, scarce commodities become valuable (gold, for example, is valuable only insofar as it is scarce and there is demand for it).
Historically, talented running backs have proven to be anything but scarce. Teams have been able to uncover Alfred Morris-type players throughout the draft, decreasing the merits of taking a running back in the early rounds. Actually, a running back's draft slot has no ability to predict his future efficiency in terms of yards per carry (YPC). Since 2000, running backs drafted in the first two rounds have averaged 4.23 YPC. Running backs drafted in Rounds 3-5 have averaged 4.25 YPC. Think about that: First- and second-round running backs have been no better than those in the middle rounds on a per-carry basis. That's important.
Whether it's due to the running backs themselves or the fact that their production is so dependent on their teammates, there's just not much reason to gamble on an Eddie Lacy in the first or even second round when you can have a Christine Michael or Knile Davis in the middle rounds, or even a Zac Stacy in the late rounds. Simply put, talented runners can be found in any round. There's no reason to draft one early – yes, even if he's the top player on the board – when you can find the same type of player much later. Without scarcity, value plummets.
Running Back versus Wide Receiver
I bring this up because there's a general consensus that the Cowboys are going to draft a running back this year (as they probably should). Another position you might see the 'Boys target, believe it or not, is wide receiver. Although there are high hopes for Dwayne Harris and Cole Beasley, the Cowboys could very well use a big, physical receiver to play in three-receiver sets (when Miles Austin moves into the slot). And despite the obvious holes throughout the roster, the offense could be in major trouble if either Austin or Dez Bryant get injured, leaving either an undersized or sub-optimal player in the starting lineup.
So as much as the backup running back spot is a concern, so is the third receiver position. Now, the Cowboys probably won't target either position in the first round or two, so the best bet to find an immediate contributor is likely somewhere in the middle of the draft. Historically, running backs have outperformed wide receivers in that range.
Since 2000, the average running back drafted in Rounds 3-5 has recorded around 20 percent more total production (relative to others at his position) than wide receivers in the same range. Wide receivers have started slightly more games, but don't forget that two wide receivers typically start each game, compared to just one running back. The mid-round receivers have been to slightly more Pro Bowls than the running backs, but there were 173 receivers drafted during the time I studied, compared to just 99 running backs. On a per-player basis, the mid-round running backs have really outperformed the receivers in every category.
Looking for Upside
I think there's a good chance that Dallas drafts both a running back and receiver this year, but it certainly appears as though there will be value on a runner in the middle and perhaps even late rounds. In those areas, the Cowboys should be looking for players with high ceilings. While teams typically benefit from emphasizing safety early when the cost of their picks is higher, most mid- and late-round selections don't work out anyway. The cost of missing on a player after the first few rounds is minimal, but the potential reward on a high-upside player is great.
Like most years, there are all kinds of talented options in the middle rounds in 2013. Looking at which traits best predict NFL success for running backs – weight, speed and quickness – I've ranked some of the 2013 running backs using a simple metric that I created: Weight/[(40 Time Short Shuttle)^2]. I included only running backs who participated in both the 40-yard dash and the short shuttle at the Combine to make sure the measurements were standardized (so no Eddie Lacy, sorry).
This obviously isn't the only way that teams should analyze running backs, but it can serve as a guide. The best running backs have tended to be either big or fast (or usually both), and this metric captures that weight/speed combo. A running back's college production should also be a major consideration – actually, college production is a quality predictor of NFL success, but teams tend to overlook it – as should the opinions of the scouts.
By breaking down running backs in this way, we can get a strong sense of how their pure athletic ability (relative to their size) stacks up against the competition. We can also assign each prospect with "comps" – past players who have very similar backgrounds in terms of measurables and stats. When you have two players who look the same, test the same and have produced the same, chances are they'll have similar NFL careers.
With that said, I'll leave you with this comparison:
Zac Stacy: 5-9, 216 pounds, 3,143 yards, 5.4 YPC, 4.55 40-yard dash, 6.70 three-cone drill, 4.17 short shuttle, 27 reps [embedded_ad]
Player X: 5-9, 215 pounds, 3,431 yards, 5.6 YPC, 4.55 40-yard dash, 6.79 three-cone drill, 4.16 short shuttle, 28 reps
If you can figure out which recently-drafted running back is Player X (hint: he was a first-round pick), you can see why Stacy will be such great value for whichever team selects him.