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Science Lab: 1st-Round RBs Are Far From Sure Thing


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The NFL offseason is now at full crest and that means a seemingly endless amount of waves are beginning to wash onto the shore of your mind as it pertains to the upcoming 2023 NFL Draft and the prospects who may or may not be a fit for the Dallas Cowboys.

And, positionally, a hot topic involves what to do at running back and Texas Longhorns superstar Bijan Robinson. But let's put a pin in that name for now. You and I can circle back to him in a few minutes.

After all, change is coming. The Cowboys opted to use the franchise tag on first-time Pro Bowler Tony Pollard, but also decided that having former two-time rushing champion Ezekiel Elliott on the roster was no longer financially viable. Gone is the idea of keeping the "Sword and the Sledgehammer" together in Dallas.

Filling Elliott's shoes, however, will be no easy task. Some outside of the building have failed to understand his overall value to the organization as not only (still, statis) one of the best running backs in the NFL, but also as a leader in the locker room whose relationship with Pollard helped the former fourth-round pick reach his current level of success.

"Wait, Pollard was selected in the fourth round?!" – Somebody

Well, yes, and that's why any discussion revolving around selecting a running back in the first round of the upcoming draft isn't exactly black and white, but more so a kettle filled with a 120-pack of Crayola's finest – simmering over a low flame.

What you get in the end is far from guaranteed.

The word "generational talent" is wildly overused in sports, but sometimes it does apply, though that fact isn't any more immune to context than anything else in life.

You could argue that, heading into their respective drafts, both Ezekiel Elliott and Saquon Barkley were generational talents and no one would bat an eye. Elliott has since amassed 10,598 yards (1,514 yards annually) from scrimmage and 80 touchdowns (11.4 TDs) in his seven-year NFL career. Selected fourth-overall in 2016, he steamrolled the path for the Giants to feel comfortable in taking Barkley No. 2 overall in 2018.

Injuries have slowed Barkley's ascent dramatically, but he's now back to his Pro Bowl form and in line for his first big contract.

"See? Drafting a running back in the first round is a great idea!" – Somebody else

Is it, though? (Yes, I said this in my best Thor voice).

The science doesn't support this take, in any version or variation, but instead shows the exceptions do not disprove the rule. Because while I can and will readily point to both Elliott and Barkley as strong examples of what can (mostly) go well when taking a halfback in Round One, I can and will also point out Leonard Fournette, taken fourth overall by the Jacksonville Jaguars in 2017. He's played solid football but far below what his draft status would demand of him.

But let's dig a bit deeper, shall we?

Here are the first-round grabs at running back since the turn of the century:

  • 2000: Jamal Lewis (5th overall); Thomas Jones (7th); Ron Dayne (11th); Shaun Alexander (19th); Trung Canidate (31st)
  • 2001: LaDainian Tomlinson (5th); Deuce McAllister (23rd); Michael Bennett (27th)
  • 2002: William Green (16th); T.J. Duckett (18th)
  • 2003: Willis McGahee (23rd); Larry Johnson (27th)
  • 2004: Steven Jackson (24th); Chris Perry (26th); Kevin Jones (30th)
  • 2005: Ronnie Brown (2nd); Cedric Benson (4th); Cadillac Williams (5th)
  • 2006: Reggie Bush (2nd); Laurence Maroney (21st); DeAngelo Williams (27th); Joseph Addai (30th)
  • 2007: Adrian Peterson (7th); Marshawn Lynch (12th)
  • 2008: Darren McFadden (4th); Jonathan Stewart (13th); Felix Jones (22nd); Rashard Mendenhall (23rd); Chris Johnson (24th)
  • 2009: Knowshon Moreno (12th); Donald Brown (27th); Beanie Wells (31st)

Pausing here for a moment, you'll notice just how much the NFL has changed, schematically, based upon how heavily valued running backs were in the first decade of this century. And you could label this a Golden Age at the position, considering some of the names listed, e.g. LaDainian Tomlinson, Marshawn Lynch, Adrian Peterson, Reggie Bush, etc. But they're still outnumbered by those who were tasked with becoming feature backs in the league and, for one reason or another, couldn't achieve that feat.

The 2008 draft alone saw FIVE running backs selected in the first round (hint: It was a run-first league back then) and that included the Cowboys getting in on the action with Felix Jones heading to North Texas in what should've become a cautionary tale about what happens when you try to mistake a dynamic complementary back into the one main attraction.

Spoiler alert: Jones was ultimately supplanted by DeMarco Murray, a third-round pick in 2011 who went on to set records before leaving in 2015 free agency. That then thrust the Cowboys into a reminder of the aforementioned tale when the keys were thrown to Joseph Randle – to disastrous results – before Elliott saved the day at the position.

It's almost like there's a lot of value in the later rounds. But hold that thought and let's look at the next decade in this plot, one that didn't fare nearly as well as its predecessor for running backs (in the aspect of reaching an elite status and staying there).

  • 2010: C.J. Spiller (9th)
  • 2011: Mark Ingram (28th)
  • 2012: Trent Richardson (3rd); Doug Martin (31st)
  • 2013: None
  • 2014: None
  • 2015: Todd Gurley (10th); Melvin Gordon (15th)
  • 2016: Ezekiel Elliott (4th)
  • 2017: Leonard Fournette (4th); Christian McCaffrey (8th)
  • 2018: Saquon Barkley (2nd); Rashaad Penny (27th); Sony Michel (31st)
  • 2019: Josh Jacobs (24th)

Having taken into account the many draftees who didn't pan out, in combination with the league becoming more pass-heavy, the number of running backs drafted in the first round dropped precipitously from 32 (!!) in the 2000s to only 13 in the 2010s, with none being selected during a two-year span in 2013 and 2014.

Trent Richardson is a glaring black eye here, and Todd Gurley's four-year domination ended with a whimper, the former All-Pro being out of the league following the 2020 season. I touched on the Fournette variable earlier and even McCaffrey, who is finally back to top form, nearly saw his career derailed by a round of recent injuries.

The current decade is off on more solid footing in both when running backs are selected and their ability to contribute fairly immediately. However, you'll find no top-20 picks and only one in the top 24.

  • 2020: Clyde Edwards-Helaire (32nd)
  • 2021: Najee Harris (24th); Travis Etienne (25th)
  • 2022: None

Edwards-Helaire got off to a blazing start with the Chiefs in 2020, but his stock has fallen dramatically as he's now been surpassed on the Kansas City depth chart by Isaiah Pacheco, a former seventh-round pick in 2022 out of Rutgers.

Seventh. Round.

Let me be clear in that I have been and will always be one driving the "Running Backs Matter" train, and none of what I'm speaking on here changes what I believe the right running back can do for an NFL team. But the science is the science, and what it tells us is that, more often than not, an organization can find a really good talent in the second round or later. And at a much better value than spending a high pick on a player who may be out of his uniform in three to four years.

And outside of questions about production, injuries often shorten the lifespan of NFL running backs, given how the position is the most bruising on the entire field. A reality that makes justifying using a first-round pick on a rusher that much more difficult unless that particular player is, in fact, generational.

Does Bijan Robinson belong in that category? I'd argue his film at least supports that stance, but as it relates to the Cowboys, his résumé also puts him well out of their reach.

Because if he is indeed generational, be it real or perceived, the likelihood of him being available when Dallas goes on the clock with the 26th overall pick is much akin to taping a fork to your forehead in the hopes of getting free satellite radio.

That means in order for the Cowboys to have a realistic shot at drafting the consensus No. 1 running back in this year's draft, they'd have to give up capital to do so, and the ask is more expensive if they'd have to jump from No. 26 to No. 15 or higher to get it done – moving up those 11 spots requiring, for example, their first- and second-round picks if basing the value of each selection on the point-based formula created by the Cowboys' own Jimmy Johnson during the team's dynasty years.

Scenario time, folks.

The 15th-overall pick (owned by the Green Bay Packers) is worth 1,050 points, per DraftTek, while the 26th-overall pick is worth only 700 points. The Cowboys would have to send over their 26th-overall selection and make up the 300-point difference somehow.

It just so happens their 58th-overall pick in the second round is worth 320 points, making up the difference. Or they could forego giving up the second-rounder and package their third-round pick (140 points) with the first-rounder (700 points), and instead of trying to make up the difference by adding in every single one of their Day Two and Day Three picks, negotiating to send a player over to the Packers as well.

Now consider this: There have been several reputable mock drafts projecting Robinson to go in the top 10 and, for the Cowboys, that's where the math goes from unrealistic to downright unpalatable (multiple picks plus multiple players?) to move up from the bottom of the first round to the top of it.

If Robinson is long gone, the decision is made easy for the Cowboys. If he isn't, the decision still wouldn't be cut-and-dried, given the recent history of using a first-round pick for the position in today's NFL. It's a risk that pays off far less often nowadays than many might think, and considering the other positions of dire need in Dallas – upgrade/fix/solidify the offensive line and who you ask to run behind it doesn't entirely matter – doing so has to be questioned.

In addition, presumably there will also be a Pollard variant waiting somewhere in the middle to later rounds, Malik Davis being an undrafted example of a high-ceiling talent still around on Day Three. In other words, it's all about knowing when to pull the trigger and when to put the gun away.

Regardless of what happened/happens in free agency, the Cowboys need to keep it holstered on aiming at a running back until Day One is in the books.

It's simply not worth taking the shot in 2023 unless, of course, the consensus top-10 player (Robinson) is still available with only a few selections remaining on the first night … but good luck with that. Or, at minimum, unless he's still available when the 19th-overall pick goes on the clock. If that happens, it'd feel like malpractice to not run to the phone to make a deal.

Do so, joyfully, but while knowing you're banking on capturing lightning in a bottle — again.

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