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Bumper year for drafted running backs shows Seahawks still ahead of NFL curve

With the most capital spent at the position than any time in nearly 10 years, several indicators suggest pro teams are following Seattle’s lead

Stanford v California Photo by Ezra Shaw/Getty Images

The Seattle Seahawks picked only one running back in the 2017 NFL draft, and did so with their last of 11 picks: Oklahoma State’s Chris Carson taken 249th overall in the seventh round. While this may say the Seahawks’ general manager John Schneider did not value the position as high as other executives, it is worth remembering Seattle already has at least four relatively young running backs likely to make the pro squad after training camp—C.J. Prosise and Alex Collins, both drafted last year; Thomas Rawls, the undrafted runner signed in 2015 who has started 14 games the past two seasons; and Eddie Lacy, drafted by the Green Bay Packers in 2013—plus two more second- or third-year runners under club control who contributed in 2016, Troymaine Pope and Terrence Magee.

Considering that deep stock in the backfield, the fact the Seahawks picked any backs demonstrates how they value young runners. Indeed Schneider has spent eight selections on running backs since he arrived in Seattle, more than 10 percent of the Seahawks’ 77 picks and two picks more than the expectation if all teams drafted the position with equal frequency during that period (the NFL spent 189 picks on RBs since 2010). Although three of those choices came when Seattle was aiming to fill the hole after Marshawn Lynch’s brief retirement in 2016, such expenditure is even more remarkable considering Seattle enjoyed the services of one of the league’s best runners for most of Schneider’s tenure and were typically not as tailback-thirsty as many clubs.

Several analysts pointed out how 2017 marks a turnaround in draft capital allotted to ballcarriers. Led by the Packers who chose three backs, and Cincinnati Bengals and Carolina Panthers with two each, 33 total running backs got their names called from Thursday to Saturday. According to Chase Stuart, weighted by their placement the combined tailback picks added up to the most value spent at the position since 2008, bucking a trend that has seen the position generally decline in draft urgency as the league prioritized passing and at the same time got more savvy with both performance and salary analytics over the last few decades. Stuart even argues that considering the relative scarcity of snaps for running backs (since there are usually fewer of them on the field on a given play than any other group beside quarterback), the 2017 draft in fact devoted a greater share of its value to running back than any other position!

FiveThirtyEight’s Neil Paine suggests the breakthrough of running backs might be traced to the success of the Dallas Cowboys’ Ezekiel Elliott in 2016 possibly reminding executives that spending high picks on the position can be worthwhile after all. After Christian McCaffrey to the Panthers at pick eight followed the Jacksonville Jaguars’ selection of Leonard Fournette fourth overall, it was the first time two tailbacks had gone in the top eight since 2005. There’s also some chance the league’s scouts just happened to like this year’s crop more than usual, or that the spike remains random noise in the ongoing decline.

Yet Stuart’s analysis also implies that front offices are getting smarter about how they utilize value at the position group: Rather than simply choosing to devalue or overvalue running backs more teams may be realizing the can maximize the curve of value by accumulating cheap contracts in the middle and middle-late rounds. Thats very characteristic of Schneider’s approach. Of the Seahawks’ eight running back selections, the earliest was Christine Michael at the end of the 2013 second round.

Next to the league’s increasing desire for defensive backs—16 teams picked corners before the end of the third round, and corners & safeties accounted for 56 of the total selections, or 22 percent of all picks according to Stuart—its another sign of how more and more organizations in 2017 are following Seattle’s and Schneider’s teambuilding lead.