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People have learned all the wrong lessons from Ezekiel Elliott and Leonard Fournette

Using a premium draft pick on a running back is a risk not worth taking

NFL: Jacksonville Jaguars at San Francisco 49ers Kelley L Cox-USA TODAY Sports

Is using a premium draft pick a surefire way to transform the identity of a team and jump-start its rushing attack? With the Seahawks struggling to run the ball for two straight seasons and having their highest draft pick in years, the debate will only intensify in the months leading up to the NFL Draft in April. In his press conference this week, Pete Carroll indicated a focus on upgrading the running back position:

The idea that the Jaguars, Cowboys, and Rams have been rewarded for using top 10 picks on running backs has become widespread; here is a recent example:

But are these players really providing substantial value for these teams over and above what they could have obtained without investing a premium draft pick? Let’s take a look at each case.

One programming note: because none of the teams in this piece had anything to play for in week 17, all 2017 statistics used in this piece are through week 16.

Ezekiel Elliott

Dallas rose from #31 in DVOA offense in 2015 to #3 in 2016, a jump that has often been attributed to Elliott. However, the vast majority of that rise was due to upgrading from Matt Cassel, Kellen Moore, and Brandon Weeden to Dak Prescott, and the associated jump from #32 in passing offense DVOA to #3.

The Cowboys did improve from #9 to #2 in rushing offense DVOA, but some of this improvement was also driven by Dak Prescott, who was #3 among QBs in rushing Expected Points Added in 2016.

In 2017, the Cowboys’ offense struggled in the games that Elliott missed. But looking at how Dallas running backs have performed without Tyron Smith, it is hard to come away with the conclusion that Elliott is the driving force behind the run game:

Dallas Cowboys Rushing Through Week 16

Player Carries Success rate Yards/carry
Player Carries Success rate Yards/carry
Elliott 191 58.1 4.1
Morris/Smith 127 57.5 4.8
League average 44.4 4.1
Source: Sharp Football Stats (success rate)

The Cowboys used the #4 overall pick on a player whose production isn’t any better than two players Dallas picked up off the scrap heap. Rod Smith (an undrafted free agent) spent time on the Cowboys’ practice squad in 2016 and carries a cap hit of $615,000 this season. Alfred Morris (a 6th round draft pick) was signed for a 2 year, $3.5 million contract in 2016.

With their defense continuing to struggle, one suspects someone like Jalen Ramsey, the player selected directly after Elliott in the draft, would be making much more of a difference for Dallas.

Leonard Fournette

As with Elliott, Fournette has missed some time so there is a reasonable sample of Fournette and non-Fournette carries. Let’s look at how Fournette’s production has compared to the other Jaguars running backs:

Jaguars Rushing Through Week 16

Player Carries Success rate Yards/carry
Player Carries Success rate Yards/carry
Fournette 249 43.4 3.9
Other JAC RBs 192 43.2 4.6
League average 44.4 4.1

Leonard Fournette was below league average in success rate and yards per carry. In the 12 games he played, the Jaguars had a point differential of +73 (+6.1/game). In the three games missed, they had a point differential of +81 (+27/game). Yes, some of the point differential is due to playing weak opponents in the games he’s missed, but it is hard to put all of this together and conclude that he has much, if anything, to do with their success.

Blake Bortles improved from 28th to 12th in QBR from 2016 to 2017. With Fournette barely involved in the passing game, and the lack of evidence that rushing volume or success correlates with QB efficiency, investigations into the improvement of the Jaguars’ offense should start with Bortles, not Fournette. And just as the Jacksonville offense became better at passing the ball, their defense jumped from 15th in pass defense DVOA to 1st.

The Jaguars are a much improved team because they are better at passing the ball and stopping the pass than they were in 2016, which is what matters in the modern NFL.

Todd Gurley

Gurley is having a wonderful, transcendent season. But in the prior two seasons, he was limited to 3.9 yards per carry over 500 carries. In only 5 out of 29 games across two seasons did he amass at least 75 yards on 4.5 yards per carry.

It wasn’t until the Rams revamped their offensive line, receivers, and coaching staff that Gurley finally broke out in his third season in 2017. And if even the great running backs, like Gurley, are completely dependent on the team around them for success, then isn’t that an argument against investing substantial draft capital in them?

Looking for value

A study from a couple years ago on Arrowhead Pride found that among offensive players, running backs and wide receivers have the highest 1st round bust rates:

The numbers show us the following outline for finding consistent starters:

1st Round - OL (83%) LB (70%) TE (67%) DB (64%) QB (63%) WR (58%) RB (58%) DL (58%)

While none of Elliott, Fournette, or Gurley are busts, there is no shortage of examples: Beanie Wells, Donald Brown, Knowshon Moreno, Jahvid Best, David Wilson, and Trent Richardson were all drafted in the first round.

There have been 11 players selected in the top half of the first round in the past 10 years. Collectively, these players have rushed for 4.21 yards per carry, compared to the NFL average of 4.19 yards per carry during the same time frame. Yards per carry might not be the greatest statistic, but this is still a sample of nearly 10,000 carries for these 11 players at league-average production. Teams are not seeing a return on their investment.

With the failure rate so high, and even the non-busts not providing much, if any, surplus value over replacement, drafting a running back high in the first round is a risk not worth taking.