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Seahawks, Patriots break trend against late-1st RBs, notice market inefficiency

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NFL: Seattle Seahawks at New England Patriots Greg M. Cooper-USA TODAY Sports

On Friday, night the Seattle Seahawks and New England Patriots both took running backs late in the first round — the Seahawks are building their backfield around San Diego State product Rashaad Penny, while the Patriots went with Georgia’s Sony Michel. For much of NFL history, drafting a running back in this range would not be notable at all, but in 2018 it’s very interesting. And not at all surprising to see Seattle and New England doing the same thing around the draft once again.

It’s been going on since Pete Carroll — Bill Belichick’s Patriots Predecessor — joined the Seahawks in 2010.

First, back to the running backs.

The last time a running back went later than 15 but still in the first round was 2012, when Doug Martin (Buccaneers) and David Wilson (Giants) went 31st and 32nd, respectively. The current CBA that was agreed to in 2011, setting a pre-determined contract for first round picks and including a fifth-year option, has clearly worked against running backs as teams may want to focus on other positions for that fifth-year option as they do cost savings analysis. How do I know this? I don’t, but from 2013-2017, 85 players went off the board from 16-32 and zero of them were running backs.

Until now. Why now?

Usually with the Seahawks, I think it has to be related to seeing a market inefficiency and taking advantage of it. This is what they’ve done in the past with the move for Marshawn Lynch, pushing into the running game while most of the rest of the league pushed into more passing, and drafting Richard Sherman and redefining what a cornerback looks like, drafting Russell Wilson and redefining what a quarterback can do, converting defensive linemen into offensive linemen, and much more. This has also led to disasters and while it worked for awhile and produced the 2012-2014 teams, there were also many mistakes.

That’s okay. I’d rather that a team was trying to innovate than trying to copy, because innovators are the ones who build dynasties.

Carroll arguably came within one play of doing just that after taking over the worst team in the NFL eight years ago. To take a running back 27th overall in today’s running back climate tells me that he and John Schneider see a new market inefficiency, and that it may involve the devaluing of the position (which of course, is what Giants GM Dave Gettleman will tell you is a myth despite all the evidence against him) turning into an undervaluing of the position. I’m not saying that I agree necessarily — after all, FieldGulls has been anti-first round running back since the beginning — but it’s what I think Carroll must think.

The fact that Belichick thinks it too is a double-down on running backs that really has me questioning a lot when it comes to the position and the late first round.

Gettleman and the Giants took Saquon Barkley second overall and his $31 million fully-guaranteed contract includes the second-most guaranteed money ever for a running back behind only Adrian Peterson.

By trading down from 18 to 27, Penny’s contract is even more of a bargain, settling in at $1.9 million in 2018 and going up to $3.4 million in the final year, 2021.

At $2.7 million per season, Penny is making the same AAV as Chris Ivory’s new deal with the Buffalo Bills. Right now, Penny is the 27th-highest paid running back in football by AAV, whereas Barkley is fourth. Michel, the Patriots pick at 31, is 29th. Now, think about that.

Penny and Michel are two of the highest-drafted running backs of the last six years. Even if you thought Penny was more of a second round pick, that still puts him among prospect company like Le’Veon Bell, Dalvin Cook, Derrick Henry, and Giovani Bernard — by allowing only elite running back prospects into the first round, many still-super-good prospects were pushed into day two. (And some who didn’t do anything of course.) The Seahawks and Patriots saw this and knew that there were running backs to be had on day two, but opted to select them with a first round pick anyway. The Baltimore Ravens traded up to 32 to select Lamar Jackson, so we know for a fact that at least one team was trying to get into the back end of the first round. Schneider says teams called him to trade up, but he opted to stay and pick Penny.

Why?

It may just be that he really couldn’t fathom the idea of risking losing Penny again after trading down from 18. Or that he didn’t feel that the return was good enough. But it may be that Carroll/Schneider and Belichick all feel that the fifth-year option on these running backs is now good value. And I’d say that the Pittsburgh Steelers probably agree.

The issue that the Steelers have had with Bell of course is that he became a free agent after four years and was so good that he demanded the franchise tag in 2017. That paid Bell over $12 million, a nearly-$2 million advantage over second-place LeSean McCoy and way more than you should be paying any running back. He’s so much more expensive than the average top-five running back that the Steelers are really in a bind with what to do with their second or third-most important player on offense. By not being able to reach an extension with Bell, but also not being able to walk away, Pittsburgh is now paying him $14.5 million on the franchise tag in 2018.

It is more than double what third-place Ezekiel Elliott will make next season. That’s a knife-stab to your payroll and salary balance on the roster, and so far off of what the market says to pay a running back that you can’t in good conscience call it “smart business sense.”

By taking Penny and Michel at the back end of the first round, the Seahawks and Patriots have taken two of the highest-drafted running backs of the era, potentially the guys they view as their next “Marshawn Lynch” and “Corey Dillon,” and pushed back any decision of a long-term contract (that let’s be honest, they may never plan to give out) or franchise tag to 2023.

The fact that Seattle and New England both did this with running backs is all the more telling of its significance, and it’s not even close to the first time that these two teams have done similar things during and before the draft.

How close the Pats and Seahawks have been over the last eight years is in my next piece.