There was a fascinating discussion in the Comments section of a recent article debating whether or not running backs are “interchangeable.” The impetus for the discussion was the idea that the Seahawks’ draft class was “graded down” because John Schneider and Pete Carroll dared to select a running back with the 41st overall pick in the 2022 NFL Draft.
That was followed by a John Gilbert exposé on “positional value” titled: Why the nerds dislike Seahawks selection of Kenneth Walker III.
Today, I’m approaching Seattle’s selection of Kenneth Walker III from a different perspective ...
The best running backs are game-changers who tilt the field.
It’s a fact, Jack!
Question: Does Kenneth Walker III fit the mold of a game-changing, field-tilting running back?
Answer: He did in college - just ask Michigan.
Obviously, there is no way at this point to definitively know if Walker’s college performance(s) will translate to the NFL. That said, I think most people would agree that KW3 at least has the potential to become the league’s next game-changing, field-tilting back.
Well, except for Pete Prisco, of course:
Taking running back Ken Walker in the third round makes no sense. Walker is a good player, but they had so many other needs. When will this team get away from the importance of running backs?
... taking a running back early is weird as they need to transition from a run-heavy offense.
Imagine what Prisco would have said if he’d realized that we took KW3 in the second round and not the third.
Admittedly, what follows is an overly-simplistic analysis that focuses on one specific thing that almost all of the game-changing, field-tilting running backs throughout the last 30 or so years of NFL history have in common.
Hint: It will be spelled out in bold letters as we go along.
Let’s start with Seattle royalty.
Alexander the Great (2000-2008)
My favorite player in Seahawks history is Steve Largent. A close second is Shaun Alexander - the only Seahawk to win the league MVP award and the only Seahawk whose jersey I wear on game days. Still. nd probably forever.
Shaun Alexander played 8 seasons in Seattle (2000-2007) and holds the team records for yards (9,429) and touchdowns (100).
To put those numbers in context:
Chris Warren is #2 in rushing yards with 6,706 (2,723 fewer than Shaun Alexander) across the same number of seasons (8).
Other notable names on the Seahawks’ all-time list:
- Curt Warner, #3 with 6,705 (7 seasons)
- Marshawn Lynch, #4 with 6,381 (7 seasons*)
- Russell Wilson, #5 with 4,689 (10 seasons)
- Chris Carson, #8 with 3,502 (5 seasons)
* Lynch’s late-season return in 2019 officially counts as a season.
On the rushing touchdowns list, Marshawn Lynch is #2 with 58 (reminder: Shaun Alexander had 100!). The next five guys on the list are: Curt Warner (55), Chris Warren (44), Sherman Smith (28), Chris Carson (24), and Russell Wilson (23).
Oh yeah, I almost forgot ... Shaun’s 100 rushing touchdowns has him tied for #8 all-time, one spot behind John Riggins (104), 2 spots behind Jim Brown (106), and 3 spots behind Walter Payton (110).
In addition to his Seahawks records, Shaun’s career highlights include an NFL record 5 TDs in a single half (vs. the Vikings in 2002), a then-record 27 rushing touchdowns in 2005, and the aforementioned MVP award (in 2005).
Shaun Alexander was the 19th overall pick in the 2000 NFL Draft.
Beast Mode (2007-2015, 2017-2018, 2019)
Marshawn Lynch may have been drafted by the Buffalo Bills, but he’ll forever be knowns as a Seahawk. And a game-changing, field-tilting Seahawk of the highest order.
But I’ll also add the following:
- 10,413 career rushing yards (#29 all-time)
- Tied for the 4th-most rushing touchdowns in the playoffs (12)
- Arguably the best trade that John Schneider ever made (R4 + conditional R6)
- The most hilarious pre-Super Bowl moment ever
Marshawn Lynch was the 12th overall pick in the 2007 NFL Draft.
Emmitt Smith (1990-2004)
The only running back to ever win a Super Bowl championship, the league’s MVP award, the NFL rushing crown, and the Super Bowl MVP award in the same season (1993).
The NFL’s all-time leading rusher with 18,355 yards (which is 1,629 more than Walter Payton who is #2 all-time).
#1 all-time in rushing touchdowns with 164 (19 more than #2 LaDainian Tomlinson).
Also #1 in playoff rushing touchdowns (19); 3 more than Franco Harris and Thurman Thomas; 7 more than Terrell Davis and Marshawn Lynch.
Surprisingly underrated as a receiver - Smith had 515 receptions over his career (an average of 34.3 per season) on 545 career targets (81.1% catch rate) with 11 touchdowns.
Oh, and he had a perfect passer rating for his career (158.3) with his lone pass attempt resulting in a 21-yard touchdown.
Emmitt Smith was inducted into the NFL Hall of Fame in 2010.
Emmitt Smith was the 17th overall pick in the 1990 NFL Draft.
Barry Sanders (1989-1998)
Sanders played 10 seasons and never once finished with fewer than 1,000 rushing yards. In fact, his “worst” season was in 1993 when he missed 5 games and still finished the year with 1,115 rushing yards.
For his career, Sander’s per-game average was 99.8 yards.
For some context on that, Emmitt Smith’s career per-game average was 81.2, Adrian Peterson’s was 81.1, and Derrick Henry’s is (currently) 79.0.
I’ve mentioned a few times that I was born in Michigan and the Detroit Lions are my 2nd-favorite team. Watching Barry Sanders play was the absolute pinnacle of my fandom.
Had it not been for his unexpected retirement on July 27th, 1999, I have no doubt that Barry Sanders would be the NFL’s all-time leader instead of Emmitt Smith. Instead, Sanders is #4 with a per-season average of 1,527 yards (!!!).
The Lion King was inducted into the Hall of Fame in 2004.
Barry Sanders was the 3rd overall pick in the 1989 NFL Draft.
Adrian Peterson (2007-2021)
In addition to apparently teaching Rashaad Penny how to become the running back 12s hoped he would be last season ...
Adrian Peterson - aka “All Day” - currently sits 1 spot behind Barry Sanders on the NFL’s all-time rushing leaders list, coming in at #5 with 14,918 career rushing yards.
Peterson is also one of only 8 running backs in league history to top the 2,000 yards mark in a single season. In 2012, Peterson racked up 2,097 rushing yards, finishing the season a mere 6 yards shy of tying the all-time single-season rushing yards record (2,105) which was set by Eric Dickerson in 1984.
Adrian Peterson was the 7th overall pick in the 2007 NFL Draft.
King Henry (2016-present)
The most recent member of the 2,000 yards in a single season club (2,027 in 2020), Derrick Henry is the gold standard for running backs in today’s NFL.
How good is King Henry?
He played less than half a season last year (8 out of 17 games) and still finished in the top 10 in rushing yards (937, 9th) and touchdowns (10, T-6th). Unsurprisingly, Henry was #1 in yards per game by a comfortable margin.
In 2019, Henry led the league in carries (303), yards (1,540), touchdowns (16), and yards per game (102.7). In 2020, he repeated that feat and added exclamation points to 3 of the 4 by posting 378 carries (!), 2,027 yards (!), 17 touchdowns, and an average of 126 yards per game (!).
Here’s one more amazing stat - on a resume that’s already filled with amazing stats: Derrick Henry has 3 career playoff games with 150+ rushing yards. Only one player in NFL history has more - and that player, Terrell Davis, is in the Hall of Fame.
CAREER HIGHLIGHTS (so far) - includes some clips of him in high school and college
Derrick Henry was the 45th overall pick in the 2016 NFL Draft.
LaDainian Tomlinson (2001-2011)
Where do we start with L.T. (aka Lightning & Thunder)?
How about with his CAREER HIGHLIGHTS (courtesy of the NFL’s YouTube account)? Seems appropriate to me.
Of course there’s also this:
Tomlinson is the current record-holder after scoring 28 rushing touchdowns in 2006 (the year after Shaun Alexander scored 27).
Note: The closest an active running back has come to that mark is the 18 rushing TDs that Jonathan Taylor had last season.
L.T. is #7 all-time with 13,684 rushing yards (one spot ahead of Jerome Bettis + 2 spots ahead of Eric Dickerson).
And, of course, he’s in the Hall of Fame (class of 2017).
LaDainian Tomlinson was the 5th overall pick in the 2001 NFL Draft.
Other game-changing, field-tilting running backs (1983-present)
- Eric Dickerson: 11 seasons (1983-1993), 13,259 yards, Hall of Fame - class of 1999. Selected with the 2nd overall pick in the 1983 NFL Draft.
- Marshall Faulk: 12 seasons (1994-2005), 12,279 yards, Hall of Fame - class of 2011. Selected with the 2nd overall pick in the 1994 NFL Draft.
- Edgerrin James: 11 seasons (1999-2009), 12,246 yards, Hall of Fame - class of 2020. Selected with the 4th overall pick in the 1999 NFL Draft.
- Jerome Bettis: 13 seasons (1993-2005), 13,662 yards, Hall of Fame - class of 2015. Selected with the 10th overall pick in the 1993 NFL Draft.
- Frank Gore: 16 seasons (2005-2020), 16,000 yards, not yet eligible for the Hall of Fame. Selected with the 65th overall pick in the 2005 NFL Draft.
- Ezekiel Elliott: 6 seasons (2016-present), 7,386 yards, currently the league’s 2nd-highest-paid running back. Selected with the 4th overall pick in the 2016 NFL Draft.
- Dalvin Cook: 5 seasons (2017-present), 4,820 yards, currently the league’s 4th-highest-paid running back. Selected with the 41st overall pick in the 2017 NFL Draft.
- Jonathan Taylor: 2 seasons (2020-present), 2,980 yards, led the league last year in yards (1,811), TDs (18), and yards per game (106.5). Selected with the 41st overall pick in the 2020 NFL Draft.
Kenneth Walker III (2022-?)
It would be grossly unfair to expect KW3 to join the list of NFL greats en route to a Hall of Fame career when he hasn’t yet reported to Rookie Camp, let alone set foot on an NFL Field.
And yet ...
Walker’s college career gives us reason to dream.
- 2019, Wake Forest: 13 games, 98 carries, 579 yards (5.9 average), 4 TDs
- 2020, Wake Forest: 7 games, 119 carries, 579 yards (4.9 average), 3 TDs
- 2021, Michigan State: 12 games, 263 carries, 1,636 yards (6.2 average), 13 TDs
Note: His first carry as a Spartan went 75 yards for a touchdown.
Oh, and did I mention that he won the Doak Walker Award as the nation’s best running back last year? No? Well ... he did.
The Doak Walker Award winner, Kenneth Walker III, is headed to Seattle❗️ pic.twitter.com/VZXf3e8iuC— SportsCenter (@SportsCenter) April 29, 2022
(say it with me) Kenneth Walker III was the 41st overall pick in the 2022 NFL Draft.
The common theme
While there are exceptions (ex., Frank Gore), almost all of the game-changing, field-tilting running backs in the last 3 (or 4) decades was a first or second round pick. I don’t think that’s a coincidence.
Some will say that I cherry-picked these players, but I didn’t. I simply started the research for this article by making a list of the best running backs I could think of and then added a couple that I had forgotten about after I pulled up the list of the NFL’s all-time rushing leaders.
I tried to limit the list to “modern”(ish) running backs but couldn’t keep Barry Sanders off the list. Mentioning Eric Dickerson in a couple of the sections put him on the “Other” list even though he entered the league 39 years ago.
Players I ended up excluding include Walter Payton (#2 all-time), Tony Dorsett (#10), Jim Brown (#11), Marcus Allen (#12), and Franco Harris (#15). Including them wouldn’t have changed anything though as all 5 were first round picks - Brown (6th in 1957), Payton (4th in 1975), Harris (13th in 1972), Dorsett (2nd in 1977), and Allen (10th in 1982) - and all of them currently have a bronze bust in the Hall of Fame.
Again, I’m not saying that Kenneth Walker III is the next coming of Emmitt Smith, LaDainian Tomlinson, Marshawn Lynch, Shaun Alexander, et al.
But if John Schneider and Pete Carroll were looking for a potential game-changing, field-tilting running back in the 2022 NFL Draft, they were wise to pick the Doak Walker Award winner within the top 50 picks because only one of the running backs in this article was selected outside that range. One.
Bottom line: While there is certainly some truth in the idea that running backs are interchangeable, history suggests that the best running backs, the game-changing, field-tilting running backs, aren’t drafted on Day 3; most of them are drafted either on Day 1 or early Day 2.