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Valuing the Running Back Position

Is it worth it to spend a high draft pick on a running back?

Benny Sieu-USA TODAY Sports

An oft-heard statement is that it's not necessary to draft a running back high in the draft, that it's the one position, outside of kickers and punters, that can be saved for the end of the draft. It's often said that with the position, you can just "plug and play" a running back as they are "a dime a dozen." I decided to take a look at that statement, to see if it's true or not.

In the chart below, you'll see every team listed with their starter, or starters, listed. You'll also see the round that the player was selected in the NFL Draft. It's my contention that the vast majority of starters, with a few exceptions, were selected in the top three rounds of the draft. Some of the players listed were injured for some or most of the season, but they were still considered the presumptive starter for the team, so it isn't a perfect list. That isn't to say you can only get a good player in the beginning of the draft, or that it's impossible to find value later on, as Arian Foster and Alfred Morris disprove, but as with any other position, a higher draft selection, and thus, more talent, equates to more production.

Team Name Draft Round
Buffalo Bills Fred Jackson/C.J. Spiller UDFA/1st
Miami Dolphins Reggie Bush 1st
New England Patriots Shane Vereen/Stevan Ridley 2nd/3rd
New York Jets Shonn Greene 3rd
Baltimore Ravens Ray Rice 2nd
Cincinnati Bengals BenJarvus Green-Ellis UDFA
Cleveland Browns Trent Richardson 1st
Pittsburgh Steelers Rashard Mendenhall 1st
Houston Texans Arian Foster UDFA
Indianapolis Colts Donald Brown/Vick Ballard 1st/5th
Jacksonville Jaguars Maurice Jones-Drew 2nd
Tennessee Titans Chris Johnson 1st
Denver Broncos Willis McGahee/Knowshon Moreno 1st/1st
Kansas City Chiefs Jamaal Charles 3rd
Oakland Raiders Darren McFadden 1st
San Diego Chargers Ryan Mathews 1st
Dallas Cowboys DeMarco Murray/Felix Jones 3rd/1st
New York Giants Ahmad Bradshaw/David Wilson 7th/1st
Philadelphia Eagles LeSean McCoy 2nd
Washington Redskins Alfred Morris 6th
Chicago Bears Matt Forte 2nd
Detroit Lions Jahvid Best 1st
Green Bay Packers Cedric Benson/DuJuan Harris 1st/UDFA
Minnesota Vikings Adrian Peterson 1st
Atlanta Falcons Michael Turner 5th
Carolina Panthers DeAngelo Williams 1st
New Orleans Saints Mark Ingram/Darren Sproles 1st/4th
Tampa Bay Buccaneers Doug Martin 1st
Arizona Cardinals Beanie Wells 1st
St. Louis Rams Steven Jackson 1st
San Francisco 49ers Frank Gore 3rd
Seattle Seahawks Marshawn Lynch 1st
  • Of the 39 players listed, 31 were drafted in the first three rounds of the NFL Draft.
  • Of the top ten leaders in rushing yards during the regular season, eight were drafted in the first three rounds.
  • Of the twelve teams that made the playoffs this year, eight took a running back in the first three rounds.

The main point to take away from this is that while it's not impossible to find talent late in the draft at the running back position, it's significantly easier to find it in the first three rounds, like every other position. As much play as the statement "a dime a dozen" gets applied to running backs, if you want to have a powerful rushing attack, you shouldn't skimp during the draft just for the sake of finding a million more later on. I don't want to suggest that you must always draft a running back high, especially if it's at the expense of another important position, but finding a gem of a running back late should be a pleasant surprise, not a way of doing business.