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Is drafting a running back in the first half of round one worth it?

What does recent history say about selecting a running back early in the draft?

Mississippi v LSU Photo by Jonathan Bachman/Getty Images

The Bengals hold the ninth overall selection in the 2017 NFL Draft. Many have guessed the Bengals could be targeting a running back early, even as high as with the team’s top pick. As such, LSU’s Leonard Fournette is a name connected with the team.

But is drafting a running back early in the draft worth it? Would the Bengals be making a wise pick by adding a running back in Round 1? Let’s look back over the past 15 years and see if drafting a running back this high in the draft is worth it.

From the 2003 NFL Draft up to the 2016 NFL Draft, there have been a total of 16 running backs selected in the first half of Round 1 (the first 15 picks).

It’s a little too early to judge the running backs selected in 2015 and 2016, so we’ll discount Ezekiel Elliott (who had a great rookie season behind an outstanding offensive line), Todd Gurley (who had a great rookie season and a bad second year on a bad offense), and Melvin Gordon (who had a forgettable first season, but a solid second season).

Minnesota Vikings v Green Bay Packers Photo by Jon Durr/Getty Images

Elite running backs worthy of a high draft selection:

Adrian Peterson (#7, 2007) is the poster child for a running back drafted early who had a great career. Peterson is the top running back on this list, averaging 1,175 rushing yards per season during his 10-year career to date. He has 97 career rushing touchdowns and is a future Hall of Fame candidate. No running back being considered in the top half of round one this year comes anywhere close to matching what Peterson displayed on-the-field as a prospect for the Oklahoma Sooners.

Marshawn Lynch (#12, 2007) is the only other running back on this list to average more than 1,000 rushing yards per season. In fact, he’s the only other one to average more than 755 yards per season. After languishing in Buffalo, he found new life in Seattle as “Beastmode”.

Solid running backs who had good careers, but weren’t worth a high draft pick:

Cedric Benson (#4, 2005) was a plodding workhorse who was a solid running back for eight seasons for both the Bears and Bengals. He averaged about 750 yards per season during that span. He was good enough to be an NFL starter, but you’d have been kicking yourself if you had used a top 16 pick on him.

Jonathan Stewart (#13, 2008) has had a long, steady career as a platooning back for the Panthers. His 738 yards per season, and 45 career touchdowns are solid numbers, and have been hampered by the Panthers’ insistence on using multiple runners, but in hindsight, would you want to use such a high pick for that?

Everybody else:

The remaining nine running backs (69% of the running backs drafted in the first half of round one, during this span) are a collection of anything but great NFL runners. Their production was easily replaceable, averaging 575 rushing yards per season. They are all players who proved to be worthy of being drafted, but not in the first few rounds of the NFL draft, and certainly not in the first half of the first round.

  • Ryan Mathews (#12, 2010)
  • Knowshon Moreno (#12, 2009)
  • Darren McFadden (#4, 2008)
  • Cadillac Williams (#5, 2005)
  • William Green (#16, 2002)
  • Trent Richardson (#3, 2012)
  • Reggie Bush (#2, 2006)
  • Ronnie Brown (#2, 2005)
  • C.J. Spiller (#9, 2010)
Cleveland Browns v Cincinnati Bengals Photo by John Grieshop/Getty Images

As financial investors will warn you, past results are no indication of the future, but when only two running backs selected in the top half of the first round, over the past fifteen years, became an elite runners for the team that drafted them, it doesn’t seem like a wise investment. Especially when many of the NFL’s top runners came from round two or later, such as Jamaal Charles, LeSean McCoy, Le’Veon Bell, Lamar Miller, David Johnson, Doug Martin, Devonta Freeman, DeMarco Murray and Jay Ajayi.

Sure, if any running back in this year’s draft class had Adrian Peterson’s vision, elusiveness, and power, and came with zero red flags, a case could be made for taking a chance on him. But there is no such prospect in this year’s draft, so the best value seems to be avoiding a running back with the ninth overall pick, lest we ignore history’s lesson.


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