“The running back position is devalued.”
“We have too many holes to pick a running back in the top ten.”
“You can get great running backs in any round.”
These are a few of the recycled “expert” pieces of analysis you’ll hear from fans out there who don’t want their team to draft a running back early. There’s a strong case to be made in favor of each one but you might be overlooking critical information if one of these stereotypes are your mantra when it comes to running backs in the National Football League.
You’re probably wondering where this is headed… well I’ve noticed a range of NFL fans on Twitter, including several 49ers fans, who are totally averse to the idea of selecting Penn State running back Saquon Barkley if he declares for the 2018 draft. Even after the success of Melvin Gordon, Ezekiel Elliott, Todd Gurley and Leonard Fournette in the first round of previous drafts some fans still believe it would be a misguided selection. I’m here today to make the case for the 49ers to draft Saquon Barkley with their first round pick in the upcoming draft.
First, a quick breakdown Barkley the NFL prospect. Barkley is a 5’11 230 pound ball of muscle with elite speed, excellent vision, quickness, balance and is ultra athletic. He is very smooth in the passing game, lethal in the run game as well as a solid contributor on special teams. This season, teams tried to stop Barkley by loading up the box, which slightly reflects on his stats which are nevertheless still highly impressive: 1134 rushing yards with 16 touchdowns, 594 receiving yards for 3 touchdowns.
Now, is the running back position really being devalued? Ten running backs have been drafted in round one since 2010: Trent Richardson, Doug Martin, David Wilson, Todd Gurley, Ezekiel Elliott, Leonard Fournette, Christian McCaffery, CJ Spiller, Jahvid Best and Mark Ingram. There was however a two year span when backs were not drafted in round one, 2013 and 2014, which can be traced to Trent Richardson’s failure as a first round back, whilst backs like Alfred Morris, Doug Martin and later Le’Veon Bell, Eddie Lacy excelled despite not being first round picks. You could also highlight the lack of elite traits that these backs showed as college players. 2015 broke that streak and since then, five running backs have been taken in the first round, all of whom demonstrated real (and arguably elite) ability in at least one area of their game at the college level.
Of the ten first round running backs since 2010, four are currently on pace to help their teams attain playoff berths. Elliott would arguably be number five – he is a great running back but has been suspended, a suspension which all but ended the Dallas Cowboys hopes of progressing. Teams continue to draft running backs early, which indicates that the position is not as undervalued as we may believe. Most importantly, teams continue to be rewarded for doing so.
Since 2009 the leading rusher in the NFL each season has been a first round pick on four occasions, twice a second round pick, one third round pick and one undrafted player. Unsurprisingly for a position where rushing is the most important job, elite players in that area are most likely to be found in the first round of the NFL draft.
The leaders in scrimmage yards since 2009 also reveals the benefits of drafting a running back early, if not necessarily in the first round. Since 2009, there have been three first round backs who have led the league in scrimmage yards, three second round backs, two third rounds backs and an UDFA. 2015 First rounder Todd Gurley just passed Le’Veon Bell this season in yards from scrimmage, whilst last season, rookie first rounder Ezekiel Elliott was second in the league. Early draft picks are consistently the best performers amongst running backs and indeed are often the focal points of their team’s offenses. Leonard Fournette, Ezekiel Elliott and Todd Gurley are all arguably the most important offensive piece on their teams.
Le’Veon Bell is an interesting case study, given he wasn’t a first round pick but is now the blueprint for the ideal back in today’s NFL. Since being drafted in the second round in 2013 (primarily due to fears about his vision), Bell has had 1215 rushing attempts and 307 receptions, good for a combined total of 1522 touches. Bell is the focal point of the Steelers’ offense, even with Antonio Brown in the same building. In fact, since 2013, Brown has had 572 receptions, just 265 more than Bell at running back and almost 1000 fewer touches. Crucially, Bell is a multi-dimensional, every down player, with elite capabilities as a runner, receiver and pass blocker who is, as a result, supremely important to the Steelers’ offense. But Bell didn’t come into the league as an outstanding back; his game took a few seasons to properly mature, which in some respects explains a reason why he wasn’t drafted in the first round. With the Bell of 2017 however, we can see the value in great running backs. Whilst not impacting on their offenses to the same extent to a great quarterback, great running backs can massively elevate it. Todd Gurley is an MVP candidate this season thanks to his play for the Rams, where he has excelled as a runner and receiver.
Why would this information make drafting Saquon Barkley a possibility for San Francisco? A great back can massively elevate an offense and Barkley has all the tools to be a great back. Significantly, Barkley has the tools to lead the NFL as a rusher and in total yards from scrimmage from the moment he steps into the league. Of the first round backs since 2015, only Melvin Gordon has not made an instant impact. Gurley, Elliott, Fournette and McCaffrey all excelled (and indeed are excelling in the latter two cases) in their own ways as rookies. They were drafted for their elite traits, with Gurley, Elliott and Fournette being elite runners (with the former two also flashing quality receiving traits as college players and now into the NFL) whilst McCaffrey was drafted due to his elite receiving ability out of the backfield. In today’s NFL, one elite trait is often good enough to see you drafted in the first round as a running back, and it no longer has to be simply as a runner.
Barkley is a better prospect than any of the other backs drafted in the first round that we have so far discussed. I wholeheartedly agree with Matt Miller’s views on Barkley; the man is a unicorn. To me, Barkley is the best running back prospect I’ve ever seen. He is an elite runner first and foremost, good enough to see him drafted in the first round just for that singular trait. Furthermore, he is an excellent pass catcher out of the backfield, and though he’s not McCaffrey he’s a superior pass catcher than any of the other backs taken since 2015. He’s a player who can run the ball between the tackles on one play, and the next be split out wide as a receiver making plays in space against defensive backs. His versatility will help ease the load Jimmy Garoppolo is currently carrying as well as allowing him to be moved all over the formation, revealing coverages and exploiting mismatches with linebackers or defensive backs. There is arguably no one on a defense who matches up well with Saquon Barkley. He’ll be a check down option with the ability to take that pass for a touchdown. He can even return kicks and punts. This elite running back talent will be a nightmare to opposing defenses from day one and provide this team with a four down, five star player which this team desperately needs. He possesses the elite abilities and promise of instant production to make him a first rounder and his unique versatility means he absolutely warrants being picked early in the first round.
Furthermore, the scheme which head coach Kyle Shanahan and his dad Mike are famous for is a running back’s dream, as well as requiring high calibre play and versatility from its backs. They operate a balanced offense and require a threatening running game to set up the passing attack, notably through play action. Shanahan’s system in Atlanta, featuring the versatile duo of which Tevin Coleman and Devonta Freeman, went all the way to last year’s Super Bowl. Freeman had 281 touches for 1541 total yards from scrimmage and Coleman 149 touches for 941 yards per Pro Football Reference. Between them, they made up 48% of Atlanta’s total offensive yardage on the year and combined for a total of 440 touches last season. By contrast, Julio Jones had 83 touches of the football, and contributed to 27% of Atlanta’s yardage. The backs were absolutely a major part of Atlanta’s offense.
Of course, neither were first round picks, and the success of Freeman, Coleman and Alfred Morris with Kyle Shanahan is regularly used to demonstrate Shanahan doesn’t need early round backs to have success, let alone first rounders. But Freeman’s lower draft position in particular was likely a product of his injury history and his entrance into the NFL during a period when were running backs were relatively undervalued – scouts widely recognised his versatility as a runner and pass-catcher as well as noting his ability as a pass blocker. In the NFL today, such a skill set gets you drafted higher than the fourth round.
Shanahan has also shown a willingness to take a back high and an appreciation of the immediate impact a stud running back can make on a franchise, stating “It’s been proven that you can get guys later. But, that by no means that I’m going to say we’re never going to draft a running back high. When you find a special one and you think that makes sense for your team, you should never hesitate to do that.”
Shanahan also added, “A big-time running back, whether it’s Fournette, whether it’s Adrian Peterson who was a top-10 pick, whether it was Terrell Davis in the sixth round, whether it’s David Johnson who I think was a third rounder or Le’Veon Bell I think is a second rounder, all those guys are worth top-five picks, but they were all from different places,” Shanahan said. “If they came back out, if Terrell came out I promise you he’s not going in the sixth round. He’s probably going as a top-five pick and that’s one of the reasons (the Broncos) won a Super Bowl”, per Chris Biderman of Ninerswire.
Shanahan was right to mention the names of several backs who made up or make up a focal point of their team’s offenses. Are people really still saying that such names as Adrian Peterson, Terrell Davis, Le’Veon Bell and David Johnson are not extraordinarily valuable pieces? Running backs have been used and continue to be used as focal points of their offenses; they’re carrying the load whilst being overlooked by media and fans alike. As previously mentioned, we have seen how deadly a combination of an elite back and an elite quarterback can be in recent seasons with the Pittsburgh Steelers offense – the 49ers have the potential for their own elite duo in Garoppolo and Barkley.
But to really know the value of a running back is to envision him in your scheme. What will his workload be like? How many touches will he have per game? How many catches? And how many times will he be a valuable last line of pass protection for your big money quarterback? Barkley would undoubtedly be the 49ers’ lead back, can be an every down player touching the ball twenty-five times a game and can certainly be trusted as a last line of defense for his quarterback. He will certainly be an upgrade on the backs projected to be on the 49ers’ roster in 2018.
Even if Carlos Hyde was going to be around in 2018, Barkley could be an option, but Hyde’s status as a pending free agent makes drafting Barkley even more desirable. Whilst Hyde has been solid this year, it’s been noticeable that Matt Breida, an undrafted rookie, has been sharing snaps. Hyde is undoubtedly a physical runner and a threat to make yards after contact, but he’s not the most natural pass catcher and he isn’t dynamic as a receiver. His one dimensional abilities have arguably been a detriment to this offense, and at least have prevented Shanahan using his lead back in the myriad ways he could use Freeman in Atlanta.There have also been signs of frustration from Hyde on the sidelines earlier this season, as well as some dropped catches and busts in pass protection which will impact upon the 49ers’ decision to re-sign Hyde or let him walk.
Matt Breida, who seems to be second on the depth chart currently and is more versatile than Hyde, has his flaws as well. He has inconsistent patience and vision (though he is improving), has some issues with ball security and lacks ideal size to carry the ball 25 times a game. Barkley is a superior running back to both Hyde and Breida, and thus there can be little doubt that adding Barkley would significantly upgrade the running back position in San Francisco compared to its 2017 vintage.
A notable counter point to drafting Barkley is the plethora of needs the 49ers have, but with over $100 million in cap space and a shrewd front office expect the 49ers to go into the draft with fewer obvious needs. Furthermore, running back will likely be a major need for this team – as of now, the 49ers have three backs signed for next season. All of them will be second year players and only one of them has taken an NFL snap. There is a real lack of depth at the running back spot. Saquon Barkley would not only be picking BPA, but he would be filling a need as well. Here’s a glimpse of what we’d be getting below per @PSUBarstool
8. A Heisman-worthy catch and run pic.twitter.com/fapJmgsbV8
— Barstool Penn State (@PSUBarstool) December 4, 2017
2. Herbstreit: How does he do that? It’s incredible!
Fowler: He’s Saquon Barkley… pic.twitter.com/gVsBBlG0II
— Barstool Penn State (@PSUBarstool) December 5, 2017
Image by Rich Barnes-USA TODAY Sports