Running Back Value in the NFL Draft

Saquon Barkley just completed a historic rookie season. The Giants first-year running back became the third rookie in NFL history to amass over 2,000 yards from scrimmage, joining Hall of Famer Eric Dickerson and four-time pro-bowler Edgerrin James. Barkley’s first-year campaign featured many highlight plays, from breathtaking speed to unnatural hurdles to a touchdown leap resembling Michael Jordan. Such gaudy statistics seem to justify the immense pre-draft hype that Barkley received. He was selected with the second overall pick, over an heir to aging quarterback Eli Manning, with General Manager Dave Gettleman calling Saquon “the unanimous best player in the draft.” Barkley’s rookie season was capped off with a rookie of the year trophy, leading to Ian Rapoport, among others, claiming the award is “further validating a pick many wondered about.” However, the Giants absolutely made the wrong call in the 2018 draft, and this past season only further proved this. Instead, the franchise should have selected Sam Darnold, who was selected one pick later by the crosstown rival New York Jets.

After one season, it would appear that Barkley has exceeded his lofty pre-draft billing. However, some advanced statistics paint a different story. For instance, Barkley ranked just 15th in rushing DYAR among players with at least 100 carries. DYAR is a metric from Football Outsiders which calculates the cumulative value that a player provides over a replacement level player (adjusted for the quality of defenses played), and offers it in the unit of yards. A full explanation can be found here. The main culprit for this discrepancy between Barkley’s counting stats and advanced metrics is his reliance on big runs. Barkley had 6 carries of 50+ yards this season, which gained 367 yards. To put that in perspective, Barkley gained roughly 28% of his rushing yards on just 2.3% of his carries. While some may believe that Barkley’s immense talent will allow him to keep up these long runs, the truth is that they are completely unsustainable. Over the past 20 seasons, just 18 times (not including Barkley) has a running back had 5 or more 40+ yard runs. In these seasons, the running back averaged 5.67 long runs for 330.94 yards. In the following season, they averaged 1.83 long runs for just 101.89 yards, a massive drop-off in both categories. No runner was able to repeat the feat, and only 2 (Adrian Peterson & Chris Johnson) were able to reach 4 the next season. The full spreadsheet is available here. To sum it up, Barkley has an extremely slim chance of repeating this number of long carries in 2019.

This phenomenon is eerily similar to Todd Gurley’s rookie season, in which he had 5 carries of 40+ yards, gaining 24.9% of his rushing yards on 2.2% of his carries. In Gurley’s three ensuing seasons, he has had 813 rushing attempts, and just 1 carry of 40 or more yards.  Now, Gurley has remained very successful over this stretch, as he ranks second in rushing DYAR from 2016-2018, trailing only Ezekiel Elliott. This is because Gurley has been able to avoid too many negative plays. In 2018, Gurley gained 2 yards or less on 34% of his carries (excluding touchdowns and first downs), while for Barkley this number was a staggering 48.6%. Many believed Barkley was a perfect prospect coming out of Penn State, and his trait of being a home-run hitter was well known before he was drafted. However, if Barkley is not able to cut down on some of his strikeouts, and the outlier long runs are not there anymore, Barkley could be in for a difficult 2019.

Sam Darnold, on the other hand, while not viewed as a so-called “generational talent” at his position like Barkley, was still widely seen as a great quarterback prospect prior to the draft. He was slotted in as the first overall pick to the Browns for much of the season, but was eventually overtaken by Baker Mayfield and his ridiculous advanced metrics profile. While Mayfield was the superior prospect, this shouldn’t be viewed as detrimental to Darnold’s future. Many media outlets still ranked Darnold as their top available quarterback, and he was also given ringing endorsements from many around the industry, drawing Brett Favre and Andrew Luck comparisons. Another benefit for Darnold is that he was only 20 years old at draft time, versus 23 for Mayfield. This gives Darnold plenty of time to learn the NFL game. Sitting behind Eli Manning for a year and then taking the reins, similar to what Patrick Mahomes did in Kansas City, would have been an excellent move by the Giants.

By counting stats, it appears that Sam Darnold had a less than exciting rookie campaign with the New York Jets. He certainly endured the typical rookie ups and downs, but the underlying metrics reflect very positively on Darnold’s future. Per this graphic from FiveThirtyEight, Darnold saw tremendous improvement in play from the first half of the season to the second, and even led the league in total QBR from week 10 to the end of the season. This spurt of excellent play happened despite Darnold playing under the unimaginative offensive scheme of Jeremy Bates, and a horrific set of skill position players around him. It was even dubbed the worst offensive arsenal in the league by Bill Barnwell prior to the season. It’s worth noting that the Giants were ranked second in this article, and while that factors in Barkley, the receiving trio of Odell Beckham Jr., Sterling Shepard, and Evan Engram would’ve been extremely helpful for Darnold early in his career.

The decision by the Giants to draft a running back instead of quarterback was a win-now move which placed a huge bet on an aging Eli Manning for the 2018 season and beyond. The Giants did not sign a viable backup in free agency or the draft, meaning that Gettleman trusted Manning to bring the franchise back to the playoffs. However, Manning’s play had steadily declined in the seasons leading up to 2018. The below table shows his some of Manning’s rate stats (from profootballreference), with league rank in parentheses, for each season since 2014:

Yards per Attempt Touchdown% Passer Rating ESPN QBR* ANY/A**
2014 7.3 (13) 5.0 (10) 92.1 (15) 62.5 (14) 6.67 (12)
2015 7.2 (17) 5.7 (7) 93.6 (13) 60.5 (13) 6.74 (10)
2016 6.7 (25) 4.3 (15) 86 (22) 49.3 (25) 5.95 (22)
2017 6.1 (29) 3.3 (24) 80.4 (25) 45.4 (26) 5.11 (25)
2018 7.5 (16) 3.6 (25) 92.4 (21) 51.2 (26) 6.21 (20)

*ESPN’s Total Quarterback Rating, which rates passers on a scale of 0-100                                                                                                                          ** Adjusted Net Yards per Attempt, which weights sacks, touchdowns, and interceptions appropriately

By these metrics, Manning was a comfortably above-average passer from 2014-2015, yet fell enormously over the following two seasons, where he was a comfortably below-average and arguably among the league’s worst starters. Expecting Manning to reassert himself among the better passers in the NFL was wishful thinking, even with investments along the offensive line and drafting Barkley. While Manning’s play did improve in 2018, by these numbers he still rated as a below average quarterback. This is problematic because the NFL’s current transition to a passing league means that success in the league requires good quarterback play. For example, 10 of this season’s 12 playoff quarterbacks ranked in the top half of the league in QBR and ANY/A (whether using Carson Wentz or Nick Foles for the Eagles). The other two were Lamar Jackson and Dak Prescott, who both offer value as runners and were helped by stellar defenses. Unfortunately for the Giants, quarterback is one of the hardest positions to find, and almost always must come through the draft. This offseason, there has been talk of Kyler Murray or Dwayne Haskins as potential selections for the Giants, who hold the sixth overall pick. Many would argue that if they select one of those passers, then it would validate selecting Barkley over a quarterback. However, this logic is heavily flawed, since no team would ever draft in the top 3 and then justify their selection by banking on picking that high again the following year.

Another argument made in favor of drafting Barkley second overall was that he would be a safe pick, whereas taking a quarterback would be far more risky. To determine whether this claim is true, I looked at every top 12 quarterback or running back in the drafts from 1998-2016 and determined the rate at which players busted. I used profootballreference’s approximate value (AV) metric, since it applies to both positions and can easily be tracked year-to-year. A full explanation can be found here. I chose to use the player’s AV over his first five years, as this mirrors the NFL’s current structure for rookie contracts. To compare over different eras, I determined that player’s rank at their position in total AV over those five seasons, and used this as my metric to quantify draft busts. Here are the splits for quarterbacks and running backs drafted in the top 12 from 1998-2016 (spreadsheet):

Quarterback Running Back
Top 10

9/40 (22.5%)

Top 10

9/26 (35%)

Top 16

21/40 (52.5%)

Top 16

12/26 (46%)

Below 20

18/40 (45%)

Below 20

11/26 (42%)

While running back has a much higher proportion of top ten players, it is very comparable for the other two categories. Due to the small sample size for both positions, it is tough to draw a full conclusion, but it appears that quarterback is not way more risky than drafting a running back as some may think. Accounting for the 2017 draft would probably swing this further towards quarterbacks, as Patrick Mahomes just won the MVP award and Deshaun Watson has put up excellent numbers for the Texans.

The final reason for passing on Barkley is his cost relative to a quarterback. The current NFL CBA structures rookie contracts in such a way that players on their first contracts at most positions are massive bargains, especially at quarterback. ESPN’s Bill Barnwell has wrote extensively about this subject, even back in 2012. Having a cheap quarterback allows an NFL team to pay up for talented players at other positions. This exact approach was used by the Seahawks during the Legion of Boom era and the Eagles during the Carson Wentz era, two Super Bowl champions. As such, getting even an average passer on a dirt-cheap deal gives a franchise a massive competitive advantage. This would be especially helpful for a Giants roster which is in huge need of a talent influx. Sam Darnold, as the third overall selection in the 2018 draft, has the 16th most guaranteed money of all quarterbacks and the 28th highest cap hit of 2019, which is an enormous bargain for a promising young quarterback. On the other hand, Saquon Barkley signed for the most guaranteed money of any running back in the NFL before he played a single down, which doesn’t offer the Giants any help in adding talent to the roster.

Overall, given my inability to prove that running back has definitely been a safer pick than quarterback at the top of the draft, as well as the financial benefits of acquiring a promising signal caller at a huge bargain, the Giants absolutely should have drafted Sam Darnold over Saquon Barkley in 2018. Running back value is far easier to acquire later in the draft or through free agency. For example, in 2018, 23 of the top 32 quarterbacks by passing attempts (cutoff chosen to mimic one starter per team) were selected in the first round, while for running backs this was reversed: only 9 of the top 32 in attempts were chosen in the first round. Good quarterbacks are extremely scarce but also incredibly valuable, especially while on rookie contracts. Very rarely do teams have the opportunity to draft one without having to give up a fortune in moving up in the draft, and even fewer are able to pair their young passer with a prolific receiver like Odell Beckham. I understand the argument that Barkley’s impressive rookie season validates his selection, but as demonstrated earlier the counting stats that our fantasy football obsessed world prizes are heavily influenced by unsustainable long carries. This offseason, the franchise has a chance to rectify their mistake from last offseason. If either Kyler Murray or Dwayne Haskins is deemed a worthy early selection, then the Giants should absolutely pull the trigger and set their franchise up for success. If not, one of the NFL’s proudest franchises may be in quarterback purgatory for a long time.

 

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