How Draft Round Affects a Running Back's Career Performance

Zach FeinAnalyst IApril 18, 2009

10 Sep 2000:  A close up of Curtis Enis #44 of the Chicago Bears watching the action during the game against the Tampa Bay Buccaneers at the Raymond James Stadium in Tampa Bay, Florida. The Buccaneers defeated the Bears 40-0.Mandatory Credit: Andy Lyons  /Allsport

You know the busts: Curtis Enis, Lawrence Phillips, Blair Thomas, Ki-Jana Carter. But can you name those sixth- and seventh-round steals, or even the guys picked in the first round who panned out as planned?

I've gone through quarterbacks and linemen so far. Next up in this series, I'll be looking at running backs. Do all those first-round busts mean that all first-round backs are off-limits?

(Note: For those running backs that were picked but did not play, I filled in their missing stats with those of Anthony Thompson, a second-round pick in 1990 with the fifth-worst yards-per-attempt average of all backs with more than 250 attempts; coincidentally, he had 251 career attempts.)

Pro Bowls

The graph below shows the percentage of players who made at least one, two, or three Pro Bowls in their career.

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After the second round, the pickings are slim.

Notice the spikes at the fifth round. The number of players who made at least one Pro Bowl increased, but nobody made at least three. My thought is that in the later rounds, there's a chance for someone to come out of nowhere, surprise everybody, and then fade into oblivion.

By the way, one of those Pro Bowl selections was Bobby Joe Edmonds, who only made it as a punt returner.

The next graph shows the average Pro Bowl appearances by draft round. I'm including it to make a point.

After the first two rounds, there is absolutely NO difference between rounds three and four and rounds six and seven. The average backs in the third and fourth rounds make 0.25 and 0.20 Pro Bowls respectively, while the average backs in the sixth and seventh rounds make about one-tenth less than that—0.15 and 0.07, respectively.

Rushing and Receiving Stats

Don't believe me?

This first table shows the average stats of each round, prorated to 300 attempts.

See how the average stats of the fifth round are better than every other round? That may be because fifth-rounders perform the best when looking at yards and touchdowns per attempt.

But what really matters is how each round does each and every year—and that includes the number of attempts and receptions the average player gets. A seventh rounder will never get the same number of attempts as a first rounder, so the better way to look at the rushing and receiving stats is by per-year stats.

I included fantasy points, or total yards divided by 10-plus total touchdowns multiplied by six. If you graph draft round and fantasy points, the resulting line mirrors a more flattened exponential curve.

What that indicates is that the decline in production from each round to the next is lessened after every round—or in other words, after the first three rounds, all the remaining running backs are the same.

Years Starting

Still don't believe me? Check out the next graph, which shows the number of years the average running back starts from his team.

A near linear relationship from the first round to the third round (losing about one year starting after each round), and then a gradual decrease of half a year starting over three rounds. Do you really think it's worth it to take a running back in the fourth round, when you can get slightly lower production three rounds later?

(Sample size note: No round had less than 56 running backs drafted, and the average for each round was 61.)

What Does All of This Mean?

1. If you're a franchise wanting to draft a running back, you should aim to get one in the first three rounds, if not the first or second. 

2. After the third round, every running back is the same. Seriously! Either draft a back in the first three rounds, or wait until rounds six and seven to draft your running back.

3. Teams looking to draft players like Mike Goodson or Jeremiah Johnson in the middle rounds should just wait to draft Ian Johnson or P.J. Hill in the last round.

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