cover32 Debates: How Much Value Do Running Backs Have?

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Jan 29, 2017; Orlando, FL, USA; A fan is tackled by NFC running back Ezekiel Elliott of the Dallas Cowboys (21) during the second half against the AFC at the 2017 Pro Bowl at Citrus Bowl. Mandatory Credit: Steve Mitchell-USA TODAY Sports
Jan 29, 2017; Orlando, FL, USA; A fan is tackled by NFC running back Ezekiel Elliott of the Dallas Cowboys (21) during the second half against the AFC at the 2017 Pro Bowl at Citrus Bowl. Mandatory Credit: Steve Mitchell-USA TODAY Sports
In the midst of the NFL offseason, cover32 will debut a series of new debate segments to hype up NFL fans for the start of the 2017 season. The debate series follows the doppelgangers and roundtable series. 
The ‘cover32 Debate’ series is where two cover32 writers debate important topics of the day. Our first debate will feature Jacob Infante and Patrick Hatten.

Round 1: Should teams draft a running back in the first round

Hatten: Following the success of Ezekiel Elliott after being picked fourth by Dallas in 2016, it’s becoming more acceptable to take a running back in the first round again. But it shouldn’t be.

Yes, Zeke had a monster year, but the Cowboys could’ve had similar production from a back in a later round and taken a contributor at a more premium position. They lost four defensive backs to free agency this season, so how nice would it have been to have Jalen Ramsey ready to play on the other side of Anthony Brown? Or they could’ve snagged DeForest Buckner for defensive line depth that they just so happen to need this season.


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Sure, they got an extra 542 yards from their starting running back (the previous starter, Darren McFadden was also a former first round pick), which averages out to another 33 yards or so per game. But he needed almost another one hundred attempts to get it.

If Dallas had taken one of the defenders at four, they could’ve taken Jordan Howard in the fifth round. He finished third in rushing as a rookie with a slightly higher yards per attempt (5.2 to 5.1) behind an offensive line which ranked fifteenth to the Cowboys’ second (according to Pro Football Focus). When it comes to running backs, it’s easy to want to take the sexy pick, but you can find value later in the draft. It’s much more important to build along the trenches.

Infante: I’m not as strict on this situation as Patrick is. I believe that, if the value is right and the need is big enough, then, by all means, go for a running back. However, you can also get a solid contributor late in the draft. As stated earlier, the Cowboys used a first-round pick on Ezekiel Elliott, whereas the Bears used a fifth-rounder on Jordan Howard. Other players like David Johnson, Jay Ajayi and Devonta Freeman have gone on to have success in the NFL despite being drafted in the middle rounds.

However, those backs are often the exception, not the rule. Just last year, players like Tyler Ervin and Kenyan Drake were selected over Howard. So while teams could go with a mid-round back, it would be safer to use a first-round pick on one. Elliott had one of, if not the best, rookie seasons for a back in recent history. Other recent first-rounders like Todd Gurley and Melvin Gordon have gone on to become Pro Bowlers.

Sure, the value of the running back position has decreased over the years. But if a can’t-miss prospect is available early, then a team wouldn’t be making a bad choice by taking one.

Round 2: Should you overpay for a running back?

Hatten: I would stay away. One of the major reasons is that by the time a running back hits the unrestricted free agency, they’re twenty-five or twenty-six. A large deal will usually run into their post-twenty eight season which is when the average back’s production drops off.

Also, the premium tends not to fit the production. That’s because most backfields are run “by committee.” Paying $6-8 million to one back is less likely to be as efficient as splitting the same amount between two to three backs who compliment each others skill sets.

Infante: I think it depends on how productive and how young the running back is. If the back isn’t considered a top-10 back, then they aren’t worth overpaying.

Plus, as Patrick mentioned, running backs take a lot of hits every year, so their shelf life is notably shorter than other positions. A running back usually only gets one huge deal in their career (many two, if they’re lucky). If a back has already signed a big deal, then odds are they won’t be able to play well enough for another one.

Round 3: Should you sign (or re-sign) a running back over 28

Hatten: If you haven’t heard by now, running backs begin to regress after they turn 27. That’s because running backs are like tires. They only have so much thread, and once it wears down, they’re as good as done.

Running backs have usually been the best players on their teams going back to the Pee Wee levels. Thanks to little threat offered by mediocre passing games, they get hit. And hit. And hit. When they get to college, their coaches run them 200+ times a season.

A smart team would draft a running back every one to two seasons (maybe alternate every draft with another quarterback?) and see who sticks.

Infante: I agree with Patrick. A running back’s shelf life is typically much shorter than that of other positions. They take so many hits year in and year out that they’re considered near the end of the road by the time they’re 30.

Unless the running back is still relatively young, then I would stay away from re-signing one.

 

Upcoming Great Debates:

  • Aaron Rodgers vs Tom Brady
  • Eli Manning vs Ben Roethlisberger
  • Julio Jones vs Rob Gronkowski
  • Tom Brady vs Peyton Manning
  • And more!

 

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