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2018 NFL Draft: Are running backs really found everywhere?

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Let’s look at the numbers

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Saquon Barkley
Photo by Christian Petersen/Getty Images

Tom Brady was found in the sixth round, Antonio Brown in the fifth round. Many successful offensive linemen were found later in the draft. It is true that good players can come from anywhere and often aren't even drafted. One position above all is considered a bargain bin shopping position and that is running back. Why?

I thought it would be interesting to take a look at the leading rushers in the league and see if the success of running backs truly is found everywhere in the draft. There are, of course, exceptions to every rule, but is the most success still found early and more often in the draft like most other position? This is not a comprehensive study.

The top 10 rushers in the league in 2017 in terms of total yardage and where they were drafted:

  • Kareem Hunt (3rd round)
  • Todd Gurley (1st)
  • Le'Veon Bell (2nd)
  • LeSean McCoy (2nd)
  • Mark Ingram (1st)
  • Jordan Howard (5th)
  • Melvin Gordon (1st round)
  • Leonard Fournette (1st)
  • C.J. Anderson (undrafted)
  • Ezekiel Elliot (1st)

It's a small sample size here, but of the top 10 rushing leaders in the league this year five of them were drafted in the first round. And three others were drafted by the third round.

Top 10 rushers in the league in yardage per game:

  • Ezekiel Elliot (1st)
  • Dalvin Cook (2nd)
  • Todd Gurley (1st)
  • Le'Veon Bell (2nd)
  • Kareem Hunt (3rd)
  • Leonard Fournette (1st)
  • Adrian Peterson (1st)
  • LeSean McCoy (2nd)
  • Mark Ingram (1st)
  • Jordan Howard (5th)

When we expand the parameters to yards per game, nine out of the top 10 players were drafted in the money rounds (1-3).

Touchdowns

  • Gurley (1st)
  • Mark Ingram (1st)
  • Le’Veon Bell (2nd)
  • Leonard Fournette (1st)
  • Jordan Howard (5th)
  • Melvin Gordon (1st)
  • Kareem Hunt (1st)
  • Carlos Hyde (2nd)
  • Alvin Kamara (3rd round)
  • Latavius Murray (6th round)

In touchdowns, we also see the higher picks excelling as eight out of the top 10 are from the money rounds.

Again these are small sample sizes, but a quick look at the top players at the position shows that taking a running back early in the draft has definitely paid off. I think the debate about whether or not drafting a running back as high as number two in regards specifically to Saquon Barkley is more complex and diverse discussion. I do think, however, that in general, the assumption that running backs are found in every round of the draft is not inherently more true than at any other positions. Success stories come from all conferences, rounds, and walks of life and at all positions. Great quarterbacks are found after the first round, just like wide receivers, tight ends, offensive linemen, safeties and the like, but the cream generally rises to the top and this seems to still hold true for running backs. Taking a running back early is still more likely to lead to the running back having success than taking a running back later.

I think the difference with the running back position is that there is more specialization. I also think that competent play is maybe easier to find at running back. A guy who can get 3.8 yards per carry might be a dime a dozen, but those guys won't start every game. They fill in for two or three games, but they can't be consistently productive (look at the Giants since 2008). There are receiving backs, and between the tackle backs, and big-play ability backs, and you can find those specialized players throughout the entire draft at every round. it still seems though that the guys who can do a nice combination of all three typically are found at the top.

Taking any player is risky and the question is does a great running back equal more winning, but in the ultimate team sport every position (other than quarterback) is as reliant on all the other positions as any other. Great receivers need quarterbacks who can get them the ball. Great running backs do better with solid line play, great pass rushing defensive ends can only get a team so far. Lock down cornerbacks still can only cover one side of the field.

I don't think the Giants need to take Barkley at number two overall for a variety of reasons, but I don't think THE main reason can be that running backs are a dime a dozen and can be found later in the draft.