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Game Theory Post #1: Drafting a Running Back in the 1st Round

February 24, 2015

game-theory

Game Theory is the study of strategic decision making. One thing I’ve noticed is how the sports world has a dearth of articles through the prism of game theory. That is quite strange to me as I can’t think of a more consensus driven and follow the crowd type industry than sports, the NFL in particular. I will periodically post these type of articles on my website and will title and image them differently so they stand out.

First up in my game theory crosshairs is the running back position and how the NFL undervalues it. One consistent pattern of game theory is that when everyone is doing business one way you probably should be doing it the opposite. Whether it was in the 80’s when everyone ran the 4-3 defense, in the 90’s when everyone ran West Coast offenses or in the 2000’s when everyone reached for QBs in the Top 10 it was usually better to go rogue than stay with the crowd. Currently the most mainstream viewpoint in the NFL is that the RB position isn’t worth squat. Adrian Peterson, Marshawn Lynch and LeSean McCoy are widely regarded as 3 of the 5 best running backs in the world yet all have had rumors surrounding them that their team will force them to take a pay cut. The NFL Draft is no different as 2 of the top 13 players on my board happen to be running backs and most Mock Drafts currently have 1 or both of them available at #27 when my Dallas Cowboys come on the clock. Melvin Gordon is my #1 RB for now but Todd Gurley is close as he has a much higher upside due to his superior size and strength. Gordon reminds me of Jamaal Charles, eerily so actually, while Gurley reminds me of Adrian Peterson not so much in style as in just sheer athleticism for his size at the running back position. Both look like long term stars at the position so it will be interesting to see if either or both crack the first round. It’s an interesting debate as there are a lot of ways to look at it. On one hand you can make the case that a RB should NEVER be drafted in the first round as every year there are plenty of starting caliber running backs going for $2-4 million a year in free agency with Justin Forsett being the most recent example. Few positions in the NFL have as many candidates to fill a team’s starting role as the RB position. Last year 10 of the top 11 rushers were not 1st round picks, the lone exception being Marshawn Lynch. Also there hasn’t been a 1st round pick at the running back position since 2012. This shows that running backs are universally being avoided in the 1st round AND you can fill the position adequately or even impressively in the 2nd round or later. Another defense of this argument is the list of the past 7 running backs taken in the 1st round:

2012: Trent Richardson, Doug Martin, David Wilson

2011: Mark Ingram

2010: CJ Spiller, Ryan Matthews, Jahvid Best

Not only are almost all of the best running backs in today’s NFL not 1st round picks but almost all of the recent 1st rounders are busts. Two of the seven aren’t even in the NFL anymore (Wilson, Best), three of the seven are free agents (Spiller, Ingram, Matthews) with rumors persisting that their current teams’ won’t even try to keep them and two of the seven (Richardson, Martin) are struggling to just keep their starting job. Arguments like this sure make it seem like a GM should be fired if they spend a 1st round pick on a RB but I will try and explain why there are two sides to the argument and why taking a RB in the 1st round could be a boon for a franchise. First off is the late 1st round contract. The Cowboys are picking at #27. Last year the Cardinals took Deone Bucannon at that spot and gave him a 4 year $7.71 million deal which comes out to approximately $1.9 million a year. In the past two drafts a team in the late first round could have taken any of these backs with their pick:

Jeremy Hill

Carlos Hyde

Giovanni Bernard

Le’Veon Bell

Eddie Lacy

Hill, Bell and Lacy all were in the Top 7 in the NFL in rushing last year. Hyde was held back due to playing time issues and Bernard is a multidimensional threat that impacts the game in more ways than just running the ball (he has back to back +1,000 yard in rushing and receiving combined so he is still quite impactful). All 5 would be slam dunks as late 1st round picks and their franchise would be saving millions every year by taking this approach. The Cleveland Browns gave a 2 year $6.2 million ($3.1 million per year) contract for Ben Tate last offseason. The Jacksonville Jaguars gave a 3 year $10.5 million ($3.5 million per year) contract to Toby Gerhart last offseason. Both were considered shrewd moves by the consensus as they used the modern day approach for the position and filled their RB need on the cheap so they were able to use cap space and draft choices in other spots. Tate was cut midway through the season and had almost no impact on his team, Gerhart averaged 3.2 ypc and had less than 400 yards rushing on the season. I understand why people look at guys like Le’Veon Bell, Eddie Lacy and Lesean McCoy who were taken in the 2nd round and say that no one should take a RB in the 1st but a team taking a RB in the late 1st guarantees themselves the pick of the litter and these RBs available at that pick are superstars in this league while the players taken at other positions are not. Last year the Cardinals took Bucannon at #27 and he didn’t even start for them for much of the season. You don’t think them drafting Jeremy Hill instead would have changed the course of their season? Andre Ellington got hurt but even before he did he wasn’t putting up good rushing numbers (3.3 ypc on the season). Replace him with Hill and the Cardinals likely win 1-2 more games in 2014 which would have secured for them the #1 seed in the playoffs. Also drafting a RB in the 1st round gets you 4 years at around $2 mil per for an elite talent which allows you to avoid the “retread market” where shot in the dark types like Gerhart and Tate mingle with over the hill types like Willis McGahee, Frank Gore, DeAngelo Williams, Steven Jackson, etc. Look at teams with a Top 10 rusher from last year and you will notice that all 10 of those teams had a winning record in 2014. The NFL is a passing league that is focused around the QB but an elite RB can take immense pressure off of that QB which allows him to perform better. Before Le’Veon Bell, Pittsburgh had a dysfunctional offense yet this year, with Bell being #2 in the NFL in rushing, Roethlisberger led the NFL in passing. DeMarco Murray led the NFL in rushing and Romo followed him by leading the NFL in QB Rating since he was allowed to pass in more advantageous positions. Andrew Luck’s team couldn’t run the ball or stop the run and they were blown out in the playoffs because of those two failures. The Seahawks were one play away from winning back to back Super Bowls and both years they were led by an offense centered around a Skittles eating beast of a running back. There are questions about whether Melvin Gordon has enough strength and toughness to be a good inside runner and worth a 1st round pick. There are questions if Todd Gurley will be able to stay healthy for a 16 game season and be worth a 1st round pick. Yet if you can answer either of those two questions affirmatively then you should be rooting for your team to draft that running back in the first round. It will be the first time in 3 years that one was taken that high and numerous analysts and commentators will pan the pick as it has become cool to bash the running back position. Yet for teams drafting in the late 1st round there are few places where you can get better bang for your buck than by going against the trend and drafting an elite running back prospect at that point. The Cardinals at #24, Ravens at #26, Cowboys at #27, Broncos at #28, Colts at #29 and Patriots at #32 would all be wise to re-consider their approach to the position and change course. I doubt they will so it will be fun to re-visit their decision to pass on Todd Gurley and instead take a mediocre tackle, a #3 CB or a 2 down linebacker who makes little impact. All the while they will be grinning like Cheshire cats when some “stupid” team like the Bengals takes another RB “too early.” You know those Bengals right? The ones that have stolen an elite talent in the 2nd round each of the past two years simply because he played running back. You know the team that has made the playoffs 5 of the past 6 years despite having a crappy QB behind center? What do they know.

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One Comment
  1. peter permalink

    2014 was the low for running backs as LeGarrette Blount could only get 2 million. In 2015, the Seahawks paid Marshawn Lynch, who had been pegged for a cap casualty, 12 million. Excessively large contracts for DeMarco Murray and LeSean McCoy showed the rebound. The Cowboys should probably pick RB twice this year, whether they get one of the top two running backs or not.

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