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The Decline of Running Backs, the Ascension of Tight Ends


Separating draft myths from reality.

@BreakTheHuddle

Once this man goes to the podium, the hype stops, and the fun begins. It can't come soon enough.

In the past few weeks, ESPN’s countless hours of pre-draft coverage has provided little in the way of real substance. Aside from debating the merits between Andrew Luck and Robert Griffin III, there simply isn’t a whole lot to talk about until after the draft itself. The same goes for the blogosphere; it seems as though everyone feels qualified to churn out a mock draft, even though few of us have access to game tape, or have any real clue what the talent evaluation process is all about.

Instead of focusing on what’s going to happen Thursday night, which is unpredictable, I focused my energies on what has happened in the past, hoping to identify a few trends that could provide context for what unfolds in the 2012 NFL Draft.

The idea came to me as Merrill Hoge debated Mark Schlereth on ‘NFL Live’ about whether or not running backs were declining in value throughout the league. Trey Wingo pointed out that just one running back was taken in the first round last year, down from 3 in each of the previous two Drafts and 5 in 2008. Wingo acted as though that factoid sealed the debate – running backs are slowly becoming less relevant.

But what would a more thorough investigation yield? Is the drop-off as dramatic as Wingo made it sound, or is something a bit more complex taking place?

Running Backs

379 running backs have been selected in the past 18 NFL Drafts, which translates into 21 per Draft. Since there are 7 rounds in the draft, that also divides nicely into three running backs per round. (Math was never my thing, but I am pretty sure the numbers are correct so far). I stuck with the past 18 drafts as a reference point because 1994 is when the NFL cut the length to 7 rounds. The running back numbers break down like this:

1994-2002

Year

Total # of RBs selected

1st Rd RBs

RBs selected, Rounds 1-4

1994

26

2

15

1995

21

5

13

1996

30

3

17

1997

19

2

13

1998

25

4

13

1999

18

2

12

2000

20

5

11

2001

16

3

12

2002

23

2

11

TOTALS

198

28

117

AVERAGES

22

3.1

13

 

2003-2011

Year

Total # of RBs selected

1st Rd RBs

RBs selected, Rounds 1-4

2003

15

2

10

2004

15

3

8

2005

22

3

15

2006

17

4

10

2007

22

2

13

2008

23

5

11

2009

23

3

10

2010

15

3

7

2011

29

1

15

TOTALS

181

26

99

AVERAGES

20.1

2.8

11

 

A quick comparison of the averages looks like this:

Years

Total # of RBs selected

1st Rd RBs

RBs selected, Rounds 1-4

1994-2002

22.0

3.1

13

2003-2011

20.1

2.8

11

 

The total number of backs being drafted has gone down by about 2 over the past 9 Drafts. Spread over 7 rounds, the drop-off seems less dramatic than it may otherwise seem. It’s also worth noting that entire decline occurs in the first four rounds of the draft, or, during the rounds in which most teams covet their picks. Teams are still plenty willing to take flyers in the later rounds, hoping to find the next Michael Turner (5th, Chargers, 2004), Terrell Davis (6th, Broncos, 1995) or even Ahmad Bradshaw (7th, Giants, 2007).

Davis was one of the greatest Draft steals of all time.

Pointing out the past few seasons and basing the “running backs are in decline” argument on those drafts alone doesn’t take a holistic view of Draft history. Take a look, for instance, at the numbers from the 1980s. During that decade, 49 running backs were selected in the first round, compared with 32 in the 90s and 32 in the 2000s. This shows that the trend of bypassing running backs in the early rounds isn’t some recent phenomenon, but merely the extension of a process that began more than two decades ago.

While it’s true that Trent Richardson appears to be the only running back generating significant first round buzz, and that last year’s passing outburst is likely the wave of the future, the decline of the running back’s importance in the Draft, and the game, is not a recent occurrence. It’s part of a larger trend in the National Football League.

All of which got me thinking – is the opposite story true for Tight Ends?

Tight Ends

Last year was declared by some pundits to be “The Year of the Tight End.” Jimmy Graham of the Saints had a tremendous statistical season, flirting with becoming the first Tight End since the merger to lead the NFL in receiving yards. The Patriots, with their two-pronged attack of Rob Gronkowski and Aaron Hernandez, became the gold standard for how to build an explosive offense around Tight Ends. Jason Witten, Jermichael Finley, Vernon Davis, Antonio Gates – it can be argued the talent pool at the Tight End position has never been deeper.

Despite the emergence of Tight Ends as focal points in passing attacks, have they been drafted more frequently in recent years? Are there any trends that show we ought to suspect an influx of talent at the position in the years to come?

271 Tight Ends have been selected over the same 18 year time (1994-2011) as examined for Running Backs, working out to just over 15 per draft, about 2 per round. The Tight End numbers break down as follows:

1994-2002

Year

Total # of TEs selected

1st Rd TEs

TEs selected, Rounds 1-4

1994

13

0

5

1995

15

2

12

1996

16

1

8

1997

15

2

6

1998

14

0

6

1999

13

0

5

2000

14

2

5

2001

15

1

6

2002

23

3

10

TOTALS

138

11

63

AVERAGES

15.3

1.2

7

 

2003-2011

Year

Total # of TEs selected

1st Rd TEs

TEs selected, Rounds 1-4

2003

12

1

10

2004

18

2

9

2005

10

1

3

2006

15

2

9

2007

13

1

5

2008

16

1

10

2009

19

1

7

2010

19

1

10

2011

13

0

6

TOTALS

135

10

69

AVERAGES

15

1.1

7.7

 

A comparison of the averages:

Years

Total # of TEs selected

1st Rd TEs

TEs selected, Rounds 1-4

1994-2002

15.3

1.2

7

2003-2011

15

1.1

7.7

 

While the total number of Tight Ends drafted has actually gone down in recent years, the number of them being selected in the first four rounds of the draft (or, with teams’ most valuable picks) has actually increased. Many Tight Ends are slow to develop – and difficult to evaluate – hence the reluctance of teams to use first round picks on them. They are, however, willing to take a mid-round chance on a Tight End, hoping he can be  Witten (3rd, Cowboys, 2003), Finley (3rd, Packers, 2008) or Graham (3rd, Saints, 2010).

Da Coach, minus da mustache.

The emphasis on Tight Ends in recent seasons has been undeniable, but it hasn’t borne itself out on the Draft stage quite yet. The 49ers still raised eyebrows when they selected Vernon Davis with the sixth pick in the 2006 Draft – as the Browns did when they took Kellen Winslow, Jr in the sixth slot in 2004. Billy Cannon is still the only Tight End to be selected first overall (way back in 1960), and the only other Tight Ends in history to be taken in the top 5 were Riley Odoms (in 1972) and a certain Coach Ditka (before he was ‘Da Coach’) in 1961.

Look for that to change at some point in the near future, as Tight Ends become more and more valuable with the increasing rules changes in favor of offenses. The draft hasn’t reflected anything too drastic in terms of the way teams value Running Backs versus Tight Ends. If anything, studying the history of the Draft teaches us that preferences for certain positions can be cyclical. It all depends on the state of the game at the time the teams make their decisions.

Keep that in mind as you watch the Draft, and don’t overreact to snap judgments or gross embellishments made by pundits regarding the “decline of Running Backs” and the “ascension of Tight Ends”. Is it perfectly logical to argue that Running Backs are less important than they’ve been in the past? Sure. It’s fair to argue the opposite for Tight Ends. But try to keep it in perspective – each position is in a phase of its cycle. The ebbs and flows aren’t as dramatic as some would have you believe.

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2 Responses

  1. A lot of super work put into this one! I hear the WR’s are gaining in value, which makes sense in a “OB driven” league.

    However, the quarterbacks have to move in the pocket, be able to extend plays, and run for yardage when necessary. It also requires they throw the ball 50 yards in the air, and on target!

    We don’t want much, do we!

    • Thanks, man!

      I wanted to do something similar for all the positions, but alas, I have a “real” job that prevents me from doing that. Had to pick the ‘hot’ topics. Thanks for the kind words!

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