“Over a long enough period, the survival rate drops to zero.” —Tyler Durden
The Texans had the NFL’s worst running game in the past two years. Their battles go way beyond that. Arian Foster was their last rusher to go over 1200 yards and it happened at the very beginning of the Bill O’Brien era. Carlos Hyde barely eclipsed the 1,000-yard barrier in 2019, but otherwise that entire span lacked a good rushing offense.
So, the Texans will likely draft a running back at some point. This is where conventional wisdom and real statistics collide. This column is about the debate between the two. In a contest between wisdom and statistics, I will almost always choose statistics. So I dove deep into running backs drafted since 2002 and came away with some interesting information to pass on.
Before diving into various numbers, I should take a minute and evaluate our methods. I only included the first four rounds. The reasons should be obvious, but this fuels our particular draft setup. We have two first rounds, two third rounds and two fourth rounds. So it would seem that he would be more likely to be there. Besides, the results will also confirm why. I took two stats for each ball carrier. I calculated the number of Pro Bowls they were elected to and their WAV (weighted average value).
The ball carriers are divided into groups. Fullbacks with a career WAV below ten are labeled as misses (those with zero are busts). Backs with a career WAV of 25 or more are considered hits. Backs with a WAV of 50 or more are considered circuits. Now that we understand that, let’s look at the raw data.
20 years of ladies
First round: 42 players, 45 pro bowls, 29 hits, 12 home runs, 3 misses, 1 bust, 36.86 WAV
Second round: 50 players, 28 pro bowls, 19 hits, 6 home runs, 14 misses, 2 busts, 23.90 WAV
Third round: 47 players, 22 professional bowls, 12 hits, 5 homers, 19 misses, 2 busts, 19.96 WAV
Fourth round: 78 players, 18 pro bowls, 12 hits, 1 home run, 47 misses, 10 busts, 11.45 WAV
We should start with our usual caveats and warnings. The only bust was Travis Etienne and that was simply because he hasn’t played yet. The moment he hits a ball in a live game, he is likely transferred to the miss pile. It should be noted that the way WAV is calculated tends to work against younger players. It takes a minimum of three seasons to reach a full range of value. So players like Jonathan Taylor are considered hits, but not home runs because they didn’t put in the time.
Yet when we look at numbers like these, we are looking at the aggregate. Obviously, early rounds are much more successful than other rounds and that’s to be expected. However, this goes against conventional wisdom. Conventional wisdom says you can bring your star back later in the draft. The numbers above seem to indicate that you CAN get your star back later in the draft, but in all likelihood you won’t if you wait too long.
Something special also happened in the fourth round. The pro bowls that were found were billed to guys who really weren’t full-time running backs at the NFL level. They may have been drafted as running backs, but they’ve proven themselves on special teams. The best running back of the round by WAV was Darren Sproles. Sproles was at least a part-time running back while also being a special teams star and third back. Thus, the results would be even more skewed if we removed these players.
Many of you might think all those fancy numbers are great, but let’s get back to reality. Sure. So what we’re going to do is take running backs who have gained 1,200 or more yards in a season since 2002. To get the full picture, we’ll include the total number of those seasons for players drafted before 2002, just so that their career can be fully focused. .
By my count, 62 different running backs have gained 1,200 or more yards in a season since 2002. 26 of those running backs have done so in three or more seasons. I think we could easily say those running backs got hit in the draft. Eleven of those running backs were selected in the first round, 8 of them were selected in the third round, and two of them were selected in the third round. Interestingly, three of them were undrafted free agents, so there were only two takes left in the fourth round or later.
Ten backs have gained 1,200 or more yards in two or more seasons. Some of these players are still active (eg Derrick Henry and Nick Chubb). Four of them were taken in the first round, three in the second round and two in the third round. This list also includes one undrafted free agent. Thus, of the 36 backs in question, we see the following:
1st round: 15
2nd round: 11
3rd round: 4
4th round: 1
Undrafted Free Agents: 4
In other words, you’re more likely to land an undrafted free agent than anything below the third round. I counted nine potential Hall of Famers in this group of 36 guys. Six of the nine guys were first round players. Does that mean we should draft a running back in the first round? I would say no. It clearly looks like the second round could be the right place to take one. Every draft is different and past results aren’t always an indicator of future performance, but if the Texans want a cowbell, they probably can’t afford to wait until the fourth round.