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By the numbers: Free agent running backs do not give teams good value

“Runningbacks can start day one and produce.”

“Don’t pay a runningback.  They only last three years on average.”

“You can find one anywhere, even with a mid or late round pick.”

“Guys off the street do well in the NFL all the time.

“Teams that sign these guys to second or third contracts are idiots.”

 

You’ve heard all of the popular maxims about runningbacks.  Chances are you’ve said at least one.  Most people believe them to be true.  That’s why they’re maxims.

Heck, even the Raiders director of player personnel, Joey Clinkscales said, "you can always get a running back in the later rounds" in an interview just a week ago.

I’ve been thinking about these things as the draft approaches.  Plenty of teams are in need of runningbacks.  Should they have nibbled at free agency or look to the draft?  Maxims would suggest looking to the draft.

Certainly there is anecdotal evidence to support these maxims.  Arian Foster was undrafted and Alfred Morris was a late round pick.  Doug Martin and Morris were rookies last year and both cracked the top five rushers.

 To go about this logically, I’m going to break the issue into two major sections.  Part one will deal with the maxims about older runningbacks.  Part two (to be posted separately) will look at maxims regarding early-drafted and late-drafted rushers.

Part 1:

How much faith should teams place in rookies / draft picks and how old is too old?

 Instant Production

The first part of this is fairly simple.  If runningbacks don’t need an acclimation period in the NFL, there should be a decent number of them producing right away.  If this holds true, the draft is the one and only place to find a runningback.  This is what the maxims argues.

It sounds great in theory but actual production doesn’t support this.  Thirteen backs have been drafted in the first round over the past five years.  Only two of them, Chris Johnson and Doug Martin, crossed the 1,000 yard mark in their first year.  Only Doug Martin was a full-time back.

To come at it from a different angle – of the seventy-nine 1,000 yard seasons during the past five years, only six were done in a player’s rookie year.  To put that in perspective, the same number of 1,000 yard seasons came from players in their ninth year or after.

 Sustained Production

Tailbacks may not be instantly productive, but maxims state that careers only average three years.  If you believe the maxims, the draft is still the place to find a runningback.  Second contracts are bad investments because they’ll come after three years.  Third contracts are even worse.

Again this is a great theory but actual production says otherwise.  Only thirty-two of the seventy-nine 1,000 yard seasons were achieved in a given player’s first three years.  The other 59%+ came after the three year bright line suggested by maxims.

In fact, more seasons came in year five or after (thirty-six) than came in year three or earlier (thirty-two).  Evidence shows that good players continue to produce.  Logic states that bad players never really start producing.  The three year average is for all players.  It includes all sorts and sundry bad players.  It is an irrelevant number.

If you are looking for a better number to use, the one to shoot for is year five.  Players don’t tend to produce in year one, but they pick up in year two and continue on through year five.  At that point the number of 1,000 yard seasons produced takes a hit and keeps going down.  Eleven of seventy-nine seasons came in a player’s second year, fifteen in the third, eleven more in the fourth and thirteen in year five.  Year six drop to seven and it goes down from there. 

 Crazy People

Maxims argue that teams signing runningbacks to second deals are crazy.  If this is right, free agency is definitely not the right place to find a starting tailback.

To assess the maxims on this front, let’s look at a few lists.  The first list is leading rushers from 2012.

 

Each of the top ten backs ran for over 1,200 yards in 2012.  Three of the top five and five of the top ten rushers in 2012 were on their second contracts.  Another was on his third contract.  Actual production trends towards second contracts.

 The second list is total yards from scrimmage in 2012.

The second list is pretty similar to the first except that one rookie contract, Stevan Ridley, dropped off and another second contract, Ray Rice, moved into the top ten.  Three of the top five and six of the top ten yards from scrimmage leaders (among runningbacks) were on their second contract in 2012.  A seventh player in the top ten was on his third contract.  Again, actual production in the NFL defied the maxims.

Make a list of the top ten runningbacks in the NFL.  If your list doesn’t include a majority of second or third contract players, you’re doing it wrong.

In just the past two years teams have signed Adrian Peterson, Chris Johnson, Marshawn Lynch, Arian Foster, DeAngelo Williams, Matt Forte, Frank Gore, Ray Rice, LeSean McCoy, and Jamaal Charles to second contracts.  Maurice Jones-Drew got a second contract in 2009 while Steven Jackson and Michael Turner were signed in 2008.  That’s more or less a who’s who list of all top non-rookie performers in the past few years.

Good backs get second deals.  Rushers in second deals produce.  This makes sense, as most second contracts will have been signed before year five and top backs produce well past year five.

Free Agency

The majority of top tier production at runningback in 2012 came from players in their second contracts.  This would seem to indicate that free agency is a viable option for finding a lead back, but is that true?

Not all players hit free agency before they get a second contract.  In fact, most good runningbacks will stay with their original team until respective careers are essentially over.  If you look at the second list above, note how many of the top backs resigned with the team that drafted them.  Adrian Peterson, Jamaal Charles, Arian Foster (undrafted free agent to Houston), Ray Rice, Chris Johnson, and Frank Gore are all playing for the teams who drafted them.  Only Marshawn Lynch is with a different team and that came with some extenuating circumstances.

Buffalo likes drafting runningbacks high.  Willis McGahee (1st round pick) was replaced by Marshawn Lynch (1st round pick) and has continued on to have a viable career afterwards.  Marshawn Lynch was replaced by CJ Spiller (1st round pick) and has now continued on better than before.  CJ Spiller was more or less replaced by Fred Jackson (guy off the street) until the latter got injured.  The Buffalo shuffle aside, Marshawn Lynch simply had too many run-ins with the law.  His exit from Bills-town was reasonable.  He is, after all, a founding member of my “don’t draft stupid” club in fantasy football.

Finding a premier runningback via free agency is a rare event.  Lynch didn’t even taste the free agency rainbow.  He was traded.   Going back to 2011, the aforementioned Willis McGahee went to his third team and produced almost 1,200 yards while Michael Turner was a free agency pickup continuing to produce.  Only Michael Turner was a FA pickup from the top ten rushers of 2010.  Thomas Jones and Cedric Benson each cracked the top ten of 2009 and each was essentially finished as a top ten runningback (Ricky Williams was traded to Miami).  In 2008 it was just Michael Turner and Thomas Jones (Clinton Portis was traded to Washington).

The full list for the past five years is Thomas Jones, Michael Turner, Cedric Benson and Willis McGahee.  Less than one player per year is not a good rate.

Actual production paints a pretty clear picture.  Second contracts are fine but smart teams should distinguish between second contracts from second contracts for free agents from other teams.  The real key to finding a top runningback is to draft him and then resign him if he merits it.  Don’t resign someone else’s cast-off unless you’re feeling really lucky.

About Asher Mathews

Head writer for TFDS Sports, covering the Oakland Raiders and NFL at large. Proud Purdue alum. Follow me on Twitter!

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