new hope

A New (False) Hope: Trent Richardson

Richardson

Recently I was given a chance to read an advance copy of Game Plan, a book written by the author of the Fantasy Douche website (probably the best football/fantasy website out there that’s operated by a single person). Game Plan very successfully argues for a paradigm shift in the way football organizations are run. At less than the cost of adding guacamole to your burrito, buying the book is a no-brainer, and if you’re a K.C. fan, consider buying a copy to pass on to Scott Pioli as well.

A key premise in Game Plan revolves around inefficiencies in the way teams acquire and deploy running backs. As frequent readers know, I’ve been working on a series of articles for Pro Football Focus that look at potential ways in which teams might be emphasizing the wrong RB skills. With the draft approaching, it’s worth taking a quick look at whether Game Plan is right and what that means for draft prospects like Trent Richardson.

Trent Richardson is often referred to as the best RB prospect since Adrian Peterson, but that’s almost certainly meaningless. After all, if Purple Jesus is mildly overrated and doesn’t fit the profile of a runner that most closely matches what contemporary NFL teams need, what should we make of the Richardson comparison?

Why RBs are Still Overvalued in the NFL Draft

Jeff Fisher has recently said that he doesn’t buy into the devaluing of the RB position. This could make him a contrarian, or it could make him a smoke-screener, or it could make him an idiot. Fisher is probably not an idiot. After all, he often explained the best way to beat the Colts was to sit back and let them run the ball. Hard to believe he’d want to arrange his whole game plan around a strategy he’s admitted is sub-optimal.

No, the contrarian viewpoint is a little different. It states that even with the ongoing devaluation of the RB position, RBs are still vastly overvalued at draft time. The reasons why are legion.

  • RB quality no longer has much correlation with NFL wins.
  • RBs suffer a higher rate of injuries than the NFL at large and have short shelf lives.
  • NFL teams are not good at evaluating RBs in a general sense.
  • NFL teams are not good at understanding which RB skills are important in a particular sense.
  • History shows no value to selecting a Top 10 RB.

All of these points are relatively easy to prove individually. I’m going to focus on history in this article.

Since 1990, twenty-two backs have been taken in the Top 10 of the NFL Draft. In the five years after selecting a Top 10 RB, those teams finished 765-915 (46%) while being outscored by over two thousand points.

In some ways, that shouldn’t be surprising. While good teams occasionally get to pick in the Top 10 because of a trade or a decisive injury, most of the teams that pick that high are not very good. A 46% winning percentage in the subsequent 5 years might actually be pretty impressive (especially if you don’t believe regression would have helped those teams’ records regardless of their approach).

Where the RB Draft Strategy Starts to Look Questionable

Strangely, in the RB’s rookie year, those squads finished 155-165 (48%), but in Year 5 – ostensibly the runner’s peak – the teams fell to 122-182 (40%). (This ignores Darren McFadden and C.J. Spiller who have not spent five years with their teams.)

There are three potential explanations for the declining fortunes of teams that use a top pick at RB.

1) It’s merely random variance.

2) The selection of a RB has no effect, other than perhaps indicating a front office that will make other bad decisions to torpedo the team.

3) Since RBs have little impact on team performance, using a high pick on a RB undermines your team depth and leads to declining records.

Where It Gets Really Ugly for RB Drafters

Of course, some teams are probably bad at RB evaluation or simply unlucky. Assuming that Trent Richardson is ‘the best prospect in the draft’ and that he won’t get hurt, it makes sense to break down the groups into successful and unsuccessful draft picks. If a healthy and dominant Richardson will help take pressure off of the signal callers in Cleveland or Tampa, we should see evidence of it here.

Teams which selected strong starting RBs: 371-429 (46%)

Teams which selected busts: 358-426 (46%)

Okay, so this is a pretty unbelievable result, even for an extreme RB skeptic like myself.

First, almost half of the runners were busts, which seems high, even now that everyone is inculcated with the idea that Top 10 picks aren’t that safe.

Second, whether or not the RB turned out to be good made absolutely no difference in the teams’ fortunes. (This strange result might be explained by the fact that draft position has no predictive impact on RB yards per carry; or it may be that whiffing at RB forces teams into a pass-heavy game plan that is more conducive to winning.)

Next time you hear that ‘RB has been devalued but Trent Richardson is the Second Coming of Adrian Peterson,’ just laugh. In order for Richardson to be worth selecting by Cleveland, Tampa Bay, or St. Louis, he would need to be a combination of Gale Sayers, Walter Payton, Bo Jackson, Barry Sanders, and God.

14 thoughts on “A New (False) Hope: Trent Richardson”

  1. Have you done a similar anaysis of teams who’ve selected players at other positions in the top ten? I’d think quarterbacks would have a significant effect on win percentage, but how much does a top-10 DE or WR or offensive lineman change a team’s fortunes?

    1. That’s one of the projects on my list. It seems QB should clearly have the biggest impact. Unlike RB, I would expect the difference in future records between teams that select a good starter and teams that select a bust to be miles apart.

      My guess is that teams which select positions that most directly relate to successfully passing and stopping the pass will end up with better records. The past couple of NFL seasons create a mild argument for devaluing LT as well, since numerous high-powered passing offenses have been able to scheme around blind side deficiency. It would be interesting to see what the draft numbers say.

    2. This is a very important point. One cannot conclude that the lack of team success after drafting a RB highly is due to position without seeing the results of drafting other positions highly as well. Frankly, there are so many variables to consider that I’m not sure analyzing team success based on a single draft pick is useful at all.

      1. I understand where you’re coming from, and as you’ll note, I did propose randomness as a possible explanation (though not the one I favor). It’s still striking though that teams which select running backs actually tend to get worse and that drafting a good RB seems to make no difference. Pro Football Reference currently has a chart up showing the value of each draft slot in terms of their stat Approximate Value, and the top picks are worth a lot more than others (which seems intuitive). If that’s the case, simply selecting a star at any position should have significant value over selecting a bust. For that not to be the case at RB (at least apparently), really is shocking.

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