A few weeks ago, I began to explore Darrell Henderson and his prospects for 2020. I went down a rabbit hole, and emerged researching how often teams spend significant draft capital on running backs. This can help us forecast not only how the NFL has evolved in its decision making, but also where this year’s top running backs will go.
After doing some cursory Darrell Henderson research (who we here at Apex are quite high on), a simple question came into my mind, “What are the chances that the Rams spend another high draft pick on a running back in this draft?” I had to find the likelihood of this actually happening and thanks to Pro Football Reference, I was able to gather the data I needed to find the answers I was looking for.
This study will seek to find out which teams are most likely and least likely to draft a premier running back in this draft, based on historical data. Let’s have some fun!
How Often Does A Team Draft A High Draft Capital RB After Doing So Previously
Below is every single running back selected in the top three rounds (this is how we will define “high draft capita of the NFL draft since 2000, separated by team.
|Team||Year||Rnd||Pick||Player||Pos||Years Between RBs|
*N/A = First running back taken since 2000
Here is the pie graph of when a team will draft another running back in rounds 1-3.
As we can see here, the most frequent year in which a team drafts another high capital RB is two years after doing so previously. Only 36% of all teams use high draft capital on their RB position within two years.
This should be somewhat promising news for RBs like Ronald Jones, Derrius Guice, Kerryon Johnson, and Rashaad Penny as their teams are unlikely to draft another high capital back for competition.
However, 52% of teams have added another running back with high draft capital by Year 3.
This means RBs like James Conner, Aaron Jones, Marlon Mack, Leonard Fournette, Alvin Kamara, Joe Mixon, and Christian McCaffrey have roughly a 50/50 chance of having high draft capital competition.
69% of all teams have replenished their running back room with a high profile RB after Year 4. Derrick Henry and Ezekiel Elliot fit this mold.
On average, an NFL team selects a high draft capital RB every 3.9 years. That means teams that haven’t drafted a running back in four years are more likely to draft a top running back in the draft.
What happens when we start to break it down specifically by draft round?
1st Round RBs
We see the average turnover for first-round running backs is 4.5 years, which is a slight jump from the overall 3.9 years. This makes sense, as the best RBs are drafted higher and likely are able to keep teams from needing to draft another RB for a longer period of time.
We see a similar breakdown here as we do in the original chart that includes all three rounds. The one main difference here is the very rare occurrence in which a 1st round RB saw another top RB drafted the year after at only 5%.
Still, we see 47% of the teams draft another RB within 3 years of drafting a 1st round RB. This seems like a surprisingly high number. However, only 54% draft another high draft capital RB within 4 years, opposed to 69% when including all rounds.
2nd Round RBs
The average turnover for a 2nd round RB is 4.2 years before a team drafts another top RB.
This breakdown here is fairly similar to the original one that includes all three rounds. There is a slight decrease here in the 3rd year, which is explained by an increase in the 4th year. We see 39% of all teams draft another high draft capital RB after just two seasons and 72% draft another one after four seasons.
3rd Round RBs
We see a bigger difference in turnover when we get to the 3rd round RBs. The average turnover is 3.2 years in this range, which is over a full year sooner than both the 1st and 2nd round RBs.
This makes sense as 3rd round RBs likely aren’t as good as the 1st and 2nd round RBs and naturally teams will want to get another premium asset to replace that player sooner.
We see 18% of teams draft another top RB just one season after spending a 3rd rounder on an RB! That number skyrockets to 60% if we adjust the timeline to three seasons.
Team Running Back Analysis
If we look at the entire NFL, how long has it been since each team drafted a running back in the first three rounds?
We see 21 teams who fall under the mean and while it means that these teams are less likely to high draft capital on a running back in this year’s draft, it doesn’t totally rule them out.
Let’s dive in and see where teams land to help give us a better understanding of which teams are more likely to draft a running back high.
|1 Year||2 Years||3 Years||4 Years||5 Years||6+ Years|
1 Year Since Last Drafted Top RB
|1st Round (5%)||2nd Round (13%)||3rd Round (18%)|
|Josh Jacobs, Raiders||Miles Sanders, Eagles||Darrell Henderson, Rams|
|David Montgomery, Bears|
|Devin Singletary, Bills|
|Damien Harris, Patriots|
|Alexander Mattison, Vikings|
As we have seen, all these teams have a low probability to draft a top RB, but there are a few teams who have a slightly higher chance of drafting a running back.
The Raiders have a roughly 5% chance to draft a top RB in this draft due to them drafting Jacobs last year.
The Eagles have a 13% probability of drafting a top RB in this draft to pair with Sanders.
Each of the Bears, Patriots, Vikings, Rams, and Bills have an 18% chance of drafting another top RB. It is likely for each of these newly drafted RBs to move on without added competition this year.
The Bills only own two picks in the top 3 rounds and Singletary showed well last year. Singletary should be safe from strong competition from a top rookie in this draft but again, we can’t rule it out.
Let’s not forget the Rams traded up for Darrell Henderson in last year’s draft and that he’s a really good player. The Rams now own four picks in the top three rounds and considering some of their salary cap disasters, it seems unlikely for them to use one of their premium picks on a running back. Regardless, they are still a team to monitor.
After using a top-three round pick on an RB in back-to-back years, the Patriots seem more unlikely to draft a running back than the odds indicate. The same is true for the Vikings, who selected Alexander Mattison behind star running back Dalvin Cook.
The Bears didn’t see much production out of Montgomery last year but history suggests he won’t have much competition in this draft. The tea leaves suggest Montgomery will continue his role as the leading rusher while Tarik Cohen contributes in the passing game.
These running backs who were drafted using high draft capital last season are likely safe assets, in terms of probability. If you see owners wary about potential competition, then this is the time to buy low.
2 Years Since Last Drafted Top RB
|1st Round (27%)||2nd Round (39%)||3rd Round (42%)|
|Saquon Barkley, Giants||Nick Chubb, Browns||Royce Freeman, Broncos|
|Rashaad Penny, Seahawks||Ronald Jones, Bucs|
|Kerryon Johnson, Lions|
|Derrius Guice, Redskins|
Across all three rounds, we see that after the 2nd year is when a team is most likely to draft another top running back over any other year.
Despite drafting Saquon Barkley and Rashaad Penny in the 1st round, the Giants and Seahawks each have a 27% probability of drafting a top RB in this class. While nobody is really mentioning the Giants as a team who could be in the market for a running back, it makes sense considering the depth chart is weak behind Barkley (as we discovered last year when he was injured).
With Rashaad Penny tearing his ACL at the end of last year and Chris Carson suffering a fractured hip, the Seahawks could be a team that goes after a high draft capital RB this year. It doesn’t hurt that they have four picks in the first three rounds.
The Browns, Lions, Bucs, and Redskins each hold a 39% probability of drafting a top RB in this class.
The Browns seem less likely than that number indicates due to having Kareem Hunt backing up Nick Chubb. They arguably have the league’s top running back duo.
With Kerryon Johnson’s injury history and the fact that this coaching staff didn’t draft him, it’s possible the Lions pick a top RB in this draft. They are armed with four picks in the top three rounds and the RB depth chart behind Kerryon is weak. We know when healthy, Kerryon is an exciting back and he’s going to be entering next season at only 23 so even if they do draft another RB, it’s not all hopeless for him. It would speak volumes about the Lions’ feelings towards Johnson if they abstain from drafting another RB this April.
Ronald Jones is in a similar position with the Bucs. Like Kerryon, he will be entering next season at 23 years old and the coaching staff didn’t handpick him. Arians recently mentioned the Bucs desire to add a pass-catching RB through the draft or free agency. With Peyton Barber leaving, there is a clear lack of depth at the RB position so it seems likely they add one – obviously, that could be later in the draft. While Jones displayed solid improvement last year, there should be some slight concern for the Bucs to add a top RB with one of their three picks. Jones’ questionable pass-blocking isn’t an excellent fit for Tom Brady.
The Redskins RB room is deep with Derrius Guice, Bryce Love, Peyton Barber, Chris Thompson, and J.D. McKissic. This seems like a team that doesn’t need to address the RB position but it likely comes down to how they view Derrius Guice, who has shown out well in his limited game action. They absolutely could draft a top RB but their loaded running back room indicates they’re likely done adding RBs this year. We should consider Guice safe this year as the Redskins only have two picks in the top three rounds.
Let’s not quit Derrius Guice just yet.
There are 5 other RBs since 2000 in their 1st 2 seasons to have:
-1k or less ru yds
-weigh 210+ lbs.
-drafted 1st or 2nd round
-over 40 ru yds/game
3 of the 5 hit a RB1 season while a 4th looks primed to hit.
He’s never been cheaper. pic.twitter.com/gYzzCR8bAP
— Dalton Kates (@DaltonGuruFF) February 21, 2020
With the Broncos adding Melvin Gordon in free agency, they’re unlikely to draft a high draft capital running back in the draft. They boast one of the best RB rotations in the league with Gordon, Phillip Lindsay, and Royce Freeman.
3 Years Since Last Drafted Top RB
|1st Round (47%)||2nd Round (49%)||3rd Round (60%)|
|Leonard Fournette, Jaguars||Joe Mixon, Bengals||D'Onta Foreman, Texans|
|Christian McCaffery, Panthers||James Conner, Steelers|
|Alvin Kamara, Saints|
|Kareem Hunt, Chiefs|
We see the odds increase a bit more for the survivors in this cohort especially for the 1st round RBs.
Leonard Fournette and Christian McCaffrey each have roughly a 47% chance to have a top RB added to their backfield. This would actually make sense for both of these teams considering the weak depth charts behind both Fournette and McCaffrey. If either team is worried about spending money on a big contract for either of them after this season, the draft is a cheap backup plan. The Jaguars are little more likely considering they have four picks in the top three rounds, but both teams are worth monitoring.
Joe Mixon has a roughly 49% chance to see the Bengals draft a high capital running back in this draft. The Bengals already invested a couple of late-round picks into running backs last year and considering they have the top pick in each round, it would be a little surprising to see them use a top 65 pick on another back.
The Texans just recently traded for David Johnson and still have Duke Johnson on their depth chart. Knowing that it’s likely David Johnson isn’t the same player he once was and the Texans unwillingness to use Duke Johnson, it would seem that the Texans could be in the market for a top RB in this draft. While that could be true, Bill O’Brien may think David Johnson is the answer considering what was given up to acquire him. The Texans still remain a team to monitor in the draft for a top RB with their two picks.
The Steelers appear likely to invest high draft capital into a running back as 60% of teams in their scenario have done so. On one hand, James Conner was amazing in his second year becoming an RB1, but this will also be his last year on his rookie contract. The Steelers only have two picks in the top three rounds and have used a 4th round pick in back to back years on an RB. We shouldn’t be surprised to see the Steelers take a top RB, but considering their limited resources we may see them look at other options at the top of the draft.
The Saints have are also a team in which historically would have a 60% chance of selecting a top RB in this draft. Considering they have star Alvin Kamara and Latavius Murray, it would seem they don’t need RB help. But like all of the teams in this cohort, Kamara is a year away from free agency if they don’t pick up their team option. The Saints are a lesser mentioned team who could address the RB position, but it’s important to keep in mind they only have two picks in the top three rounds.
The Chiefs are the most tantalizing landing spot for any top RB prospect. While Damien Williams has looked solid when on the field, they likely aren’t committed to him considering they aren’t paying him much money and he just turned 28 years old. In addition, the Chiefs have a weak running back room behind Williams. With the Chiefs owning three picks in the top three rounds, we should view them as a likely candidate to draft a top RB in this class.
4 Years Since Last Drafted Top RB
|Round 1 (54%)||Round 2 (72%)||Round 3 (78%)|
|Ezekiel Elliot, Cowboys||Derrick Henry, Titans||Kenyan Drake, Dolphins|
If a team still hasn’t turned over their RB position by the 4th year, we start to see a nice jump in both 2nd and 3rd round RBs turnover rates.
The Cowboys are probably less likely to draft a running back than what their 54% odds suggests. With Ezekiel Elliot being one of the premier RBs in the NFL and Tony Pollard having an efficient and promising rookie year, it would seem the Cowboys have a very strong 1-2 punch at RB. They have three picks in the top three rounds and would be a mild shock to see them draft a top RB.
According to history, the Titans have a 72% chance to invest high capital in the running back position after four years. With Derrick Henry being franchised tag and both sides being “committed to working towards a long-term extension”, the Titans are clearly happy with the top of their RB depth chart. With Dion Lewis leaving in free agency, this leaves a massive void behind Henry as the Titans would have one of the thinnest RB depth charts in the league if the injury bug struck. The Titans are surely a team we should be looking to see draft an RB in some capacity in this draft. With three picks in the top three rounds, it’s possible the Titans use one of those selections to shore up depth behind Henry – especially because they pick later in each round after reaching the AFC Championship game.
The Dolphins last drafted Drake in the 3rd round. 78% of teams in their position have turned over their RB spot by now. The Dolphins appear to be one of the most likely teams to draft a top RB in this draft with their combo of early-round picks and lack of talent at the position. With six picks in the top three rounds, we should be shocked if the Dolphins didn’t add a top RB to their team in this draft.
5 Years Since Last Drafted Top RB
|1st Round (72%)||2nd Round (80%)||3rd Round (83%)|
|Melvin Gordon, Chargers||N/A||David Johnson, Cardinals|
|Tevin Coleman, Falcons|
The surviving teams up to this point see a much bigger jump in 1st round RB turnover. This is mainly because most of the 2nd and 3rd round RBs have been replaced by this time. In addition, 1st round RB contracts have ended at this point.
The Chargers are an interesting team at the RB position. After signing Austin Ekeler to a four-year extension this offseason, the Chargers would seem content at the top of their RB depth chart with Austin Ekeler and Justin Jackson as one of the more underrated 1-2 punches in the NFL. We know they are both very good backs and are capable of carrying the load for the Chargers next year, but do the Chargers feel the same way? Apparently they do. The Chargers are still “very high” on Justin Jackson and don’t expect to draft a RB until the late rounds of this draft. We should still remember that Austin Ekeler is on a team-friendly contract and Justin Jackson has less than 100 total career touches to his name. While there should be optimism that the Chargers pass on a top RB in this draft, they are still a team to monitor with three picks in the top three rounds.
Justin Jackson is an intruiging under the radar RB.
-Only RB with 30+ touches to have a juke rate over 30% in each of the past 2 seasons.
-1 of 5 RBs to have 1k+ ru yds and 20+ rec in every college season. (Joined by Saquon, Dalvin, and Dobbins)
Good late round RB pick. pic.twitter.com/1Umk21XyDF
— Dalton Kates (@DaltonGuruFF) April 3, 2020
The Cardinals are one of the most intriguing teams when it comes to the RB position. After trading away David Johnson, they immediately signed Kenyan Drake to the transition tag to a one year deal. In the short term, the RB position looks fine with Kenyan Drake and Chase Edmonds forming a nice 1-2 punch. Knowing Drake is only on a one year deal, it would make a ton of sense for the Cardinals to invest in a running back. Kliff Kingsbury even said he “would like to have three RBs to deploy during the regular season”. The Cardinals only have two picks in the top three rounds after they traded for Hopkins, but they are absolutely a team to monitor when it comes to adding a top running back in this draft.
Add the Falcons at or near the top of the list in terms of teams that are likely to draft a top RB in this draft. Signing Todd Gurley was a solid move to shore up the RB position in the short term as they inked him to a one-year deal, but we know Gurley isn’t the same player he once was and the contract reflects that. The Falcons are clearly in the hunt for a running back in this draft as they have “met” with all of the top RB prospects in this draft. Locked in with three picks in the top three rounds, it would be a shocker to see the Falcons walk out of this draft without a top rookie RB.
6 or More Years Since Last Drafted Top RB
|1st Round (67%-100%)||2nd Round (80%-100%)||3rd Round (89%-100%)|
|Donald Brown, Colts||Eddie Lacy, Packers||Bernard Pierce, Ravens|
|Carlos Hyde, 49ers||Shonn Greene, Jets|
These are the true survivors who have found methods to acquire running backs either outside the organization, through late-round picks, or undrafted free agents. These teams have put themselves in rare territory by surviving this long, but this also makes them more likely to draft a top RB this year.
The Colts are tied for the longest streak of 11 straight years without drafting a running back in the top three rounds. When we take a look at their depth chart we see two capable running backs in Marlon Mack and Nyheim Hines. Marlon Mack has been surprisingly productive the past two seasons on the ground with over 2,000 combined rushing yards but has failed to do much in the receiving game. Nyheim Hines has quietly scraped together 107 receptions in his first two seasons as a pro and put himself in some very good company.
Nyheim Hines is 1 of 16 RBs in the last 20 years to have over 100 receptions through two seasons in the NFL.
Every single player on this list has finished with at least one season over 220+ PPR points.
With Phillip Rivers in town, Hines has Tarik Cohen-like upside. pic.twitter.com/YqAU8fuKIb
— Dalton Kates (@DaltonGuruFF) April 1, 2020
Together they complement each other well, but neither possesses true three-down workhorse abilities and the Colts could look to address that in this draft with a top RB. With three picks in the first three rounds, the Colts are another team to watch in this year’s draft.
The 49ers are a fun landing spot and it has been six years since they drafted a top RB. With a trio of backs in Raheem Mostert, Tevin Coleman, and Matt Breida, the 49ers have solid depth and each of these RBs brings something to the table. While Mostert played lights out last year when he touched the ball, he will be 28 this upcoming year and has less than 200 total career touches. Coleman is currently on the last year of his deal and the team could save just under $3 million if they choose to cut him this offseason. Breida has flashed in his opportunities throughout his career but has yet to garner a feature role. It’s clear that the 49ers could use a top RB, but they only have two picks in the top three rounds and both happen to be in the 1st round. Pick 13 is a bit high for an RB, but we usually see at least one RB get drafted in the first round each year and pick 31 is absolutely in the range of outcomes for the 49ers. The 49ers are a team to monitor for a top RB, but their picks, it seems unlikely. This makes it likely to remain Mostert, Coleman, and Breida for this upcoming season.
Green Bay last drafted a top RB seven years ago when Eddie Lacy was selected in the 2nd round. We know they currently roster star Aaron Jones who finished as the RB2 last season and seem set at the position for now. But both Aaron Jones and Jamaal Williams are in the last year of their Packers’ contracts and it would make a ton of sense for them to not only compliment Jones, but to have a future plan in place – should they let Jones walk. Armed with three picks in the top three rounds, the Packers are a team to monitor for a top RB in this draft.
The Ravens last drafted a RB two years ago with the selection of Lamar Jackson in the 1st round. Jokes aside, the Ravens currently deploy a three-headed committee with the likes of Mark Ingram, Gus Edwards, and Justice Hill. Mark Ingram will be playing next season at age 31 and is a player who should see a decline in production next season. Edwards is a solid two-down back but doesn’t seem to pose a threat to ever become a high-end starter. Justice Hill was an intriguing prospect and still has promise if given more opportunity, but likely won’t ever become a workhorse due to his size. Armed with four picks in the top three rounds with few needs, Baltimore is another team to watch in this draft.
The Jets are tied with the Colts for the longest streak without a top RB since 2009 when they selected Shonn Greene in the third round. As we are aware, the Jets spent a pretty penny to sign Le’Veon Bell off the street last year and he will be entering next season at age 28. In the short term, it seems the Jets would be committed to Bell considering they are paying him $15.5 million this year, but next year they could cut him and save $9.5 million. Whether the Jets have the foresight to draft a top RB in the face of the inevitable cap monstrosity that Bell carries against the team remains to be seen. The depth chart behind Bell is very thin and they could absolutely use more running back talent and a starter for as soon as 2021. The Jets do own four picks in the top three rounds and are a prime candidate to draft a top RB with one of those picks.
With the talent of top RBs in this class being one of the best in recent memory, we should keep an open mind about which teams could select a top RB in this draft. Some of the candidates stick out like a sore thumb, but other teams have interesting cases that could be made for drafting one. Knowing that there will likely be one or two surprise teams to draft a top running back, this could lead to some unideal landing spots for some rookies at least in Year 1.
I hope you all are as excited about this draft as I am. I just can’t wait to see where all the pieces of the puzzle end up and to really start to get on with rookie drafts.
If you’ve made it this far, thank you so much for reading. As always I hope you learned something new like I did and this can help you make calculated moves in your dynasty leagues before the NFL draft.
Make sure to follow me on twitter @DaltonGuruFF for daily tweets about these rookies, upcoming players, and just fun stats in general.
I hope each and every one of you and your families are staying healthy during this pandemic and using this time to focus on the positives.