After an off-season of intriguing moves, the value of the running back position is once again in the spotlight. Some teams have cut ties with star backs, like the Los Angeles Rams did with Todd Gurley, whereas others have chosen to invest in extensions. With a deep talent pool at the position available in the upcoming 2020 NFL Draft, which teams can we expect to take a running back?
The success of the 2017 NFL Draft class
Three years ago, Christian McCaffrey was selected by the Carolina Panthers with the eighth overall pick of the 2017 NFL Draft. After a standout season in 2019, the Panthers rewarded him with a $64 million contract extension, making him the highest-paid running back in the history of the NFL.
Within the same 2017 Draft class, 253 picks went by before Austin Ekeler became an undrafted free agent addition of the Los Angeles Chargers. Like McCaffrey, Ekeler had his 2019 efforts rewarded with a four year, $24 million contract extension that paved the way for Melvin Gordon’s exit from LA.
That 2017 Draft class is a good barometer to use to indicate who should take a running back in the 2020 NFL Draft. McCaffrey and Ekeler have bucked an ever-growing trend that suggests running backs are good for one contract before moving onto the next. Both have shown that they can be effective as pass-catchers, adding value to their game over the traditional downhill thumpers.
Using a combination of Pro Football Network’s Offensive Share Metric (OSM) and NFL Next Gen Stats (NGS), these are the teams, based on the contribution of their 2017 running back selections, who could take a running back in the 2020 NFL Draft.
The Indianapolis Colts have arguably the best offensive line in the NFL. They traded the 13th pick of the 2020 NFL Draft to the San Francisco 49ers for DeForest Buckner to solidify an already strong defensive unit. They added fullback Roosevelt Nix in free agency, and after 471 rushing attempts in 2019, the fifth-most in the league, they’re set up for an old-fashioned run at the Super Bowl.
Ground and pound.
However, their running back room isn’t set up to sustain that approach.
Marlon Mack was their fourth-round selection in the 2017 NFL Draft. He became the Colts lead back with the departure of Frank Gore in 2018 and was widely praised after a 1000+ yard season last year.
Mack has been inconsistent in his time with the Colts
Despite that production, he was only our 43rd ranked running back with an overall OSM grade of 9.76. Mack has been inconsistent over his three years with the Colts. He had an overall grade of 10.99 (RB47) in his rookie year, followed by 16.32 (RB17) in 2018.
Although he broke 1000 yards in 2019, his average yards per carry dropped from 4.7 to 4.4 from 2018 to 2019, according to NGS. Mack’s efficiency also dropped from 3.5 yards to 3.94 yards. Efficiency is measured by how many yards a player travels to pick up a yard.
As a result, the Colts turned their fifth-highest rushing attempts into just the seventh-highest rushing yards in the league. They only ranked 11th in rushing touchdowns and 12th in yards per attempt.
They’re a prime candidate to take a running back in the 2020 NFL Draft. Wisconsin’s Jonathan Taylor is a leading contender in several mock draft scenarios.
To say that 2019 wasn’t a vintage year for the Pittsburgh Steelers running game would be overly generous. They ranked 29th in rushing yards (1447), 30th in yards per attempt (3.7), 30th in touchdowns (7), and gave up the third most fumbles in the NFL, coughing up the ball 30 times. It couldn’t have been much worse.
The Steelers were confident enough in their ability on the ground that they allowed Le’Veon Bell to leave rather than pay him. They had drafted James Conner in 2017, and in 2018 he repaid that faith with 973 rushing yards, 12 touchdowns, at 4.5 yards per carry. He was our RB11 with an overall grade of 16.94.
However, 2019 saw a drop off in Conner’s effectiveness as a running back. He earned only a 10.88 OSM grade, which saw him ranked as our RB38. Any grade under 10 indicates a contribution detrimental to the performance of the offense. His efficiency and yards per carry dropped from 2018, despite facing a lower percentage of defenses with eight men in the box.
His 2019 season was hampered by injury, and Benny Snell Jr. excelled when called into duty, earning an overall OSM grade of 20.32. That was good enough for our fourth-ranked running back.
I would expect to see a greater role for Snell in 2020, and hopefully, a fully fit Conner can rebound from 2019. However, the Steelers should still take a running back in the 2020 NFL Draft to bolster a running back room that couldn’t get the job done in 2019.
While McCaffrey has shown enough in three years to be rewarded with a second contract, the jury is still out on the running back who was taken ahead of him in the 2017 NFL Draft. The Jacksonville Jaguars selected Leonard Fournette out of LSU with the fourth overall pick just three years ago, but could still look to find his replacement in the 2020 NFL Draft.
Fournette is an interesting case, especially when compared to McCaffrey. He has graded higher by OSM than the Panthers running back every year since they were drafted. Fournette has been consistently in our top-10 running backs, whereas McCaffrey’s RB14 rank from 2019 was the highest of his short career. There isn’t a huge disparity between their rushing totals, with McCaffrey racking up 2920 rushing yards since 2017, and Fournette rushing for 2631.
Fournette’s OSM trend should raise some eyebrows
Despite consistently ranking in the top-10 running backs, the OSM grade trend for Fournette should give the Jaguars cause for concern.
In his rookie year, he received a 24.73 grade, good enough for RB3. In an injury and suspension hit 2018, his grade dropped off to 18.49, which was still good enough for RB4. Then in 2019, a year he was fully healthy, his grade dropped off again. Although it was only a slight drop to 18.23, it caused him to slip to RB10. You would expect to have seen him improve his grade when fully fit, and the fact he didn’t is what should give the Jaguars cause for concern.
With an overall downward trend, it would make sense for the Jaguars to take a running back in the 2020 NFL Draft. It might not appear to be the most pressing need, but with quality depth in this draft class, they will still be able to pick up an instant impact back from round two and beyond. They could even replace one LSU running back with another in Clyde Edwards-Helaire.
The 2020 NFL Draft is under a week away, and several teams may look to take a running back. The Kansas City Chiefs, Detroit Lions, and Tampa Bay Buccaneers are also teams that could use additional pieces at the position.
However, for the Colts, Jaguars, and Steelers, they can start a new cycle by replacing their 2017 selection when they take a running back in the 2020 NFL Draft.