Photo by Washington Commanders
The real title of this article should be “No Day-Three Running Back Is Safe,” but that just simply doesn’t grab your attention in the same way, does it? In each of the past two seasons, a day-three drafted or undrafted, high-producing rookie running back has been replaced with a first or second round pick the following year. This article will attempt to reason these decisions by looking into the statistics. More importantly, I will use this information to predict similar moves in the 2023 draft.
The first case of this odd phenomena is Jacksonville back, James Robinson. Robinson signed with the Jaguars after going undrafted in 2020 and soon filled a desperate need at the position when former top-five pick, Leonard Fournette, was cut due to internal disputes with the organization. Thankfully, Robinson was able to hit the ground running, posting a more than serviceable 1000 yard season in 14 games. He also contributed in the passing offense, tallying nearly 50 receptions for over 300 yards. After an impressive rookie season, Robinson seemed to have secured his role as the lead back for the 2021 season. Unfortunately, this was not the case as the Jaguars selected Clemson running back Travis Etienne with the 25th overall pick, pairing nicely with college teammate Trevor Lawrence who was selected 1st overall earlier that night. Etienne’s ability to contribute to both the rushing and receiving offense effectively at high speeds granted him praise from scouts and fans alike. Sadly, Etienne wasn’t able to outrun the injury bug, missing his rookie campaign due to a significant Lisfranc injury in the preseason. Granted another opportunity to prove himself, Robinson put up another very solid season, this time with much less touches. Robinson improved his yards per carry by 0.19 and scored one more touchdown on the ground even after losing 70 carries from the year prior. After two strong years from the once undrafted stud, many speculated about who would be the lead back before the 2022 season, as Etienne returned to full health. Robinson started the season strong, but Etienne slowly took over the role as not only the lead back, but the only back. Two days after Etienne was given 80% of the snap share, James Robinson was traded to the Jets for a sixth-round pick. All things considered, this was a good return on investment for a player who joined the team as an undrafted free agent. Etienne continued the season as the Jaguars’ clear-cut RB1, posting solid numbers including five 100-yard performances in the final 11 games of the season. This effort, combined with those of his teammates, was good enough to push the Jaguars to the top of their division and into the playoffs.
Michael Carter was drafted with the 107th pick (4th round) of the 2021 NFL draft. On a rebuilding Jets team with a weak offense, Carter was mainly drafted as a depth piece and a player to potentially help ease the NFL transition for rookie quarterback and 2nd overall pick Zach Wilson. Initially starting the season in a committee with veteran teammates Ty Johnson and Tevin Coleman, Carter quickly took over the role of RB1. He played over 50% of snaps in six straight games from week 4 to week 11 when he suffered an ankle sprain that would sideline him for the subsequent three games. Carter finished the season with 639 yards on the ground on 147 attempts in 14 games, good enough for a strong 4.35 yards per carry (19th among running backs with a minimum of 6.25 rushing attempts per team game). His work in the passing game was even more important to his team, catching 36 passes for 325 yards. Carter frequently got open for checkdowns and tosses out to the flat, providing a safe escape option for a still developing Zach Wilson. Carter’s numbers in his rookie season were solid for a rookie back, but even more impressive considering the offense (or lack thereof) around him. With many positional needs to fill in the 2022 draft and many picks to do so, the Jets selected Iowa State running back Breece Hall with the 36th overall pick, their fourth selection of the draft, taking Ahmad “Sauce” Gardner (CB), Garrett Wilson (WR), and Jermaine Johnson (DE) all in the first round. Going into the draft, Hall was widely viewed as the top running back in the class due to his superior athleticism and explosivity. The Jets’ backfield started its 2022 campaign with roughly a 60-40 split of carries between Michael Carter and Breece Hall in favor of Carter. Similarly to Etienne, Hall began to take over the backfield in a hurry, playing over 65% of snaps from week 4 and on. Hall went on a tear in his first seven weeks, accumulating 681 yards from scrimmage along with 5 touchdowns to match. His efficiency was even better, posting 5.79 yards per carry. Hall was on pace to win offensive rookie of the year before his season was cut short in week 7 due to a torn ACL.
Once promising, efficient running backs on poor offenses, James Robinson and Michael Carter now both sit behind Breece Hall as backups on the Jets. Both players had seemingly satisfied each of their team’s needs at running back, yet were replaced soon after by highly drafted rookies in the following draft. In the NFL, simply satisfying a need at a particular position is not enough. Instead, teams need playmakers – guys who will truly elevate their position to the next level. So what exactly separated the later picks from the higher picks? Athleticism.
Relative Athletic Score (RAS), a statistic created by math nerd and fellow Lions fan Kent Lee Platte (@MathBomb), measures players’ athleticism based on several factors including physical traits such as height and weight as well as measurables like 40-yard-dash time. We’ll be using RAS to compare the two pairs of running backs discussed throughout the article as well as a couple other players who find themselves in similar situations following this year’s draft.
Comparison images courtesy of Eric Watkins (@StatManEric)
As can be very obviously noted from the fun colors and big numbers, Etienne and Hall’s superior overall speed, strength, agility, and frame are no match against the likes of Robinson and Carter. Although we could stop the investigation here, let’s take it a step further and analyze how this difference in athleticism factors into on-field output.
In the NFL, yards per carry (YPC) is often used to describe the efficiency of running backs. The graph above shows the positive relationship between RAS and YPC for the players we just talked about as well as some of this past year’s rookies we will be discussing.
Why does all of this Matter?
Ok so we get it: teams want more athleticism and a higher ceiling at the running back position and they aren’t afraid to use high picks to find such athleticism, regardless of whether they necessarily need the position. Why does this matter? The 2023 draft is packed with one of the more talented classes of running backs in recent history, Bijan Robinson and Jamhyr Gibbs headlining the group. At the same time, there are four players that find themselves in positions similar to James Robinson in 2021 and Michael Carter in 2022. Let’s take a look at these players along with their RAS.
Taken in the fifth round of the 2022 draft out of BYU, Tyler Allgeier went very under-the-radar in his first season with the Atlanta Falcons, posting a very respectable 1000-yard season on the ground. He came into an offense without much identity running the ball, Cordarrelle Patterson working very effectively as a receiving back. Allgeier averaged 4.93 yards per carry and scored 4 touchdowns from scrimmage, all while his offense underwent a quarterback change in the middle of the season.
Pierce was selected early in the fourth round by the Houston Texans and instantly found himself in competition for the wide-open starting job. Pierce quickly assumed the role, nearly rushing for a 1000-yard season of his own before he suffered an ankle injury in week 14, sidelining him for the remainder of the season. Pierce averaged 4.27 yards per carry, pairing with 5 touchdowns from scrimmage over the course of the season.
Brian Robinson Jr.
Brian Robinson Jr. was taken with the 98th overall pick, the second of two compensatory selections in the third round of the 2022 draft by the Washington Commanders. He is technically not a day-three pick or undrafted free agent, but then again this is my article and it’s close enough for me. Robinson came into the league in week 5, just a month after being shot in the knee. Instantly a fan-favorite for his resilience and comically large hats, Robinson became the other half of the Commanders’ two-headed rushing attack along with Antonio Gibson. Robinson fell just 3 yards short of an 800-yard season in 14 games, averaging 3.89 yards per carry, 0.2 more than Gibson.
Isiah Pacheco was selected by the Kansas City Chiefs with the 251st pick in the 2022 draft, just short of going undrafted. Pacheco provided a much needed dose of consistency to a disorganized Chiefs backfield. Clyde Edwards-Helaire has been relatively efficient over the course of his career, but once again had his season compromised due to injuries, playing his last game in week 11. 30-year-old(!) Jerrick Mckinnon has been alright on the ground, but has most effectively been used in the passing game this season. Pacheco’s 830 yards and 5 touchdowns on the ground on only 170 carries (4.88 ypc) filled a large hole in the Chief’s offense and assisted them in achieving the #1 seed in the AFC.
Who’s Safe and who’s Not?
First off, as we’ve seen in the past, none of these guys are safe. However, using some of the metrics we’ve discussed, I think some players are much safer than others. Ironically enough, the latest pick of the four, Isiah Pacheco, seems to be the safest to me. He has incredible speed and a very strong build, which has transferred to very impressive output on the field, averaging nearly 5 YPC. The Chiefs have 11 picks at their disposal this year, but most come in the form of day-three picks. Even so, it seems as if their early picks will best be utilized in improving the offensive line and defense. I can see a fourth-rounder being used to strengthen the depth at the position and/or replace Jerrick McKinnon, but this should not become much of a threat to Pacheco’s role as the primary rusher.
I also think Tyler Allgeier is relatively safe. His RAS is on the lower side, but he was very efficient on the ground. The Falcons should prioritize their many needs across the board in the draft, working as another factor in Allgeier’s favor. While I expect no day-one or day-two running back selections from the Falcons, I do expect them to take an RB with one of their two 4th-rounders.
Although Dameon Pierce’s preseason buzz and midseason successes may have been fun to watch, I think he has everything working against him. He has an alright RAS, but his injury troubles near the end of the season may and average YPC may be enough to show the Texans he’s not ‘the guy.’ It also doesn’t help that the team has 11 picks, including two first-rounders, five in the first three rounds. I could very easily see the Texans shocking us, just as the Jets did last year, taking the number one running back off the board with their second first-rounder or early second-rounder.
Brian Robinson Jr. was a great story heading into the season. However, he has an incredibly low RAS of 6.6, pairing with the lowest YPC of the eight players highlighted in this article, falling just short of 4. The Washington Commanders found themselves just short of the playoffs this season. One of the main reasons they weren’t able to make the cut was the instability they had at the running back position. The core was inconsistent, injured, and inefficient. Although the Commanders only have six picks in the upcoming draft, I wouldn’t be surprised if they used a higher pick to improve the running back position or even upgraded the position via free agency.
RAS and YPC aren’t perfect stats as they fail to account for many different discrepancies in football, most notably team composition. In the case of the running back position, offensive lineman are often pivotal to efficiency. With these factors in mind, it’s important to remember that the general makeup of a team’s offensive line often doesn’t change too much from year-to-year. This proves that, on a team-to-team basis, YPC is more so dependent on running backs.
Many late-round/undrafted running backs are drafted to specifically fill the position of being a temporary role-player. Many general managers have trouble seeing some players as anything more than that, even after relatively good play. Sometimes the best decision can simply be to take the highest player on your board and bet on talent, regardless of the current state of the position on your team.