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Why the Broncos should ... pick a running back at No. 5

Posted Apr 18, 2018

History proves that a rookie running back in the top-5 can provide an immediate jolt. But how often does that translate to being title-worthy?

If you want significant improvement right away, taking Penn State running back Saquon Barkley -- if he is available at the No. 5 pick -- might be the most certain way to do it.

Consider this: Since 1990, teams have selected 17 running backs with top-5 picks. Those teams improved their win total by 3.94 games over the previous season. That single, eye-popping statistic is enough -- at least in the short term -- to justify selecting Barkley.

But there is more to consider.

  • Fifteen of the 17 teams improved their win total from the previous season ...
  • ... But just seven of the 17 teams improved enough to make the playoffs in that first year, and only two of them eventually won a Super Bowl while that running back was on the roster.
  • While the first-year improvement was profound, it leveled off after that. The teams saw their winning percentage improve by .134 -- equivalent to 2.14 wins per season -- with that top-5 back on the roster.

The first question to consider: How much better can a running back make a team in terms of making it title-worthy?

For the two teams with a top-5, post-1990-draft running back that won the Super Bowl, one of them got there in large part due to that runner: the 2000 Baltimore Ravens. They rode the wave of a dominant, iconic defense that held opposing offenses to just 4.0 points per game in their four-game playoff run (in Super Bowl XXXV, the Giants' only touchdown came on a kickoff return). But of nearly equal importance was then-rookie Jamal Lewis, the No. 5 overall pick in 2000. Lewis ran for 330 yards and three touchdowns in that year's postseason.

In the other instance -- that of New Orleans' Reggie Bush -- the title was due more to the presence of a transcendent Hall-of-Fame-caliber quarterback in Drew Brees.

Another aspect to consider when drafting a running back early is the quality of players available at the position later.

For example, if you wait until Day 2, recent history favors the top half of the third round (picks 65-80), which has produced 18 1,000-yard backs in the last 10 seasons -- just three fewer than the 16-32 range of the first round in that same span.

"It's a deep class of running backs," President of Football Operations/General Manager John Elway said at the NFL Annual Meeting in Orlando last month.

Last year, the Jaguars took Leonard Fournette with the No. 4 overall pick. But the Chiefs and Saints received Pro Bowl seasons from Kareem Hunt and Alvin Kamara, respectively, and both were taken in the third round.

Furthermore, since 1990, the sweet spot for running backs in the first round -- relative to pick value -- has actually been from draft slots 11 through 25. Teams have selected 35 running backs in that range since 1990, and over two-thirds of them -- 68.6 percent -- had at least one 1,000-yard season. Over half of them -- 56 percent -- made at least one Pro Bowl.

These percentages stack up well compared with the top five selections, which saw 76.5 percent of the runners break 1,000 yards at least once, with 47.1 percent of the runners making at least one Pro Bowl.

Top-5 running backs still come out substantially ahead of the runners in the 11-25 range in two areas: number of seasons as the primary starter and All-Pro nods. Six of the 17 top-5 backs became All-Pros, while just five of 35 runners taken in the 11-25 range earned that honor. The 17 top-5 backs also averaged 4.94 years as a primary starter in the NFL; the backs from 11 through 25 were 18 percent worse, with an average of 4.06 seasons as a team's No. 1 running back.

Of course, those endurance rates are also lower than those of other positions. Take guard, for example, where first-round picks since 1990 have served an average of 5.65 years as a primary starter.

These are all trends worth considering. But given the history of running backs in the last three decades, the odds are in favor of Barkley making an immediate impact -- even if it isn't enough to push a team all the way to championship contention.