For the second year in a row, there are rumors and mock drafts that say the Bills might take a running back in the first round of the NFL Draft. Along with these rumors comes a great divide among Bills fans. Some fans are excited, hopeful, or accepting of such a move, which is a fair assessment. There have been some first round backs that have gone on to have very long and successful careers. There is always a chance that, if the Bills do take a RB, he could be one of those guys. But RBs are overvalued in today’s NFL and using a first round draft pick on one should be out of the question. Here’s why:
1. The NFL is a Passing League
While the RB position was once the most important skill position on the field, the game of football has changed drastically over time. The “ground and pound” offense is a thing of the past. You will be ridiculed for even suggesting that it could be a viable option (e.g. Pete Carroll).
This, of course, has its exceptions for a few physical freaks like Derrick Henry. However, when it comes to the availability of living locomotives, the options are few and far between. Even with a physically dominant force like Henry, you still need a top tier supporting cast in the pass game to make that work in the long run. The Titans have that with Tannehill and Brown, which creates a nice balance on their offense. Rules, schemes, and gameplans on both sides of the ball revolve around the passing of the football, and that likely won’t change any time soon.
2. RB Production Doesn’t Last
This is something that always felt true, but lacked available stats to back it up. So I did some digging to find out how many top young running backs had sustained success. Here are the parameters I used for collecting this data:
- Joined the NFL between 2008 and 2017. (All who joined 2018 or later just finished or are still on their rookie deal.)
- Drafted in any round or signed as an undrafted free agent.
- Had at least one 1,000 yard rushing season while on their rookie contract.
A total of 43 players fit these parameters. Here are some of the things I found:
- 13 RBs (30.2%) had just one career 1,000 yard rushing season.
- 25 RBs (58.1%) had two or more 1,000 yard rushing seasons during their rookie contract.
- Just 5 RBs (11.6%) had three or more 1,000 yard rushing seasons during their rookie contract.
- 16 RBs (37.2%) ran for 1,000 yards in a season after their rookie deal.
- Only 3 RBs (7%) ran for 1,000 yards in multiple seasons after their rookie deal.
- 14 of 20 1st Round RBs (70%; 32.5% of total) ran for 1,000 yards at least once during their rookie deal.
These numbers show that even the more successful young RBs have production drop-off. The two most glaring stats being that 13 of the 43 had just one career 1,000 yard season, and only 16 had a 1,000 yard season after their rookie deal.
Another stat to look at is there have been 20 RBs taken in the first round during this span. So, if you’re drafting a running back in the first round, he has a 70% chance of running for 1,000 yards under his rookie deal. Those aren’t terrible odds, but those odds shrink to 58.1% to repeat and 11.6% to threepeat. One 1,000 yard season isn’t enough to justify a first round running back. Which leads me to my next point…
3. Value Can Be Found at RB Outside the 1st Round
This is the most important point. There is no need to take one in the first round because you can get a top tier running back in any round, or even undrafted. As mentioned before, only 14 of the 43 qualifying players went in the first round. Also (per reason #2), while these players ran for 1,000 yards doesn’t mean they had great careers. That list includes names such as C.J. Spiller, Ryan Matthews, Knowshon Moreno, and Beanie Wells. All were good players early in their career, but suffered steep declines in production. Meanwhile, 29 RBs who ran for 1,000 yards in one of their first four years either went in Rounds 2-7 or signed as undrafted free agents. That list includes LeSean McCoy, Jamaal Charles, Derrick Henry, Dalvin Cook, and Aaron Jones.
All of this is without even mentioning contracts. If the Bills draft a running back in the first round, there are certain contract minimums and maximums they would have to meet. This could result in overpaying for a running back, or losing out on the opportunity to save money at a more expensive position. First round draft picks also have a fifth-year option tagged on, which – because of reason #2 – would likely be wasted on a RB. Instead, they could draft a position with more longevity and put that fifth-year option to good use.
4. Devin Singletary is a Solid Starting RB
The Bills’ 2019 third round pick is a lot better than people give him credit for. Singletary has had a fair level of production in his first three seasons, and can certainly continue to do so for the final year of his contract. Last year, we saw an extra burst and improved contact balance from Singletary that we had not seen in his first two seasons. He racked up 870 rushing yards in 2021 behind a line that was inconsistent at best, which was 16th most in the league.
Singletary clearly put in work during last year’s offseason, and if he’s doing the same now, he could be even more productive in 2022. This is not to say that the Bills shouldn’t take a running back at all during the draft. Singletary is entering the final year of his rookie contract and the Bills have looming salary cap issues that could be alleviated by continuing to have their RB1 on a rookie deal. It would just be better to wait at least one more day to address it.