Graph of the day – NFL draft edition

Advanced NFL Stats asks, “What happened to the first-round runningback?

In the five-year period between 1970 through 1974, running backs made up 20% of all first round NFL draft picks. That’s one out of every five. As recently as the 1985-1989 period, RBs made up 19% of first rounders. But by the most recent decade, from 2000 through 2010, RB selection was cut in half–down to about 10%. Last night, only 1 of the 32 players chosen (about 3%) was a RB, and he was chosen 28th, near the bottom of the round.

The graph below illustrates the trends in how teams favor each position over the past 41 years. Most positions are fairly stable.


Fascinating graph. First, I’m completely not shocked that defensive line is at the top. It really is the most important position in football, particularly at the NFL level. Second, and more importantly, I wonder how much of the movement in the graph over time is driven by strategic trends with respect to personnel versus increased demand or rule changes. For example, in the ’70s and ’80s, most teams used “21 personnel,” i.e. the “Pro set” with either an I-formation or splitbacks. Nowadays almost all teams base from a one-back set, with the fullback having being replaced by either a third receiver, a second tight-end, or an “H-back” hybrid guy, depending on the scheme and talent.

The tight-end line on the graph is interesting in this respect. It declined in the 90s but had a slight uptick in the early part of the 2000s (almost hitting the old historic high), as teams moved to more two-tight end sets. Similarly, who was the last true “fullback” to be selected in the first-round? (Mike Alstott (a) was a true runner and (b) was a second-round pick.)

I suppose the way to control for this effect — the numbers versus importance point — would be to simply take a look at the proportion given positions have occupied over time as a percentage of the 53-man NFL roster. I.e., have teams gone from three wide receivers and four or five defensive backs to five wide receivers and seven defensive backs, thus making the uptick in those players being drafted more in the first-round simply a reflection of their increased numbers? No one doubts quarterbacks are effective, but teams only carry two or three — and there is generally less turnover there as well — so it remains low on the above graph as a percentage of all first-rounders. I’m curious if folks have any thoughts on how best to understand this.

  • BJ

    According to the NFL, the last 1st-Round FB was William Floyd at 28th overall to the 49ers in 1994.

  • Anonymous

    That was actually what I thought but I didn’t want to speculate. And that was a two-back, pro-style team at the time (he started on that Super Bowl team, and that team had few other weaknesses to fill). By the end of the decade they were basing out of one-back sets like most other teams.

  • Grouse

    The graph certainly confirms my general impression that defensive linemen and cornerbacks tend to go very high, as do offensive tackles (and elite guards lower in the first round). Perhaps this is the “planet theory” at work. It’s like with basketball: big guys are scarce, and there are a ton of guys shorter than 6’3″ or so and under 250 lbs (hence the low rank of linebackers despite their relatively large share of the roster and utility on special teams), but that said, elite cover corners are also scarce despite their average stature.

    Adjusting for roster share would have to take into account the types of linemen on both sides that are drafted. Typically, teams are fishing for elite pass rushers, left tackles, and unusually good defensive tackles (the Suh/Fairley types). Among DBs, the high picks are typically CBs, not safeties. The LBs are usually those with pass rush potential, rather than MLBs (though it’s not uncommon for one MLB type to go in the first round) and run stoppers.

    Somewhat surprising to see QBs lower. I would be curious to see how this changes if it’s limited to the top 10 or 15 picks, as I suspect QBs would rise by that measure, but in the end demand for QBs is kind of small. It’s more a game of finding the 2 or 3 best QBs in each draft, as QBs tend to play every down and have long careers.

  • Anonymous

    remember when Edgar Bennett, Dorsey Levens, Roger Craig, Raymont Harris, Larry Centers were considered “fullbacks” [late 80’s – early 90’s]?

    What would the terminology of today classify those guys?

    Interesting similarity with DB – WR – TE mimics one another starting from 1995 (also need to consider the effect of free agency on how the draft is worked). Would we say that particular trend starts to mark the proliferation of specialization / situational substitution in the game?

  • el capitan

    Part of the reason RB’s are being drafted lower, as you’ve alluded to, is that the demand for them has greatly decreased. Part of it is the now somewhat standard use of 1-back sets, but also the fact that teams use less RB’s in rotation, a by-product of more passing. Consider that only 1 RB prior to 1951 carried even 50% of the rushing load in any given season for his team, and that it wasn’t until Jim Brown in 1960 (I believe, I may be off a year) that a player exceeded 60% of his team’s carries. Teams used 3-5 backs as standard practice, and therefore needed several on the roster – now teams rarely roster more than four. So demand has dropped sharply, far more than the supply has. It took awhile for the trend to be established in the draft, though, because even though teams rostered less, the top guy on each team handled the ball 20-25% of the team’s offensive plays, far and away the most usage after QB. Higher supply, less demand = lower draft position. Also, with teams now returning to more dual-RB workloads (by design, as opposed to being forced to by injury or ineffectiveness) the demand for the everydown workhorse is being pushed down further. More and more resources are being poured into the receiver positions (WR, TE), and that roster space has been taken from the backfield positions. (Interesting … very few teams have enough quality players to fill the top 3-4 receiving positions, suggesting that the supply is much lower than the current demand. One of the reasons I think this coming season is going to showcase a significant increase in rushing attempts league-wide.)

  • Rocky

    The numbers are a little skewed given that OL and DL are in one category, even though those groups accompany more than one position. If the graph broke it down with DE, DT, G, C, T, then the numbers would be a tad lower, but I don’t think this necessarily means much. Interesting stuff indeed.

  • Cwillm

    The decreasing average career length of running backs compared w/ other positions is probably a factor as well.

  • Mr.Murder

    There were strategic trends that accompanied an effort to match personnel with design.

    The Bud Carson days used two deep coverage to help against outside wideouts while two of the three backers would squeeze the feature back on routes for an inside/outside effect.  Tight ends of the day were more in-line blockers, and fullbacks were generally less versatile and basically a counterpart to inside linebackers. It helped man coverage defenders play tighter as well. You only played twelve games so wear on a feature back was less, systems had to emphasis a way to stop those players and compress the play field on them.

    Then coaches like Tom Landry and Bill Walsh used people with halfback skills or background such as Ron Springs, Earl Cooper or Rodger Craig,  to become fullbacks, Joe Gibbs used h-backs the same way. This meant the matchup against the weakest pass defender now favored the offense, it used to be that if you went to the fullback it did the defense a favor. They expanded the game plan and field to cover using faster and quicker players in support roles.

    The fullbacks and H backs helped extend the scrimmage line with chowed sets in formation. They could pressure flat defenders that were easier reads or replace blitzers starting out closer to the line. The percentage play now had a speed element added to it. Bootleg actions now had faster initial reads.

    Teams had to adjust to that. The Carson style saw Floyd Peters develop more of a cover two look, Monte Kiffin was an assistant to him. They had to free one defender in the deep middle to address the crossing routes against expected man coverage. This ability to squeeze feature backs stayed intact for nickle sets since your best two linebackers stayed out there. The ability to help outside coverage on the nearest interior landmarks also created more emphasis on the middle read and a free defender there. The cover two pressured those flats and tried to take away a lot of the horizontal emphasis from the great 80’s coaches.

     The stretch run and screens replaced the sweep. You needed to keep blockers on their faster people and climb help to the next level. Teams could squeeze the feature back so you could put role players in for many of the specialty reps. The investment money was cheaper with good situational comparison.

    You need people who can get upfield at the safeties by working off or near the scrimmage line. Especially from support positions, they need to be more athletic and hybrid in their attirubtes. Because they don’t want to let you run the middle unimpeded and they still must squeeze what you can do from outside in on the horizontal actions. Personnel now match that, and most teams use big nickle on defense to address the run and pass from the spread.

    Ironically the teams become more like a group of power forwards and swing men as difference makers. Al Davis used man coverage basketball principles to put great athletes in space on defense. Other teams gave extra help to those defenders with two deep coverage, and they evolved to Cover Two(squeeze the feature back) and finally Tampa Two(free for middle read). These all match a lot of matchup zone basketball concepts.

  • Alex

    My first thought is:  does this reflect the value of the players at these positions on the margin?  What I mean is, in today’s NFL, if you look at running backs you notice three things quickly:  (1) after about 27 or so their productivity declines considerably, (2) outside the very elite backs – think Tomlinson in his prime – there isn’t much that distinguishes backs’ production, and (3) many teams are using multiple running backs now instead of one feature running back.  The thrust of this claim is that there’s no sense in paying first rounds money, and forgoing a first round pick, on a running back when you can draft one in later rounds who will be nearly as productive.

    Many people say that the difference between the SEC and other conferences is the size, speed, and strength of the defensive lineman.  The same would logically hold true among the top DL in the NFL.  Obtaining a DT or DE who has a rare combination of size, speed, and power is hugely beneficial, particularly on the margin.  Think Suh or Peppers.