Running Backs Are Situational Players and Should Not be Drafted in the First Round
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If you watched the wild-card round of the NFL playoffs then you saw the Minnesota Vikings, in need of points to come back and win against the Seahawks, pull Adrian Peterson in favor of Jerick McKinnon on their final drive of the game. The weird thing about that personnel choice is that Peterson isn’t just supposed to be the Vikings’ best offensive player, he’s supposed to be one of the best offensive players in the entire league. But that choice, which was consistent with the fact that the Vikings threw more passes to the Jerick McKinnon/Matt Asiata combo than they did Peterson in 2015, reflects the new reality for running backs in the NFL. Many backs are now situational players. Consider that Devonta Freeman, the running back that played the most snaps in 2015, played fewer than 770 snaps. Julio Jones outpaced Freeman by about 200 snaps. Meanwhile Freeman’s quarterback, Matt Ryan, played over 1,100 snaps. The overall picture for snaps at the running back position is worse than that. Across all teams, the average for a team’s leader in snaps at the running back position was just 530 snaps in 2015. The average for a team’s leader in snaps at wide receiver was 879 snaps. If running backs were situational players, but the situations they played in were the highest leverage and most valuable situations, then things might not be so bad for the position. Except that broadly the idea of a good running back is going to flow in large part from the back’s rushing ability. But in terms of value to winning football games things are actually weighted to a back’s receiving ability. Before Brian Burke joined ESPN full time he posted Win Probability Added numbers for running backs and I’ve used that to do a back-of-the-napkin reverse engineering of WPA. Win Probability Added should be a decent proxy to get at what types of production lead to winning.