When the Jacksonville Jaguars took Leonard Fournette with the No. 4 pick in the 2017 NFL Draft, it was the cherry on top of another impressive offseason for a franchise that couldn’t get out of the cellar.
Even though Fournette would presumably become the focal point of the offense and several defensive playmakers were added in free agency, it was still a team that went 3-13 in 2016 and again planned to start Blake Bortles at quarterback. So it was difficult to be too optimistic about the team’s chances.
But the Jaguars exceeded all expectations with a 10-6 season that ended with a narrow defeat in the AFC Championship.
In a league that’s increasingly reliant on passing the football, there’s a common notion that taking a running back early isn’t prudent. But a significant jump in wins for the Jaguars was more proof that drafting the position with a valuable pick isn’t such a bad idea.
Since 2000, taking a running back in the top five has meant an average improvement of five wins — the most for any position:
Penn State’s Saquon Barkley went No. 2 to the New York Giants in the 2018 NFL Draft, making him the 11th running back to go that early since 2000. The few running backs who have earned a spot that high in the draft order haven’t taken long to make a significant difference on their new teams.
There are a few reasons why running backs have made such a huge impact upon entering the NFL:
A good running back can transform a team
At the NFL Combine in March, Mike Mayock of NFL Network explained why he believes drafting a running back has meant the biggest jump in wins for teams picking in the top five.
“You don’t draft a bell cow and give him nine touches,” Mayock said. “You draft that kid and somehow he gets 20 plus touches every game. What that does is, it makes your offensive line better. It makes it easier to run-block. It makes your quarterback better. Takes pressure off of him. It makes your QB better in the play-action pass game. And your defense plays less snaps. So a good running game kind of combines to help you in all phases of your game.”
When the Jaguars added Fournette to the fold in 2017, the team’s rushing attempts spiked to 527 — up from 392 the year prior. The Jacksonville offensive line allowed Bortles to be sacked 24 times instead of 34 in 2016. And the team’s average time of possession rose from 29:09 to 32:19.
Fournette wasn’t solely responsible for the Jaguars’ improvement. Free agent additions like Calais Campbell and A.J. Bouye turned the Jacksonville defense into an elite unit that led the way for much of the year. But the team’s commitment to the run certainly contributed to its seven-win improvement.
Before that, it was the Dallas Cowboys who ran the ball 499 times in the first season after taking Ezekiel Elliott — up from 408 rushing attempts in 2015. Elliott, among other additions like Dak Prescott, helped the Cowboys climb from a 4-12 record to 13-3 a year later.
Fournette and Elliott — a pair of backs who were compared often in the lead up to the 2017 NFL Draft — eventually each went No. 4 overall in consecutive drafts. Barkley may not top that mark this April, but there are many signs indicating he’s the best of the trio.
Barkley averaged 16.7 rushes per game during his 2017 season at Penn State with 4.2 receptions and 1.2 kickoff returns. It remains to be seen how he’ll be utilized in the NFL, but Barkley too can transform an offense by becoming the team’s workhorse in the backfield.
Teams with the luxury to take a RB usually aren’t far off
What’s most surprising about the significant jump in wins that comes to teams that take running backs is that there isn’t much difference between the top players in the NFL at the position and the 20th best.
With the passing game typically far more important to a team’s offensive success than its rushing game, the value of a good quarterback has continued to rise while the value of a running back has continued to fall.
Former NFL offensive lineman Geoff Schwartz summed it up well:
If you were drafting an entire starting roster for your team — 22 starting football players, 11 on offense and 11 on defense — you’d pick a running back at around 15. They aren’t as important as other positions on a 2018 NFL team. You know what is important? The quarterback. The quarterback would be drafted first overall, every single time.
So what compelled 10 teams in the last 18 drafts to take a running back in the top five?
Mostly, it was rosters that didn’t have substantial holes at premium positions like quarterback, offensive tackle, or defensive end.
Jacksonville already had the pieces of a historically great defense in place when it took Fournette in 2017. And Dallas took Elliott the year before while banking on the idea that the return of Tony Romo would bring the Cowboys back to the playoff form it had in 2014 after an injury for the quarterback spoiled 2015.
Both teams aided their shaky quarterback situations with new running backs. For the Jaguars, it helped mask the deficiencies of Bortles. For the Cowboys, it allowed Prescott to ease his way into the NFL with a dangerous play action game.
The additions of Fournette and Elliott helped the Jaguars and Cowboys get to the postseason. But both teams had rosters that were already close.
Turning a team like the Giants into a playoff team may be a bigger challenge. But the defense of the Giants could mean the team isn’t as far off as it appears.
Barkley is special
There’s a reason for the hullabaloo over the Penn State running back. Physically, he’s as special as any player at the position in many years. Or maybe, ever.
Bookkeeping at the NFL Combine gets shaky — with official numbers still relatively new, and team stopwatches serving as the standard for decades. So there’s no official way of knowing if Barkley set records in Indianapolis in March.
What we can say is he likely posted the second-fastest 40-yard dash time ever for a running back weighing more than 230 pounds — 4.40 seconds — and likely the highest vertical leap ever for a player of that size at the position.
Penn State RB Saquon Barkley at 2018 Combine:— NFL Research (@NFLResearch) March 2, 2018
- Stronger than Joe Thomas
- Quicker than DeSean Jackson
- Faster than Devin Hester
- Jumps higher than Julio Jones@PennStateFball pic.twitter.com/usgR6vJvOn
There’s an argument that Barkley’s performance at the NFL Combine belongs in the same breath as Bo Jackson’s workout of lore in 1986.
Barkley is big, fast, strong, explosive and every other adjective you’d want to check in a running back.
He was second in the nation in 2017 in all-purpose yards, behind only San Diego State’s Rashaad Penny. And his 23 total touchdowns — 18 rushing, three receiving, two kickoff returns — were fourth in the nation. He even threw a touchdown pass to boot.
Barkley’s not completely without concerns. He disappeared at times in 2017 and often struggled to create on his own when his offensive line didn’t do him favors.
What the statistic really illustrates is Barkley’s tendency to hunt for a huge play rather than lower his shoulder and bulldoze ahead when things break down early. It’s not an ideal trait, but according to Pro Football Focus, LeSean McCoy was at the bottom of the NFL in the same category with an average of just 0.37 yards per carry for many of the same reasons.
McCoy is far from a bad running back, and neither is Barkley, but it’s one negative to the Penn State product’s game that Fournette and Elliott do not share.
Barkley will likely change a team’s fortunes
Based on his performance at the NFL Combine, Barkley may be an even better prospect than Fournette or Elliott. His 4.41-second 40-yard dash was fastest of the trio, and his 41-inch vertical jump was highest.
If history is any indication, that could mean great things for the Giants.
It’s often difficult to imagine how a team at the top of the draft order can suddenly become a winner. The Giants’ 15.4 points per game in 2017 were the fifth fewest any team has managed in the last six years. New York looked far from prepared for a competent 2018, but quick turnarounds are not uncommon in the NFL with the right addition.
Barkley looks like the perfect piece to spark that U-turn.