Thursday, April 12, 2007

Dime A Dozen?

In a previous column, I discussed the possibility of the Oakland Raiders drafting Georgia Tech wide receiver Calvin Johnson to forego selecting the consensus number one quarterback in the draft. One of the likely repercussions of that decision is that Oklahoma running back Adrian Peterson would be available when the Minnesota Vikings make their selection at number seven in this year's draft.

For the past two months, Vikings' followers have salivated at the possibility that Peterson might be available to the Vikings. And, at first blush, there is reason to be optimistic that Peterson will be a tremendous NFL player. Despite suffering two serious injuries during his college career, Peterson's numbers have compared favorably to those of Reggie Bush in Bush's final year of collegiate ball.

The numbers make Peterson appealing. The question stands, however, whether it is worth using a high draft pick even on a promising running back prospect in today's NFL, particularly when that back has a history of injuries.

By The Numbers

The greatest draft day fear of most NFL player personnel managers is making a mistake with a high draft choice. As a consequence, most NFL player personnel managers anguish over decisions that, to the regular fan, seem to be no-brainers. Whether a player drafted in the top ten of the draft will become a Hall of Fame caliber NFL talent is one matter. Whether he will fill a pressing need for the team drafting him is quite another. And while the former is a crap shoot, the latter is pretty well guaranteed, with apologies to Vikings' fans, if the drafting team merely does its due diligence and relies on common sense.

The question persists, however, whether, as one reader suggested, quality running backs are worth taking high in the draft or merely are a dime a dozen with quality backs readily available each year in free agency. I address this question by reviewing each of the first round running back selections over the past five years, then considering the alternatives in free agency.

From 2002 through 2006, fourteen running backs were selected in the first round of the NFL draft. In 2002, Cleveland selected William Green with the 16th pick and Atlanta tabbed T.J. Duckett at 18.

In 2003, Buffalo took a chance selecting the previously injured Willis McGahee with the 23rd pick and Kansas City selected Penn State running back Larry Johnson with the 27th pick.

In 2004, three backs were taken in the first round of the draft, with Steven Jackson going at 24 to St. Louis, Chris Perry at 26 to Cincinnati, and Kevin Jones to Detroit at 30.

In 2005, three more running backs went in round one, with Ronnie Brown going to Miami at number two, Cedric Benson to Chicago at four, and Carnell Williams to Tampa Bay at five.

Last Year, four running backs were selected in round one of the draft. At number two, New Orleans selected Reggie Bush who the Houston Texans had by-passed in favor of taking defensive end Mario Williams. Laurence Maroney went to New England at 21 in one of the steals of the draft, with DeAngelo Williams at 27 and Joseph Addai at 30, going to Carolina and Indianapolis, respectively.

What have these 14 running backs accomplished in the NFL? For the most part, plenty. At least plenty enough to merit having taken most of them in the first round of the draft. Of the 14 running backs selected in the first round of the draft since 2002, 11 already are or will be starters in 2007 and 13 remain in the league. Moreover, each of the backs selected in the top ten of the draft plays a prominent role in their teams current and future plans. Only William Green, who is out of the league as a result of substance abuse issues and injuries, and Chris Perry, who continues to battle injuries, qualify as first-round running back busts in the past five seasons of the NFL draft.

Opportunity Cost

The success of the majority of first-round running backs suggests that taking a first-round caliber running back is not the risk that it is often made out to be by draft wonks. But the value of drafting a running back high in the draft cannot be adduced by mere consideration of whether those players panned out in the NFL. Rather, it is necessary also to at least consider the alternatives to having drafted that running back in the first round.

One method of evaluating opportunity cost is to consider the alternatives in the draft. That's a subject to which I already have devoted several columns and one to which I will return leading up to the draft.

Another approach to evaluating opportunity cost is to consider the players available in free agency that play the same position that the player drafted plays. That's the approach I take in today's column.

In 2002, there were 24 NFL running backs available in free agency. Of the 24, three were relatively good players and two of the three--Warrick Dunn and Atowain Smith--proved their worth in years to come. And, in the less than spectacular draft that was the 2002 draft, both Dunn and Smith proved to be better options than either William Green or T.J. Duckett.

In 2004, there were 57 NFL running backs available in free agency. Of the 57, four had respectable years after signing as free agents with only one--restricted free agent Rudi Johnson--worthy of comparison with first-round draft picks. On the whole, the free agent running back pool of 2004 was unremarkable, particularly when considering that Johnson was not really available in free agency. Both Steven Jackson and Kevin Jones are considerable upgrades over all but Johnson.

In 2005, there were 92 NFL running backs available in free agency. Of the 92, seven have had good or better careers going forward and four could make a claim for being worthy of being taken in the first round of the NFL draft--Shaun Alexander, Rudi Johnson, Edgerrin James, and Chester Taylor. The problem with the 2005 free agent running back pool, however, is that, take away the franchised Johnson and Alexander, and you're left with one back with injury issues and one back without a pedigree. With Brown, Williams, and Benson emerging as solid first-round backs from the 2005 draft, on ability alone, the free agency pool of 2005 pales in comparison to what was available in round one of the 2005 draft.

Last year, there were 86 running backs available in free agency. Of those 86, six showed promise but only Alexander was without injury, age, or restricted status concerns. Even throwing Willie Parker and Brian Westbrook into the pool would not have trumped the talent available in the 2006 draft, with Bush, Maroney, Williams, and Addai already performing at high levels in the NFL.

Bottom Line

What this suggests about drafting a running back of Adrian Peterson's caliber in the top ten of the draft is that, at least compared to years past, it appears to be a no brainer. While there have been some good backs available in free agency in recent years, the one signing that everyone points to as an example of great backs being availabe in free agency is Shaun Alexander last year. Alexander, however, remains one of the rare exceptions of healthy, young backs not tagged by their teams with the franchise or transition label. The tags and the punishment of time spent running with the ball in the NFL make free agent backs both hard to obtain and risky propositions.

Even if the only concerns were present injuries and a high price tag for signing a free agent, free agency would lag behind the draft as a means of obtaining a first-round caliber running back. Unfortunately for those not in a position to add such a back through the draft, however, there is another obstacle.

With many teams flush with cap space even after spending in the 2007 off-season, first-round caliber running backs will command considerable attention in free agency for several years to come. If you thought that the rush to sign players such as Patrick Kerney and Visanthe Shiancoe drew interest, imagine the attention that will be paid to players like Reggie Bush, Laurence Maroney, DeAngelo Williams, and Joseph Addai, if, and when they hit free agency. The price will be staggering and the competition fierce.

The bottom line for the Vikings is that if they believe that they have a need for a running back who is first-round material, and if they believe that that need must be addressed this season, they should draft Peterson. And they should do so without the concern that they are throwing away money and a pick on a player who readily can be found in free agency.

Up Next: More Draft Talk.

4 comments:

shimrod said...

I'm the "dime a dozen" poster and I have to disagree with you. You don't compare running backs to the free agent (read, washed up, overpriced, or unproven)class, you compare them to the guys who fill in when they're hurt or resting. Teams don't run with backs, they run with lines and schemes. Look at the numerous gentlemen who have looked good in green bay while Ahman was laid up. Look at michael turner tear it up in SD while LaDanian is resting. Poor running teams can't run no matter who they put in there, good running teams make everyone look good. Look at Denver, for god's sake. Your top ten draft pick rb may look good, but his backup will look just as good. Or, if he sucks, no one else on the roster will do much either. Obviously talent is required, and some are better than others, but you if the line and the scheme suck the back isn't going to make them look good. Undrafted free agent backs are common, undrafted FA qb's, left tackles, and D-linemen aren't, Pat Williams is an exception.

Vikes Geek said...

Shimroad,

Thanks for the posts.

I agree with your general premise that good schemes and good offensive lines are necessary to a sound running game and a sound offense. I disagree, however, with your contention, if I am reading it correctly, that it is the system that most matters. I also believe that few would agree with your suggestion that LaDanian Tomlinson and Michael Turner are interchangeable. While Turner put up some good yardage numbers when he filled in for Tomlinson, he was nowhere near the scoring threat that Tomlinson is (28 TDs for Tomlinson to 2 for Turner). I understand that you are arguing, as well, that players matter. I think we just disagree on how much really good backs matter when the scheme is somewhere between great and awful--as the Vikings' system appears to be.

While I agree that poor running teams generally have difficulty running the ball no matter who is in the backfield, the Vikings are not a poor running team. They are a modest running team with the potential to improve. The question is whether you improve by adding a top-notch offensive lineman or a top-notch running back. But what if you can get both?

I've made the case on this site many times and probably will many more. Teams that succeed over the long run have at least three common characteristics--they have solid offensive and defensive lines, they have capable quarterback play, and they have a good running back who can catch out of the backfield. You can make a fair argument that running back is not a pressing need for the Vikings in that Chester Taylor is a capable running and receiving back. You can make an even stronger case that the Vikings still need a capable quarterback for the foreseeable future, a defensive end, and two or three offensive linemen, along with several wide-receivers, and probably a corner and safety.

Ultimately, the question is whether you draft a back because he has so much potential or pass on that back in the hope of filling greater needs, possibly with more modest talent than you might have had in the one running back. I don't agree that great backs are often undrafted. But it is clear that high-end defensive ends and offensive linemen are rarely found in the later rounds of the draft. But the qualifier to my column on Peterson was that, if the Vikings believe they need to fill the running back slot with a high-end running back, they would do well to select Peterson. That doesn't mean I would agree with the selection given my view of the team's needs, it just means that the numbers suggest that Peterson will not be a bust in the NFL.

I'll offer my view of who the Vikings will draft and who they should draft prior to next week's draft.

Thanks for the contribution. I always appreciate well-thought out comments.

VG

shimrod said...

I should have been more concise. I firmly believe the drop off between the first round tackle, end, or cb and the third round equivalent is much greater than the difference between the first and third round rbs, in terms of production within the team. The back is too dependent on his teamates and scheme to stand out, in my opinion. And I think that a one dimensional back in today's NFL gives the defense too much of an edge. Perhaps AP has great receiving skills, but I haven't heard it mentioned and I don't think that aspect of his game would have been well developed in the program he played in. I'd take marshawn lynch and another pick in a heartbeat over AP. The rutgers guy is intriguing too, and should be available later, allowing the vikes to fill another of their many holes in the first round.

I appreciate your column. I've seen some nasty comments thrown your way, and whether or not I agree with your ideas or rhetoric, we couldn't be talking Vikes if you didn't take the trouble to maintain the blog. Too many people forget that when they're posting. I'm too lazy to do it and I'm glad you're not. Go Vikes.

Vikes Geek said...

Shimrod,

Thanks. I don't mind visitors to the site voicing their disagreement with my take on things. If everyone agreed with me, it would be a fairly boring site. While I assume that most people know how to conduct themselves when visiting this type of forum, sometimes that's not the case. That's just the way it is.

Thanks again. Keep contributing.

VG