Draft day, and the Eagles are on the clock. It's the first pick of a new era of Eagles management, and the options are plentiful. In Philadelphia, a vocal portion of fans, led in part by a radio host, are clamoring for the Eagles to take a running back that is seen as the next big thing, one who can turn the franchise around. For months, they have anticipated this pick.
This is not the lead up to a story about April 28th, 2016. It's about April 17th, 1999.
In 1999, as we so vividly remember, the Eagles had the chance to draft the player that fans were clamoring for, running back Ricky Williams. They made the right choice and drafted Donovan McNabb. But just as drafting McNabb was the right choice, not drafting Williams was the right choice as well. In 2016 whoever the Eagles draft may not be the right choice, no draft pick is certain. But not drafting Ezekiel Elliott will be the right choice, no matter who they take.
That's no knock against Elliott. He'll probably be a really good player. But running backs today are not worth first round draft picks, no matter how good they are. The NFL is continuing it's trend of more passing nearly every year, because passing the ball is much more efficient.
In fact, if you look at only the points at or above the 10-win line, where the playoff teams typically reside, the graphs tell very different stories. Teams with 10 or more wins are no more likely to have strong running games than weak or even extremely weak running efficiency. In contrast, the teams with at least 10 wins are far more likely to have had above-average passing efficiency.
Like anything with increased efficiency, the usage of it increases until the advantage no longer holds.
One day the league will start to converge back towards running, but there's no reason to believe it will start this year. The rules of the game, from defensive holding to rules that protect QBs in the pocket and pass catchers at the point of the catch, play a large role in making defensives give up more ground and more points to passing attacks. Those rules not only won't go away, but the increase in safety awareness mean that if anything, they'll expand, which will make passing even more productive.
And it's not just that running is at an all-time low of importance to the game. Running backs have a very short shelf life of productivity. A first round pick, especially a top 10 pick, should be a player who is on the team that drafted him into his thirties. That isn't a running back. By age 28 they've reached the end of their careers as a useful starting player. Plenty never see their age 29 season, let alone their age 30 season.
Teams have realized this, in the past five years only six running backs were drafted in the first round, compared to in the five years prior when 17 were taken. The league hasn't suffered for it. During that span, only the 2006 and 2010 Colts, 2007 Patriots, 2008 and 2010 Steelers, 2009 Saints, 2013 Broncos and 2015 Panthers have reached the Super Bowl with a running back they took in the first round, and none of them did so on the strength of that running back. For the Colts, Joseph Addai was out of the league after six seasons at the age of 28, they drafted Donald Brown to replace him and he too failed. Laurence Maroney was a bust for the Patriots. For the Steelers, Rashard Mendenhall had just 19 carries in 2008, in 2010 he was 34th in yards per carry with 3.9, like Addai he was out of the league after six seasons, at the age of 27. Reggie Bush was a bust for the Saints. Knowshon Moreno, like Addai, was out of the league after six years at the age of 27. And Jonathan Stewart has never started 16 games for the Panthers. All of these teams wasted a draft pick taking a running back in the first. The league hasn't had a power shortage of star running backs just because they're not drafted in the first round. LeSean McCoy, Matt Forte, DeMarco Murray, Maurice Jones-Drew, Arian Foster, Jamaal Charles, and even Ray Rice all were or are stars.
But none were or are the catalyst for a Super Bowl contender. As every running back who has led the league in rushing except Emmitt Smith and Terrell Davis can attest, a great running back can get you to the playoffs. But he won't get you through the playoffs and to a Super Bowl title. The Vikings aren't a Super Bowl contender because of Adrian Peterson, their best season with him was when Brett Favre had a career year, it was one of Peterson's worst seasons. The Buccaneers aren't contenders because of Doug Martin, nor the Saints because of Mark Ingram. Having a great running back is a luxury, not a necessity to winning in the NFL. Using a top resource on a role that is in decline and at a position that has a short shelf life is poor management.
Especially for a team that has far more important needs on offense. The Eagles have no long term answer at QB, and they would not be wrong to draft Ronnie Stanley, Jack Conklin or Taylor Decker to eventually take over for Lane Johnson when Johnson replaces Jason Peters, or that possible draft pick could turn out to be Peters' replacement. Despite drafting three WRs in the past two years, taking LaQuan Treadwell would not be unreasonable. Nor would taking Jalen Ramsey, Vernon Hargreaves or Miles Jack if one should happen to fall to them.
If they want a running back, the better draft value would be to use one of their third round picks on one such as Kenneth Dixon, Jordan Howard, Paul Perkins or Alex Collins. Or better yet they should wait until next season when the crop of RBs is a deep one with Leonard Fournette, Nick Chubb and Dalvin Cook topping the board, pushing players like Corey Clement, Royce Freeman, Samaje Perine to the 2nd and 3rd rounds.
Ezekiel Elliott will probably be a good running back in the NFL. But he won't be good value in the draft, because no running back taken in the first round is anymore.