Steelers Draft Study: Reasons why taking a RB early is a waste of a pick

Alabama Crimson Tide running back Najee Harris (22). Mandatory Credit: Kim Klement-USA TODAY Sports
Alabama Crimson Tide running back Najee Harris (22). Mandatory Credit: Kim Klement-USA TODAY Sports /
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Las Vegas Raiders running back Josh Jacobs (28) Mandatory Credit: Mark J. Rebilas-USA TODAY Sports /

How have first-round picks fared?

Just because the NFL has shifted to a more passing based offense doesn’t mean first-round running backs have disappeared. In fact, over the past eight years, I compiled every running back drafted and got the average yardage per year they compiled. The results of the ten first-round running backs from the past eight drafts are below.

As you can see, those numbers are great, and they actually had the highest number of yards per year of any of the other rounds. That may sound like it means it is best to get your runner in the first round but digging into the numbers tells a different tale. While first-round picks have averaged around 1150 total yards per year, the average cost of getting a first-round running back is at pick 15.7. That is nearly ten spots higher than where the Steelers will be drafting.

If you look at the running backs picked at or after pick 24, those yardage numbers get closer to 900 per year, held up but Jacobs who has been great in his first two years. On the flip side, four out of these ten running backs were taken in the top ten, and their average yardage is closer to 1400 per year. The top of the draft is holding up the bottom. The Steelers certainly wouldn’t trade up for a back, meaning they would be stuck with some of the lesser late first-round backs.

As well, with only ten running backs being taken in the first round over the past eight drafts, that points to another fact: these have to be generational talents. The overall success from this group comes from a bevy of “can’t miss” running backs mixed in with a couple of late-round reaches. This group has much less of a bust factor, which is good, but that cost of securing a “safe” running back is high. Instead, grabbing a back on day two makes much more sense.