Drafting top-five RBs nets teams at least 4 more wins


It’s post-draft season across the football landscape, which means it’s time for RECKLESS SPECU-LATION.

The start of rookie minicamps has a lot of fans and coaches feeling optimistic about their teams’ draft hauls and pondering the effect they could have on the slowly approaching 2017 season. When will Mitchell Trubisky, Patrick Mahomes and Deshaun Watson take their first professional snaps under center? Will Evan Engram render Big Blue’s offense, already anchored by Odell Beckham and Brandon Marshall, unstoppable? Can Jamal Adams single-handedly save the Jets‘ porous secondary?

All fair questions, as was the one Jaguars general David Caldwell answered on Thursday concerning Leonard Fournette‘s net impact on Jacksonville’s offense in 2017.

“Leonard’s a guy that we’ve penciled in — in terms of a guy that can come in and make an immediate impact,” Caldwell told Sirius XM NFL Radio. “We are kind of in a win-now mode, as we should be, and Leonard is a guy that can come in and hopefully make the biggest difference here.”

On the surface, this is blanket optimism from a desperate GM. But that Caldwell says drafting Fournette indicates the team is in “win-now mode” suggests he believes that the LSU standout is the key to breaking Jacksonville’s postseason drought in the near future.

Ezekiel Elliott‘s transcendent rookie campaign in 2016, one in which the Cowboys turned nine losses into nine wins and secured the top seed in the NFC, changed the way scouts and GMs looked at and valued the running back position in the draft. Fournette, Christian McCaffrey, Dalvin Cook and Alvin Kamara were all projected as first-round picks at one point in the draft process after Elliott was the sole back to go in the first round in ’16.

But how much impact do first-round rookie tailbacks actually have on their teams’ records? Was Elliott’s season the mean or the outlier?

Our friends at NFL Research did some digging and found that since 2000, of all positions drafted in the first round, rookie running backs have the second-highest “effect” on win totals the following season. Plus, of all positions drafted in the top five, RBs have the largest “effect” on win totals:

Players who qualified for the above tweet are Elliott, Jamal Lewis (BAL, 2000), LaDainian Tomlinson (SD, 2001), Ronnie Brown (MIA, 2005), Cedric Benson (CHI, 2005), Cadillac Williams (TB, 2005), Reggie Bush (NO, 2006), Darren McFadden (OAK, 2008) and Trent Richardson (CLE, 2012). (Side note: How about those guards paying dividends out the gate, huh? Ben Grubbs and Jonathan Cooper, stand up!)

Every player’s team except Lewis’ Ravens finished with a 5-11 record or worse in the year prior. But after drafting an RB in the top five, each team saw at least a one-win improvement this next year and all but three went over .500.

Interesting too was that the team’s success in the following season was relatively independent of how the running back played. For instance, with Benson in tow, the Bears went from 5-11 to 11-5 in 2005 despite the rookie RB playing in just nine games and running for just 272 yards. The 2001 Chargers, meanwhile, finished 5-11 despite Tomlinson gashing defenses for 1,236 yards and 10 scores en route to a Hall of Fame career.

Too long, didn’t read: If recent history and math are to be trusted, the Jaguars should finish with at least an 8-8 record simply because they drafted Fournette, a running back, within the top five picks.

That’s correlation, not causation, you say? Maybe, but the sheer coincidence of teams increasing their win totals by nearly five, on average, the year after they draft a top-tier RB is extraordinary nonetheless.

There’s no telling whether, performance-wise, Fournette will end up like Elliott or poor Trent Richardson; there’s only so much science can project.

But if Jacksonville is running away with the AFC South or contending for a wild-card spot in late December, you can refer back to this article and remember “We told you so!” Disregard the free-agent acquisitions of Calais Campbell and A.J. Bouye. Forget Blake Bortles‘ markedly improved delivery and maturity. Shield your eyes to the coming clips of Tom Coughlin whipping the Jaguars into shape. 

The catalyst for Jacksonville’s first winning season since the Bush administration will be Fournette’s play very existence.

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