Early in this year's draft process, pick No. 4 in the 2010 NFL draft presented Mike Shanahan, Bruce Allen and the Washington Redskins with a tough decision: how best to fix a running game that produced just 94.3 yards per game in 2009, sixth-lowest in the NFL?
With quarterback Sam Bradford and defensive linemen Ndamukong Suh and Gerald McCoy expected to be the first three picks in the draft, the Redskins would have their choice of any blocker or runner available. Who was more likely to make a bigger impact: a star runner like Clemson's C.J. Spiller, or a dominant tackle like Russell Okung out of Oklahoma State?
The Redskins tipped their hand when they acquired veterans Willie Parker and Larry Johnson to team with Clinton Portis in the backfield. It's now almost a lock that Okung will be wearing a burgundy jersey this fall -- and that may be bad news for the Redskins' rushing game.
History shows that teams with top-10 picks fare better on the ground after drafting a running back than they do when drafting tackles.
Between 2000 and 2009, nine teams selected running backs in the first 10 picks of the NFL draft, while 14 teams picked tackles. The RB teams averaged 3.7 rushing yards per carry the year before the draft, a little lower than the 3.9 yards averaged by teams drafting tackles.
Not surprisingly, the influx of talent boosted the running game of both sets of teams -- but the RB teams saw better results.
The rookie tackles led their teams to 4.1 yards per carry, up 0.2 yards from the year before. Those teams that drafted runners, though, ran for 4.2 yards per carry, an increase of 0.5 yards. Prefer to measure things by yards per game? Teams drafting tackles went from 99 to 113 yards per game, while teams drafting backs went from 98 to 121 yards per game.
So in the short term, it looks like drafting a runner is usually the better call. But teams don't make draft picks for a one-year surge, they're looking for long-term benefits. And in the long term, it looks like going with a running back is still the best decision for the running game. (This makes some sense, because top-10 tackles are generally prized for their ability to protect the quarterback's blind side, not their ability to open holes for running backs.)
The two groups of teams were virtually identical two or three years after the draft, regressing in year 2 and rebounding in year 3. In year 4, however, RB teams fared better, averaging 4.2 yards per game, compared to 4.0 for the OT teams.
It's no surprise that the most successful RB team of the last decade was the Minnesota Vikings, who picked Adrian Peterson seventh overall in 2007. The Vikings were no slouches on the ground in 2006, averaging 4.1 rushing yards per carry. But Peterson took them into another stratosphere; they collected 5.3 yards per carry as a team in his rookie season. That figure dipped in the next two seasons, which is typical for most teams on this list that drafted backs. But since Peterson was drafted, the Vikings have averaged 4.63 yards per carry. (Remember that boost running backs gave their teams in their fourth season? Peterson will be playing his fourth campaign in 2010.)
Picking a running back, however, is not guaranteed to improve a team's ground game. The New Orleans Saints racked up 4.0 yards per game on the ground in 2005, then added Reggie Bush with the draft's second pick. Over the next two seasons, the Saints averaged 3.7 yards per carry, significantly worse than before Bush's arrival, before jumping back to 4.0 in year 3 and 4.5 in year 4. An even better example is Cedric Benson. The Chicago Bears collected 3.8 yards per carry the year before they picked the Texas runner in 2005. In Benson's rookie season that jumped to 4.3. Benson carried the ball only 67 times that season, so he deserves little credit for the improvement. In the next three seasons, as Benson got more touches, the Bears' yards per carry went from 3.8 to 3.1 to 3.9.
Of those teams that went with a tackle in the top-10 picks, none has been more successful than the Vikings. They ran for 4.3 yards per game in 2001, then picked Miami's Bryant McKinnie with the fourth overall selection. In the next four seasons -- all before Peterson was drafted -- the Vikings averaged 4.7 yards per carry.
On the other side of the coin, we find the Oakland Raiders. In 2003, Oakland produced 4.3 yards per carry. Iowa's Robert Gallery, taken second overall in 2004, was supposed to turn the team into a juggernaut. Instead, the bottom fell out -- the Raiders managed only 4.0 yards per carry (technically, 3.95) in the first four years of Gallery's career.
The only other team to see its ground game collapse like that was, ironically, the Redskins -- although they deserve an asterisk. In 1999 they tallied 4.4 yards per carry, fourth in the NFL. They then took Alabama's Chris Samuels with the third overall pick. When you start out in the league's top five, however, you're likely to get worse no matter what -- after all, you can't get much better. The Redskins averaged 4.0 yards per game in the four years after they drafted Samuels, much lower than they were able to amass before he arrived, but fairly typical results for a top-10 tackle. Now that they're looking for Samuels' replacement, if the Redskins do select Okung, they can expect to match Samuels' production.
Vince Verhei is a writer for Football Outsiders. Research provided by Alvin Anol of the ESPN Stats & Information Group.