Four carries. When the clock hit zero, that’s how many carries Seahawks rookie running back Rashaad Penny ended the final game of his 2018 season with. The only ball carrier who had less carries than Penny that night was the quarterback Russell Wilson, who had three. Mike Davis tied Penny’s four, and Chris Carson had the team-high 13.
Penny was drafted in the first round in 2018, as the second running back taken in the entire draft, at pick No. 27. Mike Davis was drafted in the fourth round of the 2015 draft four years ago, and Carson was nearly Mr. Irrelevant as pick No. 249 in the seventh round of the 2017 draft. And yet those guys beat out Penny — and not just Saturday night, either.
As the 2018 season came to a close for the Seahawks on Saturday, Penny ended the year with the third most carries, third most rushing yards and the third most rushing touchdowns on the team. You know what that means? He was RB3. The Seahawks drafted RB3 at No. 27 overall, and not RB3 in the league, not RB3 in the draft; they drafted RB3 on their own team at No. 27 overall.
But the Seahawks weren’t the only team with sub-par performance out of a Top 50 back this season. Down in Tampa Bay, the Buccaneers have to be somewhat nervous about their early second round choice, rookie running back Ronald Jones.
Jones, the No. 38 overall pick, finished the season with 44 total rushing yards on 23 carries. Yes, those were his stats for the entire season. Jones wasn’t even an active player on game days to start the season, and his 10 carries in the blowout loss to Chicago were by far the most he saw all year.
Jones was beat out all year by undrafted running back Peyton Barber. Barber, who has been on the Buccaneers’ depth chart for a few seasons, got his crack at the starting job when Doug Martin wasn’t playing well in 2017, and Barber has yet to give that starting title back. It was thought that Jones had one of the easiest running back rooms in the NFL to ascend to the top of, and yet he was the low man on the totem pole all season.
So what do Penny, Jones, and other highly selected running backs who didn’t pan out early on or ever in their careers tell us? Is this one of those articles where I am going to tell you that you should never draft a running back in the Top 10 or the first round at all? No, I am not here to say this. After all, it would be ignorant to say that while knowing that most of the top rushers in the league were Top 50 backs. But I do believe that with running backs more so than other positions, selecting them high comes with a no money back guarantee.
As stated before, Chris Carson was nearly undrafted in 2017, and Broncos running back Phillip Lindsay was undrafted in 2018. And yet those two were a part of the group of only nine running backs in the league that rushed for over 1,000 yard this season. Had Matt Brieda of the 49ers played more than 14 games this year, he, too, would have been another undrafted running back to cross the 1,000-yard mark.
There is always a risk with any football player you draft from college to the pros. Some of the best to ever play at the collegiate level have failed in the NFL for various reasons. But I do believe that where you are selected and potential correlation of success matters least for running backs — and that, in turn, makes picking one higher more of a risk on value.
When you’re picking an offensive lineman, an edge rusher, or a wide receiver in the first round, they have a decent chance of working out. But with running backs it’s tougher due to a few factors. The first is, of course, injuries. This is something that is out of their control, but has to be in the mind of those selecting them knowing the kind of beating they can take. The next is scheme. Vision and chemistry with an offensive line can go into the potential success of a running back just as much as their own talent can, at times. But the biggest outside factor, if you ask me, is that there are so many of them. There are so many running back options in the NFL, so many guys that will run for every yards like it’s their last, so many options for scheme and chemistry fits, so many guys to take your place if you get hurt. There are so many options at running back that where you are selected gives you no guarantee of sticking around and makes the “benefit of the doubt” leash short and tight.
If you’re a quarterback and you’re selected in the first round, you’re likely not getting cut before your rookie deal is up. Your team will likely give you ever chance they can to make you worth the investment. The same can be said with most offensive and defensive linemen. But for running backs, someone can become a better option than you and all of a sudden it’s like your draft position never mattered. That’s what I mean when I say there’s no guarantee.
The “never draft a running back Top 50” argument is silly without context. Sometimes it holds weight. Other times it’s the right choice. In most seasons, the Top 10 rusher will be guys who were picked in the Top 50, but there will always be those guys who went on Day 3 or went undrafted that find themselves on that list, too. Because of that, teams know there are diamonds in the rough everywhere and every year.
That puts players like Penny and like Jones on thin ice when they can’t perform early on in their careers. Why? Because when it comes to running backs, more often than not, there are no guarantees, not even when you’re selected with a premium pick.