With the 55th pick in the 2020 NFL Draft, the Baltimore Ravens select J.K. Dobbins, running back, Ohio State.
And everyone’s minds explode.
This was an anti-analytics pick. No two ways about that. It’s unfair to circumscribe all of the good work done by various analysts and chuck it into a bucket called "analytics," but if there's anything we can say with an ounce of certainty it’s that passing is more valuable than rushing at the NFL level; and rushing success is not impacted by individual running back talent to nearly the same degree that it is impacted by the number of box defenders, blockers and other situational factors. The union of these two ideas makes it fairly clear that the average NFL team should invest in the passing game more heavily than the running game.
But we've already reached a bit of a snag. How much more heavily a team should invest in the passing game is unknown.
There is no consensus baseline running production that will keep a team balanced on offense, and teams are generally still skewed toward the running game. They should pass more, but we don't know how much more or what will happen if they go too far. We might boldly say "just draft running backs on Day 3," but we don't actually know what that will look like yet. We think it will be fine; the running game will continue to stay afloat because of box counts, offensive line play and spacing.
If there was a team that had the opportunity to make this idea certain, it was the Ravens. With Lamar Jackson at quarterback, Baltimore has the most dangerous running game in recent NFL memory. When Jackson took the reigns from Joe Flacco during the 2018 season, Baltimore’s rushing game exploded, and its running backs suddenly became far more effective players. This, from Sports Info Solutions' Nate Weller, on how Jackson affected the Ravens' expected points added (EPA) per attempt (EPA/A) that:
“In nine games with Flacco as the starter last season, Ravens running backs averaged minus-0.11 EPA/A and had a positive percentage (positive% or percent of plays with positive EPA) of 38%. In the final seven games with Jackson as the quarterback, Ravens backs had an EPA/A of 0.04 and a positive% of 46%. Gus Edwards, who seemingly came out of nowhere, finished the season as the league leader in positive% at 57%, and it’s probably fair to attribute a lot of this to the threat of Jackson as a runner.”
In 2019, the Ravens' gross EPA on running plays was more than three times that of their closest competitor. Edwards and free-agent acquisition Mark Ingram both enjoyed career outputs across almost all efficiency metrics.
It's easy to buzz right by that: “free-agent acquisition Mark Ingram.” But it’s an important note. The Ravens ended 2018 with a foretaste of a revolutionary running attack captained by their first-round rookie quarterback and yet still cut Alex Collins and signed Ingram to a lot more money ($15 million over three years). Ingram was available because his talent level wasn't needed in the committee backfield in New Orleans, where young runner Alvin Kamara was proving as effective a runner and a more dangerous pass-catcher at a cheaper price tag. But, by that same logic, with an elite and cheap runner in Jackson also in the backfield, why was Ingram needed in Baltimore?
Jackson is the key to the Ravens' rushing attack; there's no doubting that. But the Ravens have now looked to improve their rushing talent in back-to-back seasons. They added Ingram and fourth-round rookie Justice Hill last year, and this year took Dobbins in the second round. All of this while holding the skeleton key, the proof of concept, the one player who could make running back talent a complete wash.
We know the Ravens are not a team to wantonly fly in the face of analytics. Baltimore paced the league in fourth-down aggressiveness and championed timely two-point conversion attempts; the Ravens hired from the outside and poured bodies into their analytics department. They hunted for edges, found them and shredded the NFL with them.
And when they drafted Dobbins, they knew that it was against that very process which found them those edges.
That's Ravens’ general manager Eric DeCosta. He's in his second year on the job after taking over for legendary personnel evaluator Ozzie Newsome, and he's the spearhead that pushed Baltimore to the forefront of football analytics. It was DeCosta's interest in quantitative edges that led to the Ravens' aggressive hiring of new minds for their expanded analytic department. It was also DeCosta that ignored those voices when he made the Dobbins pick.
Much like the magical, optimal run/pass balance that we've yet to discover (if it exists at all), there's an optimal balance of analytic and heuristic approaches to player evaluation. For every smart and motivated employee DeCosta has in his analytics department, he likely has two in his scouting department, and they're going to disagree on what to do. DeCosta said Dobbins had "first-round talent" when discussing the pick, but certainly, a team like the Ravens would never value a running back as a first-round target, given how an elite running back has a smaller positive impact at the team level than an elite corner, an elite EDGE or even an elite guard. This is the idea of positional value, and it's where running backs suffer. They may have top-tier talent, but it doesn't mean they have top-tier value; that note on first-round talent comes directly from DeCosta's scouting department. When they watched film on Dobbins, they graded him as a first-round player using the scales that football scouts have for years, scales that rank players on talent alone and don't take analytically-defined positional value into the equation.
That scouting process is incomplete and has been improved by the incorporation of positional value. With more information, as DeCosta said, the Ravens can make more informed decisions. Here, they considered the information generated by their analytic department — not league-specific running data, but running data specific to their team — and the information generated by a historically quality and experienced scouting department and decided that Dobbins was the best pick for their team.
Dobbins represents an improvement over Ingram at a cheaper price tag, both this year and next when the Ravens are likely to cut Ingram to save about $5 million on the salary cap. Dobbins also represents insurance against injury. His presence adds to the incredible depth of the Ravens' backfield and ensures lower carries per game numbers for Ingram, Edwards and Hill as they rotate through the backfield. Dobbins is an extremely strong bet to be a high-floor starter the Ravens must ensure remains talented as they look to continue to run the football at an elite level while protecting Jackson. Dobbins is going to be good in the league, and that will largely be a result of his context but it will also be the result of his individual skill.
Was drafting Dobbins the best decision at No. 55 in terms of maximizing expected value? Absolutely not. Nobody can dive so far into the film to claim that successfully. Dobbins was not an optimal decision, but he does represent a heuristic one.
It shows the scouting department that players they think are good will still be drafted by their general manager, which encourages and incentivizes them to continue to do quality evaluation work. It shows that DeCosta recognizes the inherent tug-of-war between modern analytic and traditional football approaches; that the truth lies somewhere in the middle and a dead sprint to full optimization is impossible in the current climate of team-building philosophies. DeCosta himself said it: "My philosophy is talent wins."
We're not all the way there yet. Maybe we'll be there someday. Maybe in 10 years a general manager takes a first-round talent at running back in the third round because it would have been irresponsible not to. Maybe scouting departments stop using round-based scales to complete their evaluations and leave the valuation to the computer jockeys in the musty closet over there. But DeCosta's responsible selection of Dobbins was a response to the landscape of his team, front office and philosophy at this moment in football history. He made a strength stronger, drafted talent over need and brought in a player his staff thought was pretty doggone good.
That's good drafting. No two ways about that either.