With Running Backs, You Get What You Pay For

Image courtesy of Packers.com

They say “you get what you pay for,” and they’re generally pretty smart. Bought some off-brand frozen burritos and now you’re not feeling so hot? Picked out the cheapest mattress at the store and now you’re waking up with a sore back? Drafted a running back in the 6th round and it turns out he’s not quite Barry Sanders? Well, sounds like everything checks out here.

In the NFL as in life, you really do get what you pay for. Now I’m not talking about paying in dollar bills here, I’m talking about that Ted Thompson currency. I’m talking draft picks, and while every position will most likely show some correlation between draft-pick and on-field success, today we’re going to look at runnings backs.

Of course there’s always exceptions. Sometimes you throw a penny in the bucket a you get Alfred Morris, the rookie drafted this year by the Redskins in the sixth round who currently has the 4th most rushing yards in the NFL. And other times you break open the metal briefcase full of consecutive, unmarked 100 dollar bills straight from the bank, and you get Jahvid Best.

However, even acknowledging that evaluating draft prospects is far from an exact science, you still have a much better chance of finding an Adrian Peterson in the first round than you do in the fourth. Of the NFL’s current top 20 rushers, half of them were first round draft picks, 65% were drafted in the first two rounds, and 80% were drafted in the first three.

So, when we consider that the Packers are currently 23rd in the league in rushing, it should all make sense. In recent years, the Packers haven’t been willing to take use a high-value pick on a running back. Alex Green was a third round pick in 2011, although it was the second to last pick in the third-round. Starks was drafted in the sixth round in 2010. And while Benson was a first-round pick, that was quite awhile ago, and by the time he was picked up by the Packers he had just spent essentially an entire offseason as a free-agent, unclaimed by any team.

Now, I’m not saying I think any of these players are terrible. In fact, I actually really liked what I saw out of Benson before he went down, and Starks’ performance in the 2010-2011 playoffs was remarkable, but the fact of the matter is the Packers have not invested heavily in their run game, and so it’s only natural that it performs at a below-average level.

Now, does that really matter? Compared to other personnel groups, and considering the Packers’ strength in the passing game, I’d rank rushing offense pretty low on the importance list. But it’d be stupid to ignore the benefits a strong ground game could bring.

It’s a nearly unanimous thought that quarterback is the most important position in the modern day NFL, and the Packers have the best quarterback in the game. But if that’s the case, how do teams like the Falcons, Texans, Bears and 49ers have a better record than the Packers? Replacement refs. That’s how. Well that and offensive balance. Rodgers is the best in the game, and when he’s hot, the Packers just plain won’t lose. But as we’ve seen this season, he can’t always execute at a near perfect level, and having a ground game to fall back on could turn some of those potential losses into wins.

With the trade deadline passed and the draft still so far away, the Packers won’t be picking up any big-name running backs anytime soon. But it’s something to think about. Maybe it’s finally time that the Packers take a big swing at a high-ceiling running back and see what happens. They could end up with a Donald Brown; a good, not great player. Or they could end up with Adrian Peterson II. And that’s just scary.

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