Wednesday, February 27, 2008

Pardon the Interpretation

While discussing Darren McFadden on Monday's Pardon the Interruption and whether he should be a top-five draft pick, one of the hosts -- Tony Kornheiser, I think -- said that he wouldn't want to draft a running back with a high first-round pick because (and I'm paraphrasing here) "running backs are too much of a risk and are too fragile, because they only last a few years before you need a new one." To "support" his argument Tony rattled off a few names, like Ki-Jana Carter and Curtis Enis, as "proof" that drafting a running back so high is risky.

It doesn't take a brain surgeon to realize that such an argument is the height of cherry-picking and ignores the several very good backs who have come out of the early part of the draft, guys like Marshall Faulk, LaDainian Tomlinson, and Barry Sanders. I could just as easily say that you shouldn't draft a quarterback with an early pick and point at Ryan Leaf, Akili Smith, and Tim Couch while ignoring Peyton Manning, Donovan McNabb, and Carson Palmer.

But there is something to the point that running backs have relatively short shelf lives, and a primary back over the age of 30 is a rare thing. This is of special interest to Vikings fans, who hope that Adrian Peterson can take care of business for the next five to ten years or so, and to fantasy players who wonder when Tomlinson, age 29 and going into his eight season in 2008, will hit the wall that most backs do around the age of 30. And, since we're talking about your first-round pick here, you don't just want a decent player who lasts into his 30s -- you want a great player, one who will be a perennial all-star and have at least a shot of making it to the Hall of Fame.

With that in mind, I've scoured the draft lists on pro-football-reference and compiled every first-round pick from 1984 to 2003, 20 drafts' worth. To compare players' relative success across seasons and positions, I'll be using their Pro Bowl berths -- not the greatest metric, I know, but it's a reasonable enough way to compare the greatness of, say, a defensive lineman to a wide receiver. That's why I only include drafts to 2003; that gives every drafted player at least five seasons to make a Pro Bowl.

In those 20 drafts, there have been 583 first-round picks. Of those picks, 212 (36%) made at least one Pro Bowl in their careers. Here's how that breaks down by position (setting aside the only first-round kicker in the last 25 years, Sebastian Janikowski, who has never made the Pro Bowl):

Position% IN PBAVG PBS

Interesting. First-round running backs actually make one or more Pro Bowls 42.47% of the time, a large margin over the second-place position (quarterback, 38.89%). So, if you draft a running back in the first round, recent evidence would seem to indicate that he's got a nearly 50-50 chance of being a Pro Bowl player, at least once in his career. Barely one third of all first-round offensive linemen, on the other hand, barely qualify for the Pro Bowl in their careers.

But Tony Kornheiser's beef wasn't with short-term greatness. Instead, he questioned the durability and shelf life of a running back, and that's better expressed in the second column, which lists the average number of Pro Bowls made for each position, including players who played in zero of the games.

Here, the running back's fragility is more evident, with just 1.14 Pro Bowls made per career. Equally intriguing, though, is the similarity of that number to the average Pro Bowls made by first-round quarterbacks. If you take the numbers to one more decimal point, QBs actually win, 1.139 to 1.137, but it's still intriguing. However, I think it can be explained by the recent glut of very good non-first-round quarterbacks, such as Tom Brady, Brett Favre, Drew Brees, Matt Hasselbeck, and even Jeff Garcia, a four-time Pro Bowler who wasn't even drafted. Another factor is the relative reluctance teams have to play their highly regarded QBs too soon, while first-round running backs are often handed a heavy load right out of college, thus giving them an extra year or so to establish themselves (and, in the case of Adrian Peterson, to make the Pro Bowl).

As for the other positions, while O-linemen might have trouble making the Pro Bowl, it's no secret that once they're there, they're as hard to dislodge as, well, an offensive lineman. Only linebackers average more Pro Bowls in their careers, and one could argue that they're almost as tough to oust as linemen. D-linemen have the most trouble racking up the bids; it could be that it only takes one or two good games, where a d-lineman racks up five or six sacks, to virtually guarantee a trip to Hawaii, thus allowing more players to rotate through the ranks of Pro Bowlers. Seven sacks in 15 games doesn't usually get a lineman to the Pro Bowl, but that's what Osi Umenyiora did in 2007. Of course, he played in 16 games, including this one, which stamped his ticket to Hawaii. Defensive backs have sort of the same issue. A three-interception game can make all the difference between making the Pro Bowl and not.

In the end, it seems that Tony Kornheiser was at least partially right -- running backs do have relatively short shelf lives, even the great ones that you look for in the first round. Does that mean you shouldn't spend a high pick on one? Of course not. If a tremendous talent (like Darren McFadden or Adrian Peterson) is available, one that can lead your team for six to eight years, you'd be foolish not to snap it up. Very few players, from running backs to quarterbacks to linemen to any position last that long with one team anyway, and it's not really that much riskier than any other position, especially the premier position of quarterback.

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