Exploring Positional Investments: Running Backs

My last blog at AllAmericanHustle was about running backs and their value in fantasy football as well as their value in the NFL. Sadly, I have reason to write about this subject again as David Wilson will be hanging up his cleats after two injury plagued seasons with the New York Giants.

Seeing as Wilson is a former first round pick, this goes back to the point I was making in the previous blog: running back is simply too physical a position to spend a first round pick on.

You look at former first-rounders like Ryan Matthews, Darren McFadden, Doug Martin and even CJ Spiller, these guys have all been banged up for much of their careers. It’s a brutal game and it’s a game where every dollar teams spend counts due to the salary cap. It’s not like baseball where teams like the Yankees, Red Sox or Dodgers can afford to make a couple bad calls, every NFL dollar counts.

If you analyze salary cap spending by position, you realize that, like any business, the numbers tell a story.

Running back is a position where there isn’t much difference in spending between a 12-win plus team and a 12-loss plus team, for that matter, neither is wide receiver. My belief in this is because there has been a growing talent pool as well as coaching systems that allow them to plug and play guys who fit their systems.

What really stands out to me is that five of the seven teams with the highest amount of money dedicated to their running backs did not make the playoffs, with the Seattle Seahawks getting in along with the Carolina Panthers, and they made it while overpaying for the running back tandem of Deangelo Williams and Jonathan Stewart. The Panthers were led by a defense that they got a tremendous value out of.

Adrian Peterson is arguably the best player in the game, but the $17.82 million that Minnesota spent on running

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backs last year ate up 14.49% of their salary cap at a position that 12-win plus teams spent about $7.35 million, or 7.87%, of their cap on. That $10.47 that 12-win teams saved on the running back position could have been instead used to sign a guy like Wes Welker for $6 million a year like the Broncos did.

The Seahawks spent $10.8 million on a backfield led by Lynch and his production helped them win a Super Bowl, but this is also due to the incredible value they’ve found on the defensive side of the ball in guys like Richard Sherman and Earl Thomas, both of whom signed extensions this offseason, thus shrinking the amount of money available for other positions.

Business is about allocating your resources in a manner that gives you the best chance to succeed and, in my opinion, it’s become apparent that running back is too high-risk a position for teams to be risking 10-15% of their salary cap on. In any business, you have to mitigate risks and no matter how good a guy like Adrian Peterson is, he becomes too high-risk an investment when you can find lower-cost solutions as well.

Last season, the New England Patriots had 12 wins and made it to the AFC Championship Game, while only spending $3.39 million on a backfield that included Steven Ridley, LeGarrette Blount, Brandon Bolden and Shane Vereen. Unsurprisingly, THREE of these four backs missed at least two games with Vereen missing half the season.

Even with the injuries, these four Patriots ran for 2,024 yards and 18 touchdowns while catching 80 balls for 679 yards and 3 touchdowns.

The Minnesota Vikings backfield of Peterson, Matt Asiata and Toby Gerhart rushed for 309 less yards and 3 less touchdowns. They only had 47 catches for 272 yards and 1 touchdown receiving.

So for $14.43 million less, the Patriots got much more production. This is the perfect illustration of the future of football and of course, it’s exemplified by the Bill Belichick coached Patriots. Oh, and did I mention the Vikings went 5-10-1? Adrian Peterson is a great player, but it’s almost a curse that he’s so good that he’s seemingly worth so much money as he’s only won one playoff game in his career and that was back in 2009. Part of it’s due to them putting a lot of money in him and a couple other players, but a large part of it is also because the Vikings haven’t spent money wisely or used draft picks effectively.

I know an NFL insider who was at Christian Ponder’s pro day a few years ago and he spoke to a Vikings personnel member who was not impreseed, but they were so quarterback needy that they felt they had to pull the trigger on Ponder in the first round that year. Well, we all know what happened there.

What we’re looking at is teams running their business in the same manner you would run yours. Look for the lowest cost options you can find that help you succeed. Mitigate risk like the Patriots, 49ers, Rams, Lions, and other teams have by stocking up on quality running backs through the draft and free agency. Find guys who fit your system at a lower cost.

When you’re someone who gets as fired up as I do about business and football separately, it’s a beautiful thing to see when they come together like this.

Look at the Cleveland Browns, their newly acquired big free agent pick up Ben Tate will cost them $6.2 million against the cap over the next two season, but it’s the third round talent Terrance West, from last year’s CAA champions and D1AA runner up, Towson Tigers, who might win the starting job. West has a four year deal worth $2.7 million, which might be a much better return on investment than Tate who was oft-injured as a back-up in Houston. Of course, we must remember, they will complement each other, so there’s the value in that too.

West had 4,854 rushing yards and 84 TDs in a mere 37 games during his three years at Towson and, having played in the CAA at Rhode Island, I’m excited to see him open the eyes of the football community to the quality of CAA football. West is a great example of the growing talent pool that the NFL has to choose from, the ability to find guys like Alfred Morris out of FAU in the 6th round of the 2012 draft, a guy who has vastly outperformed his first round counterpart Trent Richardson from Alabama.

Jason and I have both analyzed teams salary cap spending and we both realize there’s a “Moneyball” angle in the NFL, we just have to find it. This new pattern of running back usage is definitely one of the most interesting aspects of our study as there are becoming a few schools of thought. There is what the Vikings and Titans have done by making their running back one of their largest investments, then there’s the running back by committee school of thought that has been famously used by teams like the Saints.

Last year, the Detroit Lions paid their running backs $12.85 million less than the Vikings and got 722 more total yards out of Reggie Bush and Joique Bell than the Vikings got out of Peterson, Asiata and Gerhart. With former Saints quarterback coach Joe Lombardi as the Lions offensive coordinator, we can expect a huge year from a three headed attack of Bush, Bell and Theo Riddick.

This new style of offenses has allowed teams to plug-and-play guys that fit their scheme. It matters less how talented the league thinks you are, but how you fit the system, and this allows teams to get low-cost options that fit what they’re doing and, thus, save them money, while still performing at a high level. The other benefit of this, is that, say Bush, Bell or Riddick go down for the season, you still have two other running backs you can rely on. This year, if Adrian Peterson goes down, Matt Asiata is the starter, if Reggie Bush goes down, the Lions still have Joique Bell. On top of that, you can sometimes even find a guy on your practice squad or in free agency that fits your scheme and can function as your third back. So by using a running back by committee approach, you mitigate risk.

The best coaches, as seen by Seattle Seahawks defensive coordinator Dan Quinn, also mold their system to fit their pieces. While I’ve explained how these new systems have found the pieces that fit them, they also go out and find players who are talented and then put them in spots where they can succeed, even if they already have good players at that position.

The Seahawks place a premium on pass rushers, like many teams do because great pass rushers are game changers. One team that sticks out in my mind of using this method for success was the 2007 Giants defense that was led by Osi Umenyiora, Justin Tuck and Michael Strahan. During the 2013 offesesaon, the Seahawks had just signed Cliff Avril and Quinn called Michael Bennett the next day to convince him that they could use him to the best of his abilities. It was an affordable one-year, $5 million deal for a top rusher who had 9 sacks the year before in Tampa Bay. It doesn’t matter what kind of defense you run, you just need guys who can get to the passer.

A major point on running back performance is that much of their production comes down to their offensive line, same with quarterbacks. And again, just like any business, where can you spend your money to get the best return on investment.

Running back used to be one of the premier positions in the NFL, in fact, before the advent of free agency, people thought all the money would go to running backs, but they were surprised to see it go to positions like left tackle among others. Markets always have a way of correcting themselves and football is no different.

The question becomes, again, like in all businesses, what is the next big thing?

This is among the things we’ll be analyzing and I’m honored to be a part of the Over The Cap team!

Zack Moore

All American Hustle

Follow Zack at: @ZackMooreNFL


 

 

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  • Ian Hardingham

    Would like to see the analysis of production vs spend be based on something a bit more advanced than raw yardage – maybe FO’s DYAR?

    • http://www.allamericanhustle.com Zack Moore

      I actually just discovered Football Outsider’s last night! It’s something I’m sure to analyze over the coming weeks as I’ve already dove into their 2014 edition.

      One thing I do want to stress though is that I believe in this analysis of running backs because the game of football will always come down to moving the football and scoring points. While we can look at deeper analytics, the Vikings still aren’t moving the football or scoring points in a way that justifies the money spent on Peterson. My take is, if they’re underperforming in terms of just yards and points at the running back position, then I think it speaks to their complete investment in their offense. The Vikings had a cap number of $20 million for their OL last season, would they have had a better result if they spent more money on higher quality blockers than spending more money on running backs.

      That being said, I need to analyze it through these other analytics. Thank you for taking the time to leave a comment, gives me another perspective to look at.

  • Kirk Vollmer

    It’s worth pointing out that RB also seems to be one of the quickest positions to learn. So with the CBA’s making rookie’s cheap if I’m trying to fill out 2 positions, one with a vet the other with a drafted rookie, it’s more attractive to just draft an RB while spending the money on the vet elsewhere (Offensive line, receiver, CB D-line, LB). Then you have the depth at the position where players drafted in late rounds can often be very productive. I mean no team in the NFL is a bad team because they don’t have a running back, you can find plenty of guys who make quality starters at that position. It just doesn’t make sense to invest heavily in the position.