Saints have had pretty good luck with undrafted running backs in recent years.  I’m thinking of Pierre Thomas, Chris Ivory, and Khiry Robinson, not to mention good players other teams have found, like Arian Foster, LeGarrette Blount, and Priest Holmes, just to name a few.  So, given the fact really good running backs can be found in the undrafted pool of rookies each year, does it make sense to spend draft picks on them?  The Saints even traded up in the draft for a couple running backs, Mark Ingram and most recently, Alvin Kamara.  Which is the better strategy?

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Let’s break it down in terms of good running backs and great running backs.  To be considered a “good” running back (strictly for the purposes of this blog post) you just need to rush for 1,000 yards in a season.  To be a “great” running back you need to both rush for 1,000 yards in a season *and* have a 5.0 or greater per carry average in that season.  This will all be based on seasons, not careers.

In the last 20 seasons (1997-2016) there have been 54 running back seasons (some did it more than once) where the players rushed for 1,000+ yards AND had a 5.0+ per carry average.  How many by drafted players?  52.  That’s 52/54 = 96.3%.  So, to get a “great” back you really need to draft him.  In which round?  We’ll look at that in the next paragraph.

Of the 54 great running back seasons, 27 (50%) were by running backs taken in the 1st round, 20 (20/54 = 37%) were taken 2nd through 4th rounds, and 5 (5/54 = 9.3%) were drafted 5th round or later, and, of course the 2 (2/54 = 3.7%) undrafted players.

Now, let’s look at the good (only need 1,000+ yards in the season, ypc 4.9 or less) running back seasons.  There were 258 such “good” seasons over the last 20 years.  Of these 258, we had 240/258 = 93% were drafted, 18/258 = 7% were undrafted.  Now, let’s break it down by rounds.

Of the 258 “good” running back seasons, 122 (122/258 = 47.3%) were 1st round picks, 97 (97/258 = 37.6%) were 2nd through 4th round picks, 21 (21/258 = 8.1%) were 5th round or later, and 18 (18/258 = 7%) were undrafted.

Interestingly, the percentages are pretty close for both groups.  You have 50% versus 47.3% for 1st rounders, 37% versus 37.6% for 2nd through 4th rounders,   9.3% versus 8.1% for 5th through whatever rounders, and 3.7% versus 7% for the undrafted, in the “great” versus “good” groups comparisons.  (Note: the draft used to be longer than just 7 rounds, so some of the players drafted 5th through whatever might have gone undrafted in later years, so there is some overlap, which might account for some of the differences.)

Great Seasons Round Drafted Percentage
54 Any / Undrafted 100.00%
27 1st 50.00%
20 2nd through 4th 37.00%
5 5th or later 9.30%
2 Undrafted 3.70%
Good Seasons Round Drafted Percentage
258 Any / Undrafted 100.00%
122 1st 47.30%
97 2nd through 4th 37.60%
21 5th or later 8.10%
18 Undrafted 7.00%

NFL good and great rb seasons (1997-2016)


So, what’s the answer to the question in the headline?  I say if you want to maximize your chances of getting a 1,000+ yard back you need to take him no later than the 3rd or 4th round, but good backs *can* still be found in the later rounds and after the draft.  By the way, here’s the breakdown of “good” backs by round: 1st = 122, 2nd = 47, 3rd = 36, 4th = 14, 5th = 8, 6th = 7, 7th = 5, 8th or later = 1, undrafted = 18.