This season, the Raiders' Latavius Murray was second in the AFC in rushing with 1,066 yards, only four yards behind AFC rushing champion Chris Ivory of the Jets. Murray was one of only seven players in the NFL to rush for over a thousand yards this season. However, Murray seemed to do most of his damage in the first half of games and wear down near the end.
We can attribute this to the fact that Murray carried the team's entire rushing load himself and did not have a true complementary back. Roy Helu was signed for that purpose but for whatever reason spent most of the season in the coaching staff's doghouse. By the end of the year the Raiders were using Jamize Olawale to spell Murray, but Olawale is a fullback with limited ability as a rusher.
The Raiders absolutely need to look for another running back this offseason. Matt Forte and Marshawn Lynch will likely both be available, but neither will come cheap and it's likely neither one will want to split time with Murray if there are other teams offering to make them the unquestioned starter. Both are also on the downside of their careers.
So that leaves the draft. It's been said a lot in recent years that unlike many positions, you don't need to draft a running back highly. More and more these days, teams will have a stable of backs they can use instead of one feature guy. The thought is that three good players have more value than one really good player, especially when too much workload wears down that really good player. The Raiders are one of a handful of teams that uses a single feature running back.
So I decided to take a look at where each team's starting running back was taken in the draft. I will list the player widely considered each team's starter and in which round they were selected. Many of these guys were undrafted entirely, and for mathematical purposes I tally them as being taken in Round 8, which does not exist.
Patriots: LeGarrette Blount- UNDRAFTED
Jets: Chris Ivory- UNDRAFTED
Dolphins: Lamar Miller- Round 4
Bills: LeSean McCoy- Round 2
Texans: Arian Foster- UNDRAFTED
Colts: Frank Gore- Round 3
Titans: Anthony Andrews- UNDRAFTED
Jaguars: T.J. Yeldon- Round 2
Ravens: Justin Forsett- Round 7
Bengals: Jeremy Hill- Round 2
Steelers: Le'Veon Bell- Round 2
Browns: Isaiah Crowell- UNDRAFTED
Raiders: Latavius Murray- Round 6
Chiefs: Jamaal Charles- Round 3
Chargers: Melvin Gordon- Round 1 (Danny Woodhead can also be considered the starter, and went UNDRAFTED)
Broncos: C.J. Anderson- UNDRAFTED
Giants: Rashad Jennings- Round 7
Cowboys: Darren McFadden- Round 1
Eagles: DeMarco Murray- Round 3
Indigenous Persons: Alfred Morris- Round 6
Falcons: Devonta Freeman- Round 4
Panthers: Jonathan Stewart- Round 1
Saints: Mark Ingram- Round 1
Buccaneers: Doug Martin- Round 1
Vikings: Adrian Peterson- Round 1
Packers: Eddie Lacy- Round 2
Bears: Matt Forte- Round 2
Lions: Joique Bell- UNDRAFTED
49ers: Shaun Draughn- UNDRAFTED
Rams: Todd Gurley- Round 1
Seahawks: Marshawn Lynch- Round 1
Cardinals: David Johnson- Round 3
When you average these numbers out, the typical starting running back for an NFL team was selected in Round 4.0625, or the top of the fourth round.
So, when we examine this list carefully we come to a few interesting conclusions. We discover that on it there are eight first round running backs and eight undrafted running backs. Statistically therefore, you are just as likely to have your running back be an undrafted free agent player as a first-round blue chip stud.
What are the reasons for this? Firstly, one might surmise that any running back considered a first round talent will have been a huge part of his team's offense in college and even going back to high school. He will have been a superstar and a feature guy with upwards of 25 carries every game for six or seven years by the time he is drafted, and that puts a lot of wear on the tires. Think Ron Dayne or Cedric Benson here. Unless you are a physical freak like Adrian Peterson, you are quite likely to get injured at that point.
Backs drafted later on are less likely to have these eye-popping statistics from college and are more likely to have more left in the tank. Latavius Murray is actually a perfect example of this- he was drafted in the sixth round out of UCF. He has really great measurables including great size and speed, but in college he didn't have the best stats because he played in a backfield with Blake Bortles who threw the ball a billion times a game. Murray didn't get the chance to really show what he could do in college.
This can apply to DeVonta Freeman as well. He was very productive at Florida State, but shared the backfield with a few other really good backs and didn't carry his team's whole load. He has very little wear and tear on his body for someone who was as good as he was in college.
Another reason that undrafted running backs are everywhere is sample size. There are over three hundred undrafted players signed every year by NFL teams, whereas there are only 32 first round picks, except for this year when there will be 31, ha ha Patriots. The sheer number of undrafted players necessitates that a decent chunk of them will become starters.
However, the fact that so many undrafted running backs make it is startling, especially when you consider that 21 of the 32 starting quarterbacks in he NFL were taken in the first round, and a good number of the rest were taken in the second (such as our own Derek Carr). The only really successful undrafted quarterback is Tony Romo.
I believe teams are waiting to draft running backs because of the increasing violence of the game. Running backs get hurt early and often due to the nature of the position, and I don't think teams want to spend that kind of investment (both in money and in a high draft pick) on a guy who could miss significant time. They would rather throw an undrafted guy out there because they are easily replaceable and essentially expendable.
Look at how Alabama RB Derrick Henry is being rated by many pundits in draft preparation. Henry has arguably been a Top 5 overall player in college football for the last two seasons and won the most recent Heisman Trophy, but he's considered a second round player. There's no logical reason for that except that teams just don't value his position. Whomever drafts Henry will get a steal, and I doubt he makes it past the Titans' second round selection. Henry has been a big part of the Alabama offense but has also split time with other talented backs such as Kenyan Drake, so he should be good to go
So what does this mean for the Raiders? They still have a lot of needs, and if they miss out on a good running back in free agency they should target one in the later rounds of the draft. A few guys I think might fall to Round 4 are Utah's DeVontae Booker and Florida's Kelvin Taylor, either one of whom would instantly make the Raiders' offense more potent. The aforementioned Kenyan Drake will also be available in this draft, and he's extremely good with the misfortune of having played behind two great backs at Alabama in Henry and the Packers' Lacy.
The Raiders might also feel that running back is a position best left this year for the undrafted free agents, and perhaps a guy like Southern Cal's Tre Madden would fall through the cracks at that point. This is a very deep draft and the Raiders have a lot of options. Statistically, there's no wrong choice here.