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O’Neil: The Seahawks shouldn’t draft a RB in 1st round — nobody should

The Seahawks shouldn't take even Saquon Barkley at No. 18, Danny O'Neil writes. (AP)

I don’t think the Seahawks should draft LSU running back Derrius Guice in the first round.

I don’t think they should trade back and draft Georgia’s Sony Michel or Nick Chubb, either.

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If inexplicable and immediate stupidity were to be transmitted telephonically from one NFL draft room to the next, resulting in a chain reaction that let Saquon Barkley slide all the way down to the No. 18 pick which the Seahawks now hold, I still don’t think Seattle should draft him.

That’s because I don’t think a team should choose a running back in the first round, and certainly not among the top 20 picks. This is not something I believe so much as something that I’ve become convinced by Ben Baldwin.

Now, Ben is a trained economist who lives in Virginia. He’s also a graduate of Redmond High School and a devoted Seahawks fan who is in his mid-30s. I consider him one of my Internet friends. I follow him on Twitter, read articles he’s written at FieldGulls.com and others he references. He writes from the perspective of the trained data analyst that he is. And over the past year, his work has made me question the importance of running the football as it relates to winning NFL games.

Yep, I initially had the exact same reaction that you just did. It runs contrary to pretty much everything I’ve been told and much of what I believe about the game.

But Ben doesn’t come to that conclusion because he believes that football coaches are always wrong or their schemes are backward or that he’s smarter than everyone being paid to practice the sport for a living. He’s reached that conclusion by doing the same thing he does in his day job: looking at the numbers and seeing what they tell him. And what they’ve told him is that compared to passing productivity, rushing doesn’t matter all that much when it relates to winning in the NFL.

“It took really going through the data and trying to find any evidence that rushing mattered or set up things like play-action pass,” he said.

His conclusion: It didn’t matter in the NFL. Not nearly as much as passing the ball. And while I would say that I’m really intrigued by Ben’s conclusion, I’m a long way from convinced.

But when it comes to drafting a running back, I’ve bought in completely to Ben’s belief that no running back should be chosen with a top-20 pick. Not in today’s NFL.

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First, one of the biggest advantages of holding a top-20 pick is that it includes a level of cost-control. Draft a starting quarterback in the first round, and you’ve got a bargain compared to what you’d pay for a starter on the open market. But the way veteran running back salaries have cratered in recent years, a first-round contract for a running back is top of the pay grade at that position.

More importantly, there’s no statistical evidence that a running back is going to be better than league-average. In fact, there’s not any real evidence that a running back drafted in the first round is going to be more effective than one drafted in the second round. Or the third round, which is where New Orleans drafted Alvin Kamara, last year’s Offensive Rookie of the Year.

Finally, there’s a decent likelihood that a running back drafted in the first round won’t even wind up being the best running back on the team. This positional analysis of draft choices by round found that less than two-thirds of running backs chosen in the first round became a starter for more than half of their respective career, lowest of any position on offense.

So to summarize, there is no financial advantage to picking a running back in the first round, you are not statistically more likely to get a more effective running back in the first round compared to later rounds and you are less likely to find a long-term starter at running back in the first round than any other position.

All that’s part of the reason that Ben has convinced me that when it comes to picking a running back in the first round of this year’s draft, the Seahawks should just pass.

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