The New York Giants are set up to take a quarterback. Eli Manning has dropped off, and the team has fallen to a pick where they can take his successor. The Cleveland Browns and the New York Jets, teams that have a long progression of quarterbacks in recent years. That said, I’m going to present an analytical case for taking Saquon Barkley at 2nd, and no later than 3rd overall (The Browns have signed Carlos Hyde and would seem to be out of the running back market).
When you are at the top of the draft, you must get a star. Now, if that’s star is a quarterback all the better. But there’s a tremendous value to getting elite production at any position. I would posit that a Hall of Famer at a position like running back is more valuable than “just a guy” at quarterback, and that’s the mental scale-balancing teams have to weigh. A few weeks ago, we ranked all 55 QBs drafted in the first round. Twenty-seven of those guys went top 5, so where is the cutoff where you would rather have an elite running back like LaDainian Tomlinson or Todd Gurley in retrospect? I’d say you’d take the impact running back over more than two-thirds of them.
Now, Saquon Barkley’s chances of being the next LaDainian Tomlinson are not 100%. But he’s an elite prospect, and barring a signficant injury, I’d take my chances that he will be on the level of what we’ve seen from Gurley and Elliott recently.
Here is a look at the outcomes for the first player taken at positions (as long as they were taken in the Top 10), as well as the second QB taken (also in the Top 10).
Yes, there are some prominent busts, but top running backs are arguably the safest picks at the top of the draft. Barring severe injury, they typically pan out, and almost half of them are superstars at their position. The number of quarterbacks is lower when it comes to all-pro selections (players like John Elway and Troy Aikman were never selected first team AP all-pro). Given the upside of the QB position, it makes some sense to take the top guy there. But after the clear-cut franchise QBs go first overall, the outcomes aren’t so clear cut that you should bypass a stud running back for the next available passer.
In fact, in looking back at drafts where that included both a top running back and two top quarterbacks, taking the running back would have been the better move more than half the time.
There’s also the argument that running backs are fungible and aren’t as valuable. There are a couple of counters to that. First, I think that it’s no different than a lot of positions. There is an elite group of players at one tail, then a bunch of players in the middle who are closer to equal. Just because a team can bring a backup in and get similar yards doesn’t mean there’s no impact.
In fact, when star running backs have missed games, the impact has been on par with a good starting quarterback. I took the Top 25 seasons in Fantasy Points since 2000, and found all seasons by those star running backs where (a) they missed (and played) between 4 and 12 games, and (b) they were age 28 or younger. I compared the points scored with and without them those seasons.
There were 15 cases, and the average difference was +2.8 points in games where the running back played. That probably understates the effect some because it includes games where injury occurred and some games where the back was working back from injury and limited. Just last year, the Dallas Cowboys averaged 6 fewer points in games when Ezekiel Elliott was out.
The other argument is an economic one. While some would argue that running back is devalued and should not go as highly, but it’s precisely because of the rookie wage scale, versus paying veteran running back price, that it makes the most sense. We’ve seen teams get cheap quarterbacks in the draft (Russell Wilson, Dak Prescott) and be able to save money on the roster elsewhere. The greatest value for those quarterbacks is in the first few years. Well, if a quarterback “isn’t ready” then (a) I’d argue that’s an indication he may not be worth a high pick and (b) you lose the most valuable early season. Meanwhile, taking someone like Barkley could be a huge boon in value for five years.
I don’t know who the Jets or Giants have as their top quarterback on the board, but if he’s not there, and they are down to the consolation prize, Barkley may prove the better bet in the long run.