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NFL Draft: What Does a #3 Pick Look Like?

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NFL: San Francisco 49ers at Chicago Bears Dennis Wierzbicki-USA TODAY Sports

Unless the Colts make a trade or receive a punitive league punishment, Chris Ballard will be selecting the #3 pick in the 2018 draft. There has been a lot of fan discussion as to how to spend that draft capital and the team certainly has no shortage of needs.

Saquon Barkley has declared for the draft and will no doubt go very early on day 1, with many mock drafts having him go to the Colts.

If that happens, how would that pick compare against other drafts? Historically, have running backs been deemed worthy of a high pick? I’m going to sift through 38 years of data to see if I can find some historical perspective to answer that. But first, a trivia question.

Q: Since 1980, what NFL franchise has had the most top 3 draft picks?

A: The Colts.

Not including 2018, the Colts have picked in the top 3, nine times. Nine times? Nine times. Anyone? . . . anyone?

Two of those picks happened before the Mayflower move, while the two most recent ones were Manning and Luck. Those events were the bookends for an 8 year window between ‘87 and ‘94, where Indy picked in the top 3 an additional five times! Ah, the good old days.

The following table splits the 1st round picks for the last 38 NFL drafts into 2 equal 19-year periods by position.

Years DB DL LB OL QB RB ST TE WR Total 1st Rnd
1980 - 1998 81 108 63 97 33 82 0 15 58 537
15.1% 20.1% 11.7% 18.1% 6.1% 15.3% 0.0% 2.8% 10.8% 100%
1999 - 2017 109 138 61 98 53 46 1 21 76 603
18.1% 22.9% 10.1% 16.3% 8.8% 7.6% 0.2% 3.5% 12.6% 100%
Change 3.0% 2.8% -1.6% -1.8% 2.6% -7.6% 0.2% 0.7% 1.8% 0%

While most positions don't show a large change in their period over period weighting, running backs had a dramatic 50% drop in first round draft capital expenditure from 15.3% of picks to 7.6%.

Expanding that out by year, displays a clear downward trend of RB popularity in the first round.

In the last 7 years, only 4% of 1st round picks have been running backs, compared to 17% for the first 7 years of the data. None of the other positions have any clear trend at all, let alone one so pronounced.

While that’s interesting, the Colts pick isn’t simply a first rounder, it is the #3 overall. So, has positional drafting changed at all for the very top picks?

With such a small volume, it is difficult to ascribe any real statistical rigor, but it is clear that the newer data looks very different from the older and by far, the greatest volume changes were in the QB and RB positions.

Years DB DL LB OL QB RB ST TE WR Total
1980 - 1998 4 13 8 6 11 12 0 0 3 57
1999 - 2017 0 14 3 9 23 3 0 0 5 57

Since 1999, teams have doubled their volume of top 3 picks for QBs, while RB selections have dropped to almost nothing.

These numbers are somewhat arbitrary though, as with such a small sample size, the variance in the data is quite high. For example, using the top 5 picks, the RB drop-off is much less prominent (16% to 13%), while including the top 10 steepens the curve again (14% to 9%).

Regardless, the fact remains that in the last 20 years, only 3 RBs have been selected with the top 3 spots: Ronnie Brown, Reggie Bush and Trent Richardson. No threats to the HOF there.

In the 90's, there were 4 RB picks in the top 3; Blair Thomas, Garrison Hearst, Marshall Faulk, and Ki-Jana Carter. Hearst earned over 10,000 scrimmage yards and Faulk's career was exceptional, while the other 2 were disappointments at best.

You really have to go back to the 80's, to find the hey-day for picking RBs at the top of the draft.

Year Pick Player Team G GS Rush_Yds YScm Yscm/G TD/G YPC Tch/G
1980 1 Billy Sims DET 60 58 5,106 7,178 119.6 0.78 4.51 22.0
1981 3 Freeman McNeil NYJ 144 97 8,074 11,035 76.6 0.35 4.49 14.5
1981 1 George Rogers NOR 92 78 7,176 7,544 82.0 0.59 4.24 19.0
1983 2 Eric Dickerson RAM 146 136 13,259 15,396 105.5 0.66 4.43 22.4
1983 3 Curt Warner SEA 100 94 6,844 8,311 83.1 0.63 4.03 18.9
1986 1 Bo Jackson TAM 38 23 2,782 3,134 82.5 0.47 5.40 14.6
1987 3 Alonzo Highsmith HOU 65 42 1,195 1,623 25.0 0.15 4.22 5.0
1989 3 Barry Sanders DET 153 151 15,269 18,190 118.9 0.71 4.99 22.3
1990 2 Blair Thomas NYJ 64 36 2,236 2,749 43.0 0.14 4.20 9.4
1993 3 Garrison Hearst PHO 126 105 7,966 10,031 79.6 0.31 4.35 16.3
1994 2 Marshall Faulk IND 176 156 12,279 19,154 108.8 0.77 4.33 20.5
1995 1 Ki-Jana Carter CIN 59 14 1,144 1,613 27.3 0.36 3.59 6.5
2005 2 Ronnie Brown MIA 132 74 5,391 7,357 55.7 0.30 4.21 11.6
2006 2 Reggie Bush NOR 134 96 5,490 9,088 67.8 0.40 4.27 13.2
2012 3 Trent Richardson CLE 46 37 2,032 2,944 64.0 0.41 3.31 15.8