The Cleveland Browns have locked in picks No. 1 and No. 4 in the first round of the 2018 NFL Draft. Despite the trial and tribulation Browns fans experienced en route to this draft day, aka the Browns Superbowl, there is once again the excitement of upside and choices to be made at the top of the draft. WFNY has been covering the upcoming NFL draft for months now, and will continue to do so with unparalleled insight. Indeed, from a player evaluation standpoint, Jake Burns and Joe Gilbert have provided Browns fans with a deep archive of analysis for 2018 picks. This analysis includes their rankings of the 2018 NFL running back draft class which Joe Gilbert described in terms of depth below:
This class is one of the best I have ever seen, as well as the deepest class. Last year was really good, but the 2018 class is better and deeper. I had a hard time narrowing my list to a top five. I had an argument for at least nine backs to be in my top five.
Yet, the most popular name amongst the NFL draft intelligentsia is Saquon Barkley, a talented multi-faceted back from Penn State University. The following argument involves Barkley as a figurehead rather than a singular talent. There is little doubt that Barkley will improve the fortunes of an NFL team in some capacity, but his fit with the Browns, and the risk of as well as aging of NFL running backs, dictate that the Browns should not use a Top 5 pick, or even a first round pick, on a running back.1
One of the major problems for an NFL team like the Browns in the midst of a long term and arduous rebuild is that immediate productivity is not an absolute necessity wherein longevity is a massive value. In terms of team building, the Browns are looking for players at picks No. 1 and No. 4 who will contribute not only in 2018 but in 2023 as well. This is the great danger of the running back.
Research by a site constructed around fantasy football success has established that the peak and aging curve of running back to be front loaded and brief. For instance, the NFL peak for running backs is the earliest in football and occurs near to draft date.
One of the recent arguments for drafting a running back near the top of the first round is Ezekiel Elliott. In many ways, the Elliott example illuminates the value of drafting running back in a circumstance where a team can compete immediately. At the time of the pick, Elliot was drafted to a loaded Cowboys team who had collapsed due to a quarterback injury. Indeed, Elliot was drafted to complement a team with the best offensive line in football and a pro-bowl caliber quarterback. In this context, drafting a running back in the first 10 picks makes a lot of sense because the front-loaded nature of running back production is useful to a team primed for contention.2
However, the Browns are not a team ready for immediate contention, and offensively, seems miles from competence despite seemingly adequate weapons. The Browns need to use this pick on a player with a longer peak shelf-life and overall, better staying power.
Further, the depth of the 2018 draft class at running back also requires a conservative approach to the position. With a class rolling potentially nine deep including talents like Sony Michael, Bryce Love, Ronald Jones, and Derrius Guice, patience would appear to be the key. The Browns can certainly improve the position in this draft but the pick must be later on in order to correct for the gap between their contention window, and the aging curve of running backs.
Saquon Barkley can help a contending level team reach no heights but serves no purpose to a team toiling in development multiple pieces away from stealing a wild card spot. The Browns have to hit on franchise cornerstone at picks No. 1 and No. 4, and a player with an early peak and short shelf-life simply does not fit that need. Unless you believe the Browns are a playoff contender in 2018 or 2019.