BUFFALO, N.Y. — The Buffalo Bills are in a pretty good spot. With a well-rounded roster that has fewer needs than most, there are a variety of directions they could go with eight picks in this year’s draft.
They could address defensive back, the interior of the offensive and defensive lines and wide receiver.
One potential path that generates strong reactions, however, is the possibility of selecting a running back early.
It’s not exactly a new argument. The Bills’ option of drafting a running back in the first couple of rounds was a hot-button topic before the 2021 draft, too, but the position ultimately went unaddressed.
Coach Sean McDermott has expressed a desire to add a consistent running game to the offense. Drafting a running back with a high pick would give the Bills a valuable weapon to do that, but using an early pick on the position could prove a poor use of resources.
The offense was at its strongest last year when the running game was clicking. During the five-game winning streak at the end of the season through the first game of the playoffs, when running back Devin Singletary was at his best, the Bills averaged a league-high 33.4 offensive points per game and 399.4 yards per game (third most).
In recent years, drafting a running back early hasn’t always worked out, with many players moving on from the team that picked them after their rookie deal.
Many teams have gone to a committee approach and, even then, players selected in later rounds have often become the lead rusher. Eight of the top 10 rushing leaders in 2021 were drafted in the second round or later. Since 2010, only two players taken in the first round have led the league in rushing: Adrian Peterson (2012 and 2015) and Ezekiel Elliott (2016 and 2018).
The Bills have drafted 10 running backs in the first round, including three since 2000 — Willis McGahee (2003), Marshawn Lynch (2007) and C.J. Spiller (2010). None of the three signed a second contract in Buffalo, and Lynch went on to have his best seasons with the Seattle Seahawks.
Of the 19 running backs selected in the first round since 2010, six signed a second contract with their original team: Seattle’s Rashaad Penny, Carolina’s Christian McCaffrey, Dallas’ Elliott, Los Angeles’ Todd Gurley, Tampa Bay’s Doug Martin and New Orleans’ Mark Ingram.
Outside of Penny, who signed a one-year deal last month, Ingram is the only one of those players to have an uptick in production after signing a second deal. During that same stretch, 26 running backs were selected in the second round with five of those signing second deals with the team that drafted them, including Tennessee’s Derrick Henry, Cleveland’s Nick Chubb, Minnesota’s Dalvin Cook and Cincinnati’s Joe Mixon.
What about the Bills, a team trying to win right now?
General manager Brandon Beane isn’t shy about using early picks on a running back. In 2019 and 2020, the Bills used third-round picks on Devin Singletary and Zack Moss. Beane was part of the Carolina Panthers‘ front office that selected McCaffrey eighth overall in 2017.
“If he’s the best guy on our board we wouldn’t hesitate to take them,” Beane said in 2021. “What does his skill set have in comparison to what we have on the roster?”
Singletary is in the final year of his deal after ending 2021 on a high note but has yet to show he can consistently perform at a high level. He has had two 100-plus yard rushing games in his career and the Bills’ ability (or lack thereof) to run the ball was an issue over the course of the season, with quarterback Josh Allen often leading the team in rushing.
While the Bills finished with 2,209 rushing yards (ranked sixth), 1,343 of those yards came from running backs (25th).
Some of the issues can be attributed to the inconsistences up front for Buffalo with the offensive line dealing with injuries and absences due to COVID-19. Since 2019, the Bills have had a 67.7% run block win rate (30th) when a running back is the rusher, but that number has moved in the right direction with investment in the line.
ESPN draft analysts Jordan Reid, Todd McShay and Mel Kiper don’t have any team drafting a running back in the first round this year. But they all have the Bills drafting a running back with a second-round pick in their latest mocks.
Reid has Iowa State back Breece Hall available at No. 57, but ESPN Sports Analytics predicts less than 20% chance Hall will be there. He is a “young and versatile back who can be a three-down player for a team that has lacked consistency in the backfield and in the running game,” Reid wrote.
McShay has Buffalo taking Michigan State back Kenneth Walker III at No. 57, noting his “speed, suddenness and contact balance.” Walker had 1,636 rushing yards and 18 touchdowns on the ground last year and is more likely to be available late in the second round (over 50% chance).
“[Walker] plays a different speed,” McShay said. “From the moment the ball is in his hand, it’s electric. He just explodes off the snap. … You compare him to Breece Hall, who’s more of that patient runner, who’s built up speed and phenomenal workout numbers and I know everyone’s talking about him maybe late in the first. I don’t see it as much as I see it with Walker in terms of what translates to the NFL.
“… The thing with Walker that people don’t understand is that dude can catch. He is fluid and smooth catching the football.”
The Bills are aware of the need at the position with the team likely to use more two-TE sets this season and looking to combat the two-high defenses. The front office tried to acquire running back J.D. McKissic this offseason, but that fell through when Washington made a late push to re-sign him. Instead, the Bills signed veteran Duke Johnson to a one-year deal, but he will have to compete for a roster spot.
“When you can make yourself a two-dimensional threat, it seems to slow [defenses] down,” McDermott said of having a complementary offense. “That’s when offenses are at their best, when they can do that.”