By Bill Barnwell, Football Outsiders – special to BSMW Patriots Game Day
The Patriots selection of Laurence Maroney in the first round of this year’s draft was a curious one. That’s not to say that Maroney was a reach – it’s just that, well, Bill Belichick is not too amused by men who can shop at department stores. Belichick’s first round picks:
That’s a lot of beef. At 210 pounds, Maroney’s a full fifty pounds lighter than Ben Watson, the lightest of those selections. Clearly, the Patriots organization has identified tight end and defensive line as positions that are both undervalued and worthy of multiple high draft picks. So then, why Maroney?
Well, there’s the need aspect. Corey Dillon’s ill-advised extension (and that’s not hindsight talking – if you’d like to understand why, take a look at the Seattle chapter in this year’s Pro Football Prospectus 2006 and the essay on running back workloads) took about three months to metamorphosize from the spoils of a successful Super Bowl run into something galling and regrettable; the thirty dollar cheese you bring home for a dinner party, only to see two guests take nibbles, leaving a giant block sitting on your countertop. Corey Dillon and his contract comprise that block, the mess that should really be thrown out but because of its price, gets a slice taken out of it each time you pass by in an attempt to justify its lavish price. Corey Dillon, as a featured back, is done. Finished. That’s not to say he won’t have some use: he can still be a useful back on passing downs, picking up blitzes and (as you may have seen in the game against Washington on Saturday) catching screen passes. He might be a useful back for 150 carries but, well, if you give him the ball 300 times this year, he’s either going to break down or suffer the fate of all aging cheeses: stink.
As a team closely associated with extended, insufferable metaphors, the Patriots foresaw this and obviously saw a running back as a good fit for them in the first round this year. It’s more of a scouts’ debate to determine whether trading up to grab Chad Greenway would’ve been a smarter move, so with that in mind, I wanted to take a look at Laurence Maroney’s past and see if we can ascertain anything from it for his future play.
First, though, a suggestion. If anyone wants to become a real beloved person on this internet thing, they should compile a college football statistical database. Not only is the data from before 2002 or so non-centralized and difficult to find, there are varying levels of accuracy and completeness available depending upon the team. I wasn’t looking for Division I-AA data here or anything – Big Ten running back statistics should be real easy to find, but it took hours to get the even limited data I did. If someone does this, I’d be a real happy guy, and I wouldn’t be the only one. End of rant.
Anyway, what I did was create a list of all the running backs who have been drafted out of a Big Ten school since 1996. From that list, I had to remove those who were fullbacks (Cecil Martin, Mike Alstott, and others), as well as those who I couldn’t gather data on (Sedrick Shaw and the four-headed Penn State hydra from 1996). In addition, while I wanted to gather both senior (or final) year and career data for all the running backs, I could only get one or the other for some of them. Finally, as I mentioned, some of the data occasionally doesn’t match from one site (CNNSI) to another (the Big Ten site) to another (school archives). This can be chalked up to some counting bowl games and others not, along with just plain different interpretations of history. Not to say anyone would ever act irrationally over college football or anything.
What I was left with were 33 backs of varying career lengths and success levels. From there, I chopped up the backs for analysis and comparison to Maroney in several ways.
1. Big 10 First Round Picks
The column headings beginning with “Lst” are for the players’ last year in college, while “Tot” columns contain players’ career totals in college.
That list is a little scary: there are a couple of studs (George and Johnson, although the Patriots and anyone else could’ve had him for a first day pick in 2004), a couple of players the jury is still out on (Perry and Duckett), and several busts (Enis, Biakabutuka, Bennett, and the very-possibly-soon-to-be-released Dayne). The player who Maroney most closely matches, to an almost eerie degree, is Duckett – the numbers from their junior seasons (they both declared for the pros afterwards, coincidentally enough) are awful similar. While Maroney’s higher yards per carry number over his career may point to him being slightly superior as a college back to Duckett, look who had the worst average carry figure on the entire chart: George, the most successful back.
There are those of you whose initial response to me pointing out Biakabutuka as a bust will be that he was injury-prone. That’s entirely true, but it doesn’t excuse Biakabutuka from our study; in fact, it brings up a second, extremely relevant lens to look at Maroney’s career through.
2. Big 10 Backs with 550+ Collegiate Carries
This chart swaps out the studs (Johnson and George, although George is only because I don’t have actual freshman and sophomore year data for him – I’d estimate him to have about 700 carries) for some more scrubs: Irvin, Davis, Betts, and someone who the jury isn’t out on – Marion Barber, coincidentally, the back Maroney shared time with and then replaced as the starter in the Minnesota backfield. Their stat lines are also pretty similar. Barber, playing against a schedule full of tough rush defenses, had a pretty decent year last season: his -8.8% DVOA had him at 34th in the league, while Julius Jones was at -7.4%, for 30th. Those are good, if not great, numbers for a rookie.
The reason I brought up this chart, though, should be familiar to Chicago Bears fans; there’s (at the very least) anecdotal evidence that runners who get a lot of carries in college tend to wear out quicker and perform at a below average rate in the pros. Guys like Thomas, Cedric Benson (1112 carries in college), and Ricky Williams (781) are good examples of this. The Big Ten guys above are no different: if you happened to have a few hours free, I could tell you a thousand inept Ron Dayne stories… or you could watch Ron Dayne try to switch holes once. They’d take equally as long, and you’d get the idea equally as effectively. While big things weren’t really expected of Irvin or Davis, they were featured backs at big schools that had a combined 45 carries in the NFL, all by Irvin over the course of two seasons. Thomas had a big season and then fell off the map. Betts has been a reserve back for four years, and the Redskins had such a lack of faith in him to back up Clinton Portis that they traded for T.J. Duckett, another player on this list, who couldn’t grab a starting job. Chris Perry was another block of cheese selection, and while he’s carved out a role, he’s not usurping Rudi Johnson anytime soon. Curtis Enis’ workload caused him to go clinically insane. Well, maybe that wasn’t his workload. The point is that not a single one of these backs went on to have a career in the NFL that was really worth a damn or, legitimately, the pick that was spent on them. Even if we stick Eddie George in this chart, that makes one back (George) out of ten that became a starter in the NFL and experienced sustained success. That leaves Maroney to buck some pretty significant odds, and the Patriots with the only thing worse than having a block of uneaten expensive cheese not being eaten on their countertop: a second one.