2008 NFL Rusher
Posted by ESPN.com's Mike Sando
Zone blocking schemes tend to get much credit for a team's success in the running game.
The Broncos won two Super Bowls with sixth-round choice Terrell Davis in the backfield. Alex Gibbs, up there with Bobb McKittrick among the finest offensive line coaches in NFL history, ran a zone scheme that helped make it happen. The Broncos subsequently had success running the ball while plugging in various backs to the offense.
The zone scheme can definitely help facilitate big numbers in the ground game, but the NFL's most productive backs last season generally entered the league as higher picks. That was true even for some backs running in zone schemes.
In looking around the NFC West, it's clear the most productive running backs were high draft choices. The Rams' Steven Jackson was a first-round choice. The 49ers' Frank Gore and promising rookie Glen Coffee were third-round choices. The Cardinals just used a first-round choice on Beanie Wells to replace Edgerrin James, who entered the NFL as a first-round choice. Even the Seahawks' Julius Jones was a second-rounder.
Fifteen of the 35 players with more rushing yards than Seattle's Jones last season entered the NFL as first-round choices. Ten more were second- or third-round selections, meaning 25 of the top 35 rushers in total yards were drafted in the first three rounds. Four were fourth-round choices and two were fifth-rounders. Only three of the NFL's top 35 rushers last season -- Ryan Grant, Willie Parker and Pierre Thomas -- were drafted in the final two rounds or undrafted.
Five of the top 10 rushers last season were first-round choices, as the chart shows. Eight of the 10 were drafted in the first three rounds. Michael Turner (fifth round) and Grant (undrafted) were the exceptions. Grant played in a zone scheme with Green Bay. I thought the Seahawks might draft a running back in the first three rounds this season, but they valued Aaron Curry, Max Unger and Deon Butler higher than the backs available at the time, which seemed reasonable.