NFL Draft Preview: Evaluating Running Backs with the Barry Sanders Test

The week leading up to the NFL Draft is always one of my favorites. I’m a fan of all drafts, but the number and complexity of positions, picks and team needs is more robust in football than other sports, creating a more beautiful draft tapestry that begins to take shape about this time every year. It’s glorious.

The unfortunate news about this year’s draft is that the sexiest positions are experiencing a complete lack of sexy players.  Teams needing quarterbacks, wide receivers and running backs are all left with pretty tempered hopes for additions in this offseason. I care about QBs and WRs, but for this post, I’d like to focus on the running backs, primarily I’d like to explain my method of evaluating them, something I call the Barry Sanders test.

At 44 years old, I think Barry Sanders would be about a third round draft pick.

At 44 years old, I think Barry Sanders would be about a third round draft pick.

When I was growing up, Sanders was in his prime. I hadn’t committed to a favorite team yet, so all I did on Sundays was watch 20 carry the ball. It was beautiful. Barry in his prime is the absolute epitome of what a running back can be: fearless, impossible to tackle and threat to score on every snap.

Unfortunately for football, Barry Sanders retired way too early. He was only 30 and had just 10 seasons of pro ball under his belt. He was startlingly close to the all-time record for rushing yards and it shocked me and everyone else who cared about sports to see him walk away after a 1700-yard season.

How does that apply to today’s game and next week’s draft? Good question.

It has long been a bedrock of my understanding of the game of football that at any time, Barry Sanders could come back and break the career rushing record. He’s 44 years old now and I still think he could do it. In fact, I’d rather have Barry Sanders on my team than most of the running backs in this year’s class. That’s where the test comes in to play.

In short, the Barry Sanders test is this: If, for the upcoming season and that season only, I’d rather have Barry Sanders at his current age than a particular rookie at his current age, it’s not worth spending a draft pick on that rookie.

Maybe I’m overestimating a 44-year-old, but I genuinely would rather have Barry Sanders on my favorite NFL team for 2013 than all but four of this draft’s running backs. Four: Eddie Lacy, Montee Ball, Le’Veon Bell and Giovani Bernard. That’s it. Every other running back should go undrafted.

It’ll be interesting to see what happens to my running back evaluations as Sanders gets older. Maybe I’m already crazy, but are you really going to tell me with 100% confidence that you would rather have Theo Riddick carrying the ball than an aged, but rested, Barry Sanders? It would be different if there were no opportunity cost to drafting a running back, but every year great NFL players come from the deep rounds of the draft.

Is the Barry Sanders test an inappropriate response to a down year at a position? Maybe. Is it a gross overestimate of a childhood hero by a man who never grew out of social references from his pre-teen years? Again, maybe. But do you really think Barry doesn’t  have about 100 more of those cutbacks in his legs? Think about it.