Root against Ken Walker at your own peril
Seaside Joe 1222: The Seahawks found more than a running back in the draft, they found an "A+" running back in the draft
One of the most fundamental lessons of Seaside Joe in the year 2022 is that “analytics”** will face a harsh reality about football fans that will crush the expectations that they currently have for sharing sentiments on the value of running backs on Twitter: People like to watch players who do good at football, Ken Walker III will probably do good at football.
Hence, Seahawks fans will love Walker and they will hate anti-Walker sentiments.
**I hate to keep categorizing any subsect of fans/media as “analytics” but for now it is the closest thing to a catch-all term that every reader will understand by now. This does not mean that Seaside Joe hates analytics (Kenneth Arthur was writing weekly “Advanced Stats” columns on Field Gulls as far back as 2011 because he was inspired to do for football what FanGraphs did for baseball) or that I don’t support many of the principles that are now associated with that word. Seaside Joe’s feelings on analytics seems to be shared with most of you, which is that fundamentally we like the ideas, but personally we loathe many of the people on Twitter who have formed their entire personalities around the term and are now blind to the nuances of the game that exist between the graphs and the gridiron. Never before has it seemed so fitting that the term gridiron is derived from the fact that the field looks like a graph.
After the 2022 NFL Draft concluded, we saw a lot of people parroting the same draft grades for the Seahawks that everyone else was going with: “Great job, except for Ken Walker.”
I can never spend enough time exploring how stupid of an argument it is that “Walker is going to be a great player, but the Seahawks should not have drafted him in the range that he was expected to go.”
And I know how endless that stream of explanations is because I’ve been forced to keep repeating how nonsensical it is, which is all the more frustrating given that we know anyone who makes it isn’t doing any independent research; it’s simply a thing that they keep hearing from people they trust, so they’re going with that.
When Hawkblogger gets back to writing about the Seahawks in a few months, I’ll challenge him and his cohorts with the same exercise that I’ve been suggesting for years with no takers: Try to spend one week making the argument that running backs do matter, then tell us how you feel.
This whole campaign against the players who play that particular position—which I would know well since I was somewhat at the forefront of it by asking Ben Baldwin to write an article called “Running Backs Don’t Matter” for Field Gulls back in 2018 and sent him on a path towards Twitter infamy—seems almost entirely built upon a rudimentary understanding of the game and an assumption that only run-blockers create rushing yards, not the runners themselves.
Ironically, this argument has been supercharged by people who presumably watched Marshawn Lynch rush for 5,357 yards and 48 touchdowns behind Seattle’s offensive line from 2011 to 2015.
Here’s the best piece of advice that I can give when it comes to the same tired arguments against putting draft capital or financial commitments into the running back position: Ask yourself whether or not the argument seems to be the full picture or is narrowly only looking at running backs.
“If you draft a running back, he could get injured.”
Where are Andrew Luck and Robert Griffin III today?
“If you draft a running back early, he could be a bust.”
Quarterbacks have—by far—the highest first round bust rate of any position. Because teams are now far more discerning about which running backs deserve to be top-50 picks, they are one of the safest bets. Consider the case of Josh Jacobs.
The Raiders still get criticized for picking Jacobs in the first round, but few bring up the fact that not only has he averaged over 1,200 total yards per season and been relatively healthy, he’s been a much better pick than Clelin Ferrell, Daniel Jones, Jonah Williams, Chris Lindstrom, Dwayne Haskins, Garrett Bradbury, Andre Dillard, and Tytus Howard… all players who went ahead of him.
I haven’t seen many “Centers Don’t Matter” tweets. You know why? People rarely love their team’s center.
People often love their favorite team’s running backs. Najee Harris, Jonathan Taylor, A.J. Dillon, Miles Sanders, Jacobs, and Javonte Williams are more than half of the 11 running backs drafted in the first two rounds since 2019, and I’d say those fans are happy. Travis Etienne, Clyde Edwards-Helaire, D’Andre Swift, Cam Akers, and JK Dobbins are the other five and the book isn’t closed on any of them.
“You can find just as good of a running back on day three. You can’t do that at other positions.”
There have been 179 running backs drafted in round four or later since 2011. The only one of them with more than two Pro Bowl appearances is Kyle Juszczyk, and that’s only because he’s a fullback. Devonta Freeman and Alfred Morris each have two. Seven others have one, and none of them were stars.
Among those with no Pro Bowl nods, Chris Carson is the cream of the crop. Out of 179 running backs! I trust that most of you are aware and appreciative of Carson’s efforts over the 2018-2019 seasons (average: 262 carries, 1,190 rushing yards, 8 TD, 28 catches, 214 receiving yards, 1 TD, but also 10 fumbles total) but I also know that you can separate his talent from that of Jonathan Taylor or Dalvin Cook and understand why he was a seventh round pick.
Carson was a seventh rounder not because of a lack of talent, but because of a lack of playing time at Oklahoma State and a fumbling issue. Through five seasons, Carson’s issues are an inability to stay on the field and fumbling issues.
If the Seahawks were really lucky, they could replace Carson with a day three pick. But the Seahawks shouldn’t want to find the next Chris Carson, they should want to find the next Jonathan Taylor, Dalvin Cook, or Derrick Henry, all of whom were second round picks.
And “analytics” refers to themselves as “the smart ones.”
There were only two running backs in the 2022 NFL Draft that teams had consensus second round grades on and they were Breece Hall, Kenneth Walker III. For the 30 teams that did not draft Hall or Walker but still wanted a running back at some point, they’re gambling on the idea that maybe they could unearth the next Alvin Kamara, Kareem Hunt, or David Johnson, all of whom were third round picks.
Seattle had the room to draft Walker thanks to acquiring pick 41 (the same pick used on Taylor two years ago) from the Denver Broncos (the team that picked Javonte Williams 35th overall last year) and so their odds of landing a running back who the fans will adore—by buying his jersey, drafting him on all of their fantasy teams, clicking on articles about him, sharing tweets that praise him, and waiting outside in the rain for hours if they have to just to get his autograph—went up exponentially because of that decision.
You can’t just talk around that by saying that Walker is a “Great, fantastic, phenomenal, all-world player” but “Don’t do what it takes to acquire him.” That’s fishing on both sides of the boat and it doesn’t stand even the most basic standards of reason.
Had the Seahawks drafted Malik Willis at 41, a player who went 86th, they would have been praised for it. But because they drafted a running back at 41, a player who was destined to go in the top-50 in every universe, the sentiment was that it’s “the reach that cost them a perfect overall draft grade.”
I thought analytics was meant to be logical.
In the most recent edition of the Kenneth on Kenneth series, Kenneth Walker III rushed for 233 yards in a win over Rutgers. Seaside Joe is determined to cover every game of Walker’s college career before training camp begins, but today’s highlights will be brief because Week 7 against Indiana was one of the few rough spots during his lone season at Michigan State.
Then next time I’ll cover his historic game against Michigan, leading into the final four games of his college career.
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October 10, 2021 - Michigan State at Indiana
We know that Indiana is renowned for their hoops, but did you know that the Hoosiers also have an excellent football team? That’s because they don’t.
The Hoosiers went 2-10 last season and were one of the worst 10 teams in all of division-I college football: Out of 130 programs, Indiana was 123rd in scoring and 109th in points allowed. They beat two teams, one of which was Idaho, but also a stunning 33-31 victory over the air raid offense of Western Kentucky and quarterback Bailey Zappe.
Being terrible in college football is all that much worse when you have to face five teams that were ranked in the top-10 at the time of the game, which meant blowout losses to Ohio State, Penn State, Michigan, and Iowa. But also strangely competitive games against Cincinnati and Michigan State.
For some reason, Indiana’s defense came to play against the Spartans, holding the Michigan State offense to zero points in the first half (MSU scored an INT return TD) and ultimately held quarterback Payton Thorne to 14/26 passing with only 126 yards and two interceptions.
We know that Ken Walker has a lot of talent in his toolbox, but there’s literally nothing any running back can do when the offensive line doesn’t account for a linebacker who is streamlined straight to his handoff, as was the case on third-and-one on Michigan State’s first drive of the game:
Yes, it is true that running backs can be helped and held back by the play of the offensive line. You know what other positions that is true of? All of them!
On Michigan State’s next drive, Walker does pick up a first down on third-and-short, spinning out of a tackle and moving his feet to gain an extra five yards after contact:
At this point, Walker had more rushing yards AFTER CONTACT than all but six FBS running backs had TOTAL.
Credit to Indiana for deciding to play football against a Big Ten opponent once all season, there just is not much to gather from Walker’s performance in this game. Walker did seal the 20-15 victory by gaining a first down on this run, then smartly goes to the ground once he meets the chains.
Previously on Ken Walker III’s college career: Walker’s freshman season, Walker’s career-day vs NC State, Walker’s holy shit moments vs Virginia, how Walker got to Michigan State, will Walker be a third WR, Walker’s 4-TD debut for the Spartans, Walker blows through Miami like a tornado, there was no better college RB in 2021 than Ken Walker, Walker vs Rutgers
Walker finished the day with 23 carries for 84 yards, marking one of only two games in 2021 in which he had fewer than 4.0 YPC. This is probably his third-worst game of the season and he wasn’t necessarily “bad”, so much as the entire team struggled and his opportunities to “be Ken Walker” weren’t as abundant.
We’ll see a different Walker next time against Michigan.
Yes, running backs don't count. That's why there are more running backs in the HOF than any other position.
In pro football, analytics has tactical value. It is not and is unlikely to ever be the strategic tool that it is in baseball. Also, it’s not entirely clear how good analytics has been for baseball.