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The Running Game Question: OL or RB?

Is it better to invest heavy in the offensive line and reap the rewards, or go all-in on a runner and hope it works?

Jake Roth-USA TODAY Sports

(Note from 3k: After yesterday's La'el Collins piece, Eric hit on the core topic I've been responding to in my criticism of the Gurley pick - the impact of running backs. There's too much misunderstanding that suggests that criticism of the pick has to do with Gurley's talent at the position or a general criticism of having an impactful running game. It's more a general criticism of the running back position itself and the value it has in impacting the overall running game. So I asked Eric to dive deeper into the idea of looking at the value of offensive linemen versus running backs and the opportunity costs thereof.)

It's been awhile since the Rams had a go-to, all-purpose running back. Hell, it's been quite awhile for a lot of teams. As Steven Jackson might have you believe, the running back is a dying breed in the modern NFL. But with the Rams selection of Todd Gurley, a major philosophical question needs to be asked:

Is it worth investing serious draft capital for an offensive line (five players) and reaping the rewards with backs drafted in the lower rounds, or does it make more sense to draft the top-talent RB and hope it sorts itself out?

3k hinted at the issue with the news that La'el Collins, wunderkind UDFA, was being signed by the Dallas Cowboys. Would the 'Boys, thought to have one of the best offensive lines in football, be able to turn any third round pick into DeMarco Murray? Could the Rams get the same success with Gurley and a lesser line?

First, let's look at the draft capital the Cowboys invested in the line the last four years:

Player Draft Position Year
Tyron Smith (T)
1st Round (9)
David Arkin (G) 4th Round (110) 2011
Travis Frederick (C)
1st Round (31)
Zach Martin (G)
1st Round (16)
Chaz Green (T)
3rd Round (91)
Laurence Gibson (T)
7th Round (243)
La'el Collins

I'm adding La'el Collins on here, merely to show how much the Cowboys have drafted, in addition to signing him. Now, with that in mind, here are the picks the Rams made in those years/rounds:

Player Draft Position Year
Robert Quinn
1st Round (14)
Greg Salas
4th Round (112) 2011
Tavon Austin
1st Round (8)
Alec Ogletree
1st Round (30)
Greg Robinson
1st Round (2)
Aaron Donald
1st Round (13)
Jamon Brown
3rd Round (72)
Sean Mannion
3rd Round (89)
Bryce Hager
7th Round (224)
Martin Ifedi
7th Round (227)

Besides the fact that the Rams have had nearly double the picks in those rounds (yeesh), they've drafted only two offensive lineman, Greg Robinson and Jamon Brown, to the Cowboys six. If that were reversed, would you feel comfortable without Robert Quinn, Aaron Donald and Alec Ogletree on defense? How much better would the Rams have fared without their vaulted defense to support them?

The last few years have been littered with backs who have dominated the NFL but have been drafted low, or not drafted at all. Arian Foster, DeMarco Murray, Alfred Morris. You could even throw ex-Ram Zac Stacy and current Ram Tre Mason into the mix. It's valid question: Do you really need to drop a ton ten pick when you can get production like that from 3rd, 5th and 6th round selections? It certainly makes you question the Gurley selection.

But on the flip side and what I think many are forgetting, is how much better would the Rams be on the ground (and overall) if they didn't draft dominant players like Robert Quinn or Aaron Donald. Would the linebackers be better or worse without Alec Ogletree. Would Greg Robinson have put on an OROY performance with Zach Martin next to him?

I think not. So if the Rams could add all those players - and an improved, and hopefully, similar performance to the Cowboys dominant run game, wouldn't it be a better play to use one high draft pick on a runner instead of 60% of your first round selections during a five year span? If Todd Gurley really is as good as they say he is (and he looks like it to me), I'd much rather drop one high pick for a great running game than throw 1st round picks at the offensive line like I'm Shaq at the free-throw line hoping the unit becomes dominant.

I don't know about you, but I'm wouldn't want to give up Robert Quinn, Aaron Donald and Alec Ogletree. If the Rams can get Tre Mason to put up decent numbers with what they had last year, I'd bet Todd Gurley could do better. Lucky for the Rams, they also still have the defensive stars to go with it.