Back to the Drawing Board: How Effective Are RB & QB Draws?

Article co-authored by Nate Weller

Early in the fourth quarter of Sunday night’s loss to the Rams, Browns head coach Freddie Kitchens called a draw play for Nick Chubb on 4th-and-9 from the Rams 40. Not surprisingly, it didn’t work. The play gained only two yards and was widely ridiculed on social media. 

Then, with the Browns down by seven in the final seconds, Baker Mayfield threw a game-ending interception on 4th-and-goal from the Rams 4. The Rams did not have anyone playing over the center or either guard, raising the question of whether or not Kitchens should have tried to redeem himself with a game-winning quarterback draw. 

With both of those plays in mind, this again seems like a good time to remind people about the draw, both of the running back and quarterback variety.  Consider it a refresher of an article Dan Pizzuta wrote of a similar nature in August.

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Draw plays on the decline

Draws by a running back are only the eighth-most frequently used run play in football. Draws represent only about 3.3% of all runs since the start of 2016. By comparison, inside and outside zone plays combined are run about 16 times more often. 

In recent seasons, use of the draw is on the decline both in total number and in percentage. This is despite the overall efficiency of draw plays improving. While some of this could potentially be due to the element of surprise, it also raises some questions about whether teams should be using them more. 

YearAttempts% of RunsEPA/Att

Per Sports Info Solutions, the Cardinals led the NFL with 21 running back draws last season. In 2016, 13 teams had at least that many. The Eagles led the league with 42, twice as many as the 2018 Cardinals. 

Quarterback draws are among the most rarely-run plays. Going back to 2016, there have been only 143, representing 0.64% of all runs. The additional requirement of an athletic quarterback and the increased emphasis on protecting quarterbacks in recent seasons no doubt play a large role here.

As with most statistics related to quarterback runs, Panthers quarterback Cam Newton skews the sample. Overall, he accounts for 57 of those 143 runs (40%). The most quarterback draws run in the last four seasons by someone not named Newton is only 12. 

How effective are they?

Since 2016, the overall effectiveness of a draw play to a running back is slightly better than a typical run play, with draws having EPA per attempt (EPA/A) of minus-0.02, and an average run having an EPA/A of -0.06. Quarterback draws rank as the second-most effective run play, albeit in a minuscule sample, with an EPA of 0.30.

Of the 81 running backs who had more than five draw attempts in a season in that span, the one who fared best was Raiders running back Jalen Richard who had a positive percentage of 71% on 14 draws in 2016 (percentage of plays with a positive EPA).

As for quarterback draws, those quarterbacks who have run a draw a handful of times have fared better than Cam Newton in expected points since the start of 2016. Though the yardage gained by each is identical (5.2 per draw), non-Newton quarterbacks are averaging 0.38 EPA per attempt (n=86) compared to 0.17 for Newton (n=57).

One area in which all draws have been particularly effective the last four seasons is on 3rd down with between 4 and 7 yards to go. The first down rate on those plays is 50%, just over six percentage points higher than on pass plays (43.6%). It’s hard to make judgments given that the sample size is so small compared to pass plays, and that no team has run more than three such plays in a season, but the success makes you wonder whether teams should consider calling it more often in those situations. 

Final Thoughts

Teams are selective when it comes to using draws and extremely selective when it comes to using quarterback draws. 

This is an “element of surprise” issue currently being dealt with in baseball. For many years it was thought that the best use of an off-speed pitch was to throw it when there was a high element of surprise to it. Now pitchers are being encouraged to use their best pitch more often.

It’s a little different with football. Not every situation is conducive to a draw play or a quarterback draw. For the former, down and distance lends itself to more practical play calling. For the latter, the combination of confidence in a quarterback’s running ability and fear of injury probably scares teams away.

But from what we’ve seen, there is evidence that suggests draws may warrant a comeback. While draws are generally considered to be a more “traditional” football play, the deception that is baked in lends itself well to a modern NFL offense.