Rashard Mendenhall: Steelers RB a Prime Example of Volatility at Position

Matt Fitzgerald@@MattFitz_geraldCorrespondent IIINovember 3, 2012

PITTSBURGH, PA - OCTOBER 07:  Rashard Mendenhall #34 of the Pittsburgh Steelers carries the ball against the Philadelphia Eagles during the game on October 7, 2012 at Heinz Field in Pittsburgh, Pennsylvania.  (Photo by Justin K. Aller/Getty Images)
Justin K. Aller/Getty Images

The punishment and health tribulations Pittsburgh Steelers RB Rashard Mendenhall has endured is the latest example of how volatile the running back position is becoming. 

After battling his way back from an ACL injury suffered at the end of last year, Mendenhall went down with an Achilles injury just 19 carries into his comeback 2012 season.

Unfortunately for the well-spoken, fourth-year back out of Illinois, both of his early career injury mishaps have been rather serious. Even if running backs are able to stay healthy, though, the age 30 threshold is becoming commonplace as the valley of a player's career, no matter how productive they were prior to then.

Take a look at the 2010 season, for instance. This was only two years ago, and yet of the top 12 rushers in the league, nearly all of them have suffered to an extent.

Arian Foster led the NFL in rushing, and has been fortunate to avoid anything significant in the way of injury or decline in production. The same goes for that campaign's 10th-leading rusher, Ray Rice.

Check out the rest, though:

Player Ailment/Decline
Jamaal Charles Torn ACL (2011)
Michael Turner Career-low 3.8 YPC (2012)
Chris Johnson Perpetual slump (2011-12)
Maurice Jones-Drew Long-term foot injury (2012)
Adrian Peterson Major knee injury (2011)
Rashard Mendenhall ACL, Achilles (2011, 2012)
Steven Jackson Career-low 3.7 YPC (2012)
Ahmad Bradshaw Fractured foot (2011, h/t ESPN)
Peyton Hillis Steady drop-off (2011-present)
Darren McFadden Foot injury; missed nine games (2011)

Clearly, there is a definitive trend of running backs having an increasingly diminished shelf life of peak production. Peterson has displayed his freakish physical ability by bouncing back so quickly, but McFadden is averaging just 3.3 yards per carry, and Johnson has been very streaky.

One positive working in Mendenhall's favor is that he just turned 25 years old this past June. That perceptibly gives him four more seasons of peak production, if the 30-year-old standard is used.

Still, the fact that he has already suffered through two significant injuries is a red flag. The Steelers' backfield itself has been a case study of running back volatility. Despite injuries to Mendenhall and Issac Redman, the younger, less burdened Jonathan Dwyer came in and ran for over 100 yards in two consecutive weeks.

According to the ESPN injury report, though, both Mendenhall and Dwyer are doubtful for Sunday's game against the New York Giants. That will thrust Redman back into the lineup, who has missed time with his own injury issues.

That makes taking a running back all the less practical, it would seem. Since 2005, X running backs have been drafted in the first round. Look at these lists:

2005: Ronnie Brown, Cedric Benson, Cadillac Williams

2006: Reggie Bush, Lawrence Maroney, DeAngelo Williams, Joseph Addai

2007: Peterson, Marshawn Lynch

2008: McFadden, Jonathan Stewart, Felix Jones, Mendenhall, Johnson

2009: Knowshon Moreno, Donald Brown, Beanie Wells

2010: C.J. Spiller, Ryan Mathews, Jahvid Best

2011: Mark Ingram

2012: Trent Richardson, Doug Martin, David Wilson

It's definitely a mixed bag in terms of how these picks have shaken out, with the numbers skewed toward negative results, be it from injury or short-lived success. Also, take a minute to chuckle at the 2009 draft class. There's no shame in it.

The point is, Mendenhall was a first-round pick, and choosing a running back that early seems to be becoming an unprecedentedly risky investment.

Whether draft strategies will be reassessed in the coming years remains to be seen, but Mendenhall is the latest cautionary tale in that regard.


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