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Are Running Backs Really Worth a 1st-Round Pick in Today's NFL?

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Are Running Backs Really Worth a 1st-Round Pick in Today's NFL?
Kevin C. Cox/Getty Images
Was Cadillac Williams worthy of a first-round pick?

The argument that running backs aren't worth taking in the first round in today's NFL has been bandied about for years, with conventional wisdom stating that it isn't.

In order to help answer this question, I researched the running backs drafted in the last 10 years and studied whether or not it makes sense for teams to take a running back with their first-round selection.

 

The 2012 Season

Let's start with the 2012 regular season. Out of the top 10 rushers, five of them—Adrian Peterson, Marshawn Lynch, Doug Martin, C.J. Spiller and Chris Johnson—were selected in the first round. The other five were Alfred Morris (sixth round), Jamaal Charles (third round), Arian Foster (undrafted), Stevan Ridley (third round) and Frank Gore (third round).

Win McNamee/Getty Images
Alfred Morris, the NFL's second-leading rusher in 2012, was drafted in the sixth round.

While half of the top 10 were selected in the first round, the range of the other five indicates that there is significant value to be found in the later rounds when drafting a running back.

When you examine the leading rushers from the 2012 season even more closely, you'll find that only three of the running backs from the 11 to 20 range were drafted in the first round (Steven Jackson, Reggie Bush and Trent Richardson).

The others: Ray Rice (second round), Matt Forte (second round), BenJarvus Green-Ellis (undrafted), Shonn Greene (third round), Ahmad Bradshaw (seventh round), LeSean McCoy (second round) and Robert Griffin III, who isn't even a running back. Vick Ballard was 21st, and he was drafted in the fifth round. 

While there can be no questioning how good players like Peterson, Lynch and Martin were in 2012, there are guys like Morris, Foster, Ballard and Green-Ellis who were able to play well and carry their teams into the postseason. 

The 2012 season statistics definitely show that taking a running back in the first round isn't necessary.

 

The Past 10 Years

Getty Images/Getty Images
Remember Chris Perry? No? You're not alone.

In the past 10 years, there have been 29 running backs selected in the first round. Since 1,000 yards is the benchmark total by which fans and media alike judge running backs, let's see how many of these first-round backs were able to eclipse the 1,000-yard mark more than once:

2003: Willis McGahee, Larry Johnson (both with multiple 1,000-yard seasons)

2004: Steven Jackson, Chris Perry, Kevin Jones (only Jackson with multiple 1,000-yard seasons)

2005: Ronnie Brown, Cedric Benson, Cadillac Williams (only Benson with multiple 1,000-yard seasons)

2006: Reggie Bush, Laurence Maroney, DeAngelo Williams, Joseph Addai (Williams and Addai with multiple 1,000-yard seasons)

2007: Adrian Peterson, Marshawn Lynch (both with multiple 1,000-yard seasons)

2008: Darren McFadden, Jonathan Stewart, Rashard Mendenhall, Felix Jones, Chris Johnson (only Mendenhall and Johnson with multiple 1,000-yard seasons)

2009: Knowshon Moreno, Donald Brown, Chris "Beanie" Wells (none with multiple 1,000-yard seasons)

2010: C.J. Spiller, Ryan Mathews, Jahvid Best (none with multiple 1,000-yard seasons)

2011: Mark Ingram (no 1,000-yard seasons)

Of course, we cannot use last year's first-round selections at running back: Trent Richardson, Doug Martin and David Wilson, as they only have one season under their belt, but for the sake of this exercise, let's assume that all three will be able to eclipse the 1,000-yard total on multiple occasions, as that scenario seems fairly likely, especially in the case of Martin and Richardson.

Including the three 2012 first-rounders, that makes 11 out of a possible 29 running backs that have or will have broken the 1,000-yard barrier on multiple occasions. That is absolutely awful.

Think about it: 1,000 yards isn't even a tremendous total. If a running back plays in all 16 games, he only needs to average 62.5 yards per game to reach 1,000. While 62.5 yards is nothing to sneeze at, is that kind of production worthy of a first-round pick?

Some of these players aren't even starters on their own teams.

Ingram barely sees the field in New Orleans, as he loses carries to Pierre Thomas and Chris Ivory (both undrafted).

Donald Brown lost his starting job to Vick Ballard (fifth round).

Felix Jones was benched in favor of DeMarco Murray (third round) and so on and so forth.

These statistics clearly show that taking a running back in the first round oftentimes does not provide enough bang for your buck.

 

The Conclusion

Andy Lyons/Getty Images
For every Adrian Peterson, there's a Mark Ingram.

When considering the evidence laid out here, it's hard to argue that drafting a running back in the first round is a sound business decision.

Yes, there have been stud backs taken early who have contributed mightily to their team's success. Guys like Adrian Peterson, Marshawn Lynch and Doug Martin have proven to be excellent picks for their teams.

But for every Peterson, there's a Cadillac Williams. For every Lynch, there's a Felix Jones. For every Martin, there's a Mark Ingram.

I'm not saying it's impossible to score big on a first-round running back selection. However, the numbers show that teams are better off filling other needs early and finding a back later in the draft.

Nick Kostos is the executive producer of the "SiriusXM Blitz," hosted by Rich Gannon and Adam Schein, on SiriusXM NFL Radio. You can follow Nick on Twitter.

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