In the history of the NFL draft, running backs were almost always looked to as premium draft choices. Clubs felt they had to have a top back in order for their offense to prosper.
Just six years ago, five running backs were drafted in the first round. Last year, that number decreased to zero.
In 2008, Darren McFadden was the fourth overall pick by the Oakland Raiders. Jonathan Stewart was selected by the Carolina Panthers at 13, followed by Felix Jones at 22 to the Dallas Cowboys. The Pittsburgh Steelers chose Rashard Mendenhall at 23, and the Tennessee Titans selected Chris Johnson one pick later.
Of those five running backs, only two have had what I would call a good career. Mendenhall struggled as a rookie, gaining only 58 yards. He came back to total 3,309 yards the next three seasons, but later dealt with injury problems and just recently announced his retirement.
The most productive player in that group has been Johnson, who has averaged 1,328 yards per season in the six years he has been in the league. Still, he is not as explosive as he was earlier in his career, and his per-carry average dropped to a career-low 3.9 in 2013.
In both 2009 and 2010, three running backs were selected in the opening round. C.J. Spiller, who the Buffalo Bills selected in 2010, was the highest overall, being selected ninth that year. In 2011, only one runner was taken in the first round—Mark Ingram, selected by the New Orleans Saints.
In the 2012 draft, three running backs were drafted in the first round, and two of those players were the last two picks of the opening round (Doug Martin and David Wilson, respectively). Trent Richardson was a top-five selection by Cleveland and is already considered a bust.
Last year, not a single running back was taken in the first round. Giovani Bernard from North Carolina was the first running back taken, and he was drafted by the Cincinnati Bengals with the fifth pick of the second round.
Looking at this year's draft, it's a strong possibility there will again be no running backs drafted in the first round. My highest-rated running back is Ohio State's Carlos Hyde, and I expect that he will be selected in the early part of the second round.
Hyde told Bill Rabinowitz at The Columbus Dispatch, "Growing up watching the NFL and seeing running backs get drafted high, I definitely thought, 'That'll be me one day.'" He continued, "It's still possible. I haven't given up hope just yet."
Why Has the Position Been Devalued?
On offense, running backs and tight ends get injured more often than any other position. A club's top running back partakes in an intense collision 20 to 25 times per game. This takes its toll on the player's body and often leads to physical breakdown.
Very few backs have a long shelf life in the NFL, and it's rare that a back goes through his career without having a surgery. Matt Forte of the Chicago Bears, who is one of the top running backs in the NFL, had posterior cruciate ligament (PCL) surgery in college and medial collateral ligament (MCL) surgery while with the Bears. Both surgeries were on the same knee.
Adrian Peterson—perhaps the best running back of this generation—has dealt with collarbone, knee, hamstring, back, ankle, foot, calf, shoulder, abdomen and groin injuries.
Three running backs were taken in the first five picks of the 2005 draft: Auburn's Ronnie Brown was the second pick, Texas' Cedric Benson went fourth overall and Auburn's Cadillac Williams went at No. 5. None of those three backs had memorable careers.
Benson was the most productive, running for over 6,000 yards in eight seasons. He missed the whole 2013 season with a Lisfranc injury and is hoping to catch on with a team this year. He has also had shoulder problems.
The general feeling now in the NFL is this: You need at least two running backs to be successful. Unless you have a special back like a Peterson or a Forte, teams will use their backs in a rotation. What they would like, ideally, is for the backs to complement each other. One can be a power guy, the other an elusive big-play threat.
Why do they feel that way? It goes back to what the league is getting from college programs. Most colleges have been running a rotation system with their running backs for years.
They have seen the value of limiting the amount of touches that a back gets. Fewer touches per game equals a fresher and more productive back through the course of the season.
This theory has carried over to the NFL game.
Philadelphia has a great running back in LeSean McCoy, yet the Eagles still had other players carry the ball a total of 86 times in 2012.
In New England, four different backs shared the load, with the bulk of the carries going to Stevan Ridley (178) and LeGarrette Blount (153). Blount averaged five yards per carry, yet New England let him walk in free agency, as he later signed with the Steelers.
New Orleans, which has one of the better offenses in the league, also had four backs share the workload last season.
Running Backs in the Draft
Since Peterson entered the NFL in 2007, there have only been two truly special backs: McCoy, who was drafted in the second round of the 2009 draft, and Chris Johnson. Teams are finding they can draft a running back who is good (but maybe not great) from the second round down.
Like McCoy, Forte was a second-round pick. Washington's Alfred Morris, who ran for 1,613 yards in 2012 and 1,275 in 2013, was a sixth-round selection.
Kansas City's Jamaal Charles was a third-round pick in 2008, and he has been one of the most productive backs in the AFC. Arian Foster of the Houston Texans was an undrafted free agent coming out of college. He has run for over 5,000 yards in his five-year career.
Many of the first-round backs in that same time frame have been very average. Players like Felix Jones, Jahvid Best and Beanie Wells have not come close to meeting expectations. Others, like C.J. Spiller, have had their moments but have not been consistently good.
That's not what you want from a first-round pick.
If there were a special running back to come out of college this year, there is no doubt he would be a first-round pick—we just haven't seen one in a while. On top of that, the thinking around the league is that when you draft a running back, you are only going to get about four good years out of that player because of the beating they will take.
Anything more than that is a bonus. Teams would rather use their top choice on a player who has a longer career expectancy.
Just as running backs have dropped down the value board, so too have their contract numbers.
The last big running back contracts were signed two years ago when Ray Rice, Forte and Foster all cashed in. Rice's deal was for five years and $35 million. Forte signed a four-year, $30.4 million deal, and Foster's new contract was for five years and $43.5 million.
In 2013, contracts for running backs dropped significantly. Reggie Bush signed a four-year deal worth $16 million, and Steven Jackson's deal in Atlanta was for three years and $12 million.
This offseason, the numbers dropped even more. Pierre Thomas of the Saints signed a two-year extension with $4 million in new money, and Knowshon Moreno got a one-year deal from Miami for $3 million total.
Chris Johnson, who was recently cut by Tennessee, has yet to receive an offer from any team (or at least any reported offer). Clubs just aren't going to pay premium money to players who, in all probability, won't be around very long. It's not good business.
Quarterbacks, receivers and linemen are the offensive players who get money. With the style of offense being played in the NFL today, this trend will continue until we see a very special running back come out of the college ranks.