2016 NFL Draft: Recent History Proves Running Backs Should Be Taken Early

Luke EasterlingCorrespondent IJanuary 8, 2016

Ohio State running back Ezekiel Elliott (15) gestures as he celebrates his fourth touchdown of the game against Notre Dame  during the second half of the Fiesta Bowl NCAA College football game, Friday, Jan. 1, 2016, in Glendale, Ariz.  (AP Photo/Ross D. Franklin)
Ross D. Franklin/Associated Press

When the NFL draft rolls around every year, we hear the lines repeated with mind-numbing frequency.

"The running back position is devalued in today's NFL."

"You don't need to waste a first-round pick on a running back."

"You can get the same kind of production out of a mid-round pick at running back."

More and more NFL teams have been moving from the "featured back" model to the committee approach in recent years—only seven backs topped 1,000 yards rushing in 2015, the fewest since 1991—but does that mean they're better off waiting until the later rounds to address the position? Should teams pass on a potentially dynamic talent and get better value deeper in the draft?

Busts like Trent Richardson could make teams shy away from spending top picks on running backs. But should they?
Busts like Trent Richardson could make teams shy away from spending top picks on running backs. But should they?Jason DeCrow/Associated Press

The well-documented failures of recent high draft picks like Trent Richardson have led many to believe running backs aren't worth a top pick. But while there have been quite a few busts at the position near the top of the draft, recent history tells us that the majority of the NFL's top backs were taken in the first two rounds.

Since 2005, there have been 52 different running backs that have finished in the top 10 in the league in rushing yards. Of those 52, 33 were drafted in the first two rounds—23 in the first round and 10 in the second round.

Here's the breakdown of the first-rounders from that group:

PlayerYear
Adrian Peterson2007, 2008, 2009, 2010, 2012, 2013, 2015
LaDainian Tomlinson2005, 2006, 2007, 2008
Steven Jackson2006, 2009, 2010, 2011
Thomas Jones2005, 2007, 2008, 2009
Marshawn Lynch2011, 2012, 2013, 2014
Chris Johnson2008, 2009, 2010, 2012
Willis McGahee2005, 2007, 2011
Edgerrin James2005, 2007
Larry Johnson2005, 2006
DeAngelo Williams2008, 2015
Jonathan Stewart2009, 2015
Ryan Mathews2011, 2013
Doug Martin2012, 2015
Shaun Alexander2005
Warrick Dunn2005
Jamal Lewis2007
Fred Taylor2007
Cedric Benson2009
Ricky Williams2009
Rashard Mendenhall2007
C.J. Spiller2012
Darren McFadden2015
Todd Gurley2015

13 of the 23 first-rounders finished in the top 10 multiple times, and seven did it three or more times. If we include second-round picks, the case for spending an early choice on a running back grows even stronger:

PlayerYear
Clinton Portis2005, 2007, 2008
Maurice Jones-Drew2009, 2010, 2011
Ray Rice2009, 2010, 2011
LeSean McCoy2011, 2013, 2014
Tiki Barber2005, 2006
Matt Forte2008, 2013
Eddie Lacy2013, 2014
Travis Henry2006
Le'Veon Bell2014
Jeremy Hill2014

With the second-rounders included, that makes 20 backs who finished in the top 10 in the NFL in rushing multiple times since 2005. Only 10 backs drafted after the second round accomplished that feat over the same span.

Adrian Peterson is the most convincing case for spending a top pick on a special player at the running back spot.
Adrian Peterson is the most convincing case for spending a top pick on a special player at the running back spot.Wesley Hitt/Getty Images

How do the rest of the rounds break down? Let's take a look.

Third Round

PlayerYear
Frank Gore2006, 2011, 2012, 2013, 2014, 2015
Jamaal Charles2010, 2012, 2013
Brian Westbrook2006, 2007
DeMarco Murray2013, 2014
Steve Slaton2008
Stevan Ridley2012

 

Fourth Round

PlayerYear
Rudi Johnson2005, 2006
Lamar Miller2014
Devonta Freeman2015

 

Fifth Round

PlayerYear
Michael Turner2008, 2010, 2011

 

Sixth Round

PlayerYear
Alfred Morris2012, 2013
Chester Taylor2006
Latavius Murray2015

 

Seventh Round

PlayerYear
Ahmad Bradshaw2010
Justin Forsett2014

There are a few backs from each round sprinkled throughout the top 10 rushers since 2005, but it's clearly more rare to find them in the draft after the second round. Heck, if a team is going to wait until Day 3 to get its runner, it might as well just wait until the draft is over and sign one of the leftovers as a free agent.

Despite going undrafted, Arian Foster has been one of the NFL's top 10 rushers four times since 2005.
Despite going undrafted, Arian Foster has been one of the NFL's top 10 rushers four times since 2005.Ronald C. Modra/Sports Imagery/Getty Images

Take a look at the undrafted free agents who have made that list:

PlayerYear
Arian Foster2010, 2011, 2012, 2014
Willie Parker2006, 2007
Ryan Grant2008, 2009
Chris Ivory2015

That's right. Since 2005, the NFL has gone just one season—2013—without an undrafted free agent finishing in the top 10 in rushing yards.

This year's draft class features plenty of backfield talent, led by two of the nation's most productive and dynamic workhorses—Ohio State Buckeyes running back Ezekiel Elliot and Heisman Trophy winner Derrick Henry from the Alabama Crimson Tide—but many NFL fans are already wondering if either is worth a premium draft pick.

While it's easy to point to busts like Richardson as cautionary tales, the same argument can be made for just about every position on the field.

Elliot, in particular, has a rare skill set that should make him the first back off the board come April, combining fantastic power and toughness between the tackles with superb vision, quickness, patience and explosion.

Derrick Henry won the Heisman trophy after becoming the first player in SEC history to rush for over 2,000 yards in a season.
Derrick Henry won the Heisman trophy after becoming the first player in SEC history to rush for over 2,000 yards in a season.Tom Pennington/Getty Images

Henry isn't the quickest or the fastest back in the world, but his relentless running style and ability to get more effective as the game wears on make him an attractive prospect who could thrive as the "thunder" in a split backfield.

Should NFL teams—especially those with a need for a dynamic young running back—pass on these kinds of talents just for fear of them busting? Should they just wait until the later rounds, assuming they can scrape the bottom of the barrel and come up with a top-10 rusher?

Over 10 years worth of data tells us, "Not so fast, my friend."

Elliot and Henry have a chance to be impact players as soon as they step onto the field at the next level. Teams would be wise not to avoid them, unless they're on the opposing sideline.

*All stats courtesy of ESPN.com

Luke Easterling is a featured columnist covering the NFL Draft for Bleacher Report. He also covers the Tampa Bay Buccaneers for Scout. Follow him on Twitter @LukeEasterling.