Every season, NFL teams do countless hours of research on college players available for the April NFL Draft. Some teams begin their research in October after winning only a game or two out of their first six or seven. Others don’t begin to think about the draft in too much detail until their playoff run is complete.
Regardless of when they begin their in depth research and analysis, general managers and head coaches look for three main things in any player they decide to draft: Potential, impact on the team’s success, and longevity. Of course there are other factors such as character and health that come into play, but it all starts with the three aforementioned qualities.
The first three rounds of the NFL Draft are filled with big names from big programs. Their potential and instant impact ratings are through the roof. Fans in Oakland want to draft the big-time USC back that they’ve seen dominate the collegiate landscape for the past few years. Football enthusiasts in Miami want their Dolphins’ to draft the quarterback from Florida who’s won a Heisman. Though the on-the-field impact is of most importance, GMs are influenced by the owners to also draft a player who will have an off-the-field impact; as in bring in attention and jersey sales.
Quarterbacks and running backs are arguably the two most known players on their respective teams. They also often have the most impact on a team’s success or failure in the eyes of the fans. Both positions carry a very public image in which they are judged right away as a success or failure. While it is agreed by many that quarterbacks are nothing more than a hit or miss in the first round, people don’t seem to have the same conception about running-backs.
Fans and media alike tend to think a runningback taken on the first day of the draft is more likely to be a success story than a bust. Little attention is given to backs out of small schools drafted in the later rounds. The truth of the matter is you are just as likely to find a stud runningback in the last four rounds as you are in the first three.
Take the 2005 draft for example. It was lauded as a very top heavy draft filled with star power and untapped potential. General Managers, Coaches and fans were especially awed by the runningback selection. Among the possibilities for teams in the top five of the selection board were Cedric Benson, a Heisman trophy contender from the University of Texas along with the duo from undefeated Auburn University—Ronnie Brown and Cadillac Williams.
The first day of the draft also featured the likes of J.J. Arrington, a standout from the University of California, Frank Gore out of the University of Miami, and former National Champion Maurice Clarett from Ohio State University. Each runningback, with perhaps the exception of Clarett, was seen as an every down back that could produce 1,000 yard seasons immediately. The widespread consensus was the running-backs in this draft were a “can’t miss”.
Fast forward three years, since that seems to be a fair time to gauge whether a player is on the road to success or the opposite, and you will find that only two of the nine running-backs drafted in the first round are of any significance today.
Gore has developed into a very strong back for San Francisco and has lived up to his potential while staying healthy, earning a trip to the Pro Bowl. Brown has had a very up and down beginning to his career, as he has shown bursts of talent as recently as last week against the Patriots in which he had a career high and team record five touchdowns. But up to that point, he broke 1,000 yards in a season only once and missed 12 games over the past two years.
Benson, the No. 4 overall pick, was released earlier this year by the Chicago Bears after being unproductive both on and off the field (arrested twice for incidents involving alcohol). Cadillac Williams and J.J. Arrington are the only other two backs from the first three rounds that are still on their original team’s active roster. Williams has been hampered by injuries and Arrington is the third string behind Edgerrin James and rookie Tim Hightower.
Eric Shelton and Vernand Morency are both out of a job while Ryan Moats hangs on to his career by participating as a member of the Philadelphia Eagles’ practice squad. Maurice Clarett has spent time in and out of jail while seeing his once promising NFL career turn into a constant bout with the law.
So much for the “can’t miss” theory.
If teams cannot count on a high percentage of running-backs in the first three rounds to produce, where should they turn to?
Free agents are always a good option because you at least have an idea of how the players perform on an NFL level. However, that can sometimes be too pricey depending on the market value of the backs in any given year.
The most affordable and least risky option would be to study the final four rounds of the NFL draft studiously and look for diamonds in the ruff.
In the fourth round of the 2005 NFL Draft, the Dallas Cowboys, New York Giants, and San Diego Chargers walked away with a Pro Bowler, a Super Bowl winning back, and a solid backup to MVP and future Hall of Famer, Ladainian Tomlinson.
Marion Barber went 109th overall with Brandon Jacobs following at the 110th spot and Darren Sproles at pick 130. The schools that they attended? University of Minnesota, Southern Illinois, and Kansas State, respectively.
It is evident that you do not need to be a back out of the University of Miami, Texas, or USC to be successful in the NFL. In fact, the top five leaders in rushing for the 2007 season were Tomlinson, Peterson, Westbrook, Parker, and Lewis. Tomlinson attended Texas Christian, Westbrook was from Villanova, and Parker wore UNC blue. Only Peterson and Lewis attended big time football schools (Oklahoma and Tennessee).
Beyond the fourth round, the St. Louis Rams found Madison Hedgecock (seventh round, 251st overall) and ironically enough, he is now the starting fullback for the New York Giants. For those keeping track, the Super Bowl Champion New York Giants’ backfield is made up of the 110th and 251st overall picks while the 2007 Miami Dolphins’ 1-15 squad featured the second and fifth overall picks. Figure that one out.
The New York Giants did blunder on Ryan Grant though, as the undrafted free agent went on to sign with the Green Bay Packers after being cut by New York, en route to a stellar season with the NFC Champion runner-ups.
To compare the first three rounds of the top heavy 2005 draft with the latter four, you can note the following: The first three rounds feature a Pro Bowl back and an inconsistent starter. The bottom four rounds bring a Pro Bowl back on a Super Bowl contender, a Super Bowl champion starting running back and fullback, and a backup to one of the best players to ever suit up. Let’s not forget undrafted Ryan Grant who starts for a team many foresee going deep into the playoffs.
It should be noted that not every player drafted in the first few rounds should be looked at with skepticism. However, there is a misconception that drafting running backs in the early rounds is less risky than drafting a quarterback or a “stud” defensive end. As seen in the 2005 draft, running backs are just as likely to bust as any other position.
Looking at the 2008 NFL Draft, one can see a lot of similarities to that of 2005. It was very top heavy and featured some big time names, including Darren McFadden, Felix Jones and Rashard Mendenhall. While each of those three backs has shown glimpses of greatness, don’t forget about the fourth, fifth, sixth and seventh rounders. Keep the names of Tashard Choice, Ryan Torain, and Tim Hightower in the back of your minds.
Come 2011, you might be pleasantly surprised.