NFL Draft 2011: NFL Running Back Scarcity, Trend or a Trough in the Averages?

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NFL Draft 2011: NFL Running Back Scarcity, Trend or a Trough in the Averages?
Jim McIsaac/Getty Images
Endangered species

An outside chance exists for something very strange to happen in this year’s NFL draft. For the first time since the NATIONAL FOOTBALL LEAGUE'S inception in 1967, we could have a draft where a running back isn’t taken off the board in the first round. I realize Mark Ingram should come off mid- to late-first round, but he’s no sure pick. If he doesn’t, the likelihood of another tailback taking his place appears quite low.

Even if Ingram does come off as scheduled, (Bar trivia!) when was the last and only time just one running back was selected in the first round? Greg Bell was a lonesome first-round pick by the Buffalo Bills out of Notre Dame 1984. In addition, only seven times in the history of the NFL have just two running backs gone in the first.

So why the dearth of horses in 2011?

The first and most important factor is the boring law of averages. Hold an annual draft for 44 years, and you’ll have a few where there isn’t much talent at tailback. It happens.

But approach the question from the other end, from the league as it stands. Maybe teams need them less. Here are the average carries and yards by the top 10 running backs since 2003.

Year Ave Carries of Top 10 RBs Rush Yards of Top 10 RBs
2003 344 1549
2004 335 1451
2005 339 1524
2006 338 1479
2007 304 1264
2008 311 1360
2009 298 1331
2010 311 1305
Andy Lyons/Getty Images

The shifting “importance” of the position in the offense is up for debate—Quantity vs. Quality of Carries—but as any frustrated fantasy owner can attest, we’ve watched the role of the running back decline over the last four years. We’ve ventured into a much discussed “quarterback era.” Only a few teams (Vikings, Titans, Jaguars) really set the burden of the offense on their horse’s shoulders with little site of relief from other offensive weapons.

Does this mean the old adage, “The run sets up the pass” is falling, slowly, to the wayside?

We’ll have to wait and see. 2006 wasn’t that long ago; we could be discussing a “running back era” in 2016 when Tom Brady and Peyton Manning have retired (or are close) and Eli Manning, Ben Roethlisberger, Matt Schaub, Phillip Rivers—the Class of 2004—and Aaron Rodgers are entering the twilight of their careers.

However, we’re not going to see D-lineman and linebackers getting smaller in the coming years. Maybe, unless they make the field bigger, the only way we’ll be able to move the ball is by surgically dismantling the pass coverage. Offensive talent pools will continue to fluctuate in terms of positional distribution, but the other side of the ball will persist in one, joint, enlarging direction. That wall will continue to get bigger, faster and stronger with fewer and fewer holes to squeeze through.

Jed Jacobsohn/Getty Images
Party pooper

I wonder (worry?) whether this may grow into a problem for the NFL. That league desire for parity, for every market to have a fighting chance (or seem like it does) will fade only because the bottom half of teams that rely on a workhorse’s shoulders will drop further and further in the standings.

Not that being unable to succeed without a good quarterback is a new problem, but quarterback-less mediocre teams will play more and more like bad teams when all they have is a running game that can’t go anywhere. I have trouble seeing how, with the cracks allowed by defenses getting slimmer and slimmer as players get wider and wider, a league mentality shifting more focus to the position with the highest scarcity, the quarterback, won’t create a greater disparity between the Have’s and Have Not’s.

In the past, if you didn’t have a good quarterback, you could piece together a running game and grind out five to seven wins, making a struggling season interesting for fans. That possibility may be fading.

Or we’re making too much out of a trough in a largely constant flow of talent. Two years after Greg Bell was the lone first-round back, six were taken in the first round, including a guy named Bo Jackson.

[Caleb Garling is a B/R Featured Columnist and journalist for Wired.com. Follow him athttp://www.twitter.com/calebgarling]

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