NFL Draft: Why Selecting Running Back in First Round Is Never a Good Idea

Dan Tylicki@DanTylickiAnalyst IOctober 24, 2013

INDIANAPOLIS, IN - OCTOBER 06: Trent Richardson #34 of the Indianapolis Colts runs the ball as Chris Clemons #91 of the Seattle Seahawks wraps him up for a tackle from behind at Lucas Oil Stadium on October 6, 2013 in Indianapolis, Indiana. (Photo by Michael Hickey/Getty Images)
Michael Hickey/Getty Images

The game of football has been changing at a rapid rate just in the past decade. Season passing records are being shattered, season receiving records are being broken and the quarterback position has become far more important than any other on the team.

Conversely, the position of running back has diminished in importance. That's not to say that great running backs cannot be found. Any team would love to have Adrian Peterson's memorable 2012 performance on their side.

However, Peterson, or any running back for that matter, is not going to be the key to winning a Super Bowl. If that is not a key position, why would a team spend a top draft pick on that position?

Last year, thanks to both a weak group of running backs at the top and the diminishing importance of the position, a running back was not selected in the first round for the first time in the history of the NFL draft.

This may have been the first time it happened, but it's not going to be the last. In fact, while it may be possible for a collegiate running back to have a first-round grade, it just does not make sense to use a top selection there.

As noted, you can win a Super Bowl without having a high-octane running back. Let's look at the last five Super Bowl winners as well as their top running back:

All statistics here and throughout the article are from Pro-Football-Reference.com

YearTeamRunning BackYards, TDsRank (Yds)
2012Baltimore RavensRay Rice1143, 911
2011New York GiantsAhmad Bradshaw659, 929
2010Green Bay PackersBrandon Jackson703, 333
2009New Orleans SaintsPierre Thomas793, 625
2008Pittsburgh SteelersWillie Parker791, 526

With the exception of Ray Rice, who had a nice season, the teams had either a running back by committee setup, or their rushing attack was simply not something they worried about, and they all won the Super Bowl as a result.

This means that having a great running back is a luxury. It's nice to have a guy who can break tackles and have 100-yard games easily, but to win it all, it's not a necessity—far from it.

Let's say the team you root for is a perennial playoff contender, and they have an opening at running back. Surely that would be an entirely proper use of a first-round pick, right?

The answer to that is still no, and the reason for that is twofold. First, a first-round talent should be used on a sure thing for a top-10 pick, or at least someone close to that level. Running backs have such a short lifespan in the NFL on top of their diminished use that, more often than not, the pick is wasted.

Going back to the 2012 NFL draft, Trent Richardson was touted as the best running back and one of the top playmakers in the draft. He was taken third overall by the Cleveland Browns. Fast forward just barely 18 months, and Richardson has struggled in both Cleveland and Indianapolis.

Doug Martin and David Wilson, taken at the end of the first round in back-to-back selections, also have opposite stories. Martin had a great rookie year, while Wilson has not produced much.

All three of those guys paled in comparison to sixth-round selection Alfred Morris, who finished second in rushing yards to Peterson last year. Now, I know there are always gems to be had in the draft, but it happens a lot more often than with other positions.

Adrian Peterson has been great for the Vikings since he was drafted 7th overall, but most top running backs don't come near his level of production.
Adrian Peterson has been great for the Vikings since he was drafted 7th overall, but most top running backs don't come near his level of production./Getty Images

The 2007 NFL draft brought us Peterson, the first running back taken and a rare talent. Was that the last season that the best running back was a first-round pick, let alone the first back taken off the board?

In 2008, five running backs were taken: Darren McFadden, Jonathan Stewart, Felix Jones, Rashard Mendenhall and Chris Johnson. Johnson is the only one of that bunch to really break out and make a name for himself at the position.

Not only that, but of the next four running backs selected (rounds two and three), three have had better careers than the first four taken: Matt Forte, Ray Rice and Jamaal Charles.

In 2009, Knowshon Moreno, Donald Brown and Chris Wells were first-round selections. None have been impressive enough to have been worth a first-round pick, yet the one second-round selection, LeSean McCoy, has been great so far in his career.

The only year that teams seemed to evaluate running backs well in recent memory was 2010. C.J. Spiller was slow to get going but finally broke out last year, and both Spiller and Ryan Mathews made a Pro Bowl. Both were top-12 selections.

While the best running backs in that class may have went first, they only have one 1,000-yard season each entering their fourth year, and they were taken earlier than they should have in the draft.

The 2011 NFL draft was the first inkling that running backs were diminishing in value, though that was partially due to a weak class, one that I saw no first-round talent in at the position.

Mark Ingram, the sole first-round pick, has not done much so far, and while the jury is still out on the best in this draft class, the best two seem to be DeMarco Murray and Stevan Ridley, both third-round picks.

If a team needs a running back, taking one in the middle rounds seems like a much better use of a draft pick than using up a first-round pick, just from looking at the facts.

Other positions do not have this problem. Peyton Manning was the first overall pick, Calvin Johnson was a top-five pick and the trifecta of J.J. Watt, Von Miller and Aldon Smith, the group who recorded 18-plus sacks last year, were all taken in the first 11 picks of the 2011 NFL draft.

Whatever it is about the running back position, it is simply one where talent can be found throughout the draft, and in the case of the Houston Texans and Arian Foster, through the undrafted free agents left over after the draft is done.

Much like last year and 2011, I again do not see a running back in the upcoming draft class that I would feel comfortable giving a first-round grade to, and even if I did, based on the information above I wouldn't waste a high pick on the position.

Could Baylor's Lache Seastrunk, Wisconsin's Melvin Gordon, or another slip into the first round? Certainly. Would that be a smart pick for any team to make? Certainly not. Even if the running back selected ends up being great, that's not how football games are won today, and that is not the road to a Super Bowl victory.


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