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It's Hard to Justify Drafting Najee Harris or Travis Etienne in the First Round

Brad Gagnon@Brad_Gagnon NFL National ColumnistApril 23, 2021

National Team running back Najee Harris of Alabama (22) walks to the sideline during the National team practice for the NCAA college Senior Bowl in Mobile, Ala., Wednesday, Jan. 27, 2021. (AP Photo/Rusty Costanza)
Rusty Costanza/Associated Press

Despite a continued deemphasis on the importance of the position, at least one running back has been selected in the first round of every NFL draft since 2014. But at DraftKings, the over/under for the number of backs who will go off the board in Round 1 next week is 0.5.

That's not great news for Najee Harris or Travis Etienne, who are a combined 2.0 players.

Neither of the two highest-rated running backs in this year's class are expected to be selected high in Round 1, but both have made plenty of appearances in mock drafts throughout the pre-draft process.

There's no denying their talent. In another era, they'd likely be in the mix as potential top-10 picks. Harris is coming off back-to-back 1,200-plus-yard seasons in which he scored a total of 50 touchdowns at Alabama, while Etienne put up consecutive 1,600-plus-yard campaigns and 65 total touchdowns the past three years at Clemson. 

Brian Blanco/Associated Press

The former is 6'2", 230 pounds with just enough speed and more than enough power to become an every-down force. The latter looks extremely polished and—despite being smaller at 5'10", 215 pounds—has an ideal combination of finesse and ferocity. 

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But unfortunately, this has little to do with the talent or resumes possessed by Harris and Etienne. 

Only 10 running backs have gone off the board in the first round of the past eight drafts. Why? Well, we're living in the most pass-heavy period of NFL history, but it's also that the position contains the shortest shelf lives in the sport and it's becoming almost comically easy to find a quality back outside of Round 1.

That eight-year drought was preceded by the fiasco in which the Cleveland Browns used the third-overall pick on mega-bust Trent Richardson. A lack of sustained success from previous highly-drafted backs like C.J. Spiller, Knowshon Moreno and Darren McFadden has likely factored in as well when teams have contemplated using primo selections on that position. 

Recent cases are fewer and farther between, and they're generally not much more promising. Let's review:

Kevin Sabitus/Associated Press

Todd Gurley (10th overall in 2015): He was a first-team All-Pro twice and the Offensive Player of the Year in 2017, but knee issues quickly became a problem and he peaked at the age of 24. Now 26, the Georgia product is unemployed. 

Melvin Gordon (15th overall in 2015): He's technically a two-time Pro Bowler, but he's gone over 1,000 yards just once in six NFL seasons. 

Ezekiel Elliott (4th overall in 2016): He was a first-team All-Pro as a rookie but hasn't earned that honor since. The former Ohio State star could still turn his career around, but he's averaged just 4.3 yards per carry the past two seasons. It appears he's declining at age 25. 

Leonard Fournette (4th overall in 2017): Yes, he was a big factor for the Super Bowl-winning Tampa Bay Buccaneers down the stretch in 2020, but it says a lot that the 26-year-old is no longer with the team that drafted him in the top five. The former LSU star hasn't made a Pro Bowl and has averaged just 3.9 yards per carry. 

Christian McCaffrey (8th overall in 2017): He was one of the most productive offensive players in the game during an All-Pro 2019 season, and he was also strong in 2018, but the Stanford product was terrible as a rookie and couldn't stay on the field in 2020. One great season out of four is far from ideal. 

Saquon Barkley (2nd overall in 2018): He was a force as a rookie but his sophomore season was derailed and his third campaign was blown up as a result of injuries. It's hard to be a difference-maker if you can't stay on the field, but the jury's still out on a guy who just turned 24.

Rashaad Penny (27th overall in 2018): His rate-based numbers aren't bad within a small sample, but he's started zero games in three seasons. Enough said. 

Sony Michel (31st overall in 2018): He still hasn't put together a 1,000-yard season, and his career 4.3 yards-per-attempt average isn't ideal. 

Josh Jacobs (25th overall in 2019): He's a Pro Bowler coming off a second successive 1,000-yard season, so it's hard to argue he's a bust. It's hard to consider this a bad pick right now.

Clyde Edwards-Helaire (32nd overall in 2020): Like a lot of these backs, he bust onto the scene in loud fashion. But the LSU product faded even before that rookie season was through. Injuries were a factor. 

Mark Humphrey/Associated Press

The Jacobs case is particularly interesting because, although he has undoubtedly given the Las Vegas Raiders value that late in Round 1, the team reminded us this offseason that running back is almost never a one-man job. With Jacobs, Jalen Richard and Theo Riddick already on the roster, they handed a two-year, $11 million contract to veteran Kenyan Drake. 

More broadly, have any of the above selections utterly paid off? There's still hope for some, and we can debate Gurley, Elliott and McCaffrey. But the league's top three rushers from that eight-year stretch were all Day 2 selections and none of the top seven rushers last season were drafted in Round 1. Neither was the leading rusher on this year's Super Bowl winner, or last year's

A team featuring the league's leading rusher hasn't won the Super Bowl this century, so there's plenty of evidence you don't need an elite back anyway. But why use a first-rounder on a guy like Gurley, Elliott or Jacobs when you know there's a chance they could turn out to be a Fournette, Penny or Michel or even a Richardson, Spiller or McFadden? Especially when there's a good chance you could land a Derrick Henry, Dalvin Cook, Nick Chubb or Aaron Jones in a later round? 

Michael Ainsworth/Associated Press

That doesn't mean both Harris and Etienne are out of luck. Teams that choose late in Round 1 are more likely to have the luxury to splurge on a back if they believe it could help put them over the top. We saw that when the Kansas City Chiefs used the final pick of Round 1 on Edwards-Helaire last year. Plus, the risk is lower that late anyway. 

But this year, the vast majority of the last 14 selections in Round 1 belong to teams that are in superb shape in the offensive backfield. The Washington Football Team, Chicago Bears, Indianapolis Colts, Jacksonville Jaguars, Baltimore Ravens and Chiefs all have young potential stars at that position. The Tennessee Titans, Browns, New Orleans Saints and Green Bay Packers all have current stars in that spot, while the Buccaneers are loaded at running back.

That just leaves the New York Jets (who have a lot of other needs as they rebuild), Pittsburgh Steelers and Buffalo Bills. Barring a trade-up from an infatuated team in need of a running back, it'd be pretty shocking if either back ended up anywhere else in Round 1. 

The simple reality is that history says it's smarter to wait. 

      

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Brad Gagnon has covered the NFL for Bleacher Report since 2012. Follow him on Twitter: @Brad_Gagnon.

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