Running backs not facing demise, but still devalued in draft
There's an unquestionably rich draft pool for running backs this year.
Guess which position is widely expected to go with the first two picks?
There's hardly an argument that quarterbacks hold the most important, and glamorous, on-field role in the world of organized team sports. That's why Florida State's Jameis Winston and Oregon's Marcus Mariota will likely be long off the board by the time the running back seal is broken.
The experience, potential and skills of Georgia's Todd Gurley and Wisconsin's Melvin Gordon ought to entice a couple of teams to end the unprecedented two-year absence of running backs from the first round. The guys carrying the ball on the ground still matter in this increasingly aerial game.
Elite running backs haven't stopped being developed by college programs, as evidenced by the depth of this class that could produce about a dozen picks by the end of the third round. A productive running attack is often a trait of the playoff teams each January. Last season's league rushing leader was Super Bowl runner-up Seattle, and five of the top eight running teams reached the postseason.
Not since the AFL-NFL merger in 1970 had a running back been missing from the first round of the draft. Suddenly, that happened in consecutive years.
So why doesn't this position measure up anymore to some of the others when NFL teams rank their prospects?
''It's a passing game. It's hard to say if we're a devalued position,'' Gordon said. ''Teams are just going with the picks they actually need. I don't know the thoughts going through their head. Maybe they didn't feel the running backs the last couple of years were first-round talent. I don't know.''
The biggest reason is longevity. Age 30 for a running back might as well be the quarterback equivalent of 40.
Over the last 20 years, 55 running backs were taken in the first round. Nearly one-third of them (18) played six seasons or less, and 12 of them lasted five years or fewer.
As recently as 2005, three running backs went in the top five: Ronnie Brown, Cedric Benson and Cadillac Williams. Reggie Bush was the No. 2 pick in 2006, Adrian Peterson went No. 7 overall in 2007 and Darren McFadden was the No. 4 selection in 2008.
But Mark Ingram at No. 28 was the only running back in the first round in 2011. Aside from Cleveland's reach on Trent Richardson at No. 3 after swapping spots with Minnesota in 2012, Doug Martin (No. 31) and David Wilson (No. 32) were the next running backs off the board that year.
''It's just the way it goes. I think whether it's this year or two years from now or something, there'll be a year where there's five of them going in the first round. It's just cyclical and interesting, but it probably doesn't mean anything philosophically,'' Green Bay general manager Ted Thompson said. ''I don't think teams are less inclined to take running backs now than they were five years ago.''
Maybe not, but there's clearly a market force at work. The decreased demand for finding a franchise running back with a team's first pick has increased the supply in the middle rounds. Prospects like Ameer Abdullah (Nebraska), Jay Ajayi (Boise State), Tevin Coleman (Indiana), Duke Johnson (Miami) and T.J. Yeldon (Alabama) will give teams plenty of options on the second day.
''There's a lot of teams out there that believe you need more than one running back, and why not spend a second or third or fourth round pick on a big guy and a change of pace guy?'' NFL Network analyst Mike Mayock said. ''That's become very common, and it makes a ton of sense.''
Imagining a future environment in which running backs become more durable is difficult, given the strength and speed in the game, so the number of teams with throwback workhorses like Marshawn Lynch with the Seahawks is unlikely to increase. Richardson, who's already on his third team in four years, has averaged a paltry 3.3 yards per carry in his unremarkable career and remains as strong of a reason to wait for a running back as any.
Peterson has a salary cap hit of $15.4 million this season, whether he plays for the Vikings or elsewhere. That's the 16th-highest in the league this year, according to data compiled by the sports contracts website Spotrac.com. The next running back is Chicago's Matt Forte, who ranks 70th at $9.2 million. Per-position spending by many teams these days on running backs is closer to kickers than to quarterbacks.
Take Philadelphia, which traded LeSean McCoy after he totaled more than 3,500 yards from scrimmage over the last two seasons. They signed both DeMarco Murray, the NFL's rushing leader last year, and Ryan Mathews, a former first-round draft pick with a pair of 1,000-yard seasons. They also have versatile veteran Darren Sproles, who has averaged 941 yards from scrimmage and seven touchdowns over the last four years.
''At the end of the day,'' Arizona general manager Steve Keim said, ''you have to have a few guys who can carry the load.''
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