The running back position meant everything, then nothing, and then something in between. In the early 2000s, running backs were everything. The dominance of all-time talents like Marshall Faulk, LaDanian Tomlinson, Curtis Martin, and Shaun Alexander made it a premium position, with running backs frequently finding their way into the top five picks of the draft. Then, suddenly, it became hip for draft nicks to make the case that the running back position had no value. The argument was that there were so many quality options that were so interchangeable that it wasn’t worth the risk or investment of spending a top draft pick on a running back. Trent Richardson didn’t help matters, either. Suddenly, teams were scared to pick a back in the first round, with no player at the position going in the first round for two straight years. The lack of strength of the 2013 and 2014 draft classes didn’t do much to help the matters.
The NFL is a copycat league and with the wild success of Todd Gurley, suddenly the position is talked about in a way that's not unlike 10 years ago. Suddenly, Ezekiel Elliot is being talked about as a potential top-five pick. Somewhere between these two extremes, there has to lie some clarity. Just like with the quarterback decision, I set out to see if recent draft classes have shown running backs to be worth a top draft pick, or if they really are that disposable.
Trent Richardson, Doug Martin, David Wilson, Mark Ingram, CJ Spiller, Ryan Matthews, Jahvid Best, Knowshon Moreno, Chris “Beanie” Wells
Recent history doesn’t look too good for first-round running backs. There are more players in this time frame that are out of the league than that are breakout stars. Wells, Moreno, Best, and Wilson aren’t even playing football anymore. Richardson is hanging on by a thread and serves as a cautionary tale to picking a running back early. After being dubbed as the best prospect since Adrian Peterson, a moniker that seems to be thrown around seemingly every other year, Richardson has looked tentative and sluggish when he has gotten on the field and hasn’t shown the work ethic to overcome that. The few bright spots on this list, Matthews, Spiller, Ingram, and Martin, have all shown flashes of potential stardom in their time in the league, but haven’t been able to produce consistently enough to live up to their draft position. Even Martin, who ran for the second-most yards in the league this year, has only played well in two of his four seasons in the league. The fact of the matter is that, unless there is a “can’t miss” type of prospect coming out, running backs aren’t consistent enough to be worthy of a first-round pick. The fact of the matter is that there isn’t a significant difference in production, if any, between picking a running back this high. Teams can’t necessarily expect to get a starter at the position here.
Giovanni Bernard, Le’Veon Bell, Montee Ball, Eddie Lacy, Christinne Michael, Isiah Pead, LaMichael James, Ryan Williams, Shane Vereen, Michael Leshoure, Daniel Thomas, Dexter McCluster, Toby Gerhart, Montario Hardesty, LeSean McCoy.
Teams are far more willing to invest in a tailback here than in the first. The second round is often described as the sweet spot for drafting running backs. However, if these five years are any indication, that isn’t the case at all. For every quality starting running back drafted in this range, there is another who is struggling to stay on a NFL roster. McCoy, Bell, Bernard, and Lacy obviously have been stars at the position for years, but beyond that, this list is grim. Some of these players, like Christinne Michael and Toby Gerhart, got teams to repeatedly buy into their potential and were given every opportunity to earn a starting role, but couldn’t catch on. Others on this list haven’t even been able to register meaningful production at any time in their careers. I’m not convinced that Montario Hardesty, who the Browns drafted in 2010, is a real person. Aside from the few breakout stars on this list, the common element that these players share is that they showed just enough potential to make teams believe that they were a solution, but never to deliver. Teams often like to take chances on players with elite physical traits at this point in the draft as well, like Michael and McCluster. These players rarely go on to have a substantial impact in the league. Just like in the first round, drafting a running back this high is risky business. There are no guarantees that the player will be any more than a role player for the length of their rookie deal, if they are even able to stay in the league that long.
Middle Rounds (3rd and 4th)
Knile Davis, Jonathan Williams, Marcus Lattimore, Ronnie Hillman, Bernard Pierce, Lamar Miller, Robert Turbin, DeMarco Murray, Steven Ridley, Alex Green, Roy Helu, Kendall Hunter, Delone Carter, Taiwan Jones, Bilal Powell, Jamie Harper, Joe McKnight, Shonne Greene, Glen Coffee, Mike Goodson, Andre Brown, Gartell Johnson.
At this point in the draft, the risk isn’t nearly as high as in the first and second rounds. The value and expectations of a middle-round pick are substantially lower and teams are more willing to take chances at this point in the draft. Not many starters make it this far in the draft. Lamar Miller and DeMarcco Murray are the only players in this group who have been able to catch on as established starters. This point in the draft seems to be an ideal place to find a complement for the primary running back. Guys like Knile Davis, Ronnie Hillman, and Bilal Powell, among others, have been able to find a niche as the lightning to another running back's thunder. Just like earlier in the draft, the bust rate is frighteningly high for the position. The vast majority of players picked in this range don’t amount to much in the league. Glen Coffee and Gartell Johnson sound more like sidekicks from a mid-tier '80s flick than professional football players. Teams shouldn’t be looking for game-changing backs, or even a running back to take the majority of the carries, this deep in the draft. The key to success in picking a back here seems to be having a clear, defined role, and finding a prospect that fits well into it.
The back three rounds of the draft are an ideal place to build depth in the backfield. Like anywhere in the draft, there is a high percentage of busts at this position. However, the consequence of missing on a pick this late isn’t nearly as great, it’s an expectation. I don’t need to go through a list of no-name players who end up getting drafted at this point in the draft. Occasionally, teams will find a gem like Dion Lewis and Latavius Murray who provide quality starting options. Role players like Denard Robinson and Theo Riddick can be found annually this deep into the draft. Quality backups are abundant in the closing rounds of the draft due to the sheer amount of depth at the position. Notably, there is seemingly a player every year or two who goes undrafted and becomes a starting option in the league, like Arian Foster or Thomas Rawls.
Don’t let the recent success of Todd Gurley persuade you. At any point in the draft, the amount of running backs who don’t live up to expectations in shockingly high. There is no reason to invest a high draft pick in a player unless a team feels that they are a generational talent. Otherwise, there just isn’t enough of a difference in talent in all rounds of the draft for teams to spend first or even second-round picks on a back. There seems to be a similar amount of starting running backs that come from all areas of the draft. It’s difficult to predict which running backs will make it in the league. It’s far easier for teams to invest in a mid-tier free agent at the position than to take their chances with the draft. While it is difficult to find a starter in the draft, however, it’s far easier to find good options for complementary pieces or backups so long as they are an ideal fit for that role.