Good size, good speed, good vision and power - Trent Richardson has virtually everything a team looks for in a starting runningback. Assuming he declares, Richardson is a good bet to be a top 10 or even top 5 pick in the 2012 draft. As talented as Richardson is, some people think that the success of low round and undrafted RB's is making it increasingly difficult to justify using a high draft pick on a runner. After all, each of the last two Super Bowl champions heavily featured guys who were no-names coming out of school.
The 2010 Green Bay Packers used 6th rounder James Starks as their main guy in the playoffs and Super Bowl. The 2009 Saints used undrafted players Pierre Thomas and Mike Bell more than former 2nd overall pick Reggie Bush. There is a new prevailing wisdom amongst many draft experts and NFL talking heads: the days of RB's going early in the draft are coming to an end - evidenced by Mark Ingram being the only 1st round RB in 2011 and he didn't go until 28th overall. Is this really true though? Is Trent Richardson one of the last 1st round RB's we'll see?
The success of the 2009 Saints and 2010 Packers, as well as Arian Foster (undrafted), BenJarvus Green-Ellis (undrafted), Peyton Hillis (7th round), Fred Jackson (undrafted), and Ahmad Bradshaw (7th round) is used to support the notion that low round or undrafted RB's is the new trend. Of course, this ignores that the two most recent Super Bowl losers each selected a RB in the 1st a few years before reaching the Super Bowl. (the Colts' Donald Brown and the Steelers' Rashard Mendenhall). Additionally, the last 5 years has also seen plenty of elite-level production from 1st round RB's like Adrian Peterson, Darren McFadden, Thomas Jones, Jonathan Stewart, Chris Johnson, DeAngelo Williams, Steven Jackson, Cedric Benson etc.
The other piece of evidence offered up to support the idea of the demise of the 1st round RB is that more teams are throwing significantly more frequently. Thus, there is less need for an "elite" caliber RB. Unfortunately, this just isn't true. Since 1994, the percentage of plays league-wide which have been passes has been fairly consistent - usually between 55-57%:
As you can see, the number of playoff teams which are extreme pass-heavy teams (60%+) hasn't really changed all that much since the mid 90's. So if in general teams aren't running less than they were 10-15 years ago, and playoff teams aren't running significantly less either, why has the running back position fallen in value in so many people's minds?
The reality is that there is no real evidence to suggest that 1st round RB's are, in fact, a dying breed. Take a look at where running backs have been drafted:
2011 was the first year since 1984 where we saw only 1 RB go in the 1st round but there have been plenty of 2 RB draft classes. There were more 1st round selections used on RB's between 2008-2010 than 2005-2007. In turn, 2005-2007 featured more 1st round RB's than 2002-2004.
It looks to me like Ingram and the 2011 draft class was an anomaly more than an indicator that teams will be less likely to select a RB going forward. It could just be that 2011 was an unusually weak class at the top for RB's. Or maybe the lack of 1st round RB's was related to the strength of different positions in the draft - pushing otherwise fringe 1st round RB talent into the 2nd. These types of things happen: 2008 there were no 1st round WR's. There was no 1st round QB in 1996 and in 1997 the only 1st round QB was Jim Druckenmiller who went 26th overall.
What seems to be happening is that fewer teams are going with a "feature" back. Between 2007-2010 only 45 RB's had 250+ attempts in a year, compared to 67 in the prior 4 seasons. This has correlated with something of an increase in guys with 150-249 carries. So the average draft follower might think "why use a 1st rounder on a RB who isn't going to be more than a part time player". However, the multi-back system is something we've seen before - the late 80's through the mid 90's had a similar lack of "feature" backs. And throughout all those years, 1st round selections were used on RB's. The mutli-back backfield trend is real (although not new), but its effect on the likelihood of a 1st round RB is probably minimal.
The "demise" of the 1st round RB - if it is a real phenomenon - is likely a result of something which has nothing to do with the RB position at all: the new rules which have opened up the passing game. Teams aren't necessarily passing more frequently, but they are passing more effectively. Therefore, there has been an increase in the demand for pass-rushers and defensive backs in an effort to slow down these more efficient passing attacks. If we see fewer 1st round RB's in the next few years, it is likely because teams are trying to find ways to slow down the elite QB's in the league, not because teams have decided that good RB's aren't worth taking early.
What do you think? Is Trent Richardson - or any top RB prospect - worth a top 10 pick? Will we see fewer and fewer 1st round RB's going forward? What other running backs are worth of 1st round consideration in April?
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