There are various strategies teams take when they enter an NFL draft. Most teams will say they followed their board of previously ranked players and took the best guy available regardless of position. Other teams will place precedence in drafting the player that fills the biggest need. The reality should be somewhere between those two extremes. But should running backs become a separate equation all together?
The first argument comes with the trends of the NFL. We hear it all the time; "the NFL is becoming a passing league", but it's true. It's potently obvious that if you don't have a quarterback who can throw for 300 plus yards a game, you're not going to be winning a super bowl any time soon. We've seen very successful teams recently with little emphasis on the running game. Guys like Tom Brady and Peyton Manning, masters of the art of quarterbacking, can use the short and quick passing game as a substitute for the running game. Sure, it means they are throwing the ball 50 times a game, but when they are short quick throws to the flat on a wide receiver screen, it hardly takes any effort. You or I could complete it. Obviously when you're passing the ball that much, the run becomes somewhat irrelevant. Why spend a first round pick on a guy that isn't going to see many touches of the ball?
The days of the one feature workhorse back appear to be over. Most teams deploy a two or even three back system. This is because of the physicality of today's NFL. Players are getting stronger, faster, more athletic, leading to the inevitability that players are going to get hit harder. Not many positions take as much punishment as the running back, so teams like to rotate between two or three guys to keep tread on the tires of those players. A running back is considered over the hill once they hit the age of 29 or 30. In the past few years, the guys over that age have tended to bounce around the league trying out for teams, and failing to catch on. They are just too banged up. It's gotten to the stage where you're almost expecting your running back to go through at least one big injury during his career. Just recently, we've had Trent Richardson, the third overall pick of the draft, missing time due to a knee injury. He had knee surgery before the draft, and has recently visited renown surgeon Dr. James Andrews to have his knee scoped to clean up the same knee. A surgery and a scope before his NFL career has even kicked off, you have to wonder just how much value there is in spending the third overall pick on a running back.
There have been 15 running backs drafted in the first round since 2008. Eight of those guys have already had significant injures (including Trent Richardson), which have kept them out of games. We've already discussed Richardson with his knee, but go back to last year. Mark Ingram only manged to play in 10 games in his rookie year. Ryan Mathews took part in just 12 games as a rookie, and is currently dealing with a broken collarbone which will see him miss time this year as well. Jahvid Best could only muster up six games in his rookie year, suffering with turf toe injuries and concussions. Knowshon Moreno tore his ACL last year and managed just seven games last year. Darren McFadden played in the same amount last year before suffering a foot injury, and has yet to play a full 16 game season in his career. Six games as a rookie was all that Felix Jones could manage. Rashard Mendenhall played in just four games in his rookie campaign, and tore his ACL in January this year, making it likely to at least have an impact on his play time this year.
With the injury status of running backs at such a state, especially for the young guys such as these, shows the value of a first round pick is lessened; as it's likely the back will suffer an injury and miss time. I mean, can you really afford your first round pick to be missing time or constantly playing at a less than 100 percent because of injuries, that are statistically likely to occur? Even looping the discussion of two and three back systems, these guys are getting hurt more and more frequently. You have to have capable rotational guys or your run game is completely dead. This too, lowers the value of running backs, because why spend a first round pick on a guy that is only going to rotate in and out of games, sharing snaps with one or two other backs?
The NFL is catching on. Guys like Mike Shanahan caught on years before everyone else. He knew he could draft a running back in a later round that fit his zone-blocking system, and produce a 1,000 yard season with relative ease. Terrell Davis, Mike Anderson, Olandis Gary, Clinton Portis, Tatum Bell and more recently Peyton Hillis and Roy Helu have all been successful in the system without being drafted in the first round. Some of the best running backs in the league weren't first rounders. In fact, all of the top five runners in the regular season last year weren't drafted in the first round. Maurice Jones-Drew, Ray Rice, Michael Turner, LeSean McCoy were all second rounders; while Arian Foster, another zone-runner, went undrafted in 2009. So clearly, there is talent to be had after the first round.
By spending a later round pick on a running back, there is much less pressure, much less need to rely on that one guy to be a workhorse. When the Browns selected Richardson with the third pick back in April's draft, he instantly became the workhorse back and face of the franchise. How wise a decision is that based on his injury record already, and that at 21 years of age, he'd be doing well to finish his second NFL contract? I'm not so sure. But luckily for the Browns, they had an extra first round pick, and drafted quarterback Brandon Weeden. It will be interesting to see just how things play out, with both Richardson and future first round backs.