The NFL continues to move further towards being a passing league. Teams are expanding their offenses with multiple-receiver sets and a stable of tight ends, while running backs are largely overlooked. This shift represents an adaptation to league rules, but is further accentuated by a lack of impact running backs entering the league.
Adrian Peterson was selected six years ago, and it has been a long layoff since the league has seen a running back with his ability enter the league. Trent Richardson was mentioned in the same breath as Peterson, but the 2012 top-five pick lasted just one year in Cleveland before the Browns decided he no longer fit their offense.
The issue isn't just that Richardson fell short of a 1,000-yard season, but that he has been unable to move the ball reliably on a per-snap basis. In the last two years, he has averaged just 3.5 yards per carry, and transitioning to a pass-heavy offense didn't help open up lanes for him. Richardson is averaging 3.0 yards per carry with the Colts.
This is a common theme with first-round running backs over the last five years. The most successful is arguably Jonathan Stewart of the Carolina Panthers, but the oft-injured back has failed to have an impact season since 2009, when he ran for 1,133 yards.
The Saints wanted to find the missing piece when they traded up for Mark Ingram in 2011. It was the team's belief that adding an elite running back would allow the offense to take pressure off of Drew Brees, which would have worked if Ingram had been able to be a reliable back. In three seasons, he's averaging 3.8 yards per carry, and has been reduced to a short-yardage back with little more to offer.
The Saints learned the hard way that rumbling, bigger backs aren't always successful at the NFL level despite what they did in college. They should have taken notice of the San Diego Chargers, who selected Ryan Mathews the year earlier. His best season came in 2011 when he finished with 1,091 yards and made the Pro Bowl. Since that time, he's been unable to post more than 750 yards and will fall below a career average of 4.0 yards per carry if his play doesn't lift this season.
It looked like this pattern could have been broken when the Tampa Bay Buccaneers selected Doug Martin in 2012. He was taken 28 picks after Richardson, putting up a far better season as he finished with over 1,400 yards. The issue for Martin is that he has stalled in his second season, averaging 3.5 yards per carry and pulling his career average closer to that 4.0 mark.
One could make the argument that inconsistent passing offenses have let these players down, but it's a hard argument to make when Peterson has done so much in Minnesota with little help at the QB position. The same can be said of Frank Gore, who didn't get help until recently in San Francisco.
Teams may have finally learned from these failures when no running back was selected in the first round in 2013. There's still a place for elite running backs, but it has become standard to find valuable players in later rounds.
Scouts are moving toward players with less wear on their legs and with lesser-known backgrounds. Ray Rice didn't carry the same status as Rashard Mendenhall entering the draft, but Rice has been a far more successful player. Likewise for the Washington Redskins, who were happy to wait until the sixth round for Alfred Morris, who is now on pace for back-to-back 1,200-yard seasons.
Trends in the NFL are cyclical, but it's hard to see when the league will move away from its propensity for the passing game. Maybe it will take the next Adrian Peterson to enter the league and change the meta-game, but until that time we're left with a series of first-round whiffs at the running back position and concerns they'll never reach their potential.