Trent Richardson has become the cautionary tale for NFL teams using first-round picks on running backs. The days of the first-round running back aren't dead, but 2014 could be the second straight year no backs are selected in Round 1 after at least one had been taken in the first round in the previous 50 years.
It's not that the running game is dead in the NFL, as some would have you believe. The Seattle Seahawks' offense was fueled by the run, as was that of the San Francisco 49ers. Successful teams such as the Philadelphia Eagles, New England Patriots, Green Bay Packers and Kansas City Chiefs put a greater emphasis on running last season, and it paid off dividends. Yes, passing still rules the NFL, but smart teams are going against the grain and handing off against light boxes, nickel and dime packages and faster, slimmer defenders when they are on the field.
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Just look at the top five backs drafted a year ago (see chart below). Gio Bernard was a shot in the arm for the Cincinnati Bengals and is in line for more work in Year 2. Le'Veon Bell, when healthy, was a strong runner for the Pittsburgh Steelers. Montee Ball appears ready to start for the Super Bowl runner-up Denver Broncos. Eddie Lacy was a godsend for the Packers. The Seahawks' Pete Carroll talked openly at the scouting combine about getting the ball more to Christine Michael this season.
But that doesn't mean it should correlate to the draft, at least not when it comes to higher draft picks. Revised statement: The day of the top-10 running back might be dead, except in rare cases. Top-15 picks such as Richardson, C.J. Spiller, Ryan Mathews and Knowshon Moreno have only flashed great ability in doses.
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"I think it's a trend at every level [of football] that they're using multiple backs, so there is not always that one bell cow," Arizona Cardinals general manager Steve Keim said at the scouting combine. "And then you look at the trends of the draft, obviously the left tackles, the quarterbacks, the corners, those types of players are always going to supersede running backs.
"When you see that you can find fourth-, fifth-, sixth-round backs who are extremely productive, history tells you that you can find those guys in later rounds. But at the same time, when one comes along like Adrian Peterson and they're special, you take one and don't look back."
But backs such as Peterson are a once-a-generation deal. Richardson was the third overall pick in 2012, and now less than two years later — after the Cleveland Browns traded him for the Indianapolis Colts' first-round pick this year — he is viewed as a bust. He's not yet, of course, but there's little doubt that (a) Richardson was never worth the third overall pick in today's NFL game of shared backfields and short RB shelf lives and (b) the Browns fleeced the Colts.
Just look at the injury-riddled careers of recent high picks such as Beanie Wells, Jahvid Best, Ryan Williams and David Wilson. There's a chance that none of them ever gets a chance to start — or even play — in the NFL again.
This year's draft class has some talent, including some who should be Day 1 impact players. But the likelihood of one going in Round 1 appears low. Could the Browns, who certainly need a running back now, consider taking one with their second first-rounder, the one they procured from the Colts in the Richardson trade? They might as well wait.
Ohio State's Carlos Hyde was great in college last season and could be a 2014 Rookie of the Year candidate, depending on where he gets drafted. But there's also a good chance he'll be a second- and maybe even a third-rounder.
Why could that happen when there are still talented backs to be had?
Take the St. Louis Rams, for instance. They drafted Isaiah Pead with the 50th overall pick in 2012, and yet 2012 seventh-rounder Daryl Richardson and 2013 fifth-rounder Zac Stacy have passed him on the depth chart there. Patience can be a virtue at a position that routinely produces late-round (or undrafted) bargains.
"I think we can blame Mike Shanahan on that," Rams GM Les Snead said at the combine." It seems like he was the guru in taking a late-rounder and having him produce. ... I don't know if you devalue the running back [just] because you're passing more. But also you're using multiple running backs, not just one.
"Maybe you're devaluing and using less of the bell-cow, go-to guy. There's a few of those left but I think because of that you're seeing that maybe guys go later. ... And also in college football, the bell-cow runner usually has to be a bigger, larger human being just to be able to withstand 300-plus carries in a season. You're not seeing as large of backs coming out as well just because I think that's the nature of our game more _ spreading things out more with quicker guys."
Steelers GM Kevin Colbert, who took the bigger, heavier Bell in Round 2 last year, also believes the spread-offense proliferation in college football also has something to do with why backs will slide.
"I think it’s a result of what’s happening in college football," Colbert said at the combine. "The running back, for the most part in a lot of offenses, the majority are spread offenses, they’re not emphasized as much so you don’t get to see as much production or dominance. So, you maybe don’t see a top running back, but several were taken in the second round and they ended up being productive players for their teams. If there is a great running back he’ll still go in the first round, regardless of what’s happening schematically."
That's bad news for Hyde, LSU's Jeremy Hill, Arizona's KaDeem Carey, Auburn's Tre Mason, and a slew of backs who could all be lumped together in Rounds 2 and 3 in May. But it's one development that it's hard to overlook based on the way the NFL is going and that there is no elite, can't-pass talent in this year's class.
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