It appears that just about anybody who plays running back is the new Mr. Irrelevant of the NFL draft.
Even someone as good as Trent Richardson of Alabama.
"I love Trent Richardson, everything about him," a personnel executive with an NFC team said in March. "Great football player, loves the game. Great kid, very mature, a leader. Physically, he reminds me of George Rogers and I mean the good George Rogers …"
That's high praise considering that Rogers was the No. 1 pick of the 1981 draft, was the 1980 Heisman Trophy winner and later helped the Washington Redskins win Super Bowl XXII.
Of course, all of that was build-up to the eventual, "But …"
"If you're asking me if I'd take him in the top 10 picks, the answer is no. Not the way the game is played today," said the executive, who is also a former NFL player. "It kind of hurts me to say it, but that's just reality. Look around the league: It's not a running back league anymore."
The 2012 NFL draft figures to further illustrate the accelerating decline in the value of running backs. In 2011, Mark Ingram was the only running back selected in the first round. The only other time that happened since the NFL and AFL merged drafts was in 1984.
This year, it may happen again. Richardson is the only running back considered a lock to go in the first round. Many people believe Richardson will go either No. 4 to the Cleveland Browns or No. 5 to the Tampa Bay Buccaneers. Sources with both teams strongly hinted that Richardson is a consideration at those spots.
Then again, if he doesn't go one to one of those teams, Richardson could be on the board for awhile. After the Bucs, no team has an overwhelming need for a running back until the Cincinnati Bengals at No. 17. And even if Richardson is joined by Boise State's Doug Martin in the first round, this will mark the fewest running backs to go in the opening stanza in back-to-back years.
In other words, one of the most dominant positions in the game's history has become little more than an afterthought.
"You spread people out, try to get the defense out of position, look for a mismatch and then try to hit a crease," said St. Louis Rams coach Jeff Fisher, who coached Chris Johnson in Tennessee when Johnson ran for 2,006 yards in 2009. Johnson, only 195 pounds, excels in large part because of his exceptional quickness and speed.
"We don't line up and run out of I-formation that much anymore" Fisher said. "The days when you lined up with the running back deep in the backfield and let him watch the blocking develop, that's done. Maybe once in a while or after you've been lucky enough to build up a lead and you're grinding it out in the second half. But that's situational stuff, not your base offense."
The evolution of the NFL as an elaborate seven-on-seven league has been obvious by the explosion of passing numbers. Not only did New Orleans Saints quarterback Drew Brees obliterate the single-season record with 5,476 passing yards (breaking Dan Marino's mark of 5,084 in 1984) in 2011, but Tom Brady (5,235) would have and Matthew Stafford (5,038) was close. Until last year, Marino and Brees were the only passers to eclipse the 5,000-yard mark).
"The idea that you throw to score and run to win has been taken to the extreme," said Atlanta Falcons coach Mike Smith, whose bell-cow rusher Michael Turner finished third in ground yards (1,340) last season. "It's hard, especially for a defensive coach like me, to sometimes accept that, but that's the nature of the game. It's four and five wideouts, and the short passing game has become the running game."
Receivers such as Wes Welker, Roddy White, Brandon Marshall and Marques Colston have become the extension of the running game. That is particularly true in the regular season, when the officiating tends to tilt toward the passing game.
"You throw it up there and you either get 15 or 20 yards or you get a pass-interference call half the time," New York Jets coach Rex Ryan said, half-joking.
All of that means the running back has become an endangered species, the in-line blocking tight end is no more than a reserve and the true fullback is all but a dinosaur.
During the five drafts from 2007 to 2011, only 14 first-round running backs were selected and just 28 total drafted in the first two rounds. Only Darren McFadden in 2008 was taken with one of the top five picks.
By comparison, from 1988 to 1992 – when eventual Hall of Famers Barry Sanders and Emmitt Smith were chosen – 21 running backs were taken in the first round and 38 in the first two. From 1978 to 1982, the numbers were 26 in the first round and 44 overall. Both of those five-year periods came when the NFL had only 28 teams rather than the current 32.
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While teams shy away from drafting workhouse-type backs, they're also very protective of their veteran rushers.
"If you have a good running back, you don't want to burn him out. It's all about keep him fresh now," said San Francisco 49ers coach Jim Harbaugh, who limited bullish running back Frank Gore to 282 carries last season. "Frank wants the ball every down and I love that mentality. But you have to be smart, too, and it's my job to make sure he's healthy all season."
Which gets back to Richardson. He's a fabulously talented runner who might have been an overwhelming candidate to be the No. 3 overall pick … 20 years ago.
"Even 10 years ago, you see a player like that and you don't think twice about him," an AFC executive said. "You watch the way he played in those two games against LSU last season [including the national title game] and that's all you really need to know about him. He was everything for Alabama. He was their whole offense. LSU knew it, all the fans knew it and it didn't matter. He was the best offensive player on the field."
For all that praise, the executive stopped short of saying Richardson was a lock to go in the top 10.
"It really just all depends on how you want to build your team," the AFC executive said. "If you're in the minority and you try to build around the running game and defense or you're trying to protect your quarterback because he's limited, then maybe you do it. But there's a lot of thinking that goes into it."
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General managers such as Cleveland's Tom Heckert and Tampa Bay's Mark Dominik have to weigh the value of a running back that high in the draft against players who might help the passing game.
Or help defend against it.
"You have to look at all the angles of how a player can help you today versus over the long haul," Dominik said. "I think that one thing that helps is the new structure for rookie contracts. Without the burden of the big signing bonus and making sure that player is going to be with you for five or six years because of the money, you can focus a little more on today."
So, that means the pick is Richardson?
Dominik flashed a wicked grin and walked off without even a hint of an answer.
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