NFL is turning its back on college RBs

Like most NFL mock drafts, the one produced by Pro Football Weekly consistently lists Alabama’s Mark Ingram as the top running back. An earlier version this month had him pegged to go 28th overall to the New England Patriots.

If that happens, it’ll be the lowest the first running back was selected since 1963, when Don Lisbon, then dubbed a “halfback” out of Bowling Green was picked 36th overall by the San Francisco 49ers. That was in the third round of the then 14-team league. There are other 2011 mock drafts that have Ingram dropping into Round 2, meaning no rushers would be deemed first-round material.

Ingram helped lead the '09 Crimson Tide to a national championship.
(US Presswire)

Meet the one-time glamour position that isn’t so glamorous anymore.

The NFL has turned its back on its ball carriers. Modern thinking says the position is best handled by a pool of competent runners, not a single superstar that a high NFL draft pick – and subsequent high salary – would cost. Offensive coordinators want fresh legs and see backs as not just interchangeable but replaceable.

“Now you see most teams with two running backs, sometimes three,” DeMarco Murray, a top prospect out of Oklahoma, said. “I don’t know many teams with one running back who gets the majority of the load, 35 carries a game.”

Previous generations of football executives loved running backs. In the 20 drafts held from 1971-90, 34 backs were taken in the first round, 18 of them in the top 5, including four No. 1 overalls. As recently as 2005 and 2006, Ronnie Brown(notes) and Reggie Bush(notes), respectively, went second overall

Today, selecting a running back that high would be considered unorthodox. The rage is defensive lineman (Shutdown Corner’s latest two-part mock predicts 11 will go in the first round). That’s how quickly the game has changed and how, for the top backs of today, timing is a curse.

Years ago a player such as Ingram – a tough, versatile runner who won a Heisman Trophy at Alabama – would’ve been in the mix for a high pick and a huge rookie payday.

“I can’t control what people say or what people think,” Ingram said last week of the NFL’s changing philosophies. “I can only prepare hard so when it comes time to play football I’m ready to be a good player and help the team win games and then championships.”

Like in any business, there is often an opportunity when conventional wisdom causes a specific market to over or undervalue a certain commodity. The value of an elite back (let alone whether the current crop qualifies as such) is debatable, though.

Maybe this is the market finally correcting itself. A recent history of rushers that graded out well in the draft process have been overshadowed by unsigned or late-round picks. Analyzing backs out of college’s spread offenses is particularly vexing, scouts say.

The top three rushers in 2010 were Arian Foster(notes) (undrafted), Jamaal Charles(notes) (third round) and Michael Turner(notes) (fifth round). James Starks(notes), a sixth-round pick, rushed just 29 times during the regular season for the Green Bay Packers. Then the playoffs came and, due to injuries, he got the ball. He became the Packers’ lead back, rushed for 315 playoff yards, and helped them win a Super Bowl.

Meanwhile last year’s three first-round running backs were led by the San Diego ChargersRyan Mathews(notes) with just 678 yards.

Murray undergoes a testing at the Gatorade Sports Science Institute in New York City.
(Photo courtesy of Gatorade)

While this isn’t helping Murray get a big guaranteed contract, he doesn’t necessarily disagree with the concept. At February’s NFL scouting combine, Murray measured 6-foot, weighed in at 213 and ran a blistering 4.41 40. In the past, that would’ve caused teams picking in the top 10 to drool. Now he’s hoping to be a second-rounder.

Murray just shrugs. No, he isn’t going to get the tens of millions that a top pick would. That’s business. He notes he wasn’t the solo back at Oklahoma either. It actually makes sense, he said.

“I think it’s great,” Murray said. “It keeps each other fresh and keeps defenses off balance. They can’t game plan for one guy.”

Running back remains a high-profile position in football because at the youth and high school level in particular, coaches tend to put their best athletes at the position. It’s still a role that results in touchdowns and highlight films – the Heisman statue, after all, is of someone running with the ball.

Murray isn’t a sure-bet first rounder, yet he has a deal with Gatorade and is being followed around by NFL Films this week.

In many ways, what sets Ingram and Murray apart isn’t even their running ability. It’s the multiple skills that scouts say they possess. Murray has soft hands and should make for an excellent receiver out of the backfield. He also takes great pride in pass coverage, a prerequisite at OU. “If I couldn’t protect [the quarterback] I was in trouble,” he said.

Ingram isn’t in a position to question the wisdom of NFL front offices, but being a three-down player like he believes he can be should have great value.

“It’s important to have a back who can do everything and not have to come off the field on third down,” Ingram said. “One who can break long runs and run short yardage and run inside and run outside and be effective in the passing game and in picking up pass protection.

“Versatility is what I always try to do. I try to control every facet of the game. I take pride in being able to break a 70-yard run and being able to get one yard on third and one.”

In 2011, that apparently doesn’t count for what it once did.

Tough times for a position that once ruled the draft.

Dan Wetzel is Yahoo! Sports' national columnist. He is the co-author of the book "Death to the BCS: The Definitive Case Against the Bowl Championship Series," which following five printings of the first edition was re-released in a second, updated edition in October. Follow him on Twitter. Send Dan a question or comment for potential use in a future column or webcast.
Updated Tuesday, Apr 26, 2011