NFL draft odds: Which running back will be the first selected? Will any go in the first round?

Frank Schwab
·5 min read

As the renewed debate about running back values kicked up with Christian McCaffrey’s new deal, we’ll get another look at how the NFL values the position in this draft.

This is a good, deep class of difference makers. You can make an argument for any one of six running backs ending up as the best in the class. That doesn’t mean one will hear his name called on Day 1.

In 2013 and 2014 no running backs were taken in the first round, which signaled the philosophical shift on devaluing the position. Since then at least one running back has been taken in the first round of every draft, though just one in 2016 and 2019.

The depth of this class could work against one being taken in the first round. If there are six good options, why take one in the first when one could be around in Round 2? Yet, the draft prop set by BetMGM in New Jersey indicates at least one tailback will go before the first round is done.

Will a running back go in the first round?

Don’t expect a repeat of 2013 and 2014. BetMGM’s odds are heavily in favor of at least one running back going in the first round.

Total running backs drafted in the first round
Over 0.5 -271; Under 0.5 +215

The over makes sense.

Teams at the end of the first round generally don’t have many needs and can make a luxury pick, like a difference-making running back. Taking a great running back late in the first round, with the chance to use a fifth-year option (and therefore putting off the decision on that second deal), has value. Running backs matter. They generally just aren’t good bets on their second contract.

Smart teams can see the value in taking a running back late in the first, letting him play on his rookie deal and then allowing him to leave in free agency. A team like the Kansas City Chiefs, picking at No. 32, is in play for one of the top running backs in the class. The odds value is on under 0.5 running backs in the first round, even if it seems likely that some team will take a shot on one in the first.

Which running back will be first off the board?

The more interesting question might be which running back goes first.

Georgia’s D’Andre Swift, a great all-around prospect, seems to be the consensus for the first back selected. He’s the first back in Yahoo Sports NFL expert Eric Edholm’s latest mock draft — though not in the first round, if you like that under — and Edholm has a good sleeper pick as first off the board:

Edholm: I'd say it's about 50-50 for a running back in the first round. Are there talented enough backs to go in the top 32? Yes, and it's reflected in my overall rankings, which have three runners in my top 30 and one more just outside of it. The problem is need and positional value. First off, there just aren't a lot of RB-starved teams in the first round. Miami is one, but there aren't too many others. So that's your one team that possibly makes sense to me, and they have two second-rounders to fall back on; one of their top four or five prospects at the position could be there in Round 2 for them.

“My guess for the first picked would be Georgia RB D'Andre Swift. He's just an ideal fit for a three-down back, even if he's not a workhorse. Some teams like Ohio State's J.K. Dobbins, though, and the Dolphins did sneak him in for a last-minute visit before those were wiped out. But my sleeper to be RB1: LSU's Clyde Edwards-Helaire. Forget that he's 5-foot-7 and watch how he works on passing downs and how he burrows through small holes inside. He's tough, smart and elusive. There's been buzz growing on him. To me, he'd be worth a long-shot flier bet.”

The BetMGM odds reflect Swift being the consensus top back (click on the top four backs’ names for Edholm’s in-depth breakdown):

Georgia RB D’Andre Swift -200

Wisconsin RB Jonathan Taylor +175

Ohio State RB J.K. Dobbins +600

LSU RB Clyde Edwards-Helaire +1800

Florida State RB Cam Akers +5000

Utah RB Zack Moss +6000

Edwards-Helaire has nice value to be first off the board. Dobbins and Taylor are more likely to be NFL workhorses. Swift and Edwards-Helaire will be very interesting to teams who like their backs to be big parts of the passing game. That has much more value in the modern NFL game. Swift is too chalky, but Edwards-Helaire could be a nice hit if a team prefers him and sees him as a difference maker.

It will be a big draft for running backs. We just don’t know if we’ll see one selected on the first day.

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