The Running Back Dilemma
May 15, 2014 § Leave a comment
It’s like we’re already accustomed to it. Nobody expected a running back to get picked in the first round of the NFL draft last Thursday, and therefore nobody wasted any energy waiting and wondering when one would come off the board. We were preoccupied with the falls of Johnny Manziel and Teddy Bridgewater, the all-important quarterbacks, while their backfield mates plummeted further into draft-day irrelevance.
It wasn’t truly jarring until later, on Friday, when more than half of the second round also passed without a single running back taken, when the position home to many of the most recognizable names in football history seemed forgotten.
But maybe this year’s running back class simply wasn’t good enough. Maybe next year is the real test.
Assuming he enters the NFL draft after his junior season at Georgia, and assuming he makes it through 2014 relatively healthy, Todd Gurley has a good chance to be one of the best running back prospects in recent history. He is the total package as a pro prospect — a 6-foot-1, 232-pound bruiser with speed, who’s also one of the best receivers out of the backfield in college football. There’s every reason to believe he should be coveted by the entire NFL. So if Gurley’s not an early first-round pick, as it stands now, then it’s hard to imagine any running back being an early first-round pick anytime soon — especially after his closest contemporary, 2012 No. 3 pick Trent Richardson, was abruptly traded and labeled a disappointment early in just his second season.
The 2015 draft may not be just about Gurley. There’s Wisconsin’s Melvin Gordon, Alabama’s T.J. Yeldon, Nebraska’s Ameer Abdullah, Florida State’s Karlos Williams, South Carolina’s Mike Davis and Miami’s Duke Calhoun — all of whom could enter the draft to create a formidable group of pro prospects, testing the NFL’s increasing disinterest in what has always been one of football’s glamour positions. There’s an abundance of wealth in college football backfields this coming season, and if the group performs as expected, it’ll act as a good indicator of how much the NFL still values the position.
None of those guys could have been pleased watching the 2014 NFL draft unfold last Thursday and Friday. Not only were no running backs selected in the first round, for the second year in a row — the only two times it’s happened in the Super Bowl era — but it took until the second half of the second round for a run on the position to finally begin, when Bishop Sankey, Jeremy Hill and Carlos Hyde were drafted with three of the four picks from No. 54-57 overall. By that point, nine wide receivers, four quarterbacks and four tight ends had already been picked. It was the longest wait for a running back to be taken in the history of the draft, topping the record set last year of 37th overall for Giovani Bernard.
This doesn’t appear to be an anomaly. It’s part of a larger trend that’s taken hold over the past several years as offenses continue to move toward the pass, and what’s left for running backs gets turned over to committee approaches to reduce the brutal wear-and-tear they must deal with when given every-down roles.
The correlation here isn’t strong, because the number of running backs drafted early is heavily dependent on the quality of the college crop coming into the league (see 2003, when teams had little to pick from after Willis McGahee and Larry Johnson). Thus we see only a loose, slow trend with obvious exceptions. Still, it’s not hard to see a pattern — especially recently, with five of the six highest median picks for the top 10 running backs in the last 20 years occurring since 2009. Whereas the median overall pick for the top 10 backs in the late 1990s hovered around the low 50s, the last two years it’s been around 80th — about a full round difference.
Think back to your fantasy football drafts only a few years ago. For much of the 2000s, running backs were must-haves as first-round picks, and often second-round picks too. Getting an elite running back was a necessity, because starting running backs had clearly-defined roles and were pretty much guaranteed a significant number of touches every game, not to mention goal-line opportunities. It made little sense to go after quarterbacks and receivers early, because supply-and-demand dictated that running backs would come off the board in a hurry as the most valuable commodities to be had. You had to have them.
But in only a few years, that changed, following the trends on the field. Aside from obvious stars like Adrian Peterson and LeSean McCoy, committee approaches and pass-first offenses have taken hold, rendering running backs almost interchangeable in some systems. It’s had a similar impact in the actual NFL draft, where the possibility of striking gold in the later rounds or after the fact — see Terrell Davis and Arian Foster, among others — combined with the short shelf life of the position makes spending a first-round pick on one a risky proposition. By taking a running back in the first round, an NFL team is betting that he can be a bell-cow back who’s not going to wear down quickly. There are very few players, if any, who safely meet those criteria.
Nobody wants to invest in running backs long-term, and even when they do, they want to protect those investments. As teams pass more, and as teams split carries more, nobody is being asked to shoulder the load 25 times every game. It’s a logical strategic shift, but it also signals a change in the way we view players. Running backs were once almost full and equal partners in the backfield with the quarterbacks. Now, in many cases, they’re becoming expendable bit players, the “thunder and lightning” systems — see the Bengals adding Hill despite Bernard’s stellar rookie year — relying on multiple backs combining to create the same impact of one back in past years.
Say you’re a multi-position athlete coming out of high school, with the ability to be a top running back or cornerback and high hopes for playing in the NFL.
Let’s go with the latter choice first. In a passing league, top cornerbacks in the NFL are in high demand. They can play longer, and general managers aren’t opposed to giving them long-term deals. So not only do you play a valuable position where, if you’re good enough, you’ll play every defensive snap, but you’ll take a fraction of a fraction of the punishment of a running back. You can play longer, and you can play your way into multiple lucrative contracts if you become a quality starter in the pros. Fewer fans may wear your jersey, and you probably won’t end up on the cover of Madden, but the life of a cornerback is generally better than the life of a running back.
Or you choose running back. The clock begins ticking the first time you emerge as a starter in college. Two-hundred-carry seasons in the SEC as a freshman don’t help longevity, but you have to stay in school until you’re three years removed from high school. And when you finally enter the draft, unless you’re “the next Adrian Peterson,” you won’t be a top-10 pick and probably won’t get taken in the first round. That already limits the amount of money you can earn, at a position where you have to make your money earlier than everyone else, because you can’t even get a significant third contract. Running backs hit their primes earlier and leave their primes more quickly, and the situation isn’t getting any better as general managers learn to better allocate their resources by placing safer bets on what are now more valuable positions.
So not only should be we keep an eye on Gurley and the other third- and fourth-year running backs in college football in 2014, but there are also two notable players just now entering college who could be an interesting long-term test case.
First, there’s LSU running back Leonard Fournette, the No. 1 rated recruit by ESPN.com. He’s a 6-foot-1, 226-pounder who’s drawn the most Adrian Peterson comparisons of any running back since the man himself. He’s a home-state hero for LSU, the prized recruit who many expect to play instantly in Les Miles’ grind-it-out power offense — especially because the Tigers’ star running back, Jeremy Hill, left for the draft. Fournette could have been a prized linebacker as well, but he’s been universally hailed as the next big thing at running back. We could be hearing his name a lot sooner rather than later — meaning he could be getting a significant share of carries for three years at LSU before taking his talents to the pros with a bit of wear-and-tear already on his body.
Then there’s Michigan cornerback Jabrill Peppers, the No. 2 rated recruit by ESPN.com. Peppers, a 6-foot-1, 205-pound athlete, starred at running back for Paramus Catholic High School in New Jersey and could play some offense for the Wolverines. But he was mainly recruited as a defensive back, which is where he will begin his Michigan career. Like Fournette, he’s expected to play right away, at least in nickel packages — and while there’s no such thing as a football position without significant injury risk, he faces a less punishing path playing on the perimeter.
We have no idea if they will reach their expected ceilings, but if they do, who will the NFL value more? Whose football future would you rather have?
And so we enter 2014 at a fascinating crossroads for the running back position. It already feels like it’s been an eternity since one was taken in the first round of the draft, and while it seems like a home run for that mini-streak to get broken next spring, it’s impossible to know how things will pan out. Gurley battled injury problems in 2013; Gordon is a speed back who may play a complementary role in the NFL; Johnson got hurt last year, too; Yeldon may end up in a committee approach, and so on. There is almost no such thing as a perfect running back prospect — and at this rate, it’s going to take perfection to warrant a first-round selection.
That’s why a player like Hyde — a 236-pounder who averaged 7.3 yards per carry last season thanks to his remarkable agility and balance — never stood a chance at getting picked last Thursday and instead plummeted to the bottom of the second round on Friday. Fifteen years ago, it’s hard to imagine Hyde, with that combination of size and athleticism, not being a first-round pick. Now, he lands in a crowded San Francisco backfield as the possible long-term replacement for Frank Gore — and “long-term,” from the modern running back’s perspective, probably amounts to a handful of years.
And if next year’s class (again, as it stands now, because a lot can change) gets overlooked on draft weekend — if Gurley rushes for 1,500 yards and still falls on draft day — it may be further confirmation that the question Why would top prospects choose to play running back? is worth asking.