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Good running backs can be found after first round

| Tuesday, April 16, 2013, 12:01 a.m.

Call it the Shanahan Strategy.

Mike Shanahan is best known for coaching one of football's great passers in John Elway, yet he has a remarkable ability for finding running backs who produce immediately. And he finds them just about everywhere.

Except the first round of the NFL Draft.

Shanahan has coached five running backs who gained at least 1,000 yards in their rookie seasons, including Alfred Morris, a sixth-round pick who ran for 1,613 yards for the Redskins in 2012.

Yet none of those five was drafted in the first round, part of a group of 18 running backs — including three undrafted players — who have gained at least 1,000 yards as a rookie since 1991 but weren't first-round picks.

In the upcoming NFL Draft, there is a possibility that the entire league might adopt Shanahan's drafting philosophy. Only a year after the Browns made Trent Richardson the No. 3 overall pick, there is a chance only one running back — Eddie Lacy of Alabama — will go in the first round. And he's not a certainty.

If Lacy falls below No. 25, it will be the second time in three years the first running back chosen went that late.

“I think you can get running backs in the second, third and fourth rounds,” NFL Network draft analyst Mike Mayock said. “If you look at the last five years of the draft ... I think there were 15 running backs taken in the first round. About half of them have had major injury issues.”

Mayock added, “So the first-round running back thing is by no means a bang-the-table, starting, top-line running back.”

Mirroring the NFL Draft pool as a whole, there appears to be plenty of depth at running back but not a lot of expensive, high-end talent.

That could benefit the Steelers, who are the runaway leaders in rushing since the 1970 NFL merger — no team is close — yet ranked 26th last season. With so many needs, they are expected to wait until a lower round to seek out a running back.

The question is how low they can go.

“You could be looking at a Montee Ball from Wisconsin, who would be a good Steeler back because he's tough, runs hard inside, will block, will catch,” ESPN draft analyst Mel Kiper Jr. said.

Another possibility is Johnathan Franklin, the leading rusher in UCLA history who has visited the Steelers. He has an initial burst and open-field elusiveness.

A back who might interest the Steelers because he excels at gaining yardage after contact is Zac Stacy of Vanderbilt. He could go as low as the fourth round.

Alan Robinson is a staff writer for Trib Total Media. Reach him at arobinson@tribweb.com or via Twitter @arobinson_Trib.

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