Running backs look to make first-round return to NFL Draft
For 50 years, at least one running back was taken in the first round of the NFL Draft.
Then, in 2013, all 32 teams passed on a running back in the first round. The run-oriented NFL had shifted to a league showcasing big, strong quarterbacks who could throw for more than 5,000 yards in a season. The same value is put on offensive linemen whose job is to protect quarterbacks and give them time to throw the ball downfield.
Teams ponder the question of whether spending first-money on a running back is what's best for the organization.
The trend could stop with Thursday's first round. Georgia running back Todd Gurley and Wisconsin running back Melvin Gordon may surface in the first 32 picks.
“It's a passing game. It's hard to say if we're a devalued position,” Gordon said. “Teams are just going with the picks they actually need. I don't know the thoughts going through their (NFL executives) heads.
“Maybe they didn't feel the running backs the last couple of years were first-round talent, I don't know. Le'Veon Bell and Gio (Bernard) were pretty good. I can't answer that. We just have to change that this year and show people that we're capable of going in the first round.”
The 2013 draft was the first of the Super Bowl era in which no running back was taken in the first round and the first such first-round snub since 1963. Bernard was the first back taken when Cincinnati acquired him with the 37th overall pick ahead of the Steelers' Bell, Denver's Montee Ball and Green Bay's Eddie Lacy.
The position has been devalued, in part, because of the increased value of spread offenses that often deploy running backs as receivers. Bell was the Steelers' second-leading receiver with 83 catches for 854 yards last season.
“The spread offense is what (colleges) invest to win games,” Steelers general manager Kevin Colbert said earlier this week. “That's all the byproduct of high school to college to us (NFL). Are the receivers and quarterbacks more valued in those kind of offenses? Probably.
“But if (college teams) have a good runner, they aren't going to walk away from him. I don't think anyone in the NFL will, either. I just think it depends on who the backs are. There are some special backs in this draft.”
The decreased demand for finding a franchise running back with a team's first pick has increased the supply in the middle rounds. Prospects such as Ameer Abdullah (Nebraska), Jay Ajayi (Boise State), Tevin Coleman (Indiana), Duke Johnson (Miami) and T.J. Yeldon (Alabama) will give teams plenty of options on the second or third day.
“There's a lot of teams out there that believe you need more than one running back, and why not spend a second- or third- or fourth-round pick on a big guy and a change-of-pace guy?” NFL Network analyst Mike Mayock said. “That's become very common, and it makes a ton of sense.”
Arizona coach Bruce Arians said during the NFL Combine “this is one of the best drafts for running backs that I've seen in a while.”
Gurley, despite tearing an ACL late last season following an early-season suspension, appears to have the greatest upside. He's big, fast and has good hands, which are assets that could potentially make him a multipurpose back like Bell.
“I feel like this class is definitely deep for the running back position, and we have a lot of talented guys,” Gurley said. “I want to be a No. 1 pick. We'll see how everything goes. I'm just trying to get my knee back right and just show the teams that I can come back healthy.''