Thursday, April 28, 2011

2011 NFL Draft: Should the First-Round Running Back Be Extinct?

The last time the NFL Draft's first round passed with only one running back being chosen was 1984. Greg Bell was chosen to begin a career that ended after seven seasons with 6,266 yards from scrimmage and 58 touchdowns.

Since then, the likes of Emmitt Smith, Thurman Thomas, Jerome Bettis, Barry Sanders, and Marshall Faulk have all been chosen in the first round.

Of course, those drafts have also blessed the league with immortal names like Reggie Dupard, Tim Worley, Tony Smith, Lawrence Phillips, and Curtis Enis. Those five guys combined for 5,775 rushing yards, or about 800 yards more than Greg Bell.

Tonight's draft leans much more toward the 1984 model than 1987, which saw seven backs taken in the first (which only had 28 picks, mind you), only one of whom was still getting paid to play football in 1993.

Mark Ingram is expected to be the only back picked tonight, and depending on who you talk to, even that's not a cinch. He and his Heisman and the balky knee that kept him from repeating the award have been projected almost everywhere in the second half of the round.

This is a good thing. Here's why.

From the 2000 draft through last year's, 35 running backs were selected in the first round. Of those 35, 13 averaged fewer than 600 yards per season over the course of their careers. 21 of the 35 never recorded a season of 1,200 rushing yards or more (an average of 75 yards per game).

In the same time period, 24 running backs chosen in Rounds 2 through 7 (or not drafted at all) managed to either average 700 yards per season or record at least one 1,200-yard year.

The first-rounders averaged 780 yards per season per player, the later picks 787.

First-round picks produced 39 seasons of 1,200 yards, but the non-firsts accumulated 35.

Six first-rounders have averaged over 1,000 yards per season for their careers, but the same number of non-first-rounders have equaled the feat.

Translation? At a position that boasts an average career length of 2.6 years, first-round draft picks pack a tremendous amount of risk, especially considering similar production can be found later. Of course, that's true for every draft pick, right?

The changes in the game today are beginning to make the rewards much less commensurate with that risk. As teams veer farther from the conventional "workhorse running back" system, more players will see their rookie seasons look more like Knowshon Moreno's 947 yards and 7 touchdowns than Adrian Peterson's 1,341 yards and 12 scores.

The pounding inherent in the position means that running backs face a double-edged sword. Every player wants to be the featured guy, racking up the large numbers so he can eventually rack the large bank. The tradeoff is the short shelf life that reduces the number of contracts a player has time to sign.

A running back is almost better off in today's game if he's not the featured guy, but a general manager is forced to think long and hard about using one of those valuable first-round chips on a player who will only play a part-time role.

It's hard to write this as a guy who grew up idolizing Walter Payton, Barry Sanders, and Marshall Faulk. Barring the occasional Chris Johnsonesque explosion, however, it's hard to see today's game making a lot of running backs worth the first-round price.

It's hard to bank on finding a Willie Parker, Fred Jackson, or Ahmad Bradshaw in the late rounds or off the street. Not hitting the lottery in the seventh round, though, is a much cheaper ticket than spending a first-round pick on a Chris Perry or Trung Canidate.

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