Last year, for the first time since the initial AFL-NFL “common” draft began in 1967, not a single running back was chosen in the first round.
All indications are that the same thing will take place next week. Even the league office doesn’t think it will happen, because of the 30 players invited to New York City next week for draft festivities — and TV time — not one is a running back.
In the name of Barry Sanders, what’s going on?
Perhaps it’s just a fluke. Or maybe it’s a sign of the times in the increasingly pass-happy National Football League. At least one running back was taken in the first round of every draft from 1967 until 2012. That’s 45 drafts in a row.
And before last year, with the exception of 2011 (Mark Ingram) and 1984 (Greg Bell), two or more running backs have gone in the opening round every year in that span. (Ingram and Bell were the only first-round backs in the years they came out.)
And in several cases over those 45 drafts, as many as six and seven RBs went in Round 1
“If you looked at the draft 40 years ago, running backs were the most valuable commodity there was,” NFL Network analyst Mike Mayock said. “Today, with all the spread offenses and teams throwing the football, 60, 70, 80 percent of the time, there’s been a completely different emphasis offensively.”
It’s reached the point where the buzzword around the NFL is that the running back position has become “devalued.” And it’s not just in the draft.
On the free-agent market this offseason, stars such as Knowshon Moreno, Maurice Jones-Drew and Chris Johnson didn’t get much action. They eventually signed with new teams but received short-term deals for relatively modest amounts.
“I think it’s a trend at every level that they’re using multiple backs,” Arizona general manager Steve Keim said. “So there’s not always that one bell cow. And then you look at the trends of the draft. Obviously, the left tackles and quarterbacks, the corners — those types of players — always are gonna supersede running backs.
“Then you see that you can find fourth-, fifth-, sixth-round backs who are extremely productive, so history tells you that you can find those guys in later rounds. But at the same time I think when one comes along like Adrian Peterson and they’re special, you take one and don’t look back.”
For the second year in a row, there isn’t a Peterson in the draft. Or a Steven Jackson, Marshawn Lynch, Johnson, or any of the 39 first-round backs taken this century.
But perhaps there’s another Zac Stacy, who was drafted in Round 5, No. 160 overall, and rushed for 973 yards in basically 12 games for the Rams as a rookie last season.
Or there’s another Alfred Morris, who has rushed for 2,888 and 20 touchdowns in two seasons since being selected in Round 6, No. 173 overall, in 2012.
“There’s been backs that have come in that have played pretty well, whether they go early or they go in the middle rounds,” Rams coach Jeff Fisher said. “I think that’s always been the case.
“I think you’re seeing teams use backs differently. There’s not the bell cow anymore, you know, that’s taking 90 percent of the carries — the 350-plus carries a year for eight years. They’re interchanging ’em. Because offense is becoming more specialized, as defenses are, you’re looking for more of a change of pace. Having two different types of backs.”
Fisher has had bell cow approach during much of his head-coaching career, from Eddie George and then Johnson in Tennessee to Jackson with the Rams. He sees Stacy as a “70-percent” back in terms of carries, which in theory still leaves plenty of work for the No. 2 back.
But in terms of this year’s draft pool, the top prospects can only hope for the best because of what’s happening with running backs.
“It does kind of bother me,” Ohio State’s Carlos Hyde said. “I feel like (NFL teams) are down on us. They don’t think we are capable of doing what we know we can do.”
But in the case of Hyde and another top prospect — Jeremy Hill of Louisiana State — their chances of going in the first round also were tarnished by off-field issues.
Hyde (who is 6 feet tall and weighs 230 pounds) rushed for 1,521 yards last season, averaging an astounding 7.3 yards per carry in just 11 games for the Buckeyes. He was suspended for the first three games of the season after being named a “person of interest” in the assault of a woman. No charges were filed.
Naturally, NFL teams have asked Hyde about the suspension.
“They have asked me what I learned,” he said. “I feel like I have learned to cherish this game of football because at any minute it could be taken away from me like it almost was.”
As for Hill, a Louisiana judge last month granted him an early termination to a two-year probation stemming for punching a man outside a bar. Earlier, Hill was on probation for a misdemeanor charge of carnal knowledge of a juvenile while a high school senior.
“What’s happened has happened,” Hill said. “I can’t change that. All I can do is be honest and forthcoming (to NFL teams) with everything and be myself.”
Hill (6-1, 233), rushed for 1,401 yards last season and averaged a Southeastern Conference record 6.9 yards per carry.
By Jim Thomas
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