NFL Draft 2012: Do You Really Need to Take a Running Back Early?

The NFL has morphed into a passing league over the last few years, with Drew Brees, Aaron Rodgers and Tom Brady leading the charge. This season, three QBs passed for over 5,000 yards, and three tossed 45 or more TD passes. (Only two QBs have topped 40 TD passes in the last decade – Manning in 2004, Brady in 2007.) Which leads me to this question about the 2012 NFL draft: Despite a strong RB group, should you really burn a high pick on a running back?

* In 2011, 3 WRs were drafted before the first RB was taken.
* From 2009-2011, here are the RBs taken in the first round: Knowshon Moreno (Denver), Donald Brown (Indianapolis), Beanie Wells (Arizona), CJ Spiller (Buffalo), Ryan Mathews (San Diego), Jahvid Best (Detroit), and Mark Ingram (New Orleans).
* You know what the last three NFL rushing champs have in common? They all missed the playoffs.
* No running back in the top five for yardage the last two years was drafted in the first round.

And before we get to the 2012 crop of RBs, check this out:

Every RB who rushed for over 1,000 yards in 2011 and where they were drafted (I know 1,000 yards is arbitrary, but so is 1,100 or 1,200):

Maurice Jones-Drew, 2nd round 60th overall 2006
Ray Rice, 2nd round, 55th overall in 2008
Michael Turner, 5th round, 154th overall in 2004
LeSean McCoy, 2nd round, 53rd overall in 2009
Arian Foster, undrafted
Frank Gore 3rd round, 65th overall in 2005
Marshawn Lynch, 1st round, 12th overall in 2007
Willis McGahee, 1st round, 23rd overall in 2003
Steven Jackson, 1st round, 24th overall in 2004
Ryan Mathews, 1st round, 12th overall in 2010
Reggie Bush, 1st round, 2nd overall in 2006
Cedric Benson, 1st round, 4th overall in 2005
Shonn Greene, 3rd round, 65th overall in 2009
Chris Johnson, 1st round, 24th overall in 2008
Beanie Wells, 1st round, 31st overall in 2009

Every RB who rushed for over 1,000 yards in 2010

Arian Foster
Jamaal Charles, 3rd round, 73rd overall in 2008
Michael Turner
Chris Johnson
Maurice Jones-Drew
Adrian Peterson, 1st round, 7th overall in 2007
Rashard Mendenhall, 1st round, 23rd overall in 2008
Steven Jackson
Ahmad Bradshaw 7th round, 250th overall in 2007
Ray Rice
Peyton Hillis CLE, 7th round, 227th overall in 2008
Darren McFadden, 1st round, 4th overall in 2008
Cedric Benson, 1st round, 4th overall in 2005
LeSean McCoy
Matt Forte, 2nd round, 44th overall in 2008
BenJarvus Green-Ellis, undrafted
LeGarrette Blount, undrafted

Every RB who rushed for over 1,000 yards in 2009

Chris Johnson
Steven Jackson
Thomas Jones, 1st round, 7th overall in 2000
Maurice Jones-Drew
Adrian Peterson
Ray Rice
Ryan Grant, undrafted
Cedric Benson
Jonathan Stewart, 1st round, 13th overall in 2008
Ricky Williams, 1st round, 5th overall in 1999
Frank Gore
Jamaal Charles
DeAngelo Williams, 1st round, 27th overall in 2006
Rashard Mendenhall
Fred Jackson, undrafted

I love Alabama’s Trent Richardson as much as the next guy – I’ve had him top 10 in all three mock drafts – but with these figures in mind, do you really need to take him in the Top 5 or 10 or even 20? Given recent history, it doesn’t seem to make sense to grab a RB too early. My guess – with four months before the draft – is that there will be a run on the strong 2012 RB class starting in the second round, and maybe extend to the third. Here are a few guys you’ll be hearing about at next month’s combine (with best-case scenario NFL comp in parens):

Lamar Miller, Miami, 5-11, 215, 4.42 40 time (MJD)
David Wilson, Virginia Tech, 5-10, 205, 4.42 40 time (LeSean McCoy)
Doug Martin, Boise State, 5-9, 210, 4.48 40 time (Ray Rice)
Chris Polk, Washington, 5-11, 220, 4.48 40 time (Matt Forte)
Isaiah Pead, Cincinnati, 5-10, 200, 4.42 40 time (Jamaal Charles)

I didn’t even include guys like Cyrus Gray (Texas A&M) or LaMichael James (Oregon) or Ronnie Hillman (San Diego St), who also project as pros.

[Selfish Jets’ note: Top two priorities are safety and right tackle. If they can do that in the 1st round and free agency, I’d love to see them grab Martin or Polk in the 2nd round.]

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