Sometime before the 2014 NFL draft, when Trent Richardson was struggling, and CJ Spiller was sputtering, and Knowshon Moreno was floundering, and Darren McFadden was battling another injury, and prospects were dim on anyone being selected in the 1st round, the running back position was pronounced dead.
We were early to the game, writing in 2012 about how it doesn’t make sense to take a RB in the 1st round. Here’s an article Bleacher Report wrote in 2013. And the Post-Gazette in 2015. The tipping point was 2014, when for the 2nd year in a row, no running backs went in the first round.
In hindsight, the phrase we all should have used: “down cycle.”
Darren McFadden, 4th overall
Jonathan Stewart, 13th overall
Felix Jones, 22nd overall
Rashard Mendenhall, 23rd overall
Chris Johnson, 24th overall
Knowshon Moreno, 12th overall
Donald Brown, 27th overall
Beanie Wells, 31st overall
CJ Spiller, 9th overall
Ryan Mathews, 12th overall
Jahvid Best, 30th overall
Mark Ingram, 28th overall
That’s a 7-year stretch that produced exactly zero 1st round running backs who were consistently a factor. Chris Johnson had the best career, with his one 2,000 yard season before becoming an inefficient runner who was more bust than boom in later years. Sure, Doug Martin had a great rookie year, and Jonathan Stewart’s first two years were productive, and Mark Ingram was consistently solid, but for being taken in the first round? This collection did not come close to living up to expectations.
And yes, injuries happen. McFadden, Jones, Best, Wilson, etc all couldn’t stay healthy.
But meanwhile, RBs going in the 2nd round and beyond were wildly successful: matt forte and Ray Rice (2008), LeSean McCoy (2009), DeMarco Murray (3rd round, 2011), Lamar Miller (4th round, 2012), and Le'Veon Bell (2013) to name a few.
So the running back position wasn’t dead, but drafting them in the 1st round became a bad idea.
But as is with life, these things are cyclical. Along came Todd Gurley and Melvin Gordon in 2015, and both look like elite backs. Ezekiel Elliott was a major star in 2016, and in 2017, two more went in the first round (Leonard Fournette and Christian McCaffrey).
And if you’re the type to look ahead … the 2018 draft could have as many as four first-round running backs, led by Penn State’s Saquon Barkley.
Drafting running backs in the 1st round again: Cool again.