Backs' Up, Down Nature Hurting Hyde

The NFL's trend at putting less emphasis at the running back position seems set to hurt Carlos Hyde's draft stock, much to the chagrin of his former position coach. But is the position dying as much as it seems at the pro level? BSB takes a look.

Stan Drayton sees the trend, but he just doesn't happen to agree with it.

One of his charges, Carlos Hyde, is rated by many the top running back in the upcoming NFL draft. Whereas at one point, that would make him a near lock to be a first-round pick, Hyde instead hasn't been to New York City and likely won't hear his name called Thursday night when the league's annual selection show takes place.

So, yes, the Ohio State running backs coach has a dog in the fight. But he still doesn't quite see why someone like Hyde – Urban Meyer's first-ever 1,000-yard back – isn't more wanted by professional teams.

"I guess the only thing I'll say is try to play the game without (a running back)," Drayton said. "These guys are motivated by the NFL, and somebody like a Carlos Hyde doesn't come around often, OK? When they see a big, 235-pound guy run around with agility, quickness, catching the call and doing things like that, how can you say that you don't want that guy on your team?"

What it comes down to isn't that teams don't want backs on their squad. They just don't want to pay as much for them as they used to.

There was a back taken in the first round of the draft every year from 1965 until 2012, but the streak was broken a year ago when none were selected in Thursday night's first round. No backs went off the table until the Cincinnati Bengals chose Gio Bernard with the 37th overall pick in the second round.

The reasons are myriad. With new rules liberalizing the passing game – including those that put quarterbacks mostly off limits and also allow receivers to work in more open space – teams simply don't run it like they used to. Only five teams ran the ball more than they attempted to pass it last season, with Seattle leading the way at 54.79 percent.

There's also the case that running backs are better by committee, as evidenced by the fact that 39 different rushers ran for at least 500 yards in 2013. Teams are more willing to allow multiple backs take the lead whether it be to keep guys fresh or to use different looks at different times in games. Injuries and the short shelf life of an NFL back also play a factor – only former Tennesssee Titans and current New York Jets back Chris Johnson has a streak of more than three consecutive 1,000-yard seasons with six.

The result is that the leading 10 NFL rushers in 2004 averaged 1,466.2 yards on the season; last year that dropped to 1271.3, a loss of nearly 200 yards per rusher at the top. That means less of an emphasis on running backs when it comes to the draft, where theoretically every spot is more valuable than the one that comes after it and teams must balance filling needs, finding the best available players and maximizing value.

"I think teams are smart," ESPN draft analyst Todd McShay said during a recent conference call, the Charlotte Observer reported. "At the college level there are very few guys who are 20- to 30-carry backs anymore. I think with a lot more spread offenses, offensive formations and teams just looking to get guys in space, the game has changed. There are just not the big, bruising backs who can do everything."

So while this year's draft looks as though it will be the second in a row without a back taken in the first round, this is a fairly recent trend. Twenty-five running backs were taken in the previous nine first rounds, with six of those even going in the top five picks.

Many of them have been wildly successful. Adrian Peterson of Oklahoma, the seventh overall pick in the 2007 draft, has become one of the league's biggest stars and ran for 2,097 yards during the 2012 campaign for the Minnesota Vikings. Two seasons after being chosen 24th overall out of East Carolina, Johnson ran for 2,006 yards in 2009.

Of the last five running backs to lead the league in rushing, Peterson and Johnson were first-round picks, while 2013's leader, Philadelphia's LeSean McCoy, was a second-round choice, as was 2011 leader Maurice Jones-Drew of Jacksonville. The other was undrafted free agent Arian Foster, who signed with Houston and led the league in 2010.

Other early choicess haven't quite had the same impact. Cleveland took Alabama star Trent Richardson third overall in 2012, then traded him just one game into last season to Indianapolis, where his star dimmed considerably during an unproductive campaign. One year earlier, another Bama back – Heisman winner Mark Ingram – was the only first-round back but has managed just 1,462 yards in three seasons.

The other two backs to go in the first round in 2012 have had star-crossed careers, as well. Doug Martin went 31st to Tampa Bay out of Boise State that season and "The Muscle Hamster" ran for 1,454 yards and 11 TDs as a rookie before falling to 456 yards and one score last year. The New York Giants took Virginia Tech's David Wilson one spot later, but he has a combined 115 rushing yards in two seasons.

But in the end the NFL is about winning, and McCoy was on a team that reached the second round of the NFC playoffs a year ago. The two teams to call the highest percentage of run plays – Seattle and San Francisco – met in an NFC Championship Game for the ages.

That might not be enough to make Hyde's bank account bulge, but it is enough to make Drayton smile.

"There will always be a back in this game," he said.

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