What are the odds, as some "draftniks" have suggested, that not a single running back will be selected in the first round of the draft in three weeks?
Well, if it happens, it will be historic. Literally.
Since the common draft was implemented in 1967, there has never been a first round without at least one back. There was only one year, 1984, when fewer than two runners went off the board in the opening stanza. And that year, there were three tailbacks chosen in the first round of the USFL dispersal draft. In the past 44 drafts, there have been almost as many years with six or more backs in the first round (seven) as years with fewer than three runners (eight).
Notable might be that three of the seasons with fewer than three running backs in the first round have come in the last 10 years, and five in the last 13 lotteries, which probably signals a number of realities: The league is significantly more skewed toward the passing game. Teams are wary of investing first-round choices at a spot that has the shortest career-span of any position. With the preponderance of time-sharing in the league, franchises may be reluctant to overspend on a player who logs fewer than 20 carries per game. The "spread" offenses so prevalent now in the college game, and which require a different skill set, have made it difficult to project backs into the NFL. Middle- or late-round choices, or even free agents such as Arian Foster, LeGarrette Blount, Chris Ivory and BenJarvus Green-Ellis -- or Priest Holmes before them -- have been unearthed.
"It's probably a combination of all the above," acknowledged a personnel director whose team selected a first-round running back in the past five years and is still waiting for the player to deliver on that investment. "Plus, it's just not a great year, at least higher up, at the position. Teams are kind of taking the position now that, 'Well, we still have to run the ball, but not necessarily with a first-rounder.' Given what's gone on the past few years, it's tough to argue that approach."
Four of the 11 running backs chosen in the first round of the past four drafts have posted 1,000-yard seasons in their careers, but only one, Tennessee's Chris Johnson (who has 1,000 yards or more in each of his three seasons), did so as a rookie. The average first-year output of the 11 first-rounders was 584.0 yards, and four of the players rushed for less than 300 yards as rookies.
RB C.J. Spiller
"I think the old (adage) used to be that, if a guy could run, he could run, and that it was a position where you could help (quickly)," said Wisconsin tailback John Clay. "But there's a lot more to it, with (blitz) pickup, blocking in general, the playbook, everything to prepare for. You can't just walk in and say, 'OK, give me the ball.' There's a lot to (assimilate)."
And, apparently, the belief that not many prospects can do it quickly in 2011.
Rob Rang and Chad Reuter, senior analysts for NFLDraftScout.com, have only two backs, Mark Ingram of Alabama and Illinois' Mikel Leshoure, rated among their top 50 prospects. The pair has just a half-dozen backs in its top 100 players.
It might just be typical pre-draft posturing, but even Ingram, the consensus top back in the talent pool and a guy previously compared favorably by some to all-time NFL rusher Emmitt Smith, has allegedly raised some doubts in recent weeks.
Don Banks of SI.com noted earlier this week in a column on a potential diminished value of running backs that this could be the first draft since 2004 in which a back is not among the first dozen players selected.
Ingram played in a mostly pro-style offense, under former NFL coach Nick Saban, and, while hardly a burner, is a tough, consistent, hard-running back, who has been an effective blocker and caught the ball well. But because of the presence of Trent Richardson, and also injuries, Ingram notched more than 160 carries only once for the Crimson Tide.
At the combine, Ingram characterized himself as a "complete" back.
"I could be in the game on first down, second down, third down, goal-line, short yardage, pick up the blitz, pass protection ... go out and catch passes," Ingram said.
But in the age of specialization, franchises aren't particularly seeking out the all-around back anymore. And some aren't seeking out backs at all until the later stages of the draft.
In the last four years, there have been 10 teams who did not choose a running back before the third round.
"It used to be one of the easiest positions (to rate)," allowed Atlanta coach Mike Smith, whose Falcons have tabbed just two backs, both seventh-rounders, in the past four years. "Now it's one of the toughest."
Said Blount, who led all rookie rushers with 1,007 yards in 2010: "It just seems like some teams are finding out they can get guys later on in the draft or in (undrafted) free agency who can run the ball pretty well."
Indeed, 12 of the 32 leading rushers for teams in 2010 entered the league in the fourth round or lower, and six originally were undrafted free agents. Four of the top 10 rushers in the NFL last season came from the third round or lower. Sixteen backs from the past three years ranked among the league's top 10 rushers in those years, but came into the league in the third round or later. Onetime seventh-rounder Peyton Hillis became the centerpiece for the offensively challenged Cleveland Browns. Rookie sixth-rounder James Starks started all four playoff games for the Green Bay Packers, including Super Bowl XLV.
RB BenJarvus Green-Ellis
New England rang up the best regular-season record in the league with a pair of former undrafted free agents, Green-Ellis and Danny Woodhead, as its two top backs. An undrafted free agent has led the New Orleans Saints in rushing each of the past three seasons.
"I don't think that when it comes time to produce," said Green-Ellis, "that what round a guy was drafted in really matters. We had two (free agents), and it seemed like we handled the workload pretty well."
Speaking of workload, that's clearly a factor in the perceived devaluation of the running back position in the draft. Nearly half the teams in the league, 14 of 32, had two tailbacks with 100 or more rushing attempts in 2010. Five franchises had two backs with at least 150 carries apiece. There were only 16 backs in the NFL in 2010 who averaged 15.0 or more rushes per game. The number was the lowest since 1994 and it has decreased each of the past four seasons.
It has become a two- or three-back approach all around the league, and teams seem to prefer to spread out the workload, and concentrate less on one "feature" back. In such an environment, it may be increasingly difficult to invest heavily in a first-rounder.
"You look at what's gone on, and then you add the fact that so many good defensive players are going to go off early this year, and other teams are going to have to reach for quarterbacks ... and it just doesn't add up to a good year (for backs)," said an AFC general manager at the annual league meeting in New Orleans last month. "I don't know that there are any really special guys at the position.
"(Having) no backs in the first round might be a stretch, but you won't see many."
Len Pasquarelli is a Senior NFL Writer for The Sports Xchange. He has covered the NFL for 33 years and is a member of the Pro Football Hall of Fame selection committee. His NFL coverage earned recognition as the winner of the McCann Award for distinguished reporting in 2008.