In today's NFL, the running back position has lost its luster. Formerly one of the premiere positions on offense, ball carriers are now a dime a dozen. With most teams using committee backfields, the term "workhorse running back" is nearly a thing of the past.
It's the reason so few running backs are selected in the first round of the draft. There's no reason to spend a high pick on a position where value can be found in the later rounds.
The devaluing of running backs is also the reason teams are hesitant to spend big cash on running backs. Consider the Chicago Bears and the two-year-long saga of Matt Forte, who after a prolonged and public dispute with the organization, finally agreed on a long-term deal before the start of last season.
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Yet Bears GM Phil Emery wasn't going to put his team in a bind in case the Forte contract talks devolved into a holdout. As such, he signed Michael Bush in free agency months before Forte's deal was finalized. Bush received a four-year deal worth $14 million, or $3.5 million per season. With Forte due more than $7 million next year, Chicago will have nearly $11 million tied up in two players at a position of severely diminished value.
Dishing out that much cash to two running backs is one of the many reasons the Bears are currently pressed up against the salary cap. If the club wants to get younger and cheaper at the position, they could look to this year's draft to find a player who could challenge Forte and Bush, while also providing a fresh spark on offense.
With that in mind, we break down the early round running backs in this year's draft. Emery is scouting these players, so we should be as well.
Eddie Lacy, Alabama (5-11, 231)
Anyone who watched the BCS Championship Game this year knows that Lacy can be absolutely dominant when he wants to be. A beastly North-South runner, Lacy is a load to bring down. He was a full-time starter during only his senior season, so he's relatively fresh. Last year, he rushed 204 times for 1,322 yards and 17 TDs. He's a thick-bodied runner that can be a workhorse back in the NFL. Despite his size, he's light on his feet and he always finishes runs. Lacy is easily the most talented runner in this year's draft, which could land him in the first round. Projected: Round 1-2
Giovani Bernard, North Carolina (5-8, 202)
Bernard tore his ACL as a freshman and was forced to redshirt that season. He recovered nicely though and started for the Tar Heels the last two years. Despite North Carolina shifting offenses dramatically between 2011 and 2012, Bernard still managed to rush for more than 1,200 yards and 12 TDs both seasons. He's a squat, powerful back with a multitude of moves in the open field. He has good speed as well, running a 4.53 40-yard dash at the NFL Scouting Combine. In UNC's spread offense last year, Bernard showed off his receiving and blocking skills. All-around, he could be the best back in the draft. Projected: Round 2
Johnathan Franklin, UCLA (5-10, 205)
Franklin started three seasons for the Bruins, carrying the ball 282 times for 1,734 yards and 13 TDs as a senior. He is a one-cut runner who is explosive through the hole. He has very good speed (4.49 40) and he's elusive in the open field. He has a lean build and isn't strong in the upper body, so some question his ability to take the constant pounding of an NFL running back. His fumbling issues in college are also a concern. He could be a good change-of-pace back in the pros. Projected: Round 2-3
Joseph Randle, Oklahoma State (6-0, 204)
Randle was at two-year starter who rushed for more than 2,600 yards and 38 touchdowns those two seasons combined. As a senior, he added 224 receiving yards on 28 receptions. He's not an explosive, flashy back but Randle is a productive runner with good hands. There will be a role for him in the NFL, albeit probably in a rotation. Projected: Round 2-3
Montee Ball, Wisconisin (5-10, 214)
Ball became the full-time starter for the Badgers as a junior and led the nation with 1,923 rushing yards and 33 TDs. He was named Big Ten offensive player of the year and a finalist for the Heisman Trophy. As a senior, he rushed for 1,850 yards and 22 TDs, earning first-team All-American Honors and the Doak Walker Trophy, awarded to the nation's top running back. Ball is a one-cut runner who has great field vision and burst. He's a patient runner who hits gaps hard. He's a quality third-down blocker and receiver as well, giving him three-down potential at the next level. Negatives include a lack of ideal height and speed, as well as a ton of wear on his tires – he combined for 663 carries his junior and senior years. Projected: Round 3
Andre Ellington, Clemson (5-9, 199)
Ellington started the last two years at Clemson, earning All-ACC honors both seasons. He showed great speed on the field and most assumed he'd blow up the 40-yard dash at the combine. Instead, he ran a 4.61, which is dangerously slow for a running back. He's a small, lean back, so his speed and pass-catching abilities are his biggest assets. Assuming his combine run was an aberration, Ellington could develop into a decent third-down back. Projected: Round 3
Best Fit: The Bears have a number of pressing needs on the roster, particularly along the offensive line and at linebacker, as well as cornerback, wide receiver and defensive tackle. As such, it's hard to foresee them drafting a running back in the first two rounds of this year's draft – the team doesn't have a third-round pick due to the Brandon Marshall trade.
Yet it may not be as much of a long shot as most believe. The Bears have not hid their interest in drafting a running back this year. If a player of real value falls to them in the second round, it won't be shocking if they pull the trigger on a young ball carrier. New head coach Marc Trestman may want a new toy for his offense, while Emery could save cash against the cap by grabbing a younger player and cutting Bush.
It's not a likely scenario but it's not out of the realm of possibility. If that does happen, then Joseph Randle in the second round makes a lot of sense. He's a solid all-around back who showed well as a short-yardage runner. Randle also has good hands and is solid in pass protection. He would have no problem filling Bush's role and he would cost roughly $2.5 million less.
Jeremy Stoltz is Publisher of BearReport.com and a member of the Pro Football Writers of America. Follow Bear Report on Twitter and discuss this topic on our message boards. To become a subscriber to the Bear Report Web site or magazine, click here.