History shows running backs’ declining value

The NFL has slowly trended away from selecting first-round running backs after seeing the flops that followed Adrian Peterson.

There has been a lot of discussion about whether Adrian Peterson will return to the Minnesota Vikings in 2015. But this much is true: Peterson was the last of the great first-round running backs and the NFL has slowly trended away from trying to find his equal in the first round of ensuing drafts.

Draft strategies have changed with the running back position since the Vikings pulled off the Great Northern Train Robbery since selecting Peterson with the seventh pick – although Detroit and Cleveland stand behind their picks prior to the Vikings in 2007.

It’s what has happened since that glorious sun-streaked day that has rendered the running back position one of diminishing value.

The running back slide started about the same time the housing bubble burst. The NFL printed money throughout the Great Recession and the shift of power in the game went to those involved in the passing game. Quarterbacks, wide receivers, cornerbacks and pass rushers all saw their value increase.

Running backs? Not so much.

It isn’t Peterson’s fault that he is a salary cap albatross with a $13 million salary. If enough running backs that followed could take the baton, it wouldn’t be a problem. But history has taught us otherwise.

In 2008, the search for the “next Adrian Peterson” began and four running backs were taken in the first round – Darren McFadden by Oakland at No. 4, Jonathan Stewart by Carolina at No. 13, Felix Jones by Dallas at No. 23 and Chris Johnson by Tennessee at No. 24. Johnson came the closest to being that guy, but those teams that used a first-round pick at running back got burned.

To compound matters, teams that picked in the second and third rounds had it better. In the second round, the draft saw Matt Forte taken by Chicago at No. 44 and Ray Rice selected by Baltimore at No. 55. In the third round, Kansas City landed Jamaal Charles with the 73rd pick, giving the impression that talent could be found beyond the first round and the seed was planted.

A similar scenario played itself out in 2009. Three running backs were taken in the first round that year – Knowshon Moreno by Denver at No. 12, Donald Brown by Indianapolis at No. 27 and Beanie Wells by Arizona at No. 31. While each of them had their moments, none of them were viewed as being the answer to their team’s running back problems.

It didn’t help that the best running back of group, LeSean McCoy, was still on the board until the Eagles took him with the 53rd pick. It seemed as though the post-Peterson first-rounders weren’t living up to the hype and that teams could find just as solid a value in the second round.

Then 2010 turned out to be a no-man’s land for running backs. Three more went in the first round – C.J. Spiller by Buffalo at No. 9, Ryan Mathews by San Diego at No. 12 and Jahvid Best by Detroit at No. 30. The second round didn’t find much more in the way of game-breaking talent, as four more came off the board – Dexter McCluster by Kansas City at No. 36, Toby Gerhart by the Vikings at No. 51, Ben Tate by Houston at No. 58 and Montario Hardesty by Cleveland at No. 60 – with no running backs taken in the third round.

The lack of star power talent coming out of those drafts continued in 2011, but the willingness to take a running back in the first round shifted to a rush in the second round. New Orleans took the only first-round running back that year – Mark Ingram at No. 28, which marked the longest the draft had gone on without a running back selected. It would be a portent of things to come.

The 2011 draft saw four running backs go in the second round – Ryan Williams by Arizona at No. 38, Shane Vereen by New England at No. 56, Mikel Leshoure by Detroit at No. 57 and Daniel Thomas by Miami at No. 62. It wasn’t until Dallas drafted DeMarco Murray at No. 71 in the third round that a quality running back got selected, once again cementing the idea that using a high draft pick on a running back wasn’t necessary to find talent.

Perhaps the watershed year in the evolution of running back value came in 2012. Trent Richardson was the No. 3 overall pick and Cleveland swapped picks with the Vikings to draft him. Two other running backs were taken in the first round that year – Doug Martin by Tampa Bay at No. 31 and David Wilson by the New York Giants at No. 32, and a pair of running backs were taken in the second and third rounds – Isaiah Pead by St. Louis at No. 50 and LaMichael James by San Francisco at No. 61 in the second round, and Ronnie Hillman by Denver at No. 67 and Bernard Pierce by Baltimore at No. 84.

In 2013, no running backs were taken in the first round, as teams found the talent they were looking for in the second round, including Giovani Bernard by Cincinnati at No. 37, Le’Veon Bell by Pittsburgh at No. 48, Montee Ball by Denver at No. 58 and Eddie Lacy by Green Bay at No. 61.

While 2013 set a new low for where the first running back would be drafted, 2014 shattered that record. There wasn’t a running back taken until the final third of the second round, when three came off the board in short order – Bishop Sankey by Tennessee at No. 54, Jeremy Hill by Cincinnati at No. 55 and Carlos Hyde by San Francisco No. 57. The third round actually became the hot spot with five backs being selected – Charles Sims by Tampa Bay at No. 69, Tre Mason by St. Louis at No. 75, Terrance West by Cleveland at No. 94, Jerick McKinnon by Minnesota at No. 96 and Dri Archer by Pittsburgh at No. 97.

As the Vikings begin their 2015 free agency and draft preparation, they do so knowing that the value of running backs has been slashed in the NFL. Despite talented players like Melvin Gordon and Todd Gurley, both of whom are viewed as potential first-round picks, the current climate of the value of running backs in the NFL predicts strong value can be found in the second or third round, maybe even more so than in the first round.

When the Vikings drafted Peterson in the first round of the 2007 draft, the value of running backs was strong. Eight years later, the market has bottomed out, meaning that, if the Vikings are willing to bide their time and take a running back in the second round, they might get a first-round talent in a buyer’s market.

It isn’t Peterson’s fault that the draft hasn’t yielded a star running back in the first round since he was selected, but, in the end, when the Vikings have to make the tough decision as to whether to move forward with or without A.P., the ability to find true talent outside of the first round may end up being the motivating factor in how the Vikings game plan their own running back future.

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