TAMPA — In the cottage industry of NFL draft analysis, predictions can vary wildly. When it comes to mock drafts, the only consensus is there isn't one.
Which makes it all the more interesting that an overwhelming majority of prognostications are consistent on one point: Running backs will largely be sitting on the sideline in the early portions of this draft.
Alabama's Mark Ingram is the only back consistently projected to be chosen in the first round. The last time fewer than two were taken in the first round was 1984.
That might suggest the Bucs, who are looking for help in the backfield, are in a predicament. But Tampa Bay need not worry about finding quality running backs in the later rounds.
In fact, that's often precisely the place to find them. More than at any position, running backs picked in the middle and later rounds can emerge as talents. Even undrafted prospects regularly develop into impressive players.
"Happens all the time," ESPN draft analyst Mel Kiper said.
Look no further than the Bucs' LeGarrette Blount, the undrafted former Oregon star who took the NFL by storm last year with a 1,000-yard rookie season.
The 2010 rushing leader, the Texans' Arian Foster, went undrafted, too, as did the Saints' leading rusher, Chris Ivory, and Patriots 1,000-yard rusher BenJarvus Green-Ellis.
Those kinds of finds are no longer rare exceptions.
In fact, a running back's status as a first-round pick guarantees nothing. Among the NFL's top 10 rushers in 2010, just three — the Titans' Chris Johnson, Vikings' Adrian Peterson and Rams' Steven Jackson — were first-round selections. The list is dotted by players such as the Falcons' Michael Turner (fifth-round pick), Chiefs' Jamaal Charles (third) and Giants' Ahmad Bradshaw (seventh).
Furthermore, what the Bucs, who did bring Ingram in for a visit, are searching for hardly calls for a huge investment. Blount has shown he can be a primary ballcarrier, but the Bucs could be in the market for a third-down back and backfield depth.
Cadillac Williams had a strong finish last season when cast as a complementary and third-down back. But he will be a free agent when the lockout ends. His injury history and age (29) could cause some trepidation.
But the Bucs have other pressing needs, which is why the availability of quality running backs late in the draft bodes well for them.
So what's behind this phenomenon? Primarily, it's a numbers game. There is greater depth of talent at running back than, say, offensive and defensive line.
Gil Brandt, a longtime Cowboys executive and current Sirius NFL radio host, has been scouting drafts since 1960 and seen the use of running backs change while the sizable talent pool has not. In his early days, he said, the Cowboys carried five tailbacks and two fullbacks. Those days are long gone.
"If you have a tryout camp … if you have 100 people there, 50 will be wide receivers, 25 will be running backs. And when you get to offensive and defensive linemen, it's probably 2 percent," Brandt said. "The value that you can get in the draft later on is significantly better at running back than at offensive or defensive lineman. There's a huge drop-off in linemen."
That's more true today because teams are using multiple running backs — unlike other skill positions, where players play every down — making them less desirable as early picks.
"There's got to be a premium," Bucs general manager Mark Dominik said.
When that's lacking at a certain position, he added, "that's what makes them start to fall."
And that's how things are shaping up in this draft, a fact that can only help the Bucs.
"I only counted three or four teams that are even going to think about a running back in the first couple of rounds," Kiper said. "So these running backs that everybody thinks are going to be second- and third-round picks … they're not."
That means a running back or two could again fall between the cracks and become the latest in the long line of late-round picks to pile up eye-popping numbers.
"I think this year's running back class is a talented class," Dominik said. "I think there's value to be had from the first round all the way to the seventh round."
Stephen F. Holder can be reached at firstname.lastname@example.org.