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In today’s NFL, teams not handing off first-round money to running backs

Don’t expect a tailback to be taken on the NFL draft’s opening night in Las Vegas.
The general school of NFL thought says any tailbacks taken in future first rounds will closely resemble Bucs veteran Leonard Fournette: a player who can run, catch and help in pass protection.
The general school of NFL thought says any tailbacks taken in future first rounds will closely resemble Bucs veteran Leonard Fournette: a player who can run, catch and help in pass protection. [ DIRK SHADD | Times ]
Published Apr. 26

In the last couple of generations, the demigods nearly have regressed to dinosaurs. Their coveted breed barely still exists.

Don’t hold your breath waiting for an Earl Campbell clone to saunter to the stage on the opening night of the NFL draft. For that matter, Marcus Allen’s not waiting in the green room. Nor is Emmitt Smith or Frank Gore.

Aside from an outlier or two (see Derrick Henry), you’re more likely to find a 45-year-old quarterback in today’s NFL than a workhorse ball carrier good for 30 carries and a few pivotal pass blocks per game. Even the smaller, shiftier dual-threat backs — while clearly valuable — aren’t a pressing priority on the draft’s opening night.

“I think mostly it’s because the game has changed and the value has gone to the passing game,” veteran ESPN draft analyst Todd McShay said. “And you’re able to get really good running backs in the second, third, fourth, fifth rounds.”

Deride McShay’s mock drafts all you wish, just don’t wager against he and fellow draftnik Mel Kiper Jr.’s forecast of no running back being selected in the first round Thursday night in Las Vegas.

Not since 2018 — when the Giants chose Saquon Barkley second overall — has a tailback been selected within the first 10 overall picks. Last year, Alabama’s Najee Harris (24th) was the first back off the board. In 2020, LSU’s Clyde Edwards-Helaire (32nd) was the first to go.

Iowa State running back Breece Hall runs a drill during the NFL scouting combine last month.
Iowa State running back Breece Hall runs a drill during the NFL scouting combine last month. [ DARRON CUMMINGS | Associated Press ]

This year, the draft’s consensus top two backs — Iowa State’s Breece Hall and Michigan State’s Kenneth Walker III — are widely pegged as second-round selections.

“This is not a talented and deep running back group at all,” Kiper said.

“In fact, after the top two running backs, there’s a huge dropoff to the third running back, who may not go until the third or fourth round, and you might only have a couple of them there.”

Somewhere, your uncle may be wincing. From 1977-1981, four running backs (Ricky Bell, Campbell, Billy Sims, George Rogers) were selected No. 1 overall. Forty years later, the position has plummeted on draft boards’ collective pecking order.

The reasons clearly transcend this year’s perceived mediocre crop. NFL rules have been tweaked to protect quarterbacks and their targets, putting an obvious priority on the passing game. In 2000, only five teams averaged at least 250 passing yards a game. That figure doubled in 2021.

Related: Everyone wants a young QB. Why aren't they winning more Super Bowls?

The emergence of the dual-threat quarterback, who can lead his team in passing and rushing, also has helped put the bell cows mostly out to pasture. Toss in a running back’s limited shelf life, and it’s easy to see why teams are becoming more inclined to spend their draft capital elsewhere.

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Of the NFL’s top five rushers in 2017, three (LeSean McCoy, Le’Veon Bell, Todd Gurley) are out of the league. The two others (Kareem Hunt, Mark Ingram) play secondary roles for their respective teams.

“I’d say more so than not, you’re seeing teams rotate (tailbacks) and utilize them for their strengths and keep their legs fresh. Then they become less valuable,” McShay said.

“There’s only a handful of guys in the league year-in and year-out that are in the top 10 in rushing and consistently are that good. Then you factor in all the injuries, then you factor in the shelf life at 30 years old; all but just a small handful, their production just drops off completely almost.”

Any future first-round back likely will be a Leonard Fournette prototype. In 2021, at the height of his NFL resurgence, the 228-pound Bucs tailback ran for 812 yards and eight touchdowns, finished third on the team in receptions (69 catches, 454 yards, two TDs) and protected Tom Brady in more than a few pinches.

“I think, to me, it’s still the running back that can catch the ball in the backfield,” said former Bucs general manager Mark Dominik, now an NFL anaylst for SiriusXM.

“They have to be elite in that capacity now to (be) considered first round. I think that’s even why some clubs have gotten success in later rounds. It’s really going back to the hands and being knowledgeable enough in pass protection not to get your quarterback (crushed).”

Even so, teams are discovering they can find such a player after the first round. Four of the NFL’s top five rushers last year — including MVP candidate Jonathan Taylor — were second-round picks.

Meantime, as many as seven receivers are projected as first-round selections Thursday night.

“I think you’ll still see running backs go in the first round,” Dominik said. “Again, the positive about the running backs in the first round is you technically control his rights for seven years. That’s about it, right? You hold on to a running back for seven years, he’s pretty run down.”

Contact Joey Knight at jknight@tampabay.com. Follow @TBTimes_Bulls

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