NFL Draft Trends: Running Backs

When it comes to today’s running backs in NFL, it can be hard to separate what you hear from what you see. What you hear is that running backs simply aren’t valued anymore— teams are passing more now than ever, front offices don’t want to give backs long-term deals, etc. These things are true to some degree. there’s no doubt that the teams are throwing much more than they are running and teams do seem more hesitant to pay the league’s top-tier running backs.

But to use these two examples and say that running backs are no longer valued is missing the point. The running back position is still an important part of all offenses. What has changed, however, is the value of the “every-down” back. With so many running backs reaching the age of 30 and rapidly declining, teams are placing extra emphasis on finding a good No. 2 back to reduce the number of carries for their main guy.

Helping the two-back system succeed even more is the use of the zone blocking scheme in teams’ base offense. Simplifying the blocking concepts for offensive linemen this way gives more optionality when blocking downfield and it also makes it a little easier for running backs to find and attack holes. Think of teams like Houston and Washington and how well their running games have been lately and also consider how many different guys they have sharing the workload on the ground.

At this point, this is still mostly theory. In the coming 5-10 years, we’ll have a better idea of how many years the two-man running attack adds to the lifespan of a back (if any). But with so few running backs eclipsing 300 carries in a season now, it’s at least a sensible theory.

NFL Draft Trend

There’s a two-pronged answer here: when trending running backs going early in the first, the trend is starting slightly down. Yes, I know that Cleveland took Alabama’s Trent Richardson 3rd overall last year, but he could legitimately be the last top five running back for a few years. The reason for this isn’t talent level and it also isn’t necessarily the two-back system. I believe it’s the decrease in pro-style run schemes in the college game. Like a spread offense quarterback, draft scouts tend to err on the side of caution when projecting a spread offense running back’s success in the NFL.

1stRoundRBs

Think of the starting running backs around the league today that were drafted early and then consider the rushing offense that they came out of in college. Most of the first round backs came from pro-style background.

2013 Prediction

So with that said, I don’t see any running backs coming off the board on Thursday. Perhaps a late flier toward the end of the round, a la Tampa Bay and New York last year, but I wouldn’t bet money on it.

For one, there aren’t really any running backs graded in the first round range. Not to mention that this year’s teams at the bottom of the first round seem pretty content with their running game. Content enough to use their first round pick elsewhere, at least. Perhaps there’s an outside chance of Green Bay taking a back at 26, but they have more glaring needs as well.

Likely Candidates

Eddie Lacy (Alabama): I’ll  need ESPN Stats & Info to confirm this for me, but I’m going to go ahead and say that no school has ever had a running back go in the first round of three consecutive drafts. But Alabama has a chance to do just that if Lacy does end up going in the first, with Mark Ingram going to the Saints in 2011 and Trent Richardson to the Browns last year.

While all three were highly-touted backs coming out of college, Lacy is widely considered the least talented of the three. I tend to agree with this sentiment, but at the same time, he’s ranked first among running backs on many draft boards. And his bruising ability is a large part of that (from CBSSports.com):

Has the leg drive to push the pile and keeps his legs churning through contact, often resulting in broken tackles. Lacey reads his blocks nicely, showing enough lateral agility to avoid defenders as well as the burst to stick his foot in the ground and accelerate through gaps quickly.

 He’s a well-built back, but shows good balance (including an often-used spin move) and athleticism (leaping ability) to surprise defenders anticipating that all he has is power. Runs tough and determined with an angry attitude to finish each run and pick up positive yardage.

Simply put, Lacy is a power back— something that is rarely seen in the NFL today. And he would be a perfect compliment to a speed back right away. But what he lacks, naturally, is speed (from SI.com):

Lacy lacks the speed needed to beat angles to the edge or separate from defenders in space. He also lacks the burst needed to consistently get through holes before they close, and has to rely on his blocking and his power to break through for big gains. He tends to run with his head down at the LOS, which severely limits his vision and caused him to repeatedly run into the back of his own linemen in games I evaluated. Although he had 22 receptions in 2012, he lacks natural hands and consistently fights balls he has to pluck away from his frame.

His skills don’t exactly scream out “first round pick,” but if any back has a chance of going on Day 1, it’s Lacy.

Montee Ball (Wisconsin): It seems as if Montee Ball never got the recognition he deserved in college. His nearly 4,000 rushing yards and 55 touchdowns in the last two seasons along have been overshadowed by the efforts of Heisman Trophy candidates. So when I saw that Ball was projected to go early in the draft, I was happy to see that his talent is expected to match his production.

While he has decent speed and excellent vision, one concern that the folks over at OptimumScouting.com have is his durability (you can purchase their extensive draft guide here for $5.99):

…after 924 carries in his career, concerns about his upside as a runner and NFL longevity after having such a massive amount of carries under his belt. Only three running backs have been taken in the top three rounds that had over 880 carries in their college career, and only Ray Rice has been a worthwhile selection (Kevin Smith and DeAngelo Williams were the other two). As a runner, Ball lacks ideal vertical speed, natural power and leg drive through contact, and elite plant and drive ability as he works downfield. 

Ball had a few injury concerns this season, suffering a concussion after being assaulted on campus in August. But once he recovered, he put up great numbers. It’s unlikely that he’ll go in the first, which is unfortunate, but I can’t help but think that whoever lands him is getting a fantastic value in the 2nd round or later.

Giovani Bernard (North Carolina): Giovani Bernard is the running back currently rising up draft boards. The North Carolina man put together two consecutive seasons over 1,200 yards after tearing his ACL in 2010. Though his 40 time at the Combine was slower than that of the other two backs, his biggest strengths are his agility and acceleration (from ESPN):

Super quick feet. Has good initial burst and outstanding lateral agility. Can stop-start on a dime. Accelerates off cuts. Very good quickness in and out of the hole. Can string together multiple moves. Very slippery between the tackles.

I feel that I should mention another player (somewhat) missing from this year’s RB class. Though South Carolina’s Marcus Lattimore is in the draft, his future is very much in doubt after suffering a gruesome leg break earlier in the season. Similar to former Miami Hurricane Willis McGahee ten years ago, his draft stock has tumbled.

It’s my belief that both would have been high first round picks, were they healthy. Now McGahee only fell to 23rd overall, but it would be a shock if Lattimore is taken in the first. But without Lattimore in the first, it will be tough for a back to crack the first day.

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