The NFL has changed through the years. First down plays are no longer guaranteed runs and it is now common to see 3-receiver formations on second down, short yardage situations and even on first down. The league is about passing the football on offense and the NFL Draft has changed along with the changes on offense.
The top running backs with all the inflated numbers from the time spent in college as the beneficiaries of run-oriented attacks, are no longer some of the top picks in the NFL Draft. In fact, the last four NFL Drafts have only produced seven running backs who were selected with first round picks. Several years back, it would be more commonplace to see seven running backs get selected in the first round of just one year of the NFL Draft.
Rushing totals have remained remarkably similar through the years, but passing totals have taken off to heights never seen before. This offensive explosion in the passing game, has ultimately diminished the need to draft running backs in the first round of the draft. The following 10 reasons are all factors contributing to the decline in draft status for the top collegiate running backs.
10 Running Back by Committee
Now, more than ever, many teams are using two or more running backs to do the work that a single back used to do in the past. Teams are looking for running backs that fit into certain formations or sets as opposed to drafting the workhorse ball carriers that used to define the game. The running backs who have experience catching footballs out of the backfield or blocking a blitzing linebacker are more readily available in the later rounds of the draft.
Consider the San Diego Chargers who had a 1,255 yard rusher in Ryan Mathews. Their backup running back, Danny Woodhead, carried the ball 106 times and caught 76 passes. Woodhead was targeted 86 times with passes, making it just about 200 times his number was called on offense. This is quite substantial work for a backup on a team that had a 1,000 yard rusher who had 285 rushing attempts of his own. Although Mathews was a first round pick, Woodhead went undrafted out of Chadron State. Despite the production by Mathews, there are still many Charger fans who consider his selection and the moving up the Chargers did in the draft to be unnecessary.
9 The Reduced Role of the Modern Fullback
The traditional blocking fullback is no longer a staple on an increasing number of running plays. Running plays are now routinely run in 3 and 4 receiver sets where big receivers can tie up defensive backs and guards or tackles can pull to lead the way. Deception has worked to diminish the role of the fullback, leading to fewer fullbacks being sought in the NFL draft. Backup fullbacks can easily be backup tight ends, becoming more valuable to use in motion as well as multiple receiver sets.
This reduced role of the fullback in the NFL has led many GMs to look for running backs who have been successful running in single-back formations or multiple receiver sets. It has become harder and harder for the typical Heisman Trophy candidate running back to have the same impact in the NFL with fewer blockers leading the way. Thus, the big numbers put up by featured backs in college are no longer as enticing to look at in the first round.
8 The No Juking League
The speed of the NFL has never been as pronounced as it is today. Defensive ends and outside linebackers now routinely post 40-yard dash times that shatter the times of some of the faster wide receivers of the past. Due to this speed on defense, running in the NFL has become much more of a North-South type of affair with the reversing direction and cutback plays that account for big yardage in college a thing of the past.
Consider Alabama running backs Trent Richardson, Mark Ingram and Eddie Lacy. The blue-collar runner of the group would be Lacy, who had only 2,402 yards rushing in college. Despite both having over 3,000 yards rushing in college, Richardson and Ingram, with arguably more speed than Lacy, might both have fewer NFL yards than Lacy at the end of 2014 (Lacy's second NFL season).
Many of the running backs that come into the NFL Draft with gaudy rushing numbers from college seldom experience the same level of success in the NFL. The open field is limited, the defenders too fast and the initial holes to run through too small. Longer runs are almost non-existent. This has made it hard to justify using a first round pick on a running back who was able to elude defenders, break tackles or make people miss in college.
7 The Short Career of Running Backs
The career of running backs has always been relatively short when compared to most other positions on the football field. Since running backs typically absorb more hits than any other player throughout the year, their bodies don't last. Out of the seven running backs that have been selected in the first round of the NFL Draft since 2010, three of them have battled injuries. Doug Martin missed most of last season, Ryan Mathews battled injuries in 2012 and Jahvid Best was forced to retire in 2011. The risk of injury makes it hard to justify using a first round selection on a player who might not even be able to make it through a 16 game NFL season.
There is a big enough difference in the rookie contracts given to first round draft choices compared to players who are selected in the second or later rounds. Two running backs can be drafted in the later rounds for the cost of one drafted in the first round. The risk of drafting a player who can easily fall victim to a serious injury makes it no longer worth taking the chance with a costly and valuable first round pick.
6 Defensive Nickel and Dime Packages
Standard 4-3 and 3-4 base defensive sets can be seen on fewer plays these days. Now, substitutions come after an offense picks up only two yards on first down. This has created the need for NFL teams to acquire extra defensive personnel in response to the multiple passing formations that have made third and long situations full of more receivers than a standard four or even five member secondary can handle. Safeties, cornerbacks and situational speed rushers are now constantly shuffled on and off the field.
Safeties and cornerbacks alone accounted for seven of the thirty two first round picks in the 2013 NFL Draft. It has become essential to have two additional "starter quality" corners and safeties who can cover slot receivers. Add in at least one situational pass rusher at either defensive tackle or end and a typical NFL defense now includes about 14-15 essential players. As a consequence, valuable first round picks have been used to draft defensive players to fill these vital roster spots, bumping good running backs further down the list.
5 The Three Receiver Set
The NFL offensive formations have changed considerably from the days of two back, two receiver and one tight end offensive sets. Every team in the league has a three receiver and four receiver offensive set. Many teams will use three receiver formations regardless of the down and distance to get a first down. Even on third and short situations, it has become commonplace to see passing formations out on the field. Many of these formations are even used to create favorable opportunities in the running game.
Whether it is a passing play or a formation used to create more favorable match-ups and space for running the ball, these passing sets require more depth on NFL rosters for wide receivers. Outside receivers, slot receivers and even speedy bulked up receivers posing as tight ends have all become important considerations when it comes to draft day. The running back is no longer an essential component in a great number of offensive plays.
4 The Meteoric Rise of the Passing Game
As mentioned, the NFL has become more of a passing league. While running the football still takes precedence in college, it is all about the aerial attack in the NFL. In 1993, two teams passed for over 4,000 yards in a season, while 13 teams threw for at least 4,000 yards in 2013. The average passing yards for a season increased from 3,210 to 3,770 in the last 20 years. Even the average passing attempts per season has increased from 515 in 1993 to 567 in 2013. The passing game has simply become more of a focal point of most NFL offenses.
All this statistical improvement and yet 1993 had some of the greatest quarterbacks in NFL history slinging the ball through the air. Joe Montana, Dan Marino, John Elway and Jim Kelly were no strangers to throwing the football, yet their numbers do not measure up to some of the numbers that Drew Brees and Tom Brady put up today. The game has changed to the point where a very good collegiate receiver is now more valuable than a great Heisman Trophy winning running back.
3 Alfred Morris and Eddie Lacy
The 2013 draft stands as proof that there is no need to select a running back in the first round of the NFL draft. Second round selection, Eddie Lacy, led all rookie rushers with 1,178 yards, while Zac Stacy (973 yards rushing) and Le'Veon Bell (860 yards rushing) were not too far behind. Zac Stacy was a fifth round draft choice by the way. The success of running backs selected in later rounds has make it easier for teams to attend to other needs before selecting a running back.
2 Lack of Production from Recent First Round Picks
Since 2010, there have been only seven running backs selected in the first round. The results produced from those high draft selections have been far from spectacular. In 2010, C.J. Spiller, Ryan Mathews and Jahvid Best were first round draft picks. Ryan Mathews has been the only one to experience a good measure of success with two seasons of rushing for over 1,000 yards. Mark Ingram was taken in the first round of the 2011 NFL Draft and has struggled to make an impact in big games.
The 2012 NFL Draft had three running backs going in the first round, much like in 2010. Trent Richardson was a high draft pick, while David Wilson and Doug Martin were selected at the end of the first round. Doug Martin had the best year of all seven running backs with 1,454 yards of rushing in the 2013 season, however, Wilson and Richardson have pretty much been busts. In the last four years, there has been very little reward in selecting running backs with first round picks.
1 The Tackle and Pass Rushing Defensive End
The first round of the NFL draft has become the round for teams to take care of two essentials needs. Since the passing game has taken center stage, it has become more important to look for tackles and pass rushing defensive ends or linebackers. These positions have never been as popular as they are today. The outside linebackers and defensive ends who run a 4.5 second 40-yard dash are as coveted as the men who are counted upon to block them with their nimble feet and 300 plus pound bodies. These are the new game changers in the NFL.
In the 2013 NFL Draft, the top six picks of the draft were either offensive tackles or defensive ends. In the first round alone, there were five tackles selected and seven defensive ends or outside linebackers picked for what amounts to two positions out of the 22 starters on any NFL football team.