Saquon Barkley

2018 NFL Draft: Should you draft a RB in the 1st Round

Today we are going to investigate the pros and cons of selecting a running back in the first round of the NFL Draft. For many years, it was never seen as a big deal to draft one in the first round. Now it is not seen as the wise investment it once was. You only have to go back to 1999, when then Saints head coach Mike Ditka traded the team’s entire allotment of draft picks for the right to select Rickey Williams. That didn’t pay off for New Orleans.

Since I founded Deep Fried Draft in 2012, there have been 8 running backs taken in the draft’s opening stanza. We are going to go year-by-year and examine the players taken and some other notable names drafted in the later rounds during those years.

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2012 Draft

1st Round:

(4) Trent Richardson, Cleveland Browns

(31) Doug Martin, Tampa Bay Buccaneers

(32) David Wilson, New York Giants

Notable:

(4th Round) Lamar Miller, Miami Dolphins

(6th Round) Alfred Morris Washington Redskins

Doug Martin was a sensational running back during most of his time in Tampa. Trent Richardson was a “can’t miss” prospect that 99% of draft analysts thought would be a multi-time All-Pro (myself included). He ended up burning two franchises since Cleveland was able to pawn him off on the Colts. David Wilson suffered a neck injury and never really had a chance to succeed. Lamar Miller had a nice career with Miami and had continued success with Houston. Alfred Morris was a 1,000-yard rusher as a rookie for Washington.

2013 Draft

1st Round:

None Selected

Notable:

(2nd) Gio Bernard, Cincinnati Bengals

(2nd) Le’Veon Bell, Pittsburgh Steelers

(5th) Chris Thompson, Washington Redskins

(5th) Mike Gillislee, Miami Dolphins

(6th) Rex Burkhead, Cincinnati Bengals

(6th) Spencer Ware, Seattle Seahawks

(6th) Theo Riddick, Detroit Lions

This marked the beginning of a 2-year span of no first round running back. Le’Veon Bell is arguably the best ball carrier in the NFL. Gio Bernard is a dynamic playmaker for Cincinnati. Injuries have hampered him but Chris Thompson has been a nice contributor for Washington. Mike Gillislee has been a TD machine for multiple teams. It took until his fourth year (not his fault), but the Bengals finally realized how much of a player Rex Burkhead was. Then he signed with New England. Spencer Ware was released by Seattle before becoming a solid back for Kansas City. Theo Riddick is a better receiver than runner, but he has been productive for Detroit.

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2014 Draft

1st Round:

None Selected

Notable:

(2nd) Carlos Hyde, San Francisco 49ers

(3rd) Jerick McKinnon, Minnesota Vikings

(4th) Devonta Freeman, Florida State

(4th) James White, Wisconsin

2014 was a down year for the running back position. Carlos Hyde had a few good seasons for the 49ers before signing this offseason with Cleveland. Jerick McKinnon has been a very good complimentary piece for the Vikings before he got a big payday with San Francisco. Devonta Freeman was the best back in this draft. He and Tevin Coleman (see below) helped carry the Falcons to the Super Bowl after the 2016 season. James White probably should have been the MVP of that Super Bowl. He set the game’s receptions record.

2015 Draft

1st Round:

(10) Todd Gurley, Los Angeles Rams

(15) Melvin Gordan, Los Angeles Chargers

Notable:

(3rd) Tevin Coleman, Atlanta Falcons

(3rd) Duke Johnson, Cleveland Browns

(3rd) David Johnson, Arizona Cardinals

(5th) Jay Ajayi, Miami Dolphins

After the two-year drought, 2 backs were selected in the first round, and both have been great. Todd Gurley exploded as a rookie, regressed some in 2016, and was an MVP candidate in 2017. Melvin Gordan was a home run hitter at Wisconsin and continues to be in the NFL. Coleman pairs nicely with Devonta Freeman. Duke Johnson has probably been the best receiver for the Browns the last couple of years. David Johnson has elevated himself to being a top-3 overall running back in the league before an injury wiped out the majority of his 2017 season. Jay Ajayi fell in the draft because of an injury and has battled them during his career. When he is on the field he is great. He was traded last year to Philadelphia and was a big part of their Super Bowl run.

2016 Draft

1st Round:

(4) Ezekiel Elliott, Dallas Cowboys

Notable:

(2nd) Derrick Henry, Tennessee Titans

(5th) Jordan Howard, Chicago Bears

Ezekiel Elliott led the NFL in rushing as a rookie. He was great last year, save for the six games he was suspended for violating the NFL’s Code of Conduct. Derrick Henry has shown promise and will finally be the lead back next season. Jordan Howard was the second leading rusher after his rookie year.

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2017 Draft

1st Round:

(4) Leonard Fournette, Jacksonville Jaguars

(8) Christian McCaffrey, Carolina Panthers

Notable:

(2nd) Dalvin Cook, Minnesota Vikings

(2nd) Joe Mixon, Cincinnati Bengals

(3rd) Alvin Kamara, New Orleans Saints

(3rd) Kareem Hunt, Kansas City Chiefs

(4th) Tarik Cohen, Chicago Bears

It is too early to pass complete judgment on these backs. Fournette was a grinder this year for the Jags. Christian McCaffrey was more of a receiver than runner his rookie year but I expect that to change in 2018. Dalvin Cook was dominant until he tore his ACL after six games. Joe Mixon showed more promise after Cincinnati opened up the offense. Alvin Kamara was the NFL Offensive Rookie of the Year. Kareem Hunt led the NFL in rushing last year. Also, Tarik Cohen showed why he got the nickname of the “Human Joystick” while at North Carolina A&T. Cohen was dynamic out of the backfield and on special teams.

WHAT CONCLUSIONS CAN WE DRAW?

Three out of the five backs selected in the first round of the 2012-2015 draft were unmitigated successes. It is too early to make a call on the ones selected in 2016 & 2017. The position takes more physical abuse per play than any other. Thus, most of the backs selected never see a second contract with their drafting team. The team that drafts a running back has to balance the impact he can have over the potential longevity you may get from a player at another position. I would also feel better about drafting a back in the first round that affects the passing game as much as the run game. Like every player drafted, it truly is a crapshoot.

In this year’s draft, there are 2-3 players worthy of being selected in the first round. The teams will have to make the decision on whether it is in the long-term best interest to pull the trigger.

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