Trent Richardson #3 of the Alabama Crimson Tide runs with the ball against Eric Reid #1 of the Louisiana State University Tigers during the 2012 Allstate BCS National Championship Game at Mercedes-Benz Superdome on January 9, 2012 in New Orleans, Louisiana.
(January 8, 2012 – Photo by Chris Graythen/Getty Images North America)
(PhatzRadio / USA Today) — Trent Richardson has heard all about the devalued status of the running back. Given his ability to slash, explode and stiff-arm, this does not sit well with the former Alabama star.
“It bothers me a lot because we’re getting pounded on every down,” he says. “Even in practice they get to hit on us. … And it just takes a toll. Everyone needs a running back. But the value is not the same (as it once was), and it’s crazy to us.”
Of course, Richardson’s stock is in the higher altitude. After succeeding Mark Ingram and providing a key imprint (1,679 rushing yards, 21 touchdowns) on the Crimson Tide’s roll to a national crown in his only season as a starter, he could get taken as high as fourth overall by the Cleveland Browns in the NFL draft, which starts Thursday night.
But he is surely an exception.
It is possible that Richardson will be the only first-round running back this year, and it is virtually assured that he will be the only one chosen in the top half of the first round. It’s part of a pattern that underscores how draft priorities have shifted with the increased reliance on the passing game.
In the past 10 drafts, seven running backs have been top-10 picks.
“You can get your running back later in the draft,” NFL Network analyst Charles Davis says. “Unless you’ve got an Adrian Peterson, most teams handle their running backs by committee. Look at the (New Orleans) Saints. Two of their top running backs —Pierre Thomas and Chris Ivory— weren’t even drafted. And the (Buffalo) Bills took C.J. Spiller with the ninth pick (in 2010), but he can’t beat out Fred Jackson, who came from a Division III school.”
There’s still a need for the balance that can be provided by a potent rushing attack, even though NFL teams gained 66.2% of their yards last season through the air and called passes on 55.4% of snaps. Five of the league’s top-10 rushing teams made the playoffs in 2011, including the Saints, who also fielded the top passing attack.
Yet it’s striking to consider the entry points for the league’s most productive running backs last season. Of the top 10 players for yards from scrimmage, seven were running backs — one of whom was a first-round pick, the San Diego Chargers’ Ryan Mathews.
Of the seven backs who rushed for 1,200 yards in 2011, one (Marshawn Lynch, Seattle Seahawks) entered the NFL as a first-rounder.
Consider the top six rushers and their draft slots: Maurice Jones-Drew, 60; Ray Rice, 55; Michael Turner, 154; LeSean McCoy, 53; Arian Foster, undrafted; and Frank Gore, 65.
“The year McCoy came out (2009), there were three first-round picks (Knowshown Moreno, Donald Brown and Chris “Beanie” Wells) and McCoy was the 53rd pick,” NFL Network’s Mike Mayock says. “Shonn Greene was the first pick in the third round. You just keep going down the draft at the running back position and go, ‘Wow! Why not go down a bit further and get somebody worth two backs for the price of one?’ ”
Of the NFL’s 32 starting running backs in 2011, six entered the NFL as undrafted free agents and two were seventh-round picks. Fewer than half of the teams (14) had a starting back who was a first-rounder, and four were top-10 picks.
That’s a reason ESPN draft guru Mel Kiper Jr., as bullish as he is on Richardson, has argued against drafting running backs high.
“When they’re good, you think about it,” Kiper says. “You think about (Darren) McFadden. Look what he’s meant to the (Oakland) Raiders. When he’s not healthy, they lose. When he’s healthy, they’re a winning team.”
Baltimore Ravens general manager Ozzie Newsome knows the history.
When the Hall of Fame tight end broke in as a first-round pick in 1978, Earl Campbell was chosen No. 1 overall — one of four running backs to christen the draft over a five-year span. Now it has been 17 years since that happened, with the Cincinnati Bengals’ pick of Ki-Jana Carter.
Newsome also recognizes both sides of the debate. He drafted Rice out of Rutgers in 2008 with a second-round pick. He also took Jamal Lewis fifth overall in 2000, a season that ended with a Super Bowl victory.
“Is there a running back that you could take in every round? Yes, but that guy you take in the sixth round might not be as good as the guy you can take with a top-10 pick,” Newsome says. “If we don’t have Jamal Lewis, we don’t win the Super Bowl and because we didn’t have Jamal Lewis (due to an injury), we didn’t win the Super Bowl the next year.”
Whether Richardson will someday be considered an essential piece to another championship puzzle will hinge on many factors — none of which figure to be a lack of confidence.
Why should he be a high pick?
“I’ll be the dude getting the ball on third-and-3 or fourth-and-1,” he says. “Not to be cocky or anything, but I work on my game every day.”
Best of the Rest
USA TODAY Sports’ Jarrett Bell and National Football Post director of scouting Wes Bunting break down the top running backs:
David Wilson, Virginia Tech
Height: 5-10 Weight: 206
Scouting report: One of the fastest players in the draft (clocked as low as 4.29 in the 40), this 1,700-yard rusher has the tools to get outside and produce explosive runs. Yet he hasn’t been much of a receiver (37 career catches), isn’t noted for pass protection and must prove ball security (nine fumbles) won’t be an issue.
Bunting’s take: “He has a dynamic quality to his game inside and in the open field, and looks capable of maturing into a very good runner.”
Doug Martin, Boise State
Height: 5-9 Weight: 223
Scouting report: Propelled by powerful legs on a squatty frame, this is the classic bowling ball of a back . His weight-room prowess is reflected with tough, inside running and a tendency to always fall forward. Although lacking elite speed, he helped himself with a great combine (4.55 in the 40) and draws raves for his versatility .
Bunting’s take: “Martin isn’t a dynamic size/speed back, but there aren’t many negatives to his game. He plays fast, runs low and is natural through the line of scrimmage .”
Lamar Miller, Miami (Fla.)
Height: 5-11 Weight: 212
Scouting report: After one year as a starter, Miller opted to enter the draft . Potential for growth on a lanky frame is intriguing, given 4.4 speed . Can smoothly change direction, but with his upright and narrow build doesn’t break many tackles.
Davis’ take: ” Miller looks like an ideal fit for a zone-blocking scheme because he isn’t going to make a ton of defenders miss .”
LaMichael James, Oregon
Height: 5-8 Weight: 194
Scouting report: He led the NCAA in rushing yards per game (150.4) for the second consecutive year and with an 1,805-yard campaign finished his college career with 5,082 yards. A burner clocked as low as 4.29 in the 40 on his pro day, he has juked many defenders in space. Yet he’s essentially a north-south runner who flourishes with keen instincts and cutback moves.
Bunting’s take: ” James will be limited inside but can succeed as a third-down option .”
Teams in Need
Cleveland Browns: While contemplating the franchise’s future at quarterback, the Browns could have a shot at landing a franchise runner with the fourth pick . They need that, too, given a 28th-ranked rushing game that averaged just 3.7 yards and lost Peyton Hillis to free agency .
Tampa Bay Buccaneers: Although LeGarrette Blount has campaigned for the Bucs to pass on a back, the team could use another threat . As the hard-charging Blount battled injuries, the Bucs logged an NFL-low 346 rushes in 2011.
Cincinnati Bengals: With Cedric Benson still a free agent, the Bengals must prepare to lose the back who carried the rushing attack. Returning backup Bernard Scott is more suited as a role player. The emergence of quarterback Andy Dalton and wideout A.J. Green as rookies provided the promise of a big-time passing game , but to progress it is paramount to add the running back .
Detroit Lions: While the Matthew Stafford-Calvin Johnson combination leads one of the NFL’s most explosive passing attacks, the Lions — whose 356 rushes were second-fewest in the league in 2011 — need to fill out the offense with a dependable running game. They’ve tried with high picks (Mikel Leshoure, Jahvid Best and Kevin Smith) only to see them sustain injuries.
New York Giants: Brandon Jacobs is gone and Ahmad Bradshaw can’t carry the load by himself, creating the need for a fresh set of legs.