Running back strategy is evolving

4/29/2011 - NFL

Only one running back -- Mark Ingram of Alabama -- is expected to be picked in the first round of the NFL draft. That would be the fewest first-round running backs taken since 1984 and striking evidence that emphasis in the NFL definitely has moved from rushing to passing. Consider, for instance, the 1983 draft and how it affected the league a generation ago.

The 1982 Los Angeles Rams were a mediocre running team. Their rushing leader, Wendell Tyler, averaged 62.7 yards per game, and the Rams ran the ball only 45.8 percent of the time. The Rams took SMU running back Eric Dickerson with the second pick of the 1983 NFL draft. Dickerson set the bar for rookie running backs, shattering records with 390 rushes, 1,808 rushing yards and 18 touchdowns.

Dickerson represented what teams hope to get when they draft a running back. He had seven 1,000-yard rushing seasons and 13,259 yards (seventh all-time) ,in his 11-year career. However, draft history shows the success the Rams had with Dickerson is rare, even for a first-round pick. Impact running backs are hard to come by in any round -- and teams that wait (especially beyond the first 45 picks) to draft a runner should significantly temper their expectations, based on prior performances.

More than 1,800 running backs have been drafted since the first common draft in 1967. Of those, only 25 have reached 10,000 career rushing yards, a benchmark for both productivity and longevity in the career of a running back. Twenty of the 25 were selected in the first round; four were taken in the first half of the second round. Only Curtis Martin (74th overall pick) gained 10,000 yards after being drafted outside the top 45 picks. It's not impossible to find a franchise running back outside the first round, but draft history gives little reason for optimism.

In addition to the near-monopoly on elite production, 90 of the 177 running backs taken in the first round posted at least one 1,000-yard season (50.8 percent), and 24 had at least five seasons of 1,000 yards (13.6 percent). By no means is a first-round selection guaranteed future success (just ask Tim Biakabutuka or Chris Perry). Approximately one of every two first-round running backs fails to record a single 1,000-yard season. However, the best chance to land that elusive combination of productivity and longevity in a running back is to invest a first-round pick.

The second round has produced 144 running backs, 42 of whom have registered at least one 1,000-yard season. However, only six had five or more seasons of 1,000 yards: Thurman Thomas (eight), Corey Dillon (seven), Ricky Watters (seven), Clinton Portis (six), Tiki Barber (six) and Jim Taylor (five). Consistent production from second-rounders over time has been tough to find, and nearly impossible when picking late in the round. Five of those six were taken in the first half of the second round. Only Portis (51st overall pick) was drafted after the 45th pick.

Waiting until after the first 45 picks to take a running back doesn't necessarily mean teams can't find production. Ninety-four running backs were drafted after pick No. 45 and recorded a 1,000-yard season (6.1 percent).

A look at last season's rushing list also reinforces the notion that production can be found anywhere. Seventeen running backs rushed for at least 1,000 yards in 2010, 11 of whom weren't first-round picks. In fact, five of the 17 were either selected in the seventh round or signed as undrafted free agents, including the NFL's leading rusher (Arian Foster) and rookie rushing leader (LeGarrette Blount).

Teams can find production late, as long as they don't expect that production to last. The 45th pick has still been the historical limit when looking for longevity in a running back. Of the 1,552 running backs who have been drafted with the 46th pick or later, only three (Martin, Ahman Green and Portis), posted five seasons of 1,000 yards or more.

If anything, NFL teams have replaced the Dickerson model of draft-day strategy with one of using later, less valuable picks to put together a corps of runners.

The wear and tear on running backs in the NFL makes establishing expectations difficult for this year's draftees, especially when NFL teams are rushing less than in any previous era. The average NFL team ran 27.2 rushing plays per game last season, the lowest post-merger average in league history.

Recent history shows a heavy personnel investment in the running game is not essential to team success. The 2010 Green Bay Packers lost their primary ball carrier, Ryan Grant, in Week 1 of the season and relied on a patchwork running game with Brandon Jackson, John Kuhn and James Starks. Green Bay won Super Bowl XLV despite running the ball just 13 times, 11 of those carries by sixth-round pick Starks.

In fact, none of the past six Super Bowl champions relied on a highly touted back. Of the two running backs with the most carries on each of those teams, only the Joseph Addai (30th overall pick) and Jerome Bettis (10th overall) were selected in the first 45 picks of their drafts. Addai was matched with undrafted free agent Dominic Rhodes in the 2006 Colts' backfield, while Bettis (33 years old at the time) was the complementary option behind undrafted free agent Willie Parker in Pittsburgh in 2005.

On those past six champions, only Parker had more than 250 rush attempts -- he carried the ball 255 times in 2005.

Teams without that Adrian Peterson-like workhorse back are more likely to split those rushes between two or more players. From 2001-05, 16 NFL teams had two backs with 150 or more rushes in a season, but over the next five years that number had increased to 29. In that same time span, the number of running backs with at least 320 rushes went from 35 (2001-05) to 21 (2006-10).

NFL coaches plan for frequent turnover at running back and as a result are less likely to invest a high draft selection in the position, given the historical lack of longevity and availability of short-term replacements. Pittsburgh Steelers coach Mike Tomlin referred to it in March when he told the Pittsburgh Post-Gazette, "Wear and tear is part of the game, specifically at that position. You worry about it, but it doesn't dominate your thought. It's just part of the game." When a running back goes down in the NFL, teams just pick up another and keep going, especially if they have to replace only half of a team's carries by using a dual-back system.

Sustained production from a running back has always been the exception to the rule, even for first-round picks. The 32 running backs with five or more seasons of 1,000 yards rushing represent 1.8 percent of the total number of backs taken, while the 25 with 10,000 yards works out to 1.4 percent (neither of which counts undrafted free agents). It's reasonable to expect production when drafting a running back (even in mid-to-late rounds), but not necessarily longevity. And regardless of where you draft a back, actually finding a franchise-caliber rusher is rare. To have any chance, history says don't wait until the 46th pick.