— Mikel LeShoure is a 230-pound wrecking ball of an interior runner. The Illinois back rushed for 1,697 yards and 17 touchdowns in 2010, mostly against Big Ten competition.
He probably will not be selected in the first round of the 2011 draft.
DeMarco Murray rushed for 1,214 yards, caught 71 passes, and scored 20 touchdowns for Oklahoma as a senior. He’s a 215-pound slasher with tremendous hands and outstanding work habits.
He's also likely to be passed over.
Mark Ingram of Alabama won the Heisman Trophy in 2009 before knee and ankle injuries slowed him in 2010. He may be selected in the first round of the 2011 draft, but it is no sure thing. Rob Rang of NFLDraftScout.com does not consider him a first-round value, and Pro Football Weekly’s 2011 Draft Guide notes that Ingram “lacks a ‘wow’ factor.”
The list goes on: Daniel Thomas of Kansas State rushed for 2,850 yards and 30 touchdowns in two seasons. Kendall Hunter racked up 4,181 rushing yards in his Oklahoma State career. These are featured backs from major programs, All-Americas and a Heisman winner, sturdy runners with excellent resumes. There’s a chance that all of them will still be sitting on the board when round two arrives.
If only Ingram hears his name called next Thursday night, it will mark the first time since 1984 only one running back earned a first-round draft selection. (And that comes with an asterisk, since four running backs were taken in a USFL supplemental draft that year). You have to go all the way back to 1963 to find a draft with no first-round running backs, but if Ingram slips past the Dolphins and Giants, it may happen this year.
Where have all the first-round running backs gone? As it turns out, the backs are still big. It’s just that the market has gotten smaller.
From 1986 through 1990, 29 running backs were taken in the first round. From 2006 through 2010, that dropped to 17. Only six of those 17 backs have produced 1,000-yard seasons, and teams that invested high picks on players like Beanie Wells and Marshawn Lynch are already feeling buyer’s remorse.
The role of the running back has not changed much since 1990. Teams ran the ball about 27 times per game, just as they do now. “Committee” backfields were common back then: Emmitt Smith and Barry Sanders might have carried the load themselves, but 16 of the league’s 28 teams had two backs with over 100 carries. Teams of the late 1980s valued cutback runners and guys who could play in the West Coast offense, just as they do now. So why were 4-to-5 backs per year being drafted in the (shorter) first round then, when only two, three, or fewer are picked now?
The last 15 years marked the rise of the late-round running back sensation. Terrell Davis, a sixth-round pick rushed for 2,008 yards in 1998 and helped the Broncos win two Super Bowls, while Priest Holmes (an undrafted rookie) rushed for 48 touchdowns in 2002-03. There were many other examples: Jamaal Anderson (7th round, 1846 yards in 1998), Steven Davis (4th round, four 1,000-yard seasons), Curtis Martin (3rd round, 10 1,000-yard seasons) and the Orlindo Gary-Mike Anderson types that Mike Shanahan’s Broncos unearthed almost every season. While Davis and Holmes tore up the league, high draft picks like Tim Biakabatuka, Lawrence Phillips, Rashaan Salaam and Ki-Jana Carter became expensive, high-profile busts.
The arrival of the salary cap forces teams to take a more economics-based approach to roster development, and with so many inexpensive late-round picks outperforming top prospects, teams began to realize that supply outstripped demand.
Furthermore, Shanahan’s success with off-the-rack running backs proved that a team’s scheme and offensive line have as much impact on a running back’s success as the back’s actual talent. Teams began to look for scarcer commodities in the first round: franchise quarterbacks, left tackles, 310-pound defensive linemen who can move, and so on. Most teams will only spend a top pick on a running back now if he has that “wow” factor, like Chris Johnson. Otherwise, they wait and see who's available in later rounds.
Daniel Thomas and Mikel LeShoure fit a particular mold — they weigh over 200-pounds, can power between the tackles, and lack top speed and receiving ability (though Thomas has good hands). Ingram is a smaller variation on the same theme, as are Syracuse’s Delone Carter, Wisconsin’s John Clay, and other productive college running backs.
Any of these backs could excel in a system that lets them run 25-times per game off tackle and doesn’t ask them to catch the ball often. Unfortunately, the Falcons and Steelers already have running backs, and no one has a time machine that can take these prospects back to the 1977.
Of the 12 teams that made the playoffs last year, only the Steelers (Rashard Mendenhall) and Falcons (Michael Turner) featured traditional battering-ram type running backs. Others used all-purpose backs who could run and catch (Baltimore’s Ray Rice, Philadelphia’s LeSean McCoy, Indy’s Joseph Addai, and Chicago’s Matt Forte) or committees (the Jets, Patriots, Saints, Seahawks, and Packers). Give the Patriots or Saints a 220-pound bowling ball, and they might give him a half dozen carries per game. Give the Colts the same guy, and they might give him back.
Successful all-purpose backs like McCoy and Forte usually demonstrate their versatility in college. McCoy caught 65 passes in two seasons at Pitt; Forte 103 at four seasons at Tulane. They also typically have to wait until the second or third round to get drafted; McCoy, Forte, and Rice all went in that round, and while Addai earned a first-round selection, he was taken 30th overall.
Teams waited for these all-purpose talents because they could. If they missed on Forte or Rice in the second round, they could hit on Jamaal Charles in the third round, Tashard Choice in the fourth, or Peyton Hillis in the seventh.
This year’s all-purpose backs face a similar glut. Murray will slip into the second or third round because has not separated himself enough from California’ Shane Vereen, Oregon State’s Jacquizz Rodgers, Hawaii’s Alex Green, or a bunch of other guys who will be ripe for the plucking in the third round or beyond. They aren’t a dime a dozen, but there are enough of them to go around.
Look back at the playoff running backs and take note of how many first-round picks were doing time as backups or committee members: LaDainian Tomlinson, Willis McGahee, Lynch, Reggie Bush, Donald Brown. Tomlinson had his heyday, but the rest of these guys serve as a pretty clear indicator of why teams don’t want to spend a first round pick — or first round money — on a running back.
Three running backs were among the first five players taken in the 2005 draft: Ronnie Brown(2nd), Cedric Benson (4th), and Cadillac Williams (5th). That year’s draft bucked a trend that not only saw fewer backs going in the first round, but also pushed the few backs who were selected to the end of the round.
A season earlier, no back left the board until the Rams took Steven Jackson 24th overall. In 2003, McGahee (23rd) was the first back taken. The Brown-Benson-Williams selections suggested that running backs might be poised for a first-round comeback.
Benson, of course, flopped in Chicago and needed to rebuild his career in Cincinnati. Williams suffered multiple injuries and became a role player. Brown was the best of the bunch, but he wore down quickly, and six years later the Dolphins are again the most likely team to draft the first running back on the board. So much for the comeback.
Brown and Benson were both big backs, and Williams was a power-speed combination like Ingram. Had any of the three lived up to their potential, the market for an Ingram, LeShoure, or Daniel Thomas might be greater. Instead, general managers watched as three backs earned millions of dollars to combine for two (barely) 1,000-yard seasons for the teams that drafted them. Meanwhile, the Packers won the Super Bowl last season with James Starks (a sixth-round pick) filling in for Ryan Grant (a free agent), with some help from John Kuhn (another free agent).
You get the picture — unless that running back is extra special, he is not worth a first-round pick. And while Ingram, LeShore, Hunter and others are talented, none of them are extra special.
Smart teams will wait for what comes to them; chances are, he’ll be pretty good, and attractively priced.