Ballcarriers’ value falling in today’s NFL?
By Eric Wilkins, Sports Editor
On September 18 of this year, Trent Richardson was traded to the Indianapolis Colts for their first-round pick. It was just a year ago that Richardson was taken third overall in the draft by the Cleveland Browns. While he didn’t put up the monster year that many pundits had predicted, Richardson is still a very capable back with strong potential. Even though the trade was likely just a new coach (Browns’ Rob Chudzinski) wanting to get “his own” guy back there, it seemed like the team was selling low (likely a mid-20 pick) on T-Rich.
Taking a step back and looking at the trend though, I suppose the real surprise here should be that the Browns managed to get anything higher than a second-rounder. Backs just aren’t valued as highly anymore. Everyone is trying to be Mike Shanahan these days: find a back in the late rounds or pick up a nobody and turn ‘em into a star. And why not? It seems to be working.
Of the 16 running backs who broke 1,000 yards last year, only six were first-round picks. The second leading rusher was none other than Shanahan’s Alfred Morris, a sixth-rounder. The sixth leading rusher was Arian Foster, who entered the league as an undrafted free agent. Players like these continue to prove a point that has been there for decades, but is only coming to light now: you don’t need to waste high picks to get good backs. That’s not to say quality backs are any easier to find, but that top picks are no more a guarantee than later ones.
To further prove that point, let’s take a look at the first-round backs since 2008: Darren McFadden, Rashard Mendenhall, Chris Johnson, Jonathan Stewart, Felix Jones, Knowshon Moreno, Donald Brown, Beanie Wells, Ryan Mathews, C.J. Spiller, Jahvid Best, Mark Ingram, Doug Martin, David Wilson, and, of course, Trent Richardson. Of these players, only three (Johnson, Spiller, and Martin) are legitimate NFL starters—though Moreno is enjoying a surprisingly good year right now, and the jury is still out on Richardson and Wilson, so they’ll be counted in the other category. The rest of them (that’s 12 out of 15 for those counting) are busts. Best suffered from concussion issues and is no longer in the league. Wells is currently a free agent. There’s no such thing as a sure thing. Last year’s draft had zero running backs go in the first round. Expect to see this continue.
Along with the fact that quality running backs can be had later, teams can cite the limited shelf life as a reason to avoid ‘em early. The magic number for running backs has been 30. Once you’re over, you’re pretty much done. This number isn’t set in stone though, and often ballcarriers won’t even make it to that. Maurice Jones-Drew hasn’t looked the same in two years now and he’s just 28. Big-money contract extensions are less likely to be handed out for this reason.
Of course, none of this is going to stop little Johnny from practicing to be an NFL running back one day. It’s still one of the most important positions in football. Careers in the spotlight might not be as long, and the money might not be as good as one hopes for (though we’re still talking multi-millionaires here…), but all one can do is carry on.