INDIANAPOLIS — There was plenty of buzz at the NFL Scouting Combine about franchise quarterbacks, the franchise left tackles that will protect them and the deepest and most talented pool of receivers in years that will catch their passes and make the highlight reels.
Do you know what three words you didn’t hear at the combine this year?
Franchise running backs.
Once the premier position on a football team, running backs are feeling like dinosaurs. They ruled the NFL landscape for a long time, but now they’re slowly disappearing from the game.
Or at the very least the first round of the NFL draft.
In today’s NFL, running backs are becoming afterthoughts in the draft process. In 2013, for the first time in 50 years, a running back was not drafted in the first round. Don’t expect it to happen this year, either.
One of the newest NFL trends is waiting on a running back until later in the draft, and all 32 NFL teams could pass on a running back again this season in Round 1.
It’s more than a passing trend. In the past five years, only 10 running backs have been taken in the first round.
It’s enough to make one of the top running back prospects at the combine reconsider his choice to play the position.
“Nowadays, they’re like, ‘You’ve got to go second, third round,’” said Arizona running back Ka’Deem Carey, who entered the combine as the No. 1 running back according to nfldraftscout.com. “I’m like, ‘Why in the hell didn’t you tell me this a couple of years ago, that running backs are going extinct?’ I definitely would have gone to corner or something.”
There was a time NFL teams valued running backs more than any other position. In 1971, 1982 and 1987, seven running backs were drafted in the first round. In 1990, six running backs were selected in the first round. And as recently as 2008 five running backs were first-round picks.
The NFL has become more of a passing league in recent years, but Steelers general manager Kevin Colbert said the proliferation of spread offenses in college football has played a part in the trend as well. Colleges are not producing a high number of quality running backs because the emphasis has been on quarterbacks running and throwing out of the spread at many schools.
“I think it’s a result of what’s happening in college football,” Colbert said. “The running backs, for the most part in a lot of offenses … are not emphasized as much, so you don’t get to see as much production or dominance. So, you maybe don’t see a top running back, but several were taken in the second round and they ended up being productive players for their teams. If there is a great running back he’ll still go in the first round, regardless of what’s happening schematically.”
There does not appear to be a great running back in 2014. Carey is projected as a second-round pick as are Tre Mason of Auburn and Carlos Hyde of Ohio State. Carey ran a 4.70 in the 40-yard dash at the combine, one of the slowest times for a running back.
The Steelers needed a running back last year, and they waited until the middle of the second round to select Le’Veon Bell out of Michigan State. He was the second running back selected, 11 spots after the Cincinnati Bengals took Giovani Bernard with the fifth pick in the second round.
NFL teams are realizing they can get value by waiting to draft running backs until the later rounds. Of the top five rushers in the NFL in 2013, one was a first-round pick. Two were selected in the second round, one in the third round and the other in the sixth round.
“I don’t like that,” Carey said. “I feel like they think the running back spot is going extinct for some reason. They definitely need us. I’m definitely going to make sure they know that when I step on the field that they made a good pick and running backs aren’t going extinct.”
The de-emphasis of the running back position is not the only thing making backs rethink their decision to play the position. The NFL chews up and spits out running backs more rapidly than any other position.
The Steelers selected Rashard Mendenhall in the first round in 2008. He had major knee surgery in 2012 at 24 and hinted in a piece for the Huffington Post this week that he is contemplating retirement. He’ll be 27 in June.
“Every time I see the NFL logo I know it stands for Not For Long,” said Kapri Bibbs, running back from Colorado State. “You see guys come out of here and not even get on their second contract and be cut from a team. That’s a big thing for me. I know I have to get it while it’s good.”
That’s why so many running backs are coming out of college early. Seven of the top eight running backs in nfldraftscout’s rankings are underclassmen. Of that group, only Hyde completed his college eligibility.
“They definitely were in my ear, saying you have a limited numbers of hits and … you need to go while you have the chance,” Carey said of his advisers. “I know that I could have come back and played another year, got bigger and stronger and dominated at that level. But my decision was I was ready for the league. I felt like I was ready a year ago but I just couldn’t leave. I stayed consistent this year and really proved to me that I was ready to provide for my family.”