Why NFL Teams Should (Almost) Never Draft a Running Back in the First Round

By Bryn Swartz

Other than quarterback, the most glamorous position in the National Football League is running back.

Fans are dazzled by speedy running backs who can dart between holes and rack up 1500-yard rushing seasons like it’s no big deal.

Running backs are frequently drafted in the first round, usually two to three per year, and it’s not uncommon at all to see a running back go in the first few picks of the draft, or even number one overall.

But why?

History has proven that time after time after time, drafting a running back in the first round just doesn’t work out.

With the exception of a once-in-a-lifetime college talent like Bo Jackson, Barry Sanders, and Reggie Bush, who you just can’t pass on, I would never draft a running back in the first round.


They’re not worth the pick they were drafted at MOST of the time.

Want proof?

Let’s take a look at some of your recent first round draft picks at running back.

Mark Ingram. CJ Spiller. Ryan Mathews. Jahvid Best. Knowshon Moreno. Donald Brown. Beanie Wells. Darren McFadden. Jonathan Stewart. Felix Jones. Rashard Mendenhall. Chris Johnson. Adrian Peterson. Marshawn Lynch. Reggie Bush. Laurence Maroney. DeAngelo Williams. Joseph Addai. Ronnie Brown. Cedic Benson. Cadillac Williams.

That’s every first round draft pick since 2005, and I think the only ones who were clearly worth a first round pick were Adrian Peterson and Chris Johnson. Cases could be made for Stewart, McFadden, Mendenhall, and DeAngelo Williams, but I’d lean towards no for all of those.

Take a look at your starting running backs in the NFL today.

LeSean McCoy and Maurice Jones-Drew came in the late second round. Frank Gore, Jamaal Charles, and DeMarco Murray were drafted in the third round. Michael Turner was a fifth round pick. Arian Foster had been undrafted. So was BenJarvus Green-Ellis.

There’s almost never a need to draft a running back so early in the draft. These guys are just too disposable. You never know when a running back could suffer a major injury.

This past year, it happened to Adrian Peterson and Jamaal Charles, and both may never be the same again. Would you rather have that injury happen to a fifth round pick or the fifth overall pick?

Pick up your running back in the second or third round. Not the first round.

Pick up two in the late rounds and one will probably be good.

Even your “can’t miss” prospects like Bo and Bush haven’t been worth the top overall pick looking back on their careers.

Use the first round pick on another position like cornerback, safety, or offensive tackle, all three of which are low-risk, high-reward positions.

If I had ANY lingering doubts about a running back, I would avoid selecting him with my first round pick.

The fourth overall pick for a player who split his carries in college? No. Never. A player who was injury-prone in college? Not a chance.

Running back is just so overrated that you don’t need to use the fifth overall pick for a guy who will give you 5600 yards and 4.3 yards per carry over five seasons when you could basically get the same production in a later round.

Seriously, how many running backs are actually bad when they finally get a chance to start? Not many.

Look at a coach like Mike Shanahan. Every year Denver would have a new running back rush for 1000 yards, and this year for the Redskins, he had four different guys start two or more games.


Because Shanahan is smart enough to realize that a running back really doesn’t win or lose a football game. They really don’t.

Look at Peterson and Jones-Drew. Their teams don’t win games, and when they do, it’s because of the quarterback, such as Favre for the Vikings in 2009.

OJ Simpson, Barry Sanders, and LaDainian Tomlinson. None of those backs was good enough to take his team to the Super Bowl, let alone win a championship.

And then teams like Green Bay and New Orleans and New England don’t really have much of a running game but they are among the top teams in the league each season.

Why? They win because of their passing game.

The NFL has changed over the last few decades, and especially in the last ten seasons. A good wide receiver is now much more important than a good running back, in terms of winning games. And quarterback still is, and probably always will be, the most important position on the field.

Yet every year teams ignore logic and still continually take a running back early in the draft, convinced that their guy will turn into the next OJ Simpson or Walter Payton, or help them win a championship. And just about every year, the pick isn’t worth it.

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