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Drafting running backs remains an inexact science

03.17.11 at 9:42 pm ET
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Some positions in the NFL draft require more attention early on than others. For example, if your team is in need of a quarterback, history shows that while there can be risk in spending a Top 10 pick on a signal-caller, you’re far more likely to go wrong by choosing one in the second or third round.

While quarterback is a position best addressed in the first round (or, if you’re lucky, the 199th overall pick), not every position necessarily screams “high pick.” Of course, punters go untouched in the early part of the draft, but other positions — even the occasional kicker — have been fair game in the first two rounds over time. Still, for an event that is defined by finding value, trends over the years have shown that certain positions may not represent the utmost value high in the draft.

It could be argued that one such position is running back. Despite being a position that plays such a crucial role in the average NFL offense, running backs that get big attention on draft day don’t necessarily provide a big payoff for their teams. Here’s a look at every running back selected in the top two rounds of the last five drafts:

2010

16th overall — Ryan Mathews
30th overall — Jahvid Best

36th overall — Dexter McCluster
51st overall — Toby Gerhart
58th overall — Ben Tate

2009

12th overall — Knowshon Moreno
27th overall — Donald Brown
31st overall — Beanie Wells

53rd overall — LeSean McCoy

2008

4th overall — Darren McFadden
13th overall — Jonathan Stewart
22nd overall — Felix Jones
23rd overall — Rashard Mendenhall
24th overall — Chris Johnson

44th overall — Matt Forte
55th overall — Ray Rice

2007

7th overall — Adrian Peterson
12th overall — Marshawn Lynch

49th overall — Kenny Irons
50th overall — Chris Henry
52nd overall — Brian Leonard
63rd overall — Brandon Jackson

2006

2nd overall — Reggie Bush
21st overall — Laurence Maroney
27th overall — DeAngelo Williams
30th overall — Joseph Addai

45th overall — LenDale White
60th overall — Maurice Jones-Drew

Of those 28 players, eight finished Top 20 in the league in rushing yards last season. Of course, simply looking at last season doesn’t tell the whole story.

Of those same 28 running packs chosen within the draft’s first 64 picks over the last five years, only 13 of them have had a 1,000-yard season. Seven of them have done it twice. Only Peterson and Johnson have rushed for at least 1,000 yards in each season of their careers to this point, with Johnson doing it the last three and Peterson the last four. Bush, the highest-drafted back since Ronnie Brown, has never rushed for 600 yards.

Looking at things with a wider lens, 17 backs rushed for 1000 yards last season. Ten were chosen in the first two rounds of their respective drafts, with six of those 10 being first-rounders. The other seven consisted of three undrafted free agents in Arian Foster (who led the league in rushing), BenJarvus Green-Ellis and LeGarrette Blount, two seventh rounders (Ahmad Bradshaw and Peyton Hillis), a fifth rounder (Michael Turner, who finished third) and a third-rounder (Jamaal Charles, who finished second). None of the top three running backs in 2010 commanded a big investment coming out of college, and the most productive one only required a contract.

So what does this mean when it comes to the Patriots and this year’s draft? Despite having capable undrafted free agents in Green-Ellis and Danny Woodhead in tow, running back is a position that could be addressed at some point. The Pats have nine picks, four of which are in the first 60 and and six of which are in the first 92. It is not inconceivable that they could use a selection or two on a back, but where they might do so is the million-dollar question.

The Patriots haven’t drafted a running back since spending the 208th pick (a compensatory selection in the sixth round) on Central Connecticut back Justise Hairston in 2007. The result? He was released five months later. For a position that has proven over the years to be disposable, it is naturally much safer to swing and miss on a mid- to late-rounder than make a big investment (and thus deal with the opportunity cost of not addressing a different position) and see a Maroney-like scenario play out.

Among the players on the long list of players to work out with the Pats in the pre-draft process is Virginia Tech’s Ryan Williams. To the naked eye, he has the makings of an exciting back: he racked up 1,655 yards as a redshirt freshman, but declared decided to leave school after a disappointing season that saw a hamstring injury limit him. He then disappointed at the scouting combine with a 4.61 40-yard dash and a 6.96 performance in the three-cone drill, which put him seventh among participating backs. Still, he carries a late-second round grade, and it will be interesting to see if the Patriots, who have well-documented needs in other areas, would go for a guy like Williams.

Then there’s the never-ending Mark Ingram debate. This draft doesn’t feature a truly special back, but Ingram is the closest thing to it. If he’s there at No. 17, would the Patriots seriously entertain selecting him given the Nick Saban ties? It may be a moot point, but as the Dolphins have a big need at running back and are selecting two slots higher. The discussion can be furthered from there by wondering whether Mikel Leshoure could be a mid-to-late first-round target.

Maybe the Pats do spend a high pick on a running back, but history shows that they could get the same results by taking their chances in the mid-to-late rounds. Players such as Syracuse’s Delone Carter and WEEI.com favorite Roy Helu Jr. are guys with mid-round grades who could be solid contributors at the next level. They present both potential and value, which may override hype when it comes to some teams’ evaluation of talent.

The position of running back carries plenty of big names every year, but it remains a position in which teams can benefit from being a bit more economical. If value is what the Patriots seek, maybe they don’t opt to address the position early unless they see a talent like UConn’s Jordan Todman there at No. 60. Then again, maybe they choose to neglect the position altogether until the later rounds. Whatever they or any other team does, history shows that they won’t be guaranteed a franchise back just because they pick one early.

Read More: 2011 NFL Draft, Adrian Peterson, Ahmad Bradshaw, Arian Foster
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