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Stevan Ridley latest proof against first-round running backs in New England

As every team has learned over the years, there is no position that carries a guarantee early in the NFL draft [1]. Name a position, and a team has swung and missed on it in the first round.

The values of the various positions are debated year-round by draftniks, and there may be no discussion interesting than that of whether there is sufficient value in spending a first-round pick on a running back. The argument for it obvious: You can end up with a Barry Sanders [2], a LaDainian Tomlinson [3] or an Adrian Peterson [4]. The argument against it is that if given the same opportunity, a later-round back will provide similar numbers at a fraction of the cost, both in terms of money and draft pick.

Around these parts, football fans have seen enough over the years to suggest that running backs aren’t worth top draft currency. The likes of Curtis Martin (third-round) and BenJarvus Green-Ellis [5] (undrafted) have proven to be lead backs (and in Martin’s case, a Hall of Famer), while the Patriots didn’t get long-term returns on their first-round investments in John Stephens, Robert Edwards and Laurence Maroney [6].

This season, Stevan Ridley, a third-round pick in the 2011 draft, is providing further proof that running backs aren’t worth a first-round pick. Of course, a third-round pick is nothing to sneeze at — teams should expect to get starters with their third-rounders — but what Ridley has been able to give the Pats [7] has been as good as, if not better, than what other teams have gotten from their first-round backs.

Ridley, who is seventh in the league with 939 rushing yards, is one of 17 running backs on pace to finish the season with at least 1,000 yards on the ground. Of the 17, seven were first-round picks. Two were second-round picks (Ray Rice [8], LeSean McCoy [9]), four were third-round picks (Ridley, Jamaal Charles [10], Frank Gore [11] and Shonn Greene), one was a sixth-round pick (Alfred Morris), one was a seventh-round pick (Ahmad Bradshaw [12]) and two were undrafted in Arian Foster (second in the league in rushing yards) and Green-Ellis.

Were he not to have been shut down for the season, Willis McGahee [13] would have been on pace for 1,000 yards on ground. He would have also been the oldest of the backs to accomplish the feat this season at 31 years of age, so for the sake of gauging the effectiveness of first-round running backs these days, we’ll go back to McGahee’s draft year of 2003.

Since 2003, 28 running backs have been drafted in the first round. Of the 28, only 10 have had multiple 1,000-yard seasons. Eight have rushed for 1,000 yards once, while 10 have never picked up 1,000 yards in a season. That stat is a bit deceiving because two backs figure to pick up their first 1,000-yard seasons this year in C.J. Spiller (ninth overall in 2010) and rookie Trent Richardson [14] (Doug Martin [15] has already hit the mark with 1,050 yards thus far).

Even with Spiller and Richardson figuring to hit 1,000 yards this season, that leaves 16 of the 28 first-round running backs over the last 10 drafts (or 57 percent) who have had either one or zero 1,000 seasons.

Ridley is also outproducing a number of running backs drafted in the second round as well, a group that includes Shane Vereen [16], who was drafted a round ahead of him in 2011. Though Vereen has been given some goal-line carries and has three touchdowns this season, he has combined for 216 yards in 13 games over the last two years. That hardly justifies his selection in the second round thus far.

What Ridley has been able to do in his second year as a pro isn’€™t astonishing. He’€™s been given 206 carries over 11 games, and he’€™s proven to be worth those carries by averaging 4.6 yards a pop, which is 14th in the league. He’€™s also been the latest example in New England that you don’€™t need to make a big splash on draft day to have an effective running game.