Clyde Edwards-Helaire didn’t enter the 2019 season at LSU as the top NFL prospect at running back. On some big boards, he didn’t even enter the 2020 NFL Draft as the top player at his position.
But when it came time for the first round in April, Edwards-Helaire was the only running back selected in the first round, going No. 32 overall to the Chiefs. Long gone are the days when a handful or more running backs were taken in the first round alone. Now, it’s not surprising if the draft turns to the second day before a running back is taken.
That comes with the territory in an NFL where RBs have grown more interchangeable than ever. Teams are hesitant to give second contracts to running backs, too, choosing instead to recycle them like they’re all the same.
Edwards-Helaire is just the latest proof that not all running backs are created equal. The Chiefs made it to Super Bowl 55 with the rookie rusher carrying the heaviest backfield load for much of the season. They couldn’t have predicted Damien Williams’ COVID-19 opt-out with any certainty, but when Williams left the picture, Edwards-Helaire readily stepped in to his bigger role.
That’s not to say every first-round running back going forward will be a success story, or that later-round rushers won’t pan out. Just in 2020, undrafted rookie James Robinson made a Rookie of the Year push with the Jaguars. But it’s yet again a question worth examining as Alabama’s Najee Harris and Clemson’s Travis Etienne approach draft day in April 2021 — is there value in a first-round running back? History would say there is, sort of.
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Recent history of running backs drafted in Round 1
We’ve chosen to look back at the last 10 drafts prior to 2021, meaning starting with the 2011 NFL Draft through the 2020 NFL Draft. Below, we’ve listed all the running backs taken in the first round during that time. If a year didn’t feature a first-round rusher, we’ve noted the highest RB off the board from that year.
|2012||31||Doug Martin||Boise State||Buccaneers|
|2012||32||David Wilson||Virginia Tech||Giants|
|2013||37||Giovani Bernard||North Carolina||Bengals|
|2016||4||Ezekiel Elliott||Ohio State||Cowboys|
|2018||2||Saquon Barkley||Penn State||Giants|
|2018||27||Rashaad Penny||San Diego State||Seahawks|
There are a few lessons to be learned from the above list. The first is this: Running backs that are deemed top talents usually prove that assessment correct. Trent Richardson is the lone exception among backs were picked in the top 16, with Todd Gurley, Melvin Gordon, Ezekiel Elliott, Leonard Fournette, Christian McCaffrey and Saquon Barkley all proving to be productive NFL players.
Productivity alone doesn’t always guarantee that running backs should be first-round picks. McCaffrey and Barkley, for example, both missed most of the 2020 season due to injury. Fournette caused enough problems that the Jaguars released him before the 2020 season rather than pay his contract, opting instead for the unexpectedly great rookie James Robinson, an undrafted player.
The late-half of the first round, along with the couple second-round picks as the higest RBs off the board, leaves more to be desired. But in some ways, that’s to be expected. Those players were taken in those spots because they weren’t viewed as top-10 talents. Injuries ruined David Wilson’s career, and they’re messing with Rashaad Penny’s chances so far, too. But still, Mark Ingram and Doug Martin and Josh Jacobs all looked like legitimate starting running backs for long stretches of their careers, with Edwards-Helaire and Michel both still having the chance to prove themselves over multi-year stretches.
Should NFL teams draft a running back in the first round?
As the table above shows, it’s not a perfect science, but it’s also never been one. Ki-Jana Carter was the first overall pick in 1994 and never made a mark in the NFL, due in large part to injuries. Running back is a fickle position, and any team considering drafting one in the first round needs to acknowledge that.
That’s not to say that exceptional talents aren’t worth first-round selections, though. Barkley, Elliott and McCaffrey, to name three, have all proven inarguable first-round values. But it’s about fit as much as about talent when it comes to the final call on taking an RB.
If a team needs a quarterback and there’s a good one available, that should take priority. If a team isn’t prepared to invest in an adequate backup running back, then taking a young starter at an injury-heavy position has major downside, too.
There’s also a need to acknowledge that right at the moment of drafting, an extension may never be in the cards. McCaffrey, Barkley and Elliott were all extremely valuable on their rookie deals. But as they age and injuries have piled up, extensions become trickier. They make team construction harder because they’re eating up more money, and they do play a position that’s at least somewhat replaceable in the modern NFL.
So no, not every team should draft a running back in the first round. But the Raiders in 2019, with Jacobs, and the Chiefs in 2020, with Edwards-Helaire, were perfect examples of the teams that should, if a worthy talent is available.
Josh Jacobs, Clyde Edwards-Helaire have saved the first-round RB narrative
The 2019 Raiders and 2020 Chiefs knew they were set at the quarterback position with Derek Carr and Patrick Mahomes, respectively. That provided some offensive wiggle room.
In the case of the Raiders, Jacobs would take some of the weight off of Carr’s shoulders to hopefully reduce the criticism he’d received early in his career, and through two years, it’s mostly worked. The Chiefs knew they had most of their Super Bowl championship roster back and just needed a boost at the position that sees the most turnover. Edwards-Helaire gave Kansas City just what it needed.
A lot of draft experts would say teams should draft for talent first and need/fit second, and that’s often true. No team should draft a bad running back. But running backs in first-round consideration aren’t bad — they’re just risky.
A team seeking a first-round rusher needs to consider both things, talent and need, more equally. Not only does the back have to be talented but also a good fit for the roster construction and the system a team runs. Only then does a first-round running back make sense.
The 2021 offseason promises historic quarterback movement that’s already underway. Teams are planting their flag with new passers, hoping to get to the promised land. Those teams might also have the perfect chance to complement their new QB in the form of Alabama’s Harris or Clemson’s Etienne. Jacobs and Edwards-Helaire have both shown that plan can work in the right setup, just as Harris and Etienne can, too, if only given the best opportunity.