For the first time in half a century no running backs were selected in the first round of last year's NFL draft. That is a scenario likely to play out again in 2014. ESPN NFL Insiders Mel Kiper Jr. and Todd McShay have no running backs in their latest first-round mock drafts and top-32 rankings.
What has caused the running back position -- which used to be found readily throughout the first round, often near the top -- to loose its first-round luster?
“I think it’s a result of what’s happening in college football,” Pittsburgh Steelers GM Kevin Colbert said, per the Pittsburgh Post-Gazette. “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.”
Colbert specifically mentioned the growth of spread offenses in the college ranks as playing a role in de-emphasizing the running back position.
NFL teams also appear to have lowered the importance of securing a "franchise running back" in the first round. There is less financial risk by doing so, because latter-round picks cost less, an important factor for a position that typically doesn't offer much longevity. We've also seen plenty of running backs picked outside the first round succeed lately, including the likes of undrafted Arian Foster and second-rounders Giovani Bernard and Le’Veon Bell.