The running back position is one of the most interesting in professional sports. Most running backs are out of the league and probably out of their prime before they turn thirty, and the average career span for an NFL running back is 3.11 years. Of course this takes into consideration ones who may have not belonged in the first place, but the number is still an interesting one. The interesting characteristic carries into their draft positions. The highest back taken in the last 15 years was selected number 2 overall, but in 2014 the first running back taken waited around until number 54 overall.
Most teams go with a running back by committee this day in the NFL, but that' not to say that a team isn't looking for one featured back. Seven times in the last fifteen years, a running back went in the top 10 of the NFL Draft. It is assumed that the teams that made those selections was looking for an every down back. It wasn't often you saw an Emmitt Smith, Walter Payton, Barry Sanders, Jim Brown, Earl Campbell, or more recently LaDainian Tomlinson and Adrian Peterson splitting carries or calling for a replacement after a run.
Whether the draft is deep at the position or the NFL decides not to covet the running back as much as it used to, the first running back drafted tends to vary through the years. Here we will check out when the first running back in the recent 15 NFL Drafts were taken, and how that worked out for the team and the player's career.
15 Bishop Sankey - 2014
After three years and 3,496 yards at Washington, Sankey was taken with the 54th overall pick in the NFL Draft by the Tennessee Titans. Sankey is the latest player taken on our list and one of two players who were taken in the second round. 54th is also the latest the first running back in the draft has ever been taken. Sankey played just two years in Tennessee, starting twelve games and totaling 762 yards and three touchdowns. During his time with the Titans, Sankey fumbled four times.
Since his departure from Tennessee, Sankey has been signed the practice squads of the New England Patriots, Kansas City Chiefs, and is currently on a reserves/futures contract with the Minnesota Vikings. It seems likely Bishop Sankey is done in the NFL at age 24, but remains to be seen.
14 William Green - 2002
After All American honors and a Big East Player of the Year, the rest of William Green's career is shadowed in controversy and injuries. Green was known as one of the best players in the draft, but after two marijuana suspensions in college he fell to number 16 where the Cleveland Browns selected him. He had a good rookie season posting 887 yards and 6 touchdowns. In 2003 is where his career went downhill.
After a good start to the season, Green was arrested for drunk driving and marijuana possession. He was suspended four games and while under that suspension, Green was stabbed in the back by his fiancee and he missed the remainder of the 2003 season. In 2004 and 2005 he combined for 663 yards and was eventually released in 2006.
13 CJ Spiller - 2010
Spiller spent four years at Clemson as a football and track and field star. The 2009 ACC Player of the Year was drafted 9th overall by the Buffalo Bills in the 2010 NFL Draft. Spiller showed flashes of brilliance in Buffalo. After being used sparingly for a couple of seasons behind Pro Bowl running back Fred Jackson, Spiller got a chance to show what he could do in 2012. During that year he went for 1703 yards from scrimmage with 1244 rushing yards, 459 receiving yards and eight touchdowns. That year he would go to his only Pro Bowl.
After a disappointing 2014 in Buffalo, Spiller was sent to New Orleans where he compiled just 351 yards from scrimmage in his Saints career. Since the Saints, Spiller has spent time with the Jets and Seahawks in 2016. He combined for 6 total carriers and 6 total receptions at those stops.
12 Giovani Bernard - 2013
The Bengals used the 37th overall pick to select Bernard in the 2nd round of the 2013 NFL Draft. Bernard was brought in to backup then starter Benjarvus Green-Ellis. He has become the perfect change of pace back, but never really found his spot as starter, now backing up Jeremy Hill. The Bengals duo is one of the best in the league.
Bernard has surpassed 1,000 yards from scrimmage in three out of four seasons. The most recent in 2016 he failed to get to the mark in part to a ACL injury that ended his season early. In four seasons, Bernard has run for 2442 rushing yards while adding 1671 yards receiving. Really nothing against Bernard's game here, he just isn't the back that the latter of the names on this list are.
11 Todd Gurley - 2015
Gurley was selected by the then St. Louis Rams with the 10th pick in the 2015 NFL Draft, despite tearing his ACL late in his college season. And it paid off. After being eased into playing time, Gurley took over a few games in and finished his rookie season with 1106 rushing yards, 10 touchdowns, and 188 yards receiving. This was enough for the rookie to be named to the Pro Bowl, Second Team All Pro, and win NFL Offensive Rookie of the Year.
Gurley still has the ability to jump up on this list. Even with 2016 as a down year, Gurley rushed for 885 yards and 6 touchdowns. He added 327 receiving yards as well. Jeff Fisher was Todd Gurley's coach for his first two years in the NFL. Gurley and teammates have a chance to start fresh following Fisher's firing late in the 2016 NFL season.
10 Knowshon Moreno - 2009
Knowshon Moreno is probably best remembered for the shot of him full of tears following the National Anthem, but Moreno had some good years for a very good Denver Broncos team. In 2013, Moreno was the starting running back for the AFC Champion Broncos. He rushed for 1038 yards while receiving for 548 more. During his stay in Denver, Moreno scored 35 touchdowns, rushed for 3468 yards and added 1409 receiving yards.
After the 2013 season Moreno signed with the Miami Dolphins but it appeared his career was over after a hot start to the season with 134 yards against the Patriots. Following that game he dislocated his left elbow and later re-injured the ACL he had previously injured in Denver.
9 Darren McFadden - 2008
McFadden was an absolute stud in college, finishing his 3 year college career with 4590 rushing yards en route to being selected number four overall by the Oakland Raiders in 2008. McFadden's career has been plagued by injury, only playing in 16 games twice, and never starting a full season of games. McFadden eclipsed 1000 yards twice. Once in 2010 for the Raiders with 1157 and more recently in 2015 for the Dallas Cowboys with 1089.
The two time All American was again hit with the injury bug in 2016 as he was playing backup to new star Ezekiel Elliott in Dallas. McFadden is still rostered, but the hopes of playing in 2017 may be fading away. All in all a decent career, but fell short of what most had hoped for.
8 Ronnie Brown - 2005
Before the days when he was making boneheaded plays for the Philadelphia Eagles, Ronnie Brown was a good running back for the Miami Dolphins. Selected 2nd overall in the 2005, the Auburn standout went for 907 rushing yards his rookie year. He followed up the rookie campaign with his only 1000 yard rushing season by going for 1008 in 2006. Brown was able to add a Pro Bowl in 2008 after rushing for 916 yards and 254 yards receiving. He finished his Dolphins career with 4815 rushing yards, 1491 receiving yards and 38 touchdowns in six years with the team.
Brown is also probably remembered by most for the Wild Cat Offense. Due to the fact that Brown was also a threat to occasionally throw the ball, the Dolphins instituted the offense with Brown behind center.
7 Mark Ingram - 2011
The 2009 Heisman Trophy winner was taken with the 28th pick in the 2011 NFL Draft by the New Orleans Saints. There is a theme here, which we discussed in the opening, of injuries plaguing running backs careers. Ingram has appeared in 16 games just twice in his career. When he has been on the field he has been productive in a scheme that doesn't quite fit his running style. Still in his Saints career Ingram has put up 4238 yards on 953 carries, while adding 36 total touchdowns. His best year came last year in 2016, when he eclipsed 1000 yards for the first time in his career, with 1043 and 10 total touchdowns. Unlike most on this list, Ingram may just be starting to hit his prime at age 27.
6 Reggie Bush - 2006
Bush may not have lived up to the hype he had coming out of USC, and is currently sticking around the NFL too long. Bush set a record in 2016 for finishing the season with negative rushing yards. But Bush did have some productive years and even added a Super Bowl with the New Orleans Saints.
The two time National Champion was drafted second overall in the 2006 NFL Draft by the Saints. Although he was never the every down back people had hoped Bush finished his Saints career with 2090 rushing yards, 3598 receiving yards and 29 touchdowns in five years. He went on to play with Miami, Detroit, San Francisco and Buffalo after that, actually eclipsing 1000 yards rushing on two occasions. One with Miami and one with Detroit.
5 Ezekiel Elliott - 2016
Yes, Zeke has already proven he belongs in the top five of this list. It would be utterly surprising if he hits any kind of second year wall running behind the best offensive line in the NFL today. After being an All American and National Champion at Ohio State, the Cowboys used the fourth pick in the 2016 draft on Ezekiel Elliott. In his rookie season, he went for 1631 rushing yards 363 receiving yards and 16 touchdowns. This was good enough to lead the league in rushing, go to the Pro Bowl and be named to the All Pro team.
He and Dak Prescott led the Cowboys to a first round bye in the playoffs and a 13-3 record. This season came on the heals of a 4-12 outing in 2015. The Cowboys should be happy to have Elliott, and his spot on this list only tends to improve.
4 Doug Martin - 2012
The "Muscle Hamster" was taken with the 31st overall pick in the 2012 NFL Draft by the Tampa Bay Buccaneers. Since then, Martin has been named to two Pro Bowls, and selected to the First Team All Pro team in 2015. Martin has been healthy for just 2 out of his 5 seasons, starting 16 games twice but appearing in 11 or less games 3 times. But when he is on the field he is one of the league's best. Martin has posted two 1400 yard rushing seasons, one in 2012 as a rookie and another in 2015. In 57 games he has rushed for 23 touchdowns and has a total of 4227 yards on the ground. His career high run comes in at 84 yards vs the Philadelphia Eagles in a game in which he went for 235 rushing yards.
3 Willis McGahee - 2003
McGahee ended his college career with a gruesome knee injury during the National Championship vs Ohio State. The injury suffered tears in the ACL, PCL, and MCL. Prior to the injury McGahee was sure fire top 5 pick, but after some experts had him going 3rd round. The Bills saw what McGahee was and took him with the 23rd overall pick despite him having to sit out the entire 2003 season.
In 2004, McGahee rushed for 1128 yards and a career high 13 touchdowns en route to the NFL Comeback Player of the Year award. McGahee would go on to have four 1000 yard rushing seasons between the Bills, Ravens, and Broncos. He would go to two Pro Bowls and finished his career with 8474 yards and 70 total touchdowns.
2 Steven Jackson - 2004
Steven Jackson was drafted 24th overall in the 2004 NFL Draft. He was tasked with the job of taking over for former NFL MVP Marshall Faulk. After backing up Faulk for the 2004 season, Jackson took over the starting role in 2005 and started a string of eight straight seasons with 1000 or more rushing yards. In 2006, Jackson set career highs with 1528 rushing yards, 13 rushing touchdowns, 3 receiving touchdowns, 806 receiving yards, and 2334 yards from scrimmage. In all he finished with 10138 rushing yards for the Rams in 9 years, and posted a career mark of 11438. Jackson currently sits at 18th all time in rushing yards in the history of the NFL, and is one of twenty nine players to every eclipse the 10,000 rushing yard mark.
1 Adrian Peterson - 2007
Adrian Peterson has taken the NFL by storm since being drafted with the 7th pick in the 2007 NFL Draft. Peterson took over the starting role since year one and despite some injury filled seasons, has continued to add to his legacy. Seven Pro Bowl appearances, five First Team All Pro, Two Second Team All Pro, NFL MVP in 2012, NFL Offensive Player of the Year in 2012, three times NFL Rushing Leader, two times NFL Touchdowns Leader, and has a record 296 rushing yards in a single game. AP has all the individual accolades a running back can garner.
In his MVP season of 2012, Peterson came within eight yards of breaking Eric Dickerson's single season record of 2105 rushing yards. Peterson currently sits 16th all time with 11747 career rushing yards.
Peterson and the Vikings have actually split ways in 2017, with Peterson currently testing free agency for the first time in his career.