There is something majestic about rewatching Barry Sanders dance his way out of a jam. There is a jaw-dropping mystique to the destruction Earl Campbell often left in his wake. Things have changed in recent years. A handful of amazing runners still populate NFL backfields. The show stopping plays still occur. However, the perceived value of the running back has taken a major hit.
The diminished interest in betting a franchise’s fate on a running back stems from several developments. The game and rulebook has transformed to open up offenses like never before. Quarterbacks reign supreme, which the exorbitant contracts confirm. A running back’s football lifespan also plays a role. According to Statista, a running back’s average career spans 2.57 years. Early round players and Pro Bowlers obviously stick for longer, but the average still exists as the smallest of all skill positions.
Employing a running back is essentially a race against the dreaded 30-year-old cliff. GMs have therefore trended toward finding value later in drafts. It does not always line up like this, but the most recent season supports the strategy. Of the 12 1,000-yard rushers in 2016, four were picked in the first two rounds of their respective class. The rest were a mix of middle and late round selections. LeGarrette Blount even went undrafted, although his slide was largely based on character concerns. In a league where many teams utilize backfield committees, less money tends flows toward the position.
With that said, not all teams are willing to pass on a generational talent due to risk. The first running back off the board in the last 15 drafts has been a first rounder all but two times. The question is, which running backs lived up the hype and which teams should have showed more patience? Here is the list of the last 15 running backs taken first, and a better option if they were a bust.
20 Boom: Ezekiel Elliott (2016)
Ezekiel Elliott has only spent one year in the NFL. It just happened to be an amazing one. Elliott rushed for 1,631 yards and 15 touchdowns in 15 games. There’s reason to question Elliott’s top four ranking. Gurley and Richardson both looked well on their way to the top of the sport only to drop off after their rookie campaign. Also, how much can be attributed to the behemoths on Dallas’ offensive line? In this writer’s opinion, the line attributed to Dak Prescott’s play much more so than Elliott’s. Elliott has a legitimate combination of speed, power and vision. He would have made an impact anywhere. The Ohio State product has his entire career ahead of him, for better or worse, but one thing is for certain – he’s returned the swagger to Dallas. Elliott will form and represent his team’s identity for the next decade. That’s something you can’t say about the other backs until you reach the top two.
19 Better Option: David Johnson Over Todd Gurley (2015)
Todd Gurley is an enigma at this point in his career, which presents a conundrum when assigning a proper rank. The Rams drafted Gurley 10th overall knowing he would need time to recover from a torn ACL. He did that much and more by week four. In the first substantial action of his rookie season, Gurley began a string of four consecutive 100-yard games, all of which had a run of 48 yards or more. His hot streak caused many to anoint him a top three running back in the league. Gurley’s stats in just 12 games certainly warranted the label: 229 carries, 1,106 yards and 10 touchdowns. He entered the next season with insane expectations and fell woefully short: 278 carries for 885 yards and six touchdowns. The easy scapegoat is the Rams’ offense itself. Behind a leaky offensive line and a nonexistent passing game, Gurley regularly faced stacked boxes. When Los Angeles did attack aerially, it was only due to a large deficit that nullified commitment to the running game. One silver lining is that Gurley doubled his reception total to 43. If the young back can round out that aspect of his game, and the offense can take a step forward under new coaching, Gurley possesses the raw talent to put 2016 far in the rearview mirror. No one is suggesting that the Rams have buyer's remorse, but David Johnson (Rd 3, Pk 86) is rightfully considered the best running back in the NFL at the moment. Johnson is the far superior receiver and and is more likely to make something out of nothing compared to Gurley's straight-ahead running style. That is a trait Los Angeles desperately needs at the moment.
18 Better Option: Devonta Freeman Over Bishop Sankey (2014)
Bishop Sankey has the least total yards and least years on an active roster of the players in this list. The only reason he isn’t ranked that way is his draft position. The Titans missed with the 54th overall pick, a full 51 picks after Trent Richardson two years prior. In fact, Tennessee’s selection of Sankey was the latest for a first running back in NFL history. That provides more leeway. Sankey certainly needs it. He started nine games his rookie year and rushed for 569 yards on 152 carries. Despite a barrage of weekly breakout predictions from NFL analysts, Sankey continued to disappoint in year two. The second round pick was a healthy scratch in three 2015 games while running for a total of 193 yards. The Titans released him at the end of the 2016 preseason. Sankey spent a month on Kansas City’s active roster without recording a stat. The Vikings added him to their practice squad and recently signed the bust to a futures contract. Although Sankey, Jeremy Hill and Carlos Hyde were all taken within four picks of each other, the Titans could have hit pay dirt with a value pick in the fourth. Devonta Freeman was available until the 103rd pick. The shifty running back has enjoyed two consecutive seasons with 1,000+ rushing yards, 11 rushing touchdowns and 50+ catches. Tennessee still might have ended up drafting Derrick Henry or signing DeMarco Murray to round out their committee. Atlanta used the same approach with Tevin Coleman in the 2015 Draft.
17 Better Option: Le'Veon Bell Over Gio Bernard (2013)
The 2014 Draft’s record delay in drafting a first running back (Bishop Sankey) only broke a one-year mark. Gio Bernard set the record the previous year as the 37th overall pick. The scatback rewarded Cincinatti with 1,209 all-purpose yards – 695 rushing and 514 receiving – as well as eight total touchdowns. The Bengals drafted Jeremy Hill the following year in order to complement Bernard’s speed and pass catching prowess. Hill stole the show during the latter half of 2014 with four 140+ yard performances, but Bernard’s lightning has routinely been more consistent than Hill’s thunder three years into the pairing. Bernard currently has 2,442 rushing yards, 1,671 receiving yards and 20 total touchdowns. He tore his ACL ten games into 2016. It remains to be seen how his speed and agility recovers. The Bengals would not have felt the need to draft backs in consecutive years if they chose Le'Veon Bell (Rd 2, Pk 48). The decision would have also prevented rival Pittsburgh from getting their hands on such a dynamic weapon. Still, Cincinnati's current one-two punch poses a threat.
16 Better Option: Lamar Miller Over Trent Richardson (2012)
After winning the Doak Walker Award and two National Championships at Alabama, Richardson went to the Cleveland Browns as the third overall pick. He quickly paid the Browns back with 950 rushing yards and 11 scores on the ground. Both are rookie records in Cleveland. His peers voted him the 71st best player in the NFL, but the Browns traded Richardson to Indianapolis two games into the 2013 season. Fans became furious. It looked like another instance of Cleveland throwing in the towel. The Browns actually knew what they were doing – a monumental first since their return to the city. Richardson spent the next two years dismantling any case for his being even an average NFL running back. The Colts released him and he was unable to catch on with another team in 2015 or 2016. Richardson has the second worst Y/A (3.33) of any running back with at least 500 carries in NFL history. The Browns could have used their selection on another position and waited until the fourth round, where Miami chose Lamar Miller. Miller was underutilized in Miami and did not explode like predicted in Houston, but he still has 4,003 rushing yards and 24 rushing touchdowns in five years. Doug Martin is another candidate (Rd 1, Pk 31). His stats and occasional inconsistencies align with Lamar Miller: 4,227 yards and 23 touchdowns. However, Martin is 28 while Miller turns 26 next month. Beware the 30-year-old cliff.
15 Better Option: DeMarco Murray Over Mark Ingram (2011)
By showing Reggie Bush the door, New Orleans left it open for their 28th overall pick, Mark Ingram, to play a substantial role in the running game. Much was expected of the SEC Offensive Player of the Year and Heisman Trophy winner. Like many on this list, Ingram initially struggled. He combined for 1,462 rushing yards and 11 touchdowns from 2011-2013. He finally broke out during an October game against Green Bay in 2014, rushing for 172 yards and a touchdown in a 44-23 victory. Ingram finished the year just shy of 1,000 yards. While Ingram does not currently have numbers that surpass Bush or Brown (4,238 rushing yards, 36 total TDs), his career is a work in progress. At 27, there’s reason to believe his improvement should continue. Ingram broke 1,000 yards for the first time in 2016. It was also his first year with a 5+ Y/A and double-digit touchdowns (10). This is enough to land him in the top five, but New Orleans still could have done better with DeMarco Murray (Rd 3, Pk 71). Both runners struggled for various reasons early on. Murray broke out one year earlier, and his best is undeniably better than Ingram's best. Although Ingram is two years younger, Murray would have provided a more valuable weapon during key years of Brees' prime.
14 9. Boom: C.J. Spiller (2010)
Despite the 9th overall pick Buffalo invested in C.J. Spiller, Fred Jackson hogged the backfield for C.J.’s first two seasons. A more even split in 2012 led to Spiller’s lone Pro Bowl nod and greatest statistical season as a professional. The first round draft pick rushed for 1,244 yards on 207 carries. That equates to a blistering 6.0 Y/A. It took him only 154 carries to break the 1,000-yard mark, the fewest since 1934. He also added 43 catches for 459 yards and two receiving touchdowns. Spiller spent 2013 criminally underused once again – he split carries with Jackson 202 to 206. Injuries held him out for most of 2014 before Spiller took his talents to New Orleans. To say he flopped would be kind. Spiller totaled 112 rushing yards and 239 receiving yards. The Saints released him after the first week of the 2016 season. Following short in-season stints with the Seahawks and Jets, Spiller signed with Kansas City on February 24th. The 2010 Draft turned out being incredibly thin at the running back position. Ryan Mathews is the next best option. Jahvid Best, Toby Gerhart, Ben Tate and Montario Hardesty rounded out the first two rounds. Good luck with that.
13 8. Better Option: LeSean McCoy Over Knowshon Moreno (2009)
A disappointment during the early portion of his career, the 12th pick in the 2009 Draft finally broke through five years into the league. Knowshon Moreno’s rookie effort in Denver showed initial promise. He missed the 1,000-yard mark by just 53 yards and scored nine total touchdowns. Moreno’s performance dropped in 2010. He fell behind Willis McGahee by 2011, combining for just 15 game appearances and 705 yards the next two seasons. Moreno found his footing during the Bronco’s record setting 2013. He became the first Bronco to have over 1,000 rushing yards (1,038) and 500 receiving yards (548) in a season. Unfortunately, Denver’s crushing 43-8 defeat in that year’s Super Bowl mirrored Moreno’s individual trajectory. He joined Miami on a one-year deal for 2014. A dislocated elbow and torn ACL limited Moreno to 31 carries that season. Despite attempts at a comeback, Moreno hasn’t found an interested party. LeSean McCoy (Rd 2, Pk 53) surpassed Moreno's career rushing total of 3,616 yards in his first four years, and he has posted three 1,000-yard seasons since then. If you combine McCoy's best two years, it totals three more rushing touchdowns than Moreno's career number (27). There's a reason Shady is still a force in the NFL.
12 Better Option: Matt Forte Over Darren McFadden (2008)
McFadden won the Walter Camp Award, the Jim Brown Trophy, two Doak Walker Awards and two SEC Offensive Player of the Year Awards during his time as one of Arkansas’ greatest athletes. It was easily enough for the Raiders to select him with the fourth overall pick in the 2008 Draft. McFadden failed to live up to the excitement during the 2008 and 2009 season, combining for 856 rushing yards and five touchdowns. Physical ailments had a part to play in the mediocre numbers, and the injury bug has since become a constant in McFadden’s career. Although he missed three games in 2010, McFadden displayed the skills that made him a top-five selection. He ran for 1,157 yards and caught 47 passes for 507 yards. He failed to return to those heights over the course of three more injury-plagued seasons and a fourth jockeying with Latavius Murray for playing time. McFadden signed with Dallas in 2015 and did his best Demarco Murray impression for 1,089 rushing yards – largely thanks to the league’s best offensive line. McFadden took a backseat to Ezekiel Elliot in 2016. McFadden currently has 5,423 career rushing yards, 2,114 receiving yards and 33 total touchdowns. Matt Forte (Rd 2, Pk 44), far less decorated in college, blows him out of the water on Sundays with 9,415 rushing yards, 4,379 receiving yards and 72 total touchdowns.
11 Boom: Adrian Peterson (2007)
There’s little doubt Adrian Peterson ranks among the best running backs of all time, and he certainly belongs at number one in this ranking. The Minnesota Vikings drafted Peterson with the 7th pick in the 2007 Draft. He quickly cemented himself as a formidable threat on the ground. Peterson set the NFL record for rushing yards in a game (296) – as a rookie. He has gone to seven Pro Bowls, won three rushing titles and captured the 2012 NFL MVP. He is one of seven men to run for over 2,000 yards in a season (2,097), and did so after tearing his ACL the previous December. This may seem like a list of superlatives pulled from “the most interesting man in the world” commercials, but it’s not. It simply describes a running back that, until last season, appeared to be a bionic man. The only times Adrian Peterson hasn’t run for 1,000 yards in a season have been due to injury (2011 and 2016) or suspension (2014). Otherwise, he’s routinely wreaked havoc on the league. He’s returned from injury faster and stronger. Still, the 2016 season looked bad for Peterson with limited exposure. He carried the ball 37 times for 72 yards. His offensive line was Swiss cheese, but he finds himself at that dangerous age. The Vikings recently declined his contract option. Analysts and teams are expressing doubts over his value. He will turn 32 before the next season begins. The odds are ominously stacked against a return to form. And yet, this is where Peterson excels. It’s where he defies odds. Only time will tell how much Peterson adds to his 11,747 career rushing yards and 97 rushing touchdowns.
10 Better Option: Maurice Jones-Drew Over Reggie Bush (2006)
When the Texans passed on Reggie Bush in favor of Mario Williams, fans and sportswriters alike pointed to the move as evidence of Houston’s futility. Reggie Bush, the small, shifty running back, was going to take the league by storm! Bush’s hype and his lucrative rookie endorsement deals didn’t culminate in becoming an otherworldly NFL talent, but the USC star has had a productive career. New Orleans was the benefactor of Houston’s decision. The Saints implemented Bush as a change of pace back during his five-year stint. He never rushed for more than 581 yards in a season with the team, but he did post an 88-catch and a 73-catch season. The Saints traded Bush to Miami during the 2010 offseason, the same year Ronnie Brown departed the team. Bush asserted himself on the ground for two years as a Dolphin. He rushed for 1,086 yards in 2011 and 986 in 2012. Bush added a second 1,000-yard season with Detroit the following year. Nowadays, it’s safe to say he’s looking at the twilight of his NFL career. Bush finished 2016 with -3 yards on 12 carries. If this turns out to be the end, he would call it quits with 5,490 rushing yards, 3,598 receiving yards and 54 total touchdowns. Assigning a better option or leaving this pick as is proves difficult. Bush's selection caused excitement in New Orleans that no other selection could, even if that did not immediately translate to the field. Regardless, Jones-Drew (Rd 2, Pk 60) was the better option. The Little Back that Could tore through the NFL for three consecutive seasons before Jacksonville broke him. From 2009 to 2011, he had 954 carries, 4,321 yards and 34 total touchdowns. The 5'8" running back wore down and retired in 2014, but he still has better career numbers than Bush.
9 Better Option: Frank Gore Over Ronnie Brown (2005)
Ronnie Brown is tied with Reggie Bush as the highest running back taken in the last 15 Drafts. The Miami Dolphins selected him with the second overall pick in the wake of Ricky Williams’ half-baked retirement saga. Brown ultimately put together a solid, albeit unmemorable career. He reached the 1,000-yard mark in 2006 during Ricky Williams’ yearlong suspension. Splitting time with Williams and losing big chunks of the season to injuries in 2007 and 2009 reduced Brown’s numbers, but he did make a Pro Bowl in 2008. He amassed 916 rushing yards and 10 touchdowns. Brown also outshined his Auburn backfield mate, Cadillac Williams, who went to the Bucs 5th overall in the same Draft. Brown finished his career having played for the Dolphins, Eagles, Texans and Chargers. He had 5,391 rushing yards, 1,966 receiving yards and 40 total touchdowns. Although Brown fared better than his old teammate Williams, no one from the class put together a better career than the ageless Frank Gore (Rd 3, Pk 65). Gore has 13,065 rushing yards, and he's still going. Born in Flordia and a product of the U, he would have become an amazing hometown story for the Dolphins.
8 Boom: Steven Jackson (2004)
The Rams drafted Steven Jackson with the 24th overall pick as the heir apparent to Marshall Faulk. Although Faulk received more carries than Jackson, the rookie averaged a full yard more than the aging legend. Jackson ran for his first 1,000-yard season in Faulk’s final year. The torch had been officially passed. Free from Faulk’s shadow, Jackson enjoyed a monster campaign in 2006 (1,528 rushing yards, 13 rushing touchdowns, 90 receptions, 806 yards and 3 receiving touchdowns). He carried many terrible St. Louis teams on his back while muscling his way to eight consecutive 1,000-yard seasons (2005-2012). He certainly earned the right to play for a contender. He signed with Atlanta in 2013 but struggled. Jackson’s 543 rushing yards were a career low. The drop off predictably coincided with his 30th birthday. Jackson spent 2014 with the Falcons and signed with New England in December 2015. The Patriots would fall to Denver in the AFC Championship Game. Now unsigned for an entire year, Jackson’s career appears over with 11,438 rushing yards, 3,683 receiving yards and 78 total touchdowns. He is also the Rams’ all-time rushing leader.
7 Boom: Willis McGahee (2003)
For those too young to have watched the Joe Theismann play, Willis McGahee’s incident stands as the college equivalent of an injury fans hate to watch but can’t look away from. McGahee was a lock for a top five pick before tearing several knee ligaments in the BCS National Championship Game. More and more present day players skip bowl games to protect their future. McGahee suited up, shredded his knee, and still rushed for 8,474 yards in his NFL career. The Buffalo Bill selected him 23rd overall. After sitting out 2003 to rehab, McGahee ran for 1,128 yards and 13 touchdowns in his first season of play. As an encore, he managed 1,247 rushing yards in 2005 and 990 in 2006. The numbers were there, but Buffalo traded McGahee shortly after he made comments disparaging the city. McGahee added a 1,000-yard, Pro Bowl season in both Baltimore and Denver before retiring in 2013. He scored 70 total touchdowns.
6 Better Option: Clinton Portis Over William Green (2002)
The Cleveland Browns selected William Green with the 16th pick in the 2002 NFL Draft. Green posted his best stats in his rookie year, rushing for 887 yards and six touchdowns. It did not take long for his career to start falling apart. After totaling 559 yards through seven games in his sophomore campaign, Green violated the league’s substance-abuse policy. He received a four game suspension. Green’s fiancée then stabbed him in the back during a domestic dispute. The league cited “treatment purposes” and extended his punishment for the rest of the season. Green returned the next year to rush for 585 yards, but he lost most of 2005 to injury. The Browns reached an injury settlement with Green at the end of 2006’s preseason. He failed to find another NFL team and retired with 2,109 rushing yards and nine total touchdowns. The Browns should have waited for their second round pick or traded down to take Clinton Portis (Rd 2, Pk 51). Portis compiled 9,923 yards and 75 rushing touchdowns in his career. He was also part of one of the biggest player-for-player trades in league history. Denver sent him to Washington for Champ Bailey after two consecutive 1,000-yard seasons.