Some believe it would be a beautiful thing if Ezekiel Elliott ends up in Chicago, and they might be right. However, that thing of beauty is not worth the eleventh pick in the draft. This is not because of any limitations in Elliott's game. In fact, it is likely that any team that picks up Elliott will be getting a solid player, and it's possible that he might end up one of the top running backs in the league over the next few years.
However, it would take a transcendent running back to come close to justifying the investment of a first-round pick, and even then it would be questionable. I claim this not because I think running backs are outdated or outmoded as a position. I am one of those who believes that, despite an increasing trend toward favoring the passing game, running back remains a vital position. The reality, though, is that very, very good running backs can be had later in the draft.
Forget whether or not John Fox prefers a running back committee approach or the potential quality of the running backs already on the Bears. Just note that the top running backs do not come from the first round in anything resembling a disproportionate way. This observation flies in the face of one argument in favor of drafting Elliott (or Henry, or any other running back) with #11. One way of justifying the expenditure of a first-round pick on Elliott is that it might be worth it if he turns into a true workhorse, the kind of player who adds consistent value to a team, year after year. However, a quick look at where the top running backs have come from in the last five years does not lend much credibility to this argument.
If we are really talking about top-tier players, we should be able to see a trend among the top running backs. The first-round picks should stand out. If nothing else, Adrian Peterson should bolster the numbers in some way that makes the first-rounders repay the investment made in them (after all, every great running back prospect is compared to Adrian Peterson at some point, so the player in question should have some sort of titanic impact).
Football Outsiders does a good job of adjusting each player's individual contribution, taking into consideration the defense these players faced and the quality of the team around them. In order to be considered a top back, a player had to place in the top ten in either DYAR (overall defense-adjusted value) or DVOA (defense-adjusted value per play). Because in some years a player will be in the top ten in one category but not another, there are 68 different entries on this list, with 16 repeated names. These repeats would be the sort of reliable rushers who might merit the consideration of an early pick.
As it turns out, four of these sixteen names are first-round picks: Ryan Mathews, Marshawn Lynch, Donald Brown, and Adrian Peterson. However, another four of these names are second-round picks: Eddie Lacy, LeSean McCoy, Le'Veon Bell, and Matt Forte. And, of course, another four of these names are third-round picks: DeMarco Murray, Frank Gore, Jamaal Charles, and Stevan Ridley. The list is rounded out by three undrafted free agents (Arian Foster, Fred Jackson, and Pierre Thomas) as well as a seventh-rounder (Justin Forsett).
Now, this is far from conclusive. After all, maybe more running backs are taken in the later rounds, meaning that there's a disproportionate chance that later picks will show up. The later rounds might have "more bites at the apple," so to speak. Except they don't.
In fact, from 2004-2013 (a ten-year span, with at least three seasons for each player to make his mark), 213 running backs were selected. 27 of them went in the first round and 28 went in the second round. Things go "off script" a little in the third round, with only 20 running backs selected; however, 33 rushers were taken in the fourth round (some with picks that in other years would have been third-round selections), in order to bring the average across these two rounds back to 26.5.
In other words, running back selections are spread pretty evenly across all of the rounds. If anything, the tighter window of third-round selections suggests we should be less likely to see third-rounders among the top backs, simply because there are fewer of them. Instead, they show up in equal proportions.
Well, maybe this methodology is too generous. If I restrict my list to players who have been among the top ten rushers in both DYAR and DVOA at least twice in the last five years, I no longer have sixteen names. Instead, I have six players who are at the top of their profession in both value per play and overall value for at least two years. Two of these six (Lynch and Mathews) are first-rounders, two of them (McCoy and Bell) are second-rounders, and the final two are third-rounders (Murray and Charles).
For those who prefer to count Pro Bowls, consider this. The 27 first-round picks spent on running backs from 2004-2013 secured four running backs who earned multiple pro bowl nods (this is one repeat Pro Bowler found with every 6.75 picks). On the other hand, the 53 second- and third-round picks spent on running backs in the same time found seven repeat Pro Bowlers (one repeat pro bowler in every 6.86 picks). Clearly, top rushing talent can be found later in the draft. It is worth noting that the other 292 first-round draft picks in the ten years under consideration resulted in 83 repeat pro-bowlers (this is a rate of one in every 3.52 picks), which means that taken as a group, the first-round running backs actually paid off less often than their peers in other positions.
Worse, as an entire group, the 507 second- and third-round picks that were spent on other positions in these ten years were only able to find 36 repeat pro-bowlers (or one repeat pro bowler found in every 14 selections). That's a massive fall-off. Whereas 28% of first-round non-running back selections go on to earn multiple pro bowls, only 7% of second- and third-round non-running backs do so. Put bluntly, picking a running back in the first round sacrifices a significant difference in the potential to find impact players at other positions.
Running backs are a vital part of modern football. However, there is nothing to suggest that a team is likely to get value out of taking a running back in the first round. The position is too readily filled in later rounds, and other positions face too high of a drop-off in talent.