Most moderately informed football fans understand that a strong running game, on average, is not a predictor of success. Leaving aside the painful observation that the #1 rushing team in the NFL in 2022 also earned the #1 pick overall, there are many, many statistical analyses that explain that while it is a good idea to run the ball from time to time, and an even better idea to run it at least moderately well, there is little to no benefit to investing the resources in having a truly elite running game.
The reasons this is true are easily summarized, in that passing plays are both more efficient and more likely to be explosive. Against a passing attack, the defense has to be almost perfect in order to keep the chains from moving. By contrast, with a rushing attack the offense has to get almost everything right to stay on the field. However, those are averages. What about elite players? What about the exceptions to the trends? If the right player comes along, isn’t it worth it to take a chance and draft a generational talent in the first round?
Well, here is a brief history of the men who were going to save the running back position from being devalued. These are the first-round running backs of the first decade after the new CBA.
For each hero of pounding the rock, I quote from draft profiles, favoring those from NFL.com because they are consistent and readily available, but I also look elsewhere when relevant. I then look at how each player performed during the five years of control that teams earn by selecting them in the first round (including other information that might be interesting), and finally offer some analysis.
Mark Ingram (2011) Drafted #28
The Hype: The Heisman winner out of Alabama was compared to Emmitt Smith by Bleacher Report and prompted Mike Mayock to say “For me, it’s pretty simple…If there’s a guy, a special running back out there like an Adrian Peterson, you treat it like a special athlete at any position and you covet it and you try to get it.” His NFL.com draft profile stated “Ingram projects as an every-down back who can make an impact on the ground and in the passing game. One of the most polished running back prospects in recent memory.” One of the key strengths he brought was being a “dangerous receiver in the screen game and as a check down.” His prospect grade listed him as a “Perennial All-Pro.”
Early Accomplishments: In the first five seasons of his career, Ingram managed 3,888 yards from scrimmage and a single Pro Bowl, starting less than half of the 80 games available to him. He actually had 32 starts across 62 total games and averaged under 800 total yards per season. For two of his first four years, he was not even the top rusher on his own team, being outperformed by Sproles (2011) and then Thomas (2013).
Analysis: Despite a rough start, Ingram managed to move on to three Pro Bowls across a career that has now spanned twelve seasons. He has never been the perennial All-Pro he was promised to be, but his career over time suggests that a first-round running back can be a real asset if you pair him with a future Hall of Fame quarterback and one of the top offensive minds in the league and give him a decade to work at it.
Trent Richardson (2012) Drafted #3
The Hype: NFL.com called Richardson “a talented back who should garner a top-five pick in this year’s draft, regardless of the idea the past few years that the shelf life and durability of running backs doesn’t warrant the risk of a top pick.” Not content with that much praise, they went on to say “Richardson is durable enough to handle a season full of carries, and with the new CBA rules putting a ceiling on rookie salaries, it will be tough for teams to pass on such a talented, polished back that will be a franchise back for years to come.” Bill Polian was likewise lavish with praise, calling him a “sure thing” and one of three “can’t miss” prospects alongside Andrew Luck and Robert Griffin III. Richardson was called by Mike Mayock “the best non-quarterback in the draft...He’s as close as I’ve seen to Adrian Peterson.” Mayock insisted the Browns needed to take him, which Cleveland then in fact did.
Early Accomplishments: 2,944 yards from scrimmage in the course of his entire NFL career, along with 0 Pro Bowls in 37 starts. He was traded to the Colts for a first-round pick partway through the 2013 season, but he was then waived before the 2015 season could begin. He failed to catch on with either the Raiders or the Ravens, but he did make it a season with the Saskatchewan Roughriders.
Analysis: Richardson is essentially the poster child for the idea that a can’t miss running back can absolutely miss. Despite being touted as a generational talent, and being given a fully guaranteed salary, he failed two different franchises that invested a first-round pick in him. In fact, the Colts spent a 1st-round pick on him in an effort to help Andrew Luck only to struggle to build around Andrew Luck in part because of that mistake. Thriving on rare physical gifts in college, Richardson failed to deliver in the pros where margins were much smaller.
Doug Martin (2012) Drafted #31
The Hype: Modest. His NFL.com profile stated “He is a natural with the ball in his hands and will bring value to an NFL team as a special teams player, either as a return option or a contributor in the coverage game. Though ball security has been a concern in the past, Martin is an overall solid back and should expect to be selected in the second round because of his ability to contribute early in several different ways.” Walter Football was equally positive, saying “Martin is a well-rounded back who does everything well. He is a dynamic runner, a good receiver, a functional blocker and a special-teams contributor. Entering the NFL, Martin looks like a jack-of-all-trades back who should be able to help his team immediately”, but he was not compared to Adrian Peterson nor called a can’t-miss prospect.
Early Accomplishments: With 5,234 yards from scrimmage and a pair of Pro Bowls (as well as a 1st-Team All Pro distinction), Martin is a very mixed bag. His 57 games out of a possible 80 are not promising, and they explain why he has two seasons with phenomenal yards and three with sub-600-yard totals.
Analysis: After Tampa Bay traded up with New England to acquire him, Martin was the Bucs’ leading rusher in only half of his six seasons, and their only winning season in that time came when he only played eight games (he was suspended for substance abuse and entered a treatment facility). WalterFootball’s review quoted above began with the following assessment: “A few years from now, people may wonder why Doug Martin wasn’t a first-round pick in the 2012 NFL Draft.” As it turns out, he was taken in the first round. It just didn’t go well.
David Wilson (2012) Drafted #32
The Hype: Widely tapped to be a high second-round pick, Wilson was believed to have the potential to sneak into the first round. NFL.com noted “he truly runs with his own style, and it’s obvious that he has love for the game. He was one of very few limited prospects who played for Team USA prior to enrolling in college, dominating the tournament and displaying elite athletic ability. He is a high risk-high reward player who loves to reverse field on the entire defense. He is a decorated track star who shows obvious explosion every time he touches the ball.”
Early Accomplishments: Wilson compiled 546 yards from scrimmage in the two seasons he played, starting only six games. While he played in all sixteen games of his rookie year, he saw minimal use. For medical reasons, he was advised to discontinue playing football partway through his second year.
Analysis: He is supposedly pursuing a career in music, and I wish him the best.
Rational Interlude (2013 & 2014)
There were no first-round running backs drafted during this time. Good going, NFL GMs.
Todd Gurley (2015) Drafted #10
The Hype: Draftniks were more reserved than normal due to Gurley’s injury history. Lance Zierlein said “The rehab work and NFL Scouting Combine medicals will be extremely important for Gurley’s draft stock as teams assess his potential durability as an NFL running back. He played less than 40 percent of his team’s offensive snaps over the last three years, so there is plenty of tread still on the tires. Has the talent to be a top-five NFL running back, but ACL tear clouds the short-term picture.” Walter Football was more effusive and less hesitant: “Gurley is the best running back to enter the NFL since Adrian Peterson in 2007,” and “Sources across the NFL believe that if Gurley returns to his pre-injury form and stays healthy, he’ll become one of the best running backs in the NFL and could be a star runner similar to Peterson or Marshall Faulk.”
Early Accomplishments: In his five years with the Rams, Gurley delivered 7,494 yards from scrimmage and three Pro Bowls (plus two 1st-Team All-Pro selections), Gurley played in 73 of the 80 games available to him. Not bad at all.
Analysis: If I were going to pick a running back from the decade under consideration as a success story, Gurley is a good candidate. He is the only player on this list to lead the league in yards from scrimmage and also see his team make the playoffs in the same season. That was also one of his two 1AP seasons. Gurley actually saw the playoffs twice under his first contract, but it’s worth noting that he did little for Jared Goff’s early career. Gurley was already with the Rams and putting up Pro Bowl numbers when Goff languished early on. It took the addition of Sean McVay as a head coach; Brandin Cooks, Robert Woods, and Cooper Kupp at receiver; and Andrew Whitworth on offensive line for Gurley to really manage to “elevate” the Rams in his third year.
Melvin Gordon (2015) Drafted #15
The Hype: Despite being drafted in the first round, most profiles I could find indicated that there were doubts about Gordon as a prospect, with NFL.com saying “He won’t be able to outrun NFL defenders like he did in college and must develop more feel between the tackles. Gordon shines when his track runs over tackle or around the end and can put a defense to sleep around the corner. Not trustworthy enough to be a three-down back, but his pass-catching improved enough to utilize him out of [the] backfield as a receiver.”
Early Accomplishments: He earned 6,113 yards from scrimmage and a pair of Pro Bowls in his opening five seasons, which included 62 starts in 67 games (missing only 13 games entirely). He then left the Chargers to play for their divisional rival Denver Broncos.
Analysis: Although he faced concerns about not being able to outmatch NFL players, he actually had a very successful NFL career. The Chargers were a losing team across three of the five seasons he spent with them, and in arguably his “best” season (2016, when he had 1416 yards from scrimmage and earned a Pro Bowl) his team only managed five wins. The only year the Chargers made the playoffs when he was with them was in 2018, when he was 19th in total yards from scrimmage and he saw his total rushing attempts drop to what was then a career low (175). To be fair, though, when Gordon was part of a complete team he was able to play his part consistently.
Ezekiel Elliott (2016) Drafted #4
The Hype: Lance Zierlein said “Elite, three-down running back who has the ability to excel in every facet of the game. Elliott has rare combination of size, athleticism, pass-catching and blocking skills and his competitive nature is always bubbling on the surface. While he’s had to handle a heavy workload over the last two seasons, Elliot should still come out of the gates as one of the most productive young running backs in the league.” However, Dan Solomon demurred, questioning whether or not running backs were still worth it. His verdict was “Elliott will probably put up good numbers with the Cowboys. The Cowboys’ offensive line is great, and even an aging back like last year’s free agent pickup Darren McFadden averaged 4.5 yards per carry and put up over a thousand yards in ten starts.” Pro Football Focus’s Sam Monson went right to the well, announcing in a headline “Ezekiel Elliott is best, most complete RB prospect since Adrian Peterson.”
Early Accomplishments: Across his first five years, Elliott put up 8,341 yards from scrimmage, earned three Pro Bowls, and led the league in rushing yards twice. Perhaps most impressively, he did in fact earn a 1st Team All-Pro (which isn’t quite the perennial All-Pro his draft profile promised, but even one is nice). He never actually led the league in yards from scrimmage in this time, but he did have two trips to the playoffs.
Analysis: Solomon nailed it. On a stacked offense that had at least one Pro Bowl receiving threat and at least one (but usually more) Pro Bowl offensive linemen, Elliott put up solid numbers. His worst year with at least eleven games (2020) was also not-so coincidentally the year Tyron Smith played only 2 games, Travis Frederick retired, and Zach Martin missed six games. Elliott is now being released after being replaced by 4th-round draft pick Tony Pollard.
Leonard Fournette (2017) Drafted #4
The Hype: “High-end talent with rare blend of size, speed and power. Comparisons to Adrian Peterson feel lofty, but from a physical standpoint, he’s there. Fournette doesn’t have the wiggle to make defenders miss and his vision can be iffy. However, if your run fits and tackling aren’t sound, he can take it the distance in an instant. May have durability concerns due to physical running style, but has All-Pro potential,” according to NFL.com. Matt Miller actively called him a “generational talent” (as did Heisman voter Scott Rabalais).
Early Accomplishments: Fournette turned in 3640 yards across three years for the Jaguars before they released him, unable to find a trade partner. He has yet to earn a Pro Bowl, and his 52 starts across his first five seasons suggest that a mixture of injuries and suspensions might have something to do with his lack of production.
Analysis: It should go without saying that Fournette proved doubters correct and that despite having a few advocates, he did more to show the dangers of drafting a running back highly than anything else. Depending on how you consider Ingram’s career, he is the second or third future Adrian Peterson/Generational Talent who can’t miss who did, in fact, miss.
Christian McCaffrey (2017) Drafted #8
The Hype: Minimal. NFL.com summarized him as follows: “Multidimensional runner with flex appeal for teams looking for a player who can carry the ball 20 times or catch it 10 depending on the game plan. McCaffrey’s size, power and speed are just average, but he is able to create yardage for himself with his vision and elusiveness. McCaffrey’s ability to return punts and kicks could be the value sweetner [sic] that pushes his name into the first round.” He was graded out in multiple places as a 2nd-rounder and change-of-pace back, but he also received a lot of praise for his versatility.
Early Accomplishments: In his first five seasons, McCaffrey managed 6,602 yards from scrimmage with a single Pro Bowl and 1st-Team All-Pro, but he was very uneven. He started 52 of his first 81 possible games, in part because he missed much of the 2020 season. In what is a theme among this group, the year he led the league in yards from scrimmage (2019) and won his 1st-Team All-Pro, the Panthers had 11 losses to five wins.
Saquon Barkley (2018) Drafted #2
The Hype: In 2018, Saquon Barkley went second overall after Albert Breer called him “the future of football,” citing the cyclical nature of football trends and claiming that with teams building lighter and lighter defenses to keep up with the passing game: “he’s coming along at the right time. Teams are considering retro looks offensively, which can prop up young quarterbacks, help the defense, and exploit opponents built to combat high-end passing attacks. So where the value of running backs may have recently declined, it seems now demand for a 230-pound, three-down, 21st-century style bellcow, a la Elliott or Joe Mixon, is on the rise.” Daniel Jeremiah had yet to use his allotted Adrian Peterson comparison, so he went for it in 2017, running with the headline “Saquon Barkley’s the best RB prospect since Adrian Peterson.”
Early Accomplishments: 6,069 yards from scrimmage and a pair of Pro Bowls sound good, as does leading the league in yards from scrimmage across his rookie season. He is the second player on this list to lead the league in yards from scrimmage and see his team face an 11-loss season at the same time, which seems less good. He has now played his entire “rookie contract+” for the Giants, putting together 60 starts out of a possible 82 games.
Analysis: Where to begin? Barkley’s best year saw his team bottom the division and earn only 5 wins, but given that they were able to draft Barkley #2 overall suggests that there is more to that story. Still, Barkley did not in any way elevate the Giants even though he elevated his own numbers. His first four years in the league saw New York amass only 19 wins (and 46 losses), but in his fifth year he finally made the playoffs with his third coach. Supposedly drafted to give a cushion to Eli Manning on the way out the door and to give the next quarterback a reassuring presence in the backfield, Barkley did little to move the needle for a Giants team that languished for almost the entire duration of his initial contract. Despite his reputed durability, he missed multiple games due to injury.
Rashaad Penny (2018) Drafted #27
The Hype: Not a ton. He was described by NFL.com as a “volume-carry running back who plays with an active running style that rarely sees him slow his feet. Penny has the short-area foot quickness to create yardage for himself, but he doesn’t really have the burst or long speed to be a homerun hitter. His motor gives him a chance to be a productive NFL starter, but he may lack the explosiveness to be a great back.”
Early Accomplishments: 2140 yards from scrimmage would be a great season for some of the running backs on this list, but it is actually Penny’s whole career. Those yards are spread across 42 games with only 11 starts.
Analysis: Even excluding his various injury issues, Penny never lived up to his draft status.
Sony Michel (2018) Drafted #31
The Hype: WalterFootball thought it was a 50/50 chance that Michel would go in the first, saying “As a receiver, Michel is dangerous. He ran routes out of the slot and was dynamic getting open out of the backfield. Michel uses his speed to get separation and looks natural catching the ball with soft hands. He has the ability to block, and after some development learning NFL blitzes, Michel should be a solid pass protector. Thus, he projects on becoming a three-down starter early in his NFL career.”
Early Accomplishments: With 2550 yards from scrimmage in 38 games (28 starts) for New England, Michel has played for three teams already and is closing in on the mark of 4000 yards from scrimmage and still has a chance to hit 40 starts someday.
Analysis: Michel netted the Patriots a pair of late picks in the trade that sent him the Rams, but his biggest contribution probably came when he served as a reliable back for the Patriots on their 2018 playoff run.
Josh Jacobs (2019) Drafted #24
The Hype: NFL.com proclaimed “Prototypical combination of size and skill-set as an every-down runner with the ability to slash or impose his will on any given snap. Jacobs runs with good bend, vision and burst, and he proved to be an effective pass-catcher out of the backfield or from the slot. He will probe and burst, but he could become more elusive with better tempo as a runner. Jacobs is a decisive runner with outstanding one-cut talent to become a bellcow lead back.” Additionally, CBS Sports offered “Jacobs is difficult to bring down with initial contact…his speed affords him the ability to bounce plays outside — though he doesn’t force it. He runs hard, with purpose, is an efficient pass blocker, shows good hands as a receiver and can also return kicks. He’s the best running back in this class and it’s not close.”
Early Accomplishments: In his four years, Jacobs has amassed 5,892 yards from scrimmage, two Pro Bowls, and three head coaches. He earned a 1st-Team All-Pro distinction in 2022, the same year he led the league in yards from scrimmage and the Raiders went 6-11. That makes him the third first-round running back in this group to combine being on an 11-loss team while leading the league in yards from scrimmage and earning a Pro Bowl (and the second to do so while earning a 1st-Team All Pro distinction).
Analysis: The only year the Raiders made the playoffs in Jacobs’ career was also the year he had the fewest rushing attempts. Is Jacobs a good back? Absolutely. However, he was not touted as a generational back and he’s not. He is a good football player.
Clyde Edwards-Helaire (2020) Drafted #32
The Hype: There wasn’t a lot of hype. NFL.com thought he would be a second-round pick, and while he was considered an adequate player, that was about it.
Early Accomplishments: 2,199 yards from scrimmage in three years across 29 games.
Analysis: Does anyone else feel like Kansas City is trolling the league? They basically tied a 1st-round pick behind their backs to then make two more Super Bowl appearances, winning one of them.
Look, growing up I always felt badly for Wylie Coyote. I realize that this will mark my age in some way, but Saturday morning cartoons were a thing for me, and I always felt badly that no matter how hard he tried, the coyote never won. It was always the road runner, with his smug little “meep, meep” and all the luck.
Perhaps more appropriately, I felt badly for Linus in Peanuts who waited faithfully for the Great Pumpkin to show up. He was always so sure that the big moment was just around the corner. Thus, I have sympathy for people who are awaiting the return of the running back. Every so often, a running back comes along who is going to “be different” and is going to be the exception to the rule that proves that it’s worth it to draft a running back early.
What seems to be the case is that if you already have an exceptional offense with Pro Bowl talent at multiple positions and a great offensive-minded head coach, a running back drafted in the first round can put together a pretty impressive career. However, there is nothing to suggest that these players are any more valuable than the players taken later and partnered with equivalent or even lesser talent, like Jonathan Taylor (2nd), Derrick Henry (2nd), David Johnson (3rd) or other yards-from-scrimmage leaders.
It actually seems like the better running backs are the ones who are not breakaway stars, and that fits a consistent trend in draft prospects in general that those who rely on physical mismatches in college and up being constrained in the pros where everyone is a physical marvel. By contrast, players who seem to need to “work at it” might even do a little better. There are no fewer than three “generational talents” who “can’t miss” on this list, and maybe five. By and large, they missed. Or, rather, some missed and others were very good backs who did not deliver on the promised revolution, more or less matching the performance set by less-touted, less highly-drafted running backs who were available later.
However, I’m certain that there are people right now convinced that all of the statistics and even these anecdotes are meaningless. The next great savior of the running back position is just around the corner. Feel free to wait in the Pumpkin Patch with Linus and remember not to look down if you run off a cliff, because that can be dangerous.