NFL DRAFT PREVIEW | Running backs

Why are running backs so devalued in NFL draft?

Arizona’s Ka'Deem Carey is having second thoughts about his choice of position.
Michael Conroy/AP
Arizona’s Ka'Deem Carey is having second thoughts about his choice of position.

If he knew then what he knows now, Ka’Deem Carey said, he would have been tempted to ask his football coaches at the University of Arizona if he could change positions.

It would have been a strange request, especially when you consider that Carey rushed for 1,885 yards and 19 touchdowns for the Wildcats as a junior — after gaining 1,929 yards and scoring 23 touchdowns as a sophomore.

For someone who was a consensus All-American, the thought of playing anywhere else besides running back doesn’t seem to make much sense at all.


But Carey’s comments were made not with college in mind, but the National Football League. Because running back, the position Carey plays quite well, doesn’t seem to be valued in the NFL the way it once was.

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And value, Carey is about to find out, means money.

“Nowadays, they’re like, ‘You’ve got to go second, third round,’ and I’m like, ‘Why in the hell didn’t you tell me this a couple of years ago, that running backs are going extinct?’ ” Carey said. “I definitely would have went to corner[back] or something else.”

“Extinct” might be too harsh a word, but when the draft begins May 8, fans can expect to see even more proof that the NFL has morphed into a pass-happy league filled with elite quarterbacks and expendable running backs.

Last year marked the first time in NFL draft history (going back to 1936, when the Philadelphia Eagles grabbed halfback Jay Berwanger with the first pick of the first draft) that no running back was selected in the first round. If the mock drafts are accurate, no running back will go in this year’s first round, either.


Last year was historic, but not entirely surprising. Only one running back was taken in the first round of the 2011 draft, and that was Heisman Trophy winner Mark Ingram, at No. 28.

The highest running back picked a year later, Trent Richardson (third overall), lasted barely a year in Cleveland before the Browns traded him to the Colts.

Running backs are still being taken in the draft, but they don’t seem to be going as high as they used to.

NFL teams use them to carry the football — 13 players rushed for 1,000 yards last season — but unless an absolute difference-maker is available, teams appear to be content to wait for a running back until the later rounds, when signing bonuses and rookie salaries aren’t nearly as high.

It’s a physical toll, playing running back. Many assume, because of the nature of the job, that a running back’s prime is not nearly as long as someone who takes far fewer hits, so why should a team invest the kind of long-term big money on a player who might not be able to stay healthy?


“It does kind of bother me; I feel like they are down on us,” said Carlos Hyde of Ohio State, who is projected to be one of the first running backs taken next week. “They don’t think we are capable of doing what we know we can do.

“They are kind of just downplaying us: ‘We can wait to get y’all.’

“There are guys drafted in the late rounds that are having a lot of success in the league right now.”

That comment from Hyde might be the exact point many NFL teams are making these days: We can get a solid running back with a later-round pick.

Not everyone thinks the dearth of first-round running backs is directly related to league offenses tilting toward the pass (nine quarterbacks threw for at least 4,000 yards last season). It starts earlier than that, before players even reach the NFL, said Kevin Colbert, general manager of the Pittsburgh Steelers.

“I think it’s a result of what’s happening in college football,” Colbert said. “The running back, for the most part in a lot of offenses, the majority are spread offenses, they’re not emphasized as much so you don’t get to see as much production or dominance.

“The spread offense just presents a different challenge. It’s our job to be able to sort it out and to figure it out as to whether they can make the transition.

“You maybe don’t see a top running back [taken in the first round], 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.”

The Patriots last picked a running back in the first round in 2006, when they took Laurence Maroney at No. 21. He lasted four seasons.

There doesn’t appear to be any first-round talent this year, with players such as Hyde, Carey, Tre Mason of Auburn, Jeremy Hill of LSU, and Bishop Sankey of Washington projected by most draft experts to go in the second and third rounds. That’s still a few rounds higher than most projections for Andre Williams of Boston College, who led the nation in rushing last season.

Undervalued, perhaps, but it’s a group that remains confident.

“Teams expect us to run the ball — we’re running backs,” Hyde said. “You [had] two big-time backs in the Super Bowl playing.

“You can’t just pass the ball the whole game. At one point, you have to hand the ball off to make the defense play the run. You start passing the whole game, the defense can just play off and [make] interceptions, that’s when that happens.”

This isn’t to say that one of these running backs won’t make an impact for their future NFL teams.

Some certainly will. They just shouldn’t expect to hear their names called during the first round. The NFL is apparently convinced. No running back was among the 30 players invited to attend this year’s draft. That’s a first.

“I don’t like that,” said Carey. “I feel like they think the running back spot is going extinct, for some reason.

“They definitely need us. I’m going to make sure they know that when I step on the field, that they made a good pick, and running backs aren’t going extinct.”

How running backs have fared in first round

The amount of running backs selected in the first round of the last 15 NFL drafts, and how high the first running back was selected:

19992No. 4, Edgerrin James, IND
20005No. 5, Jamal Lewis, BAL
20013No. 5, LaDainian Tomlinson, SD
20022No. 16, William Green, CLE
20032No. 23, Willis McGahee, BUF
20043No. 24, Steven Jackson, STL
20053No. 2, Ronnie Brown, MIA
20064No. 2, Reggie Bush, NO
20072No. 7, Adrian Peterson, MIN
20085No. 4, Darren McFadden, OAK
20093No. 12, Knowshon Moreno, DEN
20103No. 9, CJ Spiller, BUF
20111No. 28, Mark Ingram, NO
20123No. 3, Trent Richardson, CLE
20130No. 37, Giovani Bernard, CIN

Michael Whitmer can be reached at Follow him on Twitter @GlobeWhitmer.