There are two arguments that I believe can now be opened for discussion, now that enough time has passed:
1. Trent Richardson’s lack of success in the NFL created a ripple effect which led to teams turning away from spending top ten draft picks on running backs.
2. Ezekiel Elliott falling at number four in the 2016 draft and his immediate on-field success resulted in the reversing of the trend set by Richardson.
Below is a list showing all top ten-drafted running backs since 2005:
Ronnie Brown (2005, 2nd)
Cedric Benson (2005, 4th)
Cadillac Williams (2005, 5th)
Reggie Bush (2006, 2nd)
Adrian Peterson (2007, 7th)
Darren McFadden (2008, 4th)
CJ Spiller (2010, 9th)
Mark Ingram (2011, 1st)
Trent Richardson (2012, 3rd)
I won’t go into great detail about Richardson’s NFL career. If you don’t know, just understand that it was short and not quite Hall of Fame worthy.
The 2013 and 2014 seasons would see no running backs drafted in the first rounds, much less in the top ten. However, talents like Le’Veon Bell, Giovani Bernard, Eddie Lacy, and Carlos Hyde end up being overlooked and taken in the second rounds. From 2012 to 2015, 10(!) running backs are drafted in the second round, with only two going in the first in that three-year stretch. The next running backs to be drafted anywhere near where Richardson landed would be three years later in 2015, when Todd Gurley and Melvin Gordon go 10th and 15th, respectively. Both were considered transcendent talents, capable of going anywhere on the board in the top ten that year- we all know how good Gurley has been since then. So why does it seem like they slipped, when so many teams that drafted 1-9 that year lacked talent at the position? We don’t see a RB go in the top ten until 2016, and it is then that we witness an interesting and rapid shift in the RB draft trend:
Ezekiel Elliott (2016, 4th)
Leonard Fournette (2017, 4th)
Christian McCaffrey (2017, 8th)
Saquon Barkley (2018, 2nd)
Elliott would be the first back drafted inside of the top ten since Richardson, and there has been at least one drafted every year in the top ten since. And even though it seems suspect that I wouldn’t count Gurley here even though he was taken at ten, my argument is that I believe Gurley could have (and should have) gone off the board much earlier than he had.
Running back Renaissance?
Given their history as a run-first offense and their need at the position at the time, it shouldn’t come as a surprise that Dallas would be the team to break the status quo and take Elliott at four. But I would also argue that as a result of his drafting and the amount of success he has found on the field since, that the league has taken notice and we are beginning to witness a shift back towards a more balanced offensive attack within the NFL. Both the Panthers and Jags took a significant step forward with the drafting of McCaffrey and Fournette, and even though I lose sleep over it, I expect the Giants to win many games off the back of Saquon Barkley as well. Only more time will show whether or not this argument has any real legs to run, but for now I’d say we can credit the Cowboys with starting the running back renaissance we have witnessed in the NFL over the past few years.
Ironically enough, given this argument I’d say Barkley (and as a result, Gurley as well) owes the Cowboys a big thank you for that fat guaranteed contract he just signed, because the league would be burning to the ground if a RB drafted anywhere outside of the top ten signed for that much as a rookie.
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