It has been 50 years since the NFL has gone through the first round of a draft without a running back being selected. And some front office men suspect a back will not go in round one this year for the first time since John F. Kennedy was president.
The draft has changed quite a bit in 50 years. In 1963, there were only 14 first round picks, and only five running backs taken in the entire draft.
This year, many backs, probably near 20, will be chosen. But teams will be looking for them in the second round and beyond.
You may suspect the reason for this is the success of players like Alfred Morris and Arian Foster, who were not high round picks. It’s true teams don’t need to take a running back in the first round to get a capable runner. But it’s also true this crop of running backs is short on top end talent.
“We all understand you can win with running backs who are not unbelievably talented,” one NFC general manager said. “But if there is a back who can make a difference, people will go get him in the first.”
Multiple scouts said Alabama’s Eddie Lacy is the only first round possibility, and he has borderline first round/second round grades. “He is good,” an AFC scouting director said. “I don’t know if he’s great.” Added a national scout, “He’s getting a half round to a full round bump because of Nick Saban. He’s not special.”
One front office man said Lacy ran a 4.48 40 yard dash at 231 pounds. That is pretty special. But some scouts think his tape isn’t as special. They question his athleticism and ability to avoid.
After Lacy, the class thins out quickly. There isn’t much of a consensus, at least not at this point, on who the No. 2 back should be. Some like Le’Veon Bell of Michigan State. Some prefer Montee Ball of Wisconsin. Others go for Giovani Bernard of North Carolina. There is something to like about all of them.
And there is something to like about others, like Joseph Randle of Oklahoma State, Andre Ellington of Clemson, Christine Michael of Texas A&M, Stepfan Taylor of Stanford and Michael Gillislee of Florida. All could be solid NFL backs. But there is not enough to like about any of them to say they should be slam dunk first rounders.
What’s interesting about this class is there are a number of good potential power runners (Lacy, Bell, Ball, Taylor, Michael and others), and a number of good potential open field runners (Ellington, Bernard, Gillislee, Onterrio McCalebb of Oregon and others). But scouts say there aren’t many who combine the ability to bang between the tackles with the ability make moves outside the tackles.
That’s the real reason the NFL may be looking at a first round without a running back.
Dan Pompei covers pro football for the Chicago Tribune at chicagotribune.com.