All teams may pass on RBs in 1st round
What are the odds, as some "draftniks" have suggested, that not a single running back will be selected in the first round of the draft in three weeks?
Well, if it happens, it will be historic. Literally.
Since the common draft was implemented in 1967, there has never been a first round without at least one back. There was only one year, 1984, when fewer than two runners went off the board in the opening stanza. And that year, there were three tailbacks chosen in the first round of the USFL dispersal draft. In the past 44 drafts, there have been almost as many years with six or more backs in the first round (seven) as years with fewer than three runners (eight).
Notable might be that three of the seasons with fewer than three running backs in the first round have come in the past 10 years, and five in the last 13 lotteries, which probably signals a number of realities: The league is significantly more skewed toward the passing game. Teams are wary of investing first-round choices at a spot that has the shortest career-span of any position. With the preponderance of time-sharing in the league, franchises may be reluctant to overspend on a player who logs fewer than 20 carries per game. The "spread" offenses so prevalent now in the college game, and which require a different skill set, have made it difficult to project backs into the NFL. Middle- or late-round choices, or even free agents such as Arian Foster, LeGarrette Blount, Chris Ivory and BenJarvus Green-Ellis — or Priest Holmes before them — have been unearthed.
"It's probably a combination of all the above," said a personnel director whose team selected a first-round running back in the past five years and is still waiting for the player to deliver on that investment. "Plus, it's just not a great year, at least higher up, at the position. Teams are kind of taking the position now that, 'Well, we still have to run the ball, but not necessarily with a first-rounder.' Given what's gone on the past few years, it's tough to argue that approach."
Four of the 11 running backs chosen in the first round of the past four drafts have posted 1,000-yard seasons in their careers, but only one, Tennessee's Chris Johnson (who has 1,000 yards or more in each of his three seasons), did so as a rookie. The average first-year output of the 11 first-rounders was 584.0 yards, and four of the players rushed for less than 300 yards as rookies.
The three first-round backs in 2010 — C.J. Spiller, Ryan Mathews, and Jahvid Best — totaled 1,516 yards as rookies. Three undrafted rookies (Blount, Ivory, and Keiland Williams) managed 468 yards more than that in 2010.
"I think the old (adage) used to be that, if a guy could run, he could run, and that it was a position where you could help (quickly)," said Wisconsin tailback John Clay. "But there's a lot more to it, with (blitz) pickup, blocking in general, the playbook, everything to prepare for. You can't just walk in and say, 'OK, give me the ball.' There's a lot to (assimilate)."
And, apparently, the belief that not many prospects can do it quickly in 2011.
It might just be typical predraft posturing, but even Ingram, the consensus top back in the talent pool and a guy previously compared favorably by some to all-time NFL rusher Emmitt Smith, has allegedly raised some doubts in recent weeks.
Ingram played in a mostly pro-style offense, under former NFL coach Nick Saban, and, while hardly a burner, is a tough, consistent, hard-running back, who has been an effective blocker and caught the ball well. But because of the presence of Trent Richardson, and also injuries, Ingram notched more than 160 carries only once for the Crimson Tide.
At the NFL Scouting Combine, Ingram characterized himself as a "complete" back.
"I could be in the game on first down, second down, third down, goal-line, short yardage, pick up the blitz, pass protection ... go out and catch passes," Ingram said.
But in the age of specialization, franchises aren't particularly seeking out the all-around back anymore. And some aren't seeking out backs at all until the later stages of the draft.
In the last four years, there have been 10 teams who did not choose a running back before the third round.
"It used to be one of the easiest positions (to rate)," allowed Atlanta coach Mike Smith, whose Falcons have tabbed just two backs, both seventh-rounders, in the past four years. "Now it's one of the toughest."
Said Blount, who led all rookie rushers with 1,007 yards in 2010: "It just seems like some teams are finding out they can get guys later on in the draft or in (undrafted) free agency who can run the ball pretty well."
Indeed, 12 of the 32 leading rushers for teams in 2010 entered the league in the fourth round or lower, and six originally were undrafted free agents. Four of the top 10 rushers in the NFL last season came from the third round or lower. Sixteen backs from the past three years ranked among the league's top 10 rushers in those years, but came into the league in the third round or later. Onetime seventh-rounder Peyton Hillis became the centerpiece for the offensively challenged Cleveland Browns. Rookie sixth-rounder James Starks started all four playoff games for the Green Bay Packers, including Super Bowl XLV.
New England rang up the best regular-season record in the league with a pair of former undrafted free agents, Green-Ellis and Danny Woodhead, as its two top backs. An undrafted free agent has led the New Orleans Saints in rushing each of the past three seasons.
"I don't think that when it comes time to produce," said Green-Ellis, "that what round a guy was drafted in really matters. We had two (free agents), and it seemed like we handled the workload pretty well."
Speaking of workload, that's clearly a factor in the perceived devaluation of the running back position in the draft. Nearly half the teams in the league, 14 of 32, had two tailbacks with 100 or more rushing attempts in 2010. Five franchises had two backs with at least 150 carries apiece. There were only 16 backs in the NFL in 2010 who averaged 15.0 or more rushes per game. The number was the lowest since 1994 and it has decreased each of the past four seasons.
It has become a two- or three-back approach all around the league, and teams seem to prefer to spread out the workload, and concentrate less on one "feature" back. In such an environment, it may be increasingly difficult to invest heavily in a first-rounder.
"You look at what's gone on, and then you add the fact that so many good defensive players are going to go off early this year, and other teams are going to have to reach for quarterbacks ... and it just doesn't add up to a good year (for backs)," said an AFC general manager at the annual league meeting in New Orleans last month. "I don't know that there are any really special guys at the position.
"(Having) no backs in the first round might be a stretch, but you won't see many."
Around the league
• Pondering a passer: In a move that could simply mean that the club is exercising its due diligence at the position, or might signal that the Cincinnati Bengals are leaning toward not drafting a quarterback with the fourth overall pick, The Sports Xchange has learned that the team visited with Christian Ponder of Florida State this week. The exact day of the visit still isn't confirmed, but the sides definitely met.
Given his performances at the Combine and his pro day, Ponder clearly is one of the more compelling quarterbacks in the draft pool. There are some scenarios that catapult him into the first round — especially since his surgically repaired right shoulder seems plenty strong, sufficiently enough so that he has been excused from a medical "recheck" in Indianapolis this weekend — but most scouts project Ponder as going in the second round.
We're not ready to step out on a limb yet and proclaim that Ponder won't last beyond the Bengals' second pick, the 35th overall choice in the lottery, but Cincy coaches and personnel people seem very high on him. He seems a real possibility in the second round, if he lasts that long. Ponder is very bright, and new offensive coordinator Jay Gruden liked his blackboard work, and his postseason workouts certainly suggested he can make every throw.
The Bengals also like the fact Ponder, 23, is very mature and, as a five-year player, has started 40 games, third-most in the 2011 quarterback class, behind only TCU's Andy Dalton (50) and Nevada's Colin Kaepernick (49).
There is no delusion that Ponder could be a starter in his first season in the league, but an agreement that he could take over an NFL club early in his career. And the Bengals' brass isn't the only group that seems to feel that way about a quarterback making solid offseason strides.
One more note about the Cincy quarterback situation: Despite the recent reports linking incumbent Carson Palmer to Miami, where there are suggestions that the Dolphins have to upgrade over Chad Henne, the Bengals' front office isn't anxious yet to deal their disgruntled starter to Miami or anyone else right now. Palmer, of course, has threatened to retire if not traded, and has said he has banked $80 million that will allow him to walk away from the game.
But the Bengals still hold his rights, and his contract runs through 2014, and the team is apt to sit on Palmer for now. And maybe through the 2011 season, provided there is one, and Palmer follows through on his threat to simply remain on the sidelines. In fact, every day the lockout lingers strengthens the resolve, it seems, that the club will not cave to Palmer's threats.
• Snooping around: The search warrant executed on the offices of Pittsburgh Dr. Richard Rydze last month by federal agents hasn't gotten much publicity yet, and hasn't resulted in any charges against the former Steelers' part-time physician, but the feds are digging pretty deep into the records and that could make some former players a little nervous.
The Steelers severed ties with Rydze in 2007, after 21 years with the club, and following a U.S. Food and Drug Administration probe into why he allegedly purchased $150,000 of HGH and testosterone on his credit card. The questioning of Rydze at the time was part of a probe by the Albany (N.Y.) District Attorney's Office into performance enhancing drugs.
It should be noted that Rydze, 61, was never identified as a target of the probe, but the recent seizure of some of his paperwork indicates that federal authorities might not be done with him. And authorities have told The Sports Xchange that there are at least a few former NFL players mentioned in the documents.
• Trickle down: Teams that require a quarterback, and there are plenty of them in the league, will pay extra heed to what the Carolina Panthers do with the first pick overall on April 28.
Because the direction the Panthers take with the top choice — and rumors that the club has settled on Cam Newton to the contrary, Carolina personnel folks contend the decision remains among a subset of prospects, and that there are still a handful of possibilities — could determine a lot about how and when some teams will have to react to fill their quarterback needs.
One team that figures to grab a quarterback in the second or third round, for instance, noted to The Sports Xchange this week that, if the Panthers tab a non-quarterback with the first pick, it might signal that Carolina plans to snatch a passer at the top of the third round. The Panthers do not have a second-round pick, having shipped it to New England last year to move up and take wide receiver Armanti Edwards in the third round. And that could precipitate a wild scramble among those clubs that have targeted a quarterback in the second or third stanzas.
"The thinking in some spots will be, 'Well, we've got to get ahead of Carolina (with the first pick in Round 3),' and that might mean having to force your way into the bottom of the first round or reacting in the second to get your guy," said one general manager. "On the other hand, if Carolina takes Newton (first), you could see a little bit of a run (on quarterbacks).
Either way, it's probably going to mean that some quarterback with a second-round grade squeezes into the first. Or some guy you might have waited to take in the third round goes (in the second). In a lot of ways, what Carolina does is a big tip-off key."
Amazingly, given the need for quarterbacks in recent seasons, there have been only 21 passers chosen total in the last 20 drafts. Only twice in that period have more than two quarterbacks gone off the board in the second round, and there was actually a stretch of four years, 2002-2005, when there were zero second-round quarterbacks.
It hasn't been a particularly good round for drafting quarterbacks, but that figures to end this year.
• Caught in a Webb: Conventional wisdom is that the Minnesota Vikings will either draft a quarterback or acquire a veteran, or both, before the 2011 season starts. And that is probably the case. But the new offensive staff, coordinator Bill Musgrave and quarterbacks coach Craig Johnson, haven't been so fast to completely write off second-year veteran Joe Webb, who started the Vikings' final two games of 2010, and posted a 1-1 record.
Given the lockout, the staff's assessment of Webb has come largely from video, and Musgrave and Johnson have seen a little more, Vikings sources contend, than Webb is credited with by his critics. That's the opposite, it seems, of the group's collective assessment of Tarvaris Jackson, who might be an unrestricted free agent, depending on the resolution of a CBA.
It's already been decided that Webb will remain at quarterback, not be shifted back to wide receiver, the position for which he was drafted to play. Because of the lockout, Minnesota coaches can't have any contact with Webb, but there are signals the youngster will strongly consider hiring a quarterbacks coach in the offseason to help him with mechanics and some of the position's finer points.
• Trade winds: There is a notion among some fans that, unless the NFL lockout miraculously ends by the draft and league matters return to some semblance of normalcy by the lottery, the result will be a distinct lack of trades on draft weekend.
Recent history, though, suggests otherwise. In the past five drafts, there have been 150 trades and only 27 deals, involving a total of 34 players, included veterans. The remainder were pick-for-pick(s) deals, and those are permitted in the draft, even under the current lockout guidelines. So there doesn't figure to be a dearth of wheeling and dealing April 28-30.
"I don't see a big dropoff," New England coach Bill Belichick, historically one of the league's most active dealers during the draft, told The Sports Xchange. "I think you'll still see some maneuvering, the way you always do."
Of course, Belichick orchestrated one of the more notable player trades of the past five years, landing wide receiver Randy Moss from Oakland in 2007 for just a fourth-round draft pick. But a lot of the other 26 deals involving players 2006-2010 were fairly forgettable trades.
In fact, of the 34 players traded on draft weekend since 2006, more than one-third, 14, in fact, are out of the league entirely. Last year, there were seven trades involving eight players, and only a couple veterans that changed clubs made a difference.
Foremost among them were quarterback Jason Campbell (Washington to Oakland) and kickoff returner Leon Washington (New York Jets to Seattle). But none of the veteran trades could be termed blockbusters. Even if the lockout is lifted, that figures to be the case this year. And if it isn't, well, it probably won't make a lot of difference.
"Very rarely do you see player-for-pick trades during the draft days," Vikings vice president of player personnel Rick Spielman told the Twin Cities-area media this week. "So I think that it will be business as usual."
• Losing through winning: There is a growing cadre of veteran players who, while hoping that Judge Susan Nelson somehow finds a way to end the lockout, and allows them to return to work, remains wary of some of the ramifications. If the lockout ends, and the NFL returns to work under the 2010 rules, which seems likely, it would retain the system that requires players to have six accrued seasons in the league before qualifying for unrestricted free agency.
Many players chafed under the guidelines for an uncapped campaign — the former requirements for unrestricted free agency were four seasons in the league — and the unhappiness over a similar arrangement would not dissipate.
"As badly as we all want to go back (to work) ... some of the rules just don't flush for a certain pool of guys," said one NFC player with five seasons in the league. "It's the old, 'be careful what you wish for' deal."
• Boling can ball: Since most general managers and personnel directors profess to have 80 or 85 percent of their master draft board completed, with many allowing there is only some "tweaking" still to be performed, we're not buying into the popular assumption that there remain some prospects who can make a major "rise" up the ranks in the final three weeks.
That said, note Georgia offensive lineman Clint Boling as one guy who could go off the board earlier than some observers expect. In fact, one AFC team has Boling rated as a possibility to still sneak into the very bottom of the first round, although the second is more likely. Kind of a "tweener" prospect, most teams project Boling as a guard, but still feel he can play some tackle if necessary in the NFL.
"He's got some (warts), and his strength isn't what you want it to be ... but you can't ignore the versatility," said an AFC scout.
Boling, who started 50 games for the Bulldogs, might be able to play anywhere but left tackle on the offensive line in the league. That kind of flexibility doesn't always get a guy drafted higher, but it "can't hurt" Boling, the scout agreed.
On the slip side, Boling's former Georgia teammate, Justin Houston, might be hurt a bit by the indecision over whether he is best suited to playing end in a 4-3 front or outside linebacker in a 3-4. There is no denying Houston's explosiveness off the edge and his closing speed on the quarterback. The questions: Is he big enough to hold up at end in a 4-3, and fluid enough for the 3-4 linebacker spot. The knee-jerk read on Houston is that he should be able to project to the latter. But he has rarely been asked to drop and cover. And even teams like Pittsburgh, noted through the years for turning undersized ends into linebackers, require James Harrison and LaMarr Woodley to shift from primary pass-rush responsibilities to cover once in a while.
• Right direction: During a 12-year NFL career that included 122 sacks, former Arizona and Tampa Bay defensive end Simeon Rice liked to joke that he was only a "short-timer" passing through the league, and that he had bigger plans for his like. Like designing clothes, writing screen plays, and directing movies.
Last month, the colorful Rice debuted his first movie effort, a 27-minute work titled "When I Was King." Described as a "comedic romp" that details a man's effort to juggle four women he is dating, the movie earned solid reviews, not so much for its concept or content, but for the professionalism with which it was produced. The success was enough to have Rice — one of the most honest players in the league during his career — apparently starting work on a full-length feature.
A 2009 graduate of the New York Film Academy, Rice, 36, seems to have found his post-football calling at a time when a lot of his peers are still struggling to locate theirs.
• The last word: "Remember when (coach Jon) Gruden used to say I was 'out there' a little bit? Well, he was probably right. But in this (endeavor), I fit." — Rice, on his new career as a filmmaker.