Running backs fighting uphill battle

BY Alex Marvez • February 26, 2012

It doesn’t matter that minor knee surgery kept Trent Richardson from running the 40-yard dash at the NFL Scouting Combine.

Even if completely healthy and blazing fast by the time of his Pro Day late next month, Richardson still may not be able to zoom into the top 10 of April’s draft despite having the talent to warrant such lofty status.

The University of Alabama star is competing against more than a stopwatch. He is trying to distance himself from the perception that today’s NFL running backs are a fungible commodity unworthy of the heavy draft investment franchises once made at the position.

“Most (teams), they try not to take us like they used to in the first round,” Richardson said last Friday during his combine media interview. “Hopefully, I can change that or more guys in this draft can change that.”

That race will be difficult to win for other rushers in the 2012 draft class. Richardson — a 1,583-yard rusher and Heisman Trophy finalist as a junior in 2011 — is considered the only first-round lock, although a slide into the teens or 20s wouldn’t be shocking.

Richardson, though, would at least be carrying the first-round torch for his peers. Should the other top prospects like the University of Miami’s Lamar Miller and Virginia Tech’s David Wilson become second-day picks as many draft analyst project, it will mark the first time since the AFL/NFL merger in 1970 that only one running back was chosen in the first round in consecutive years.

Mark Ingram, one of Richardson’s college teammates, was the lone first-round rusher in 2011. The selection is already being second-guessed. Ingram was inconsistent as a rookie before landing on injured reserve and didn’t differentiate himself from New Orleans Saints teammates Pierre Thomas and Chris Ivory, both of whom made the roster as undrafted college free agents.

Ingram should perform better in 2012 with the benefit of an offseason program to help him become more comfortable in the Saints’ offense (last year’s sessions were canceled league-wide because of the NFL’s labor problems and player lockout). But the fact Ingram didn’t make the kind of immediate impact as hoped provides more fodder to those who believe it’s wiser to address other positions earlier in the draft.

Since 2005, only five of the 20 first-round rushers selected have reached a Pro Bowl. Minnesota’s Adrian Peterson (No. 7 overall pick in 2007) and Chris Johnson (No. 24 in 2008) are special talents who have won rushing titles in the past four years, but so have two other backs taken outside the first round in Jacksonville’s Maurice Jones-Drew (second round) and Houston’s Arian Foster (college free agent).

Denver starter Willis McGahee and Baltimore backup Ricky Williams were the only first-round running backs among the final eight playoff teams last season. New England fielded the undrafted BenJarvus Green-Ellis and Danny Woodhead as its top two runners en route to a spot in Super Bowl XLVI. And although they’re likely facing a franchise tag designation by their respective teams, the top running backs set to become unrestricted free agents this offseason were second-round picks in Baltimore’s Ray Rice and Chicago’s Matt Forte.

The high injury rate at a position with inherent physical abuse is another mitigating factor. Running backs have the shortest career spans of any position in the NFL. First-round rushers like Detroit’s Jahvid Best, Carolina’s Jonathan Stewart, Dallas’ Felix Jones and Oakland’s Darren McFadden may never fulfill their NFL potential because of various medical problems.

“We’re getting pounded on every down,” Richardson said.

There’s one more issue working against running backs: The NFL has increasingly become a passing league. Clubs aren’t running the football nearly as much as in 2008 when five rushers were chosen in the first round, let alone the eight selected back in 1971.

All that being said, Richardson could be the back that bucks the trend. Cleveland and Tampa Bay have the No. 4 and No. 5 overall picks respectively. Both squads may enter the draft in need of a bell-cow rusher depending on what transpires in free agency.

“He’s a very fine player,” Browns head coach Pat Shurmur said of Richardson. “When we decide what we’re going to do, there’s nothing that says he can’t be the fourth pick.”

Nothing except recent history.