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Running backs losing their first-round luster

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Recent posts by Eli Kaberon

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By Eli Kaberon

Last April, RB Mark Ingram sat in the green room of Radio City Music Hall for nearly three hours, waiting to hear his name called by commissioner Roger Goodell. The former Alabama running back had expected to hear his name announced on the opening Thursday of the NFL draft fairly early in the evening. He had, after all, won a Heisman Trophy and a national championship as the star runner for the Crimson Tide and was the son of an NFL player who had spent 10 years in the league.

At 5-foot-9 and 215 pounds, with deceptive speed, Ingram projected to be an every-down back who could plow through opposing defenders. Yet there he sat, as pick after pick was called out, none of them mentioning his name, as the green room emptied out.

Finally, after 27 players had been selected, the Saints opted to trade up  sacrificing a 2012 first-round pick and a 2011 second-rounder — to select Ingram. He ended up being the only running back taken in the first round, and his selection at the 28th pick marked the lowest since the 1970 AFL-NFL merger that the first running back off the board was taken.

As the 2011 season played out, the reason Ingram was passed over, time and time again, began to make sense. Not because of anything he did necessarily, but because the position of running back is evolving. No longer is it required for a team to have an elite, every-down back to carry an offense. Instead, as the trends toward RB committees, specialized backs and pass-first offenses have taken over, the position has sort of taken a backseat. Teams are opting not to invest such high picks on this once-important spot on the field, instead going with positions that focus on the passing game. Before Ingram was picked last April, four quarterbacks, three wide receivers, four offensive tackles, five "pass rushers" and three cornerbacks were all selected to either help improve or slow down aerial attacks.

The change in philosophy shows up in the numbers. The average draft position of nine of the league's 10 leading rushers last season was the 51st overall pick; the 10th runner, Arian Foster of the Texans, wasn't even drafted. The Super Bowl champion Giants' top two running backs were Ahmad Bradshaw  the last of the 25 running backs taken in the 2007 draft  and Brandon Jacobs, a former fourth-rounder. The team with lthe NFL's best regular-season record at 15-1, the Packers, were led on the ground by Ryan Grant (undrafted) and James Starks (sixth-round pick). And two of the top three runners on the AFC champion Patriots weren't drafted at all.

Of course, all three of those teams have Super Bowl MVP quarterbacks under center, too. It used to be, in the model of the Jim Kelly/Thurman Thomas Bills, the Troy Aikman/Emmitt Smith Cowboys and the Kurt Warner/Marshall Faulk Rams, that teams would pair All-Pros at quarterback and running back and expect great things from their offense. Not anymore. The current model of success in the NFL is to team up an elite quarterback with a solid corps of receivers and tight ends and backs who can catch the ball as well as they can run. Gaining yards on the ground is necessary for every team, but for many it's only a means to keep defenses honest so they won't commit everyone to stopping the pass. Their real damage comes through the air. In 2011, teams gained 229.7 passing yards per game, compared to just 117.1 rushing yards per game.

Ingram, the man for whom the Saints traded up, led the team in rushing attempts and finished fifth among all rookies in rushing yards last season. But in terms of total touches (rushes and receptions) he was third on the Saints  among running backs. Both Darren Sproles and Pierre Thomas touched the ball more often, and a fourth back, Chris Ivory, cut into Ingram's carries, too. New Orleans has a Super Bowl MVP quarterback of its own in Drew Brees, and its strategy of putting the ball in his hands as often as possible seemed to be a smart one. The Saints had a 13-3 record and finished second in the NFL in scoring, producing 34.2 points per game, most of which came courtesy of Brees' right arm.

Ingram's slide on Draft Day 2011 wasn't the first example of the decreased value of running backs. The year before, when three backs were taken in the first round, there were 16 players total from the position selected in the entire draft. Yet the top two rookie rushers in 2010 were both undrafted  LeGarrette Blount of the Buccaneers and Ivory. Both players ran for more than five yards per carry during their rookie seasons and surpassed the expectations that the entire league had for them coming out of college.

This April, another running back will sit in Radio City's green room, awaiting Goodell's announcement. Like Ingram, Trent Richardson is a product of the University of Alabama. He helped the Tide win two BCS titles, combining power and speed to rush for more than 3,000 yards during his three years on campus, despite sharing time in the backfield with Ingram for two of them. Every mock draft has Richardson pegged to go in the first round, with many projecting him to go in the top five picks. Yet, because of the changing philosophy regarding the value that running backs have in today's offenses, would it really be a surprise if Richardson slipped?

It's a good thing he'll know somebody who he can prepare him for what that experience is like.

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