Clyde Edwards-Helaire did not enter the 2019 season at LSU as the NFL’s top prospect as a running back. On some big boards, he didn’t even enter the 2020 NFL Draft as the best player at his position.
But when it came time for the first round in April, Edwards-Helaire was the only running back selected in the first round, ranking 32nd overall for the Chiefs. Gone are the days when a handful or more runners were caught in the first round alone. Now, it’s no wonder the draft goes to day two before a running back is taken.
That comes with the territory in an NFL where RBs have become more interchangeable than ever. Teams are also hesitant to award second contracts to runners, choosing instead to recycle them as if they were all the same.
Edwards-Helaire is just the latest proof that not all runners are created equal. The Chiefs made it to Super Bowl 55 with the rookie running back carrying the heaviest backfield load for much of the season. They couldn’t have predicted Damien Williams’ COVID-19 opt-out with certainty, but when Williams left the picture, Edwards-Helaire quickly took on her biggest role.
That is not to say that all runners in the first round going forward will be a success story, or that runners in the later round will not do well. In 2020 alone, undrafted rookie James Robinson made a Rookie of the Year push with the Jaguars. But once again it’s a question worth examining as Alabama’s Najee Harris and Clemson’s Travis Etienne approach draft day in April 2021: Is there value in a first-round running back? History would say that there are, more or less.
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Recent history of selected riders in Round 1
We have chosen to look back at the last 10 drafts before 2021, that is, from the 2011 NFL Draft to the 2020 NFL Draft. We then list all the running backs selected in the first round during that time. . If a year did not feature a first-round runner, we have noted the highest RB on the board that year.
|2012||31||Doug martin||Boise State||Buccaneers|
|2012||32||David wilson||Virginia Tech||Giants|
|2013||37||Young bernard||North Carolina||Bengals|
|2016||4||Ezekiel Elliott||Ohio State||Cowboys|
|2018||2||Saquon barkley||Penn State||Giants|
|2018||27||Rashaad’s Penny||San Diego State||Seahawks|
There are some lessons to be learned from the list above. The first is this: runners who are considered the best talents often show that the evaluation is correct. Trent Richardson is the only exception among running backs who were picked in the top 16, with Todd Gurley, Melvin Gordon, Ezekiel Elliott, Leonard Fournette, Christian McCaffrey and Saquon Barkley proving to be productive NFL players.
Productivity alone doesn’t always guarantee that runners are first-round picks. McCaffrey and Barkley, for example, missed most of the 2020 season due to injury. Fournette caused enough trouble for the Jaguars to release him before the 2020 season instead of paying his contract, opting for the unexpectedly great rookie James Robinson, an undrafted player.
The last half of the first round, along with the pair of second-round picks as the tallest RBs on the board, leaves more to be desired. But somehow, that’s to be expected. Those players were taken in those places because they weren’t seen as the top 10 talents. Injuries ruined David Wilson’s career, and so far they’re hurting Rashaad Penny’s chances as well. But still, Mark Ingram, Doug Martin and Josh Jacobs looked like legitimate starting runners for long stretches of their careers, and Edwards-Helaire and Michel still had a chance to prove themselves over multi-year spans.
Should NFL teams select a running back in the first round?
As the table above shows, it is not a perfect science, but it never has been either. Ki-Jana Carter was the first overall pick in 1994 and never made a mark in the NFL, due in large part to injuries. Running is a fickle position, and any team considering picking one in the first round needs to acknowledge it.
However, that is not to say that exceptional talents do not deserve to be selected in the first round. Barkley, Elliott and McCaffrey, to name three, have demonstrated undeniable first-round values. But it’s as much about being fit as it is about talent when it comes to the final decision to take a RB.
If a team needs a quarterback and a good one is available, that should take precedence. If a team isn’t ready to invest in a suitable backup running back, then picking a young starter in a highly injured position also has a major drawback.
You also need to recognize that right at the time of writing, there may never be an extension on the letters. McCaffrey, Barkley, and Elliott were all extremely valuable in their rookie deals. But as they age and the injuries accumulate, the extensions get more complicated. They make team building more difficult because they are consuming more money and playing in a position that is at least somewhat replaceable in the modern NFL.
So no, not all teams should select a rider in the first round. But the Raiders in 2019, with Jacobs, and the Chiefs in 2020, with Edwards-Helaire, were perfect examples of the teams that should, if decent talent is available.
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Josh Jacobs, Clyde Edwards-Helaire have saved RB’s first round narrative
The 2019 Raiders and 2020 Chiefs knew they were in the quarterback position with Derek Carr and Patrick Mahomes, respectively. That provided some offensive leeway.
In the case of the Raiders, Jacobs would take some of the weight off Carr’s shoulders to hopefully reduce the criticism he had received early in his career, and for two years, it mostly worked. The Chiefs knew they had recovered most of their Super Bowl championship roster and just needed a boost at the position that registers the most losses. Edwards-Helaire gave Kansas City just what it needed.
Many draft experts would say that teams should select talent first and need / fit second, and that’s often true. No team should recruit a bad running back. But the runners under consideration in the first round are not bad, they are just risky.
A team looking for a first-round runner must consider both talent and need more equitably. The running back not only has to be talented, but also a good fit for building the roster and the system that a team runs. Only then does a first-round runner make sense.
The 2021 offseason promises a historic quarterback move that is already underway. Teams are planting their flag with the new passersby, hoping to reach the promised land. Those teams could also have the perfect opportunity to complement their new QB in the form of Alabama’s Harris or Clemson’s Etienne. Jacobs and Edwards-Helaire have shown that the plan can work in the right configuration, just as Harris and Etienne can too, if only given the best chance.
Eddie is an Australian news reporter with over 9 years in the industry and has published on Forbes and tech crunch.