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Recent draft trends show running backs a less valued commodity by NFL teams

The Steelers selected running back Le'Veon Bell with the 48th pick in the 2013 NFL Draft on Friday. It was a polarizing pick, for sure. But maybe the bigger story was that Pittsburgh pretty much had the pick of the running back litter that far into the second round.

Mark A. Cunningham

Saturday morning, I was discussing the Steelers second round pick, running back Le'Veon Bell from Michigan State, with my boss, and the first thing he said about him was, "Man, he's big and runs over people. He's a Steelers back!"

My boss also went on to point out that Bell's size--6'1, 230 lbs--is similar to Franco Harris' size when he played in Pittsburgh many years ago. Sure enough, according to, Franco's playing height and weight are listed as 6'2, 230 lbs.

Steelers Draft: Jarvis Jones Le'Veon Bell Markus Wheaton Shamarko Thomas Landry Jones Terry Hawthorne Justin Brown Vince Williams Nicholas Williams UDFAs

It's no secret Steelers fans love running backs, and at age 71, my boss falls into the category of fans who REALLY love running backs.

As has been pointed out a time or two, when Bell was selected by Pittsburgh in the second round on Friday (48th, overall), the reaction was, well, polarizing, to put it mildly. Some fans, like BTSC editor Neal Coolong, thought that maybe Bell wasn't the best fit for the Steelers. And with a Division I leading 382 carries in 2012, the tread on the old tires may be a little worn for a guy drafted so high by a team that probably will be counting on his services rather urgently.

Many others, like probably a lot of MSU fans, were of the opinion that Bell was a beast in college, and he'll be a beast in the pros. Mark it down. rushing, at least.

The fact is, with some of the names available, the selection of Bell was a bit curious. Not to suggest it was a bad pick--if the Steelers say he was the top back on their board, he was the top back on their board--but Alabama's Eddie Lacy was certainly the most talked about back leading up to the draft, followed closely by the Montee Balls and Christine Michaels of the running back world.

"Why not Lacy?"

"Why not Ball?"

Of course, the real story may not be that the Steelers picked Bell over someone like Lacy. It may be that they pretty much had the pick of the running back litter when their time came to choose at 48--North Carolina's Giovani Bernard (37th to Cincinnati) was the only back taken by that point.

In-case you're bad at math, there are only 32 teams in the NFL, so Bernard's selection at 37 marked the first time since 1963 that no running backs were selected in the first round of the draft.

Recent trends suggest we've been heading for a year like this sooner rather than later. As this informative piece points out, there have only been four running backs selected in the first round in the last three years. And as I pointed out in a post following the 2012 draft, it's a trend that's been slowly gaining momentum over the last four decades.

This isn't to suggest that running backs are less valuable in terms of production--there were almost equally as many 1000 yard rushers a season ago as there were in 2002--it's just that running backs who are able to do the job are coming at a cheaper price these days.

If you navigate through the ESPN site linked in the paragraph above, you'll see that 12 of the top 20 rushers from 2002 were former No. 1 picks, as opposed to only eight last year (and no, you can't include RGIII).

Speaking of Redskins rookie sensations from a season ago, running back Alfred Morris, a sixth round pick by Washington, finished second behind Adrian Peterson with 1613 yards in 2012.

In Saturday morning's addition of the Post Gazette, Steelers beat writer Ed Bouchette wrote that the drafting of linebacker Jarvis Jones in the first round on Thursday and Bell in the second round on Friday was a statement to the rest of the league: Despite the trends, Pittsburgh still wants to play defense and run the football.

I'm sure Ben Roethlisberger and his mega-contract may disagree a little, but in terms of the "running the football" part of that statement, it's a good thing the Steelers apparent philosophy differs from most of the NFL. Otherwise, they may have had to make that statement a lot sooner than the 48th pick in the draft.