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The Pros and Cons of drafting a running back in Round 1 of the 2021 NFL Draft

Taking a look at the pros, and cons, of selecting a running back in the top round of the NFL Draft.

CFP Semifinal at the Allstate Sugar Bowl - Clemson v Ohio State Photo by Kevin C. Cox/Getty Images

To say the Steelers struggled to run the football last year is an understatement. James Conner struggled to stay healthy and produce consistently, and Anthony McFarland and Benny Snell could not provide enough of a spark when Conner was unavailable. McFarland showed promise, but he was impatient at times and did not let the game come to him. Much of the issue was the offensive line, but there is no denying the Steelers need to add a running back either through free agency or the draft.

After ranking dead last in rushing yards and yards per attempt in 2020, both Mike Tomlin and Art Rooney II have expressed concerns about the running game and have indicated it will be near or at the top of the list of priorities this offseason. The Steelers have not selected a running back in the first round since Rashard Mendenhall, but considering how badly the running game suffered last year, would Kevin Colbert consider it? Would it be wise to take one in the first round when the offensive line is in such poor shape?

Let’s look at the good things about taking a running back in the first round.

First of all, the shelf life of a running back is relatively short, and it has not worked too well for teams who have decided to pay their running back top dollar on a second contract. If the team is not planning on signing their back to a second contract, getting a fifth-year option gives the team one extra year before having to draft another one.

Another positive is that taking a running back in round one is much safer than taking a player at many other positions. Here is a full list of the running backs selected in the first round in the past decade.

2020: Clyde Edwards-Helaire (32nd)
2019: Josh Jacobs (24th)
2018: Saquan Barkley (2nd), Rashaad Penny (27th), Sony Michel (31st)
2017: Leonard Fournette (4th), Christian McCaffrey (8th)
2016: Ezekiel Elliott (4th)
2015: Todd Gurley (10th), Melvin Gordon (15th)
2014: none
2013: none
2012: Trent Richardson (3rd), Doug Martin (31st), David Wilson (32nd)
2011: Mark Ingram (28th)

To be fair, not all of the players on that list that have become solid running backs and have produced to the level one would expect based on where they were drafted. Leonard Fournette and Saquan Barkley are good running backs when they are healthy, but because of their inability to stay off the injury report, they have not become the players their teams hoped for when they took them in the top five. Sony Michel has had injury problems as well, but I would not call him a complete bust yet. Of the fourteen running backs selected in the first round in the past decade, only three are clear-cut busts. That is only slightly over 20%. So if you want to avoid drafting a total bust and play it safe in round one, you have about an 80% chance of doing so by taking a running back, based on the results since 2011.

Now, let’s look at the negatives of taking a running back in the first round.

For one, the positional value of running backs is somewhat low. We watched Derrick Henry, who was not a first round pick, wear down opposing defenses on a weekly basis. We saw the early success and promise of J.K. Dobbins and Jonathan Taylor, not first round picks either, as well, but it is important to realize none of those rushing attacks were able to defeat the strong air attacks of Kansas City and Buffalo.

It is perfectly fine to want a strong running game, but the vast majority of teams that have made it to the Super Bowl in recent memory have not been predicated on strong running games. Kansas City and Tampa Bay finished 2nd and 3rd in passing respectively, but they finished 16th and 29th in team rushing. The Chiefs did draft Clyde Edwards-Helaire in the first round of the 2020 draft, but he struggled to stay healthy, and Kansas City’s offensive line struggled to create holes for him. All of the final four teams that were standing (Bucs, Chiefs, Packers, and Bills) finished in the top ten in passing, and only the Packers finished inside the top ten in rushing.

Another negative to taking a running back in the first round is they can be found fairly easily on day two, and occasionally in the later rounds. Here is a list of every starting running back in 2020, according to ESPN, and the round they were selected in.

1st round: Josh Jacobs, Ezekiel Elliott, Saquan Barkley, Melvin Gordon, Clyde Edwards-Helaire, Todd Gurley, Leonard Fournette
2nd round: Derrick Henry, Dalvin Cook, Jonathan Taylor, J.K. Dobbins, Joe Mixon, Nick Chubb, Miles Sanders, D’Andre Swift
3rd round: David Montgomery, Alvin Kamara, Kenyan Drake, Devin Singletary, Damien Harris, Frank Gore, James Conner, David Johnson, Antonio Gibson
4th round: none
5th round: Aaron Jones
6th round: none
7th round: Miles Gaskin, Chris Carson
Undrafted: James Robinson, Austin Ekeler, Raheem Mostert

Not even a one-fourth of the starting running backs in the league were selected in round one. Over half of the league’s top backs were taken on day two, and many of the guys taken on day two have had better careers than the first rounders. Saquan Barkley is an explosive player when healthy, but in hindsight, I’m sure the Giants would have much rather taken Nick Chubb in round two. Ezekiel Elliott was impossible to stop when he had the best offensive line in the league blocking for him, but Dallas probably wishes they would have taken someone else in round one and taken Derrick Henry in round two. Leonard Fournette had some good moments with Jacksonville, but he is not even with the team anymore. I can guarantee you the Jaguars wish they would have grabbed a different position in round one and taken Dalvin Cook, or someone else, on day two.

Kareem Hunt is not the starter on the depth chart for Cleveland, but he is another mid-round back that would be a starter on many teams. And even though former fourth round pick Marlon Mack was injured in 2020, he has proven to be a very solid option as well. They were not on the list, but they are two more examples of mid-round deals at running back.

Nearly one-fifth of the starting running backs in the league were taken in round five or later, which shows us that it may very well be the easiest position to find a starter on day three or through undrafted free agency. Phillip Lindsay’s role was decreased in 2020, but he is another example of an undrafted back who has made a big impact early on in his career.

Football can be looked at like a proof in geometry. There are multiple ways to get where you want to get to, but you must start it off correctly and have a plan as to how you are going to get a correct answer. In football, there is not one definitive way to win. There are many different ways to become a Super Bowl champion, but you must have a plan from the beginning, and you have to find the right pieces to achieve the final goal.

While it seems easier to win as a pass-first offense in today’s game, a good running game can certainly lead a team to a Super Bowl. However, it seems to be an uphill climb with that philosophy when we see Patrick Mahomes hanging forty points on opponents each week. Plus, it does not necessarily take a first round running back to have a strong rushing attack. Of the running backs drafted in round one since 2011, only Sony Michel has gotten a Super Bowl ring, and even he was on a team that was a pass-first offense.

There is not necessarily a definitive answer as to whether the Steelers should take a running back in the first round, but I cannot even think of one really good running back from 2020 who was playing behind an offensive line as poorly as what the Steelers offensive line played last season. Even James Robinson had a decent run-blocking line.

There is always a chance Kevin Colbert feels confident enough in his ability to fix the offensive line with mid-round selections, but taking a running back in the first round may not be necessary to fix the running game. Going in that direction is a relatively safe choice, but it comes with question marks of its own.