The Pittsburgh Steelers are entering Year 3 of the Najee Harris tenure, and there are many fans who follow the team who appreciate what Harris brings to the offense, like him as a player, but also will say there is no need for any team to draft a running back in the 1st Round of the NFL Draft.
With players who were drafted outside the first round, most forget Derrick Henry was a 2nd Round selection, providing plenty of production, getting that cow bell running back doesn’t seem like it is a necessity anymore.
But are teams really shying away from drafting a dynamic running back in the first round? Before talking about productivity, let’s take a look back at recent draft history, back to 2011, and running backs who were taken in the first round.
2021: Najee Harris / Travis Etienne
2020: Clyde Edwards-Helaire
2019: Josh Jacobs
2018: Saquan Barkley / Rashaad Penny / Sony Michel
2017: Leonard Fournette / Christian McCaffrey
2016: Ezekiel Elliott
2015: Todd Gurley / Melvin Gordon
2012: Trent Richardson / Doug Martin / David Wilson
2011: Mark Ingram
I don’t think anyone in their right mind can look at the above list and not see the league is slowly moving away from drafting running backs in the first round. As mentioned earlier, a large portion of this philosophy is based on players drafted after Day 1 of the 3-day selection process being far more productive than those taken in the opening round.
Here are some names of players in the same time frame who have made a name for themselves, and what round they were selected.
2022: Breece Hall (2nd Round)
2021: Javonte Williams (2nd Round) (Injured)
2020: Jonathan Taylor (2nd) / D’Andre Swift (2nd) / J.K. Dobbins (2nd)
2019: Miles Sanders (2nd) / David Montgomery (3rd)
2018: Nick Chubb (2nd Round)
2017: Dalvin Cook (2nd) / Joe Mixon (2nd) / Alvin Kamara (3rd) / Kareem Hunt (3rd)
2016: Derrick Henry (2nd) / Kenyan Drake (3rd)
2014: Jeremy Hill (2nd) / Carlos Hyde (2nd)
2013: Gio Bernard (2nd) / Le’Veon Bell (2nd)
One thing which was certainly noticeable was the lack of depth in draft classes as you got further away from the present day. When you are trying to find running backs who were taken in 2015, 2012 and 2011 who had significant roles on their teams, and were memorable, it was tough to find any who fit the bill.
On top of that, looking at the names of the players who were drafted before 2015 and you see one common theme — most are out of the league.
So when you go back to the question at hand with this topic, it begs the question whether or not drafting a running back in the first round is truly a dying trend, or just a new way NFL teams are viewing the position?
The benefit of drafting a running back in the first round is having the extra year of contractual control with the 5th year option. Many are hesitant to give running backs a lucrative second contract, so taking a back in Round 1 would allow you to keep said player for at least one more year before negotiating a new deal.
Ultimately, in my opinion, the league is simply changing. With less and less teams leaning on the running game, there has become less and less of an importance placed on the players who are tasked with carrying the football. Some will always bemoan drafting a running back in the first round, while others will still see value in the position regardless of round.
As with most things, this comes down to the individual coach/coordinator philosophy. Or, a case of ‘to each their own’.
(Note: the Letter From the Editor feature runs every Sunday during the Pittsburgh Seelers offseason.)