Last week I wrote about how quarterback was the most important position in all of sports. Running back was, for a very long time, held in similar esteem. Old school football fans used to obsess about the running back position, and some still do. Reality now tells a very different story. The value of a running back in the NFL is decreasing almost every season. The “new” NFL and it’s pass heavy approach to offense, as well as the short shelf life of running backs is leading to a smarter approach in the estimation of their value.
There wasn’t a running back taken in the first round of either of the last two drafts. It had never happened before the 2013 selection meeting and now it has occurred for two seasons in a row. The most lucrative free agent contract signed by a running back during the 2014 off season was a modest 4 year $10 million deal signed by Rashad Jennings. The emphasis at the running back position is now being placed on youth and lack of expense.
This recent turn of events has left the NFL draft as the best place to acquire a running back, despite the lack of first round selections. Running backs that are drafted after the 1st round are on very cheap 4 year contracts. Once their 4 years are up the exceptional ones can sign extensions. After that extension, however, the age of 30 and the running back expiration date approach quickly. Last year’s Super Bowl Champions, the New England Patriots, paid their top 3 running backs a total less than $2.5 million. In fact, the teams that employ the top 4 highest paid running backs, Adrian Peterson, LeSean McCoy, Jamaal Charles and Arian Foster, did not qualify for the postseason.
Young, cheap, versatile and durable. Those are the priorities for NFL teams when it comes to the running back position.
Class Strength: 8/10
I really like this class. There are two players at the top of the class in Melvin Gordon and Todd Gurley that just might put the running back position back into the first round of the draft. If it weren’t for Gurley’s injury I would have guessed one of the two going on Thursday night would have been a certainty.
Gordon is a complete runner. He appears to be both explosive and durable, while possessing the size necessary to be an NFL back. Gurley is even bigger than Gordon, and produced impressive numbers while rushing the ball in the defensive-minded SEC. Neither player has proved very much in the passing game, though, and that may be their one big wart.
The next tier of backs is equally as impressive and could all be justified as picks on Friday. TJ Yeldon, Tevin Coleman, Jay Ajayi, Ameer Abdullah and Duke Johnson all fit the bill. Each of those players has the ability to contribute to an NFL team right away. Abdullah and Johnson appear ready to do so on all three downs.
Beyond that second group of backs, there are a large contingent of backs that could make opening day rosters. I specifically like Power 5 conference guys Mike Davis of South Carolina and David Cobb of Minnesota as well as FCS standouts John Crockett of North Dakota State and David Johnson of Northern Iowa to go on day 3 and make an NFL team.
Packers Positional Situation: B+
Eddie Lacy checks about every box that I listed in the last sentence of the open. He’s young, he’s proven to be pretty durable, he’s on a cheap 2nd round contract and he’s shown the ability to pass block and catch passses out of the backfield. After a slow(ish) start to 2014, it quickly became a banner year for the Packers second year back. He ran for 1,140 yards and scored 9 TDs. His work in the passing game was stellar as well, totaling 55 receptions for 427 yards and 4 more scores. Pro Football Focus rated Lacy as the 3rd best back in football, ranking 2nd in the passing game and 3rd as a pass blocker. He’s the perfect fit for a Packers offense that had been searching for a long-term answer since the departure of Ahman Green.
Behind Lacy things aren’t so certain. James Starks is an effective second back, but his contract expires after this season. Starks will turn 30 before the start of the 2016 NFL season and it’s unclear (and I would argue unlikely) that he will be given another contract by Green Bay. DuJuan Harris showed flashes in 2012, but followed that up by missing all of 2013 and failing to contribute on offense in 2014 while failing as a kick returner.
Few things make me more sad as a Packer fan than to think of what could have been for Jonathan Franklin. His skill set is something that the offense could have used. Effective in space, but a strong runner when needed, his abilities as a change-of-pace player and a 3rd down specialist are arguably one of the few things missing from the offense. His retirement and the expiring contract of James Starks create questions after Eddie Lacy.
The Packers do have a player in Raijon Neal of Tennessee on the practice squad that at least intrigues me as a long term option in the James Starks role.
Packers Level of Need at RB: 5/10
Again, Eddie Lacy is great. Not only is Eddie Lacy great, but James Starks is more than capable as a second banana who can take over should Lacy get nicked during a game. With that said the draft has to be conducted with an eye on the future, and as the future stands the only running back guaranteed to be on the team in 2016 is Eddie Lacy.
As things currently stand, the Packers don’t really have a pass-catching back that creates mismatches on the team. Yes Eddie Lacy is a fantastic pass receiver, but that’s as a dump off or screen option, not as someone running arrow or option routes out of the backfield or being split out wide. They also don’t have someone on the roster to take over for James Starks if/after he leaves.
It’s certainly possible that the team believes Raijon Neal is the heir apparent to James Starks’ workload. That’s fine, but NFL teams need to carry 3 running backs and as I’ve stated I’d like one with a little more versatile skill set as the 3rd back. Someone in the Darren Sproles/Reggie Bush/Shane Vereen category, if maybe not quite at that level.
Round to Start Targeting RB: Round 3
I’m certainly one of the many Packers fans that’s going to be pretty nervous if the first 70 or so picks have gone by and the Packers haven’t selected an inside linebacker. Of the Packers picks that I would like to see before the 3rd round would start I would put Maxx Williams (TE), specifically, defensive line and corner as positions I’d like to see addressed before a running back would get me excited.
It’s certainly possible that one of the second tier backs that I mentioned would be available in round 3. I’d be OK with any of them as a James Starks replacement, but there are a few that would be more than that, and could contribute to the team right away.
Any ability of an incoming running back to contribute as a kick returner would be greatly appreciated as well.
My Favorite Fit for the Packers: Ameer Abdullah, Nebraska- Rounds 2-4
From a fit standpoint, Abdullah is a slam dunk for the Packers. Not only does he have the ability to create mismatches in the passing game, but he’s a capable enough runner to take over for James Starks in 2016. He’s an experienced and quite skilled return man, and his ability to produce in the passing game would be enough for me to be interested in him sometime on Friday night.
For parts of the 2014 college football season Abdullah was a Heisman candidate. His 1,611 yards rushing and 6.1 yard average in the Big Ten are impressive numbers, but the real cherry on top for me are his 73 career receptions. His “specialties” are very impressive, but his resume as a runner makes him more than a “gadget” player.
Other options: Duke Johnson (that way when Kuhn is gone we can say Duuuuuuuuuuuuuuuuuke), Mike Davis, Karlos Williams