When you talk about a running back going second overall, it just feels like a different time. And it was. Though Saquon Barkley was drafted second overall only two years ago, he is nothing less than an exception of circumstance, if not an exception of talent.
In the 1960s, 10 running backs were drafted in the top 3. Truth be told, the success of those players wasn’t much different than the success we’ve come to expect from the most recent 10 running backs to get selected that high in the draft. O.J. Simpson was the final of those 10 in 1969 and he is the only one of them in the Hall of Fame.
Ken Willard and Matt Snell made multiple Pro Bowls, but the rest either had no value or only had a little bit based on playing mostly in the pre-Super Bowl era. The player we won’t judge being 1962 first overall pick Ernie Davis, who died from leukemia before he was ever able to play a game.
The rush to the podium for a running back slowed a bit in the ‘70s, but had a better return on investment: five players, two Hall of Famers (Tony Dorsett, Earl Campbell), and three-time Pro Bowler Chuck Muncie. The biggest disappointment being first overall pick Ricky Bell go to the Tampa Bay Buccaneers right over Dorsett.
Yes, Ricky Bell also had a movie made after him. Triumph of the Heart. a made for TV movie starring Mario Van Peebles as the former USC back.
Eight more backs went in the top-3 in the 80s, including two Hall of Famers (Eric Dickerson, Barry Sanders), plus Billy Sims, Freeman McNeil, George Rogers, Curt Warner, and Bo Jackson. The disappointments were Jackson (honestly) and Alonzo Highsmith, who went third overall to the Oilers in 1987.
The draft situation for running backs remained the same for the first half of the ‘90s and produced another Hall of Famer. Blair Thomas went to the New York Jets with the second pick in 1990 and his career didn’t go very far. The Cardinals picked Garrison Hearst third overall in 1993 and he was pretty good for other teams. Then the Indianapolis Colts selected Marshall Faulk second overall in 1994. He also was good for another team. (And also good for the Colts.)
Faulk is the last running back drafted in the top-3 who has even come close to having a Hall of Fame conversation. Barkley represents a potential shift back into a positive direction for the position, but has only played two seasons; Jackson was one of the most talented players we’ve ever seen play football but only made it into 39 games.
When the Cincinnati Bengals picked Ki-Jana Carter first overall in 1995, one year after Faulk, it seemed to break the inclination to ever pick a running back that high again. (Does this mean Joe Burrow will spell the end for QBs as top picks?!?!) Carter was drafted over Tony Boselli and Steve McNair, plus Kerry Collins and Kevin Carter shortly later. The other first round backs in 1995 were Tyrone Wheatley, Napoleon Kaufman, James Stewart, and Rashaan Salaam.
Five first round running backs who combined to make zero career Pro Bowls. It would potentially be the worst class of RBs in NFL history, except for Hall of Famers Curtis Martin in round three and Terrell Davis in round six. The very next year, the top back selected was Lawrence Phillips to the St. Louis Rams at pick six, and you know how that one went. He was right ahead of Tim Biakabutuka, another disappointment. Four-time Pro Bowler Eddie George did go 14th.
Since Carter went first overall in 1995, only four backs have gone in the top three:
Ronnie Brown, second overall, 2005
Reggie Bush, second overall, 2006
Trent Richardson, third overall, 2012
Saquon Barkley, second overall 2018
That’s four top-three backs in 25 years, compared to regularly seeing an average of 7-8 per decade. It’s easy to see why, especially when there has been such a strong “never a RB early” contingent recently (as if this was “new” news instead of something that’s been brewing for over 20 years) as the league moves towards more backfield committees and pass attempts.
It doesn’t mean it won’t swing back.
But for now, Faulk is the last great running back to be drafted in the top-3. And it’s not even close.
Here are some career totals for Faulk:
2,836 attempts, 12,279 yards, 100 touchdowns, 767 receptions, 6,875 yards, 36 touchdowns
And here’s the combined career totals of Carter, Brown, Bush, Richardson, and Barkley:
3,978 attempts, 16,367 yards, 128 touchdowns, 1,045 receptions, 8,104 yards, 29 touchdowns
That’s a 4.11 YPC average for C-B-B-R-B and a 4.3 YPC average for Faulk, though he averaged 4.8 YPC with the Rams — same as Barkley’s career YPC so far. Faulk has three first team All-Pro nods compared to none for the other five, and seven Pro Bowl appearances compared to two (one Brown, one Barkley) for the rest.
It’s not as though the last 25 years has not produced first round running back talent. There are two Hall of Famers (LaDainian Tomlinson, Edgerrin James) and a third eventually with Adrian Peterson. Marshawn Lynch will have his day of debate for Canton too. Ezekiel Elliott, Todd Gurley, Mark Ingram, Jamal Lewis, Ricky Williams, Fred Taylor, Deuce McCallister, Shaun Alexander, Chris Johnson, George, Bush (who wasn’t that bad), DeAngelo Williams, Christian McCaffrey, and more.
I think their time can come again, but I don’t suspect we’ll see that uptick any time soon. A lot of the high school running back talent must see what’s happening to the position as they move up the ranks. They have to be monitoring the holdouts that seem to strike backs more than any other position. The injuries that seem to strike backs more than any other position. And how quickly opinions changed on certain backs, like Gurley or DeMarco Murray, even after they did get paid.
And they also know that they won’t be drafted as high as they might be if they played receiver, cornerback, or even safety. Is Clyde Edwards-Helaire the 32nd overall pick in 2020 because that’s the “amount of talent” he has relative to his class OR is he the 32nd overall pick in 2020 because that’s the “appropriate draft position” for the top-ranked back? In 2019, the top back was Josh Jacobs, 24th overall, and he also was the only back taken in the first round.
Were it 1995, Jacobs and Edwards-Helaire very well could have been top-10 picks.
Faulk was drafted second overall at a time when that wasn’t weird and then he had a career that justified his selection and even more. Saquon Barkley was drafted second at a time when it was weird and given that it’ll probably remain that way for awhile, Faulk may not have much more competition coming into this category in the near future.