The argument against drafting a running back in the first round is such an easy one to make that you’d think it would be just as easy to argue that you don’t have to prioritize drafting one at all if you’re looking for a high-volume starter. “If Aaron Jones and James Robinson exist, surely this implies that all fifth rounders and undrafted free agents could become the next Aaron Jones and James Robinson.”
But just like Tom Brady and Russell Wilson are draft exceptions for quarterbacks, so too are Jones and Robinson exceptions to the running back position.
When looking for the best starting running backs to enter the NFL in the last decade, one should start with the players picked in the top 10: Ezekiel Elliott, Christian McCaffrey, Todd Gurley, and Saquon Barkley.
Of course, that list would need to extend to include players outside of the top 10, including Derrick Henry, Le’Veon Bell, Alvin Kamara, Nick Chubb, Dalvin Cook, and Kareem Hunt. Four of those players were drafted in the second round, the other two went in the third. Kamara has often been weaponized as an argument against drafting running backs “early” in spite of the fact that Kamara was only three picks shy of being a second rounder.
In the modern draft, picking a running back 67th overall is early. But also picking a running back after the top 100 is kinda late.
From 2010-2020, 78 running backs were selected in the top 100 and 20 of them have been named to at least one Pro Bowl. A disgustingly low bar, but one that still doesn’t even include Carlos Hyde, Kenyan Drake, Leonard Fournette, Joe Mixon, David Montgomery, Ronald Jones II, Jeremy Hill, Gio Bernard, Sony Michel, Devin Singletary, or Tevin Coleman.
It also doesn’t include 2020’s rookie class of Jonathan Taylor (third in rushing last season), Clyde Edwards-Helaire, Cam Akers, J.K. Dobbins, D’Andre Swift, Antonio Gibson, or A.J. Dillon.
Now compare that to all the running backs drafted after the first 100 picks.
From 2010-2020, 173 running backs were selected from 101 to the end of the draft. That absurdly stupid low bar of “Pro Bowl” drops to only 10 of them having ever been named to one and two of those players are fullbacks. The only player to make more than two Pro Bowls is one of those fullbacks (Kyle Juszczyk, fourth round pick), while only Devonta Freeman (103rd overall) and Alfred Morris (173rd) made multiple Pro Bowl appearances.
The others are James Conner (a third round pick, but 103rd overall), fourth rounder Tarik Cohen, fifth rounders Jay Ajayi, Anthony Sherman, Aaron Jones, and Jordan Howard, and sixth rounder Latavius Murray. The NFL has only found one starting running back in the seventh round over the last decade, Seattle’s Chris Carson.
Other notable backs drafted outside of the top 100 include James White, Dion Lewis, James Starks, Bilal Powell, Rex Burkhead, Marlon Mack, Mike Davis, and Alex Collins. Notable undrafted free agents would include James Robinson in 2020, plus LeGarrette Blount and Chris Ivory in 2010, Isaiah Crowell in 2014, C.J. Anderson in 2013, and Phillip Lindsay in 2018.
Now try to compare all of the running backs drafted in the top 10 over the last decade to all of the running backs drafted after the second round in that period of time and come away not seeing that there’s a clear difference in those two groups.
The Rams found a near-MVP in the top 10 of the draft when they took Gurley in 2015. They’ve since drafted Darrell Henderson and Akers on day two over the last two years. Though Malcolm Brown did leave in free agency, it would be a little surprising to see LA pick a running back in any round this year; but clearly it’s a position that the NFL still values in the draft, it’s just one that has moved back from prioritizing on day one to prioritizing on day two.
But it has become a priority for teams on day two. Waiting until day three hasn’t resulted in finding many quality starters.