Will running backs make an NFL draft comeback?

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By HUNTER KOSSODO
College Contributor Network

At some point, an NFL team will draft a running back in the first round. For two straight drafts, the halfbacks have had to wait until the second round for their phones to start ringing, and last year it wasn't until the 54th pick that the Tennessee Titans drafted Bishop Sankey, the longest it's ever taken for the first running back to be taken.

The sentiment is that the running back position isn't important enough to warrant a first-round pick anymore and it's a smarter play to wait until the middle of the draft or take a flier on an undrafted free agent like the Texans did with Arian Foster.

That's not entirely true. Just like any other position, the most talent running backs are taken at the top of the draft. Of the 13 backs who rushed for over 1,000 yards this season, nine were taken in rounds 1-3. The one first-rounder, Marshawn Lynch, is the focal point on the offense of a team that made two straight Super Bowls and was one yard away from winning them both.

Speaking of the playoffs, six of the top eight rushers were on playoff teams and of those six, five of them were drafted in the first three rounds. Only New England, who had Tom Brady, and Denver, who had Peyton Manning, made the playoffs without having a top-of-the-line running back. You could even argue that Denver succeeded as a run-heavy team after Week 12 with C.J. Anderson in which they went 5-1 in the last six weeks of the season.

It's a quarterback league, but it's still vital to have a strong running game.

So why don't the best running back prospects get taken in the first round anymore? Because of the first part of that last paragraph. Teams are under the impression that there is no way they can triumph unless they have the passing game. While running backs rotted away in the green room during the first round, quarterbacks, wide receivers and left tackles have flown off the shelves.

The other side of the coin is that because the passing game has become so important, so has defending it. In the 2014 draft, nine total cornerbacks and safeties were taken in the first 32 selections.

This leaves the tailbacks to stew until a front office remembers that they need a running back, and then the flood gates open. When Sankey was finally taken late in the second round last year, two more running backs were drafted within the next three picks.

You can't really blame teams for shying away from taking a running back early. The 2012 draft was the last time a running back was taken in the first round, and there were three of them. Trent Richardson, who went third overall, Doug Martin, and David Wilson. All three are now regarded as busts, though in Wilson's case the game of football was cruelly taken away from him.

It seems that draft class served as a cautionary tale for NFL teams and now running backs won't go that early unless it's an absolute no-brainer. Adrian Peterson would go in the first round in any year, but it looks like it'll take a prospect like that for a team to take a running back that soon.

The two running backs that have the best chance of breaking the first-round drought are Georgia's Todd Gurley and Wisconsin's Melvin Gordon. While neither are a sure-thing like Peterson was in 2007, they're both big, strong backs who could have team owners falling over themselves trying to draft the next Lynch.

According to their ESPN pages, Gurley is 6-foot-1 and 226 pounds while Gordon is 6-foot-1, 207 pounds they are by no means small scatbacks. Gurley is blessed with both great power and acceleration and would have been a no-doubt first-rounder had he not torn his ACL in November. It's not close to the severity of the career-ender Marcus Lattimore suffered, but it could very well be enough for teams to be too scared to draft Gurley in the first round.

Gordon, more of a speedster than Gurley, put up numbers in his last year at Wisconsin that makes your eyes pop out of your head. He rushed for 2,587 yards, second-most in FBS history, and scored 29 rushing touchdowns. He even briefly held the record for most rushing yards in an FBS game with 408. Two things to note about that. It was against a nationally ranked team, and it was done in just three quarters of play.

Gordon is the best prospect since Richardson in 2012, and if it wasn't for the ACL tear Gurley would be right up there as well. There is some concern with Gordon because recently Wisconsin has a track record of producing backs that don't pan out in the NFL, notably Montee Ball and James White. The same concern was shared with Richardson in '12 that he looked so good because he was playing behind a great offensive line.

The good news for Gurley and Gordon is that given the paranoia of teams drafting at the top of the first round, they have a huge chance of falling into a great team's lap with an established offensive line and quarterback to take the pressure away. The Dallas Cowboys could avoid paying DeMarco Murray a monster contract and have a shot at drafting Gordon with the 27th pick. The Patriots could come off a Super Bowl win and take Gurley with the 32nd.

Something tells me at least one of these two backs will be taken in the first round. After this year's postseason, it's evident that teams still need stud running backs unless they are blessed with once-in-a-generation quarterbacks. There haven't been prospects as promising as Gurley and Gordon in quite some time, and with the lack of franchise quarterbacks in the draft they will be in even higher demand.

Hunter Kossodo is a junior at the Walter Cronkite School of Journalism and Mass Communication at Arizona State University. He is a rabid supporter of Boston sports having lived there for most of his life. Follow him on Twitter: @HKossodo
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