Running backs in draft could be hurt as teams place less value on position

04/20/2014 6:35 PM

04/28/2014 10:52 AM

The running back is becoming less and less valuable in today’s NFL, and if anyone knows it, it’s the incoming rookies who play the position, like Arizona star Ka’Deem Carey.

“I don’t like that,” said the 5-foot-9, 207-pound Carey, who is projected to be a midround pick. “I feel like they think the running-back spot is going extinct for some reason.”

Carey, who was wildly productive last season, rushing 349 times for 1,885 yards and 19 touchdowns, was then asked if he would have changed positions years ago had he known that running backs’ value would soon plummet.

“Tell me about it,” Carey said. “Nowadays, they’re like you’ve got to go second, third round. I’m like, ‘Why in the hell didn’t you tell me this a couple of years ago, that running backs are going extinct?’ 

Carey was obviously joking, but this newfound struggle for running backs is no laughing matter.

Running backs have notoriously short shelf lives, anyway, and rookies are locked into club-friendly deals for at least four years. By the time a good running back hits free-agency in his mid-to-late 20s, the wear and tear on his body will likely prevent teams from investing heavily.

Consider the cases of Knowshon Moreno and Ben Tate. Both hit free-agency this year after productive seasons. Moreno rushed 241 times for 1,038 yards and 10 touchdowns in Denver while Tate rushed 181 times for 771 yards and four touchdown.

Both, however, failed to get big dollars on the open market, as Tate reportedly signed a two-year, $6.2 million contract and Moreno reportedly signed a one-year, $1.975 million contract. They aren’t the only ones, either, as Toby Gerhart (Jaguars), LeGarrette Blount (Steelers), Maurice Jones-Drew (Raiders) and several others all agreed to relatively small deals.

The financial realities of the situation means that it behooves college running backs to get into the league as soon as possible so they can get their free-agency clock started. Carey, who left school after his junior season, said several people advised him to leave school early.

“They definitely were in my ear, saying you have a limited numbers of hits and running backs, you need to go while you have the chance,” Carey said. “I know that I could have come back and played another year, got bigger and stronger and dominated at that level. But my decision was I was ready for the league. I felt like I was ready a year ago but I just couldn’t leave. I stayed consistent this year and really proved to me that I was ready to provide for my family.”

That may be true, but it remains to be seen how high he ― or the other running backs ― will go. NFL.com draft analyst Daniel Jeremiah considers LSU’s Jeremy Hill and Ohio State’s Carlos Hyde to be the best backs in the draft, but said the diminishing value of the position could make it tough for a team to spend a first-round pick on either of them.

“When you look at the running backs, I think it’s a pretty good group, and I think there’s a lot of depth there,” Jeremiah said. “In past years, (Hyde and Hill), they’d be first-round picks, but now, (we’re) talking about the position being devalued.”

However, there is hope for the top backs, according to Jeremiah.

“A team I’d keep an eye on is the Patriots because the Patriots are always kind of one step ahead of the curve and trying to be creative,” Jeremiah said of New England, which picks No. 29 overall. “I wouldn’t be shocked if they just sit there and said, ‘OK, everybody else wants to pass on all these running backs ― Carlos Hyde is a really good player. LeGarrette Blount is not here anymore, we’re going to pluck him, and we’ve got ourselves a back of the future.’ 

Indeed, in a copycat league like the NFL, all it takes a respected mind like Patriots coach Bill Belichick to invest a first-round pick in a running back to help the tide turn the other way and instigate a run on the position.

This would be a good thing for Carey and his fellow backs, all of whom know that the earlier they’re taken, the more guaranteed money they’ll make.

For his part, Carey is eager to prove he’s worth the investment. He does have a few question marks ―including a middling 40-yard-dash time of 4.70 and two off-the-field transgressions that led to a one-game suspension this season ― but his productivity and versatility could be attractive.

“I’m definitely going to make sure they know that when I step on the field, they made a good pick and running backs aren’t going extinct,” Carey said.

Top 10 prospects for the Chiefs

1. Carlos Hyde, 6-0, 230, Ohio State

Bio:

Two-year starter who rushed 208 times for 1,521 yards and 15 touchdowns in 2013. Also caught 16 passes for 147 yards and three touchdowns. Is 23 years old. 9 5/8-inch hands*. 4.66 40-yard dash. 19 bench reps. 34.5-inch vertical. 114-inch broad jump. Was suspended three games in 2013 for a bar altercation with a woman, though charges were eventually dismissed.

Consensus**:

Does not have elite breakaway speed or elite elusiveness, but he's a big, strong, productive back who runs hard, often falls forward and is good in pass protection. He's also shown the ability to be a fairly reliable receiver out of the backfield.

2. Jeremy Hill, 6-1, 233, LSU

Bio:

Two-year starter who rushed 203 times for 1,401 yards and 16 touchdowns in 2013. Also caught 18 passes for 181 yards and zero touchdowns. Is 21 years old. 10 3/8-inch hands. 4.66 40-yard dash. 20 bench reps. 29-inch vertical. 113-inch broad jump. Was arrested twice at LSU, once for simple battery and again for sexual assault charges, which led to a misdemeanor guilty plea.

Consensus:

Another big, strong back with good feet who runs hard. Doesn't have elite breakaway speed but has good acceleration. If his vision improves, he can be a bell-cow back. Has proven to be a reliable ballcarrier ― didn't lose a fumble in college. Was rarely asked to catch passes but was OK at it when asked.

3. Tre Mason, 5-8, 207, Auburn

Bio:

Two-year starter who rushed 317 times for 1,816 yards and 23 touchdowns in 2013. Also caught 12 passes for 161 yards and one touchdown. Broke Bo Jackson’s single-season school record for rushing yards. Is 20 years old. Nine-inch hands. 4.50 40-yard dash. 38 1/2-inch vertical. 126-inch broad jump.

Consensus:

Competitive, hard runner who was incredibly productive in a run-heavy offense. OK hands, willing blocker, a three-down player. Fits a zone-blocking scheme.

4. Bishop Sankey, 5-9, 209, Washington

Bio:

Two-year starter who rushed 327 times for 1,870 yards and 20 touchdowns in 2013. Also caught 28 passes for 304 yards and one touchdown. Is 21 years old. 10-inch hands. 4.49 40-yard dash. 26 bench reps. 35 1/2-inch vertical. 126-inch broad jump. 6.75 3-cone drill. 4.00 20-yard shuttle.

Consensus:

Has experience in a zone-blocking scheme and was very productive with a big workload. Has good vision. Struggles some in pass protection. Decent receiver.

5. Devonta Freeman, 5-8, 206, Florida State

Bio:

First-year starter who rushed 173 times for 1,016 yards and 14 touchdowns in 2013. Also caught 22 passes for 278 yards and one touchdown. Is 22 years old. 9 5/8-inch hands. 4.58 40-yard dash. 31 1/2-inch vertical. 118-inch broad jump. 7.11 3-cone drill.

Consensus:

Short but is a great competitor and a hard worker who is reliable in pass protection and durable. OK receiver with good agility, acceleration. Showed good vision as a zone runner.

6. Ka'Deem Carey, 5-9, 207, Arizona

Bio:

Two-year starter who rushed 349 times for 1,885 yards and 19 touchdowns in 2013. Also caught 26 passes for 173 yards and one touchdown. Is 21 years old. 9 1/2-inch hands. 4.70 40-yard dash. 19 bench reps. 32 1/2-inch vertical. 115-inch broad jump. 7.08 3-cone drill. 4.38 20-yard shuttle.

Consensus:

Hard, competitive runner who doesn’t go down easily and was productive in a zone-blocking scheme. Isn’t a breakaway threat and has had off-the-field issues. Good receiver, willing blocker.

7. Terrence West, 5-9, 225, Towson

Bio:

Two-year starter who rushed 413 times for 2,509 yards and 41 touchdowns in 2013. Also caught 26 passes for 258 yards and one touchdown. Is 23 years old. 9 1/8-inch hands. 4.54 40-yard dash. 16 bench reps. 33 1/2-inch vertical. 120-inch broad jump.

Consensus:

Carried a huge workload and was built for it, despite his height. Carried the ball 802 times in college, which is a ton. Should be interesting to see how quickly he wers down if he makes it in the league. Runs hard and displays good vision but isn’t going to run away from people. Must improve as a blocker but is willing and is also a decent receiver.

8. De'Anthony Thomas, 5-9, 174, Oregon

Bio:

Three-year starter who rushed 96 times for 618 yards and eight touchdowns in 2013. Also caught 22 passes for 246 yards and one touchdown. Is 21 years old. 8 1/8-inch hands. 4.50 40-yard dash. Eight bench reps. 32-inch vertical. 124-inch broad jump.

Consensus:

Is tiny so his ability to stay healthy in the long-term is a concern. Is not built to carry the load, but there's no doubting his explosiveness or big-play ability. Elite speed and feet make him a home-run threat, and he has lots of experience as a receiver and catching the ball out of the backfield. Doesn’t have a big catch radius and he also has small hands. Special-teams ability is a plus — he’s dangerous as a returner.

9. Charles Sims, 6-0, 214, West Virginia

Bio:

Four-year starter who rushed 208 times for 1,095 yards and 11 touchdowns in 2013. Also caught 45 passes for 401 yards and three touchdowns. Is 23 years old. 8 1/4-inch hands. 4.48 40-yard dash. 17 bench reps. 37 1/2-inch vertical. 126-inch broad jump. 7.16 3-cone drill. 4.30 20-yard shuttle.

Consensus:

Hard worker and excellent receiver. Very productive jack-of-all-trades type with a lot of traits you want in a backup. Not a great blocker but is willing. Should help as a receiver out of the backfield, at the very least.

10. Storm Johnson, 6-0, 209, Central Florida

Bio:

First-year starter who rushed 213 times for 1,646 yards and 14 touchdowns in 2013. Also caught 30 passes for 260 yards and three touchdowns. 9 1/2-inch hands. 4.6 40-yard dash. 16 bench reps. 35 1/2-inch vertical. 118-inch broad jump.

Consensus:

Big-play back with elusiveness and strength with experience as a zone runner. Needs to block and protect the ball better but is a good, productive receiver.

*All measurements and testing results are from the combine.

**All evaluations and rankings are based largely on multiple draft profiles ― thanks to NFL.com, ESPN.com, CBSSports.com and DraftNasty’s 2014 NFL Draft Manual ― in addition to interviews with draft analysts mixed with the author’s own opinion.

Videos

Join the Discussion

The Kansas City Star is pleased to provide this opportunity to share information, experiences and observations about what's in the news. Some of the comments may be reprinted elsewhere on the site or in the newspaper. We encourage lively, open debate on the issues of the day, and ask that you refrain from profanity, hate speech, personal comments and remarks that are off point. Thank you for taking the time to offer your thoughts.

Terms of Service