We may never see another NFL Draft like the one we witnessed in 2005, when a trio of running backs was among the top five selections to come off the board.
More than ever, football revolves around the passing game, making quarterbacks and wide receivers as valuable as they've ever been in this league. On the other hand, not only is the running game seemingly less important than it used to be, but with so many coaches opting to go with the running-back-by-committee approach, the need to have a 300-carry workhorse is dwindling.
In 2005, after the 49ers chose Utah quarterback Alex Smith at No. 1 overall, Auburn's Ronnie Brown went second to the Dolphins. Soon thereafter, the Bears decided to go with Cedric Benson from Texas at No. 4. Brown's college teammate, Carnell Williams, went one spot later to the Buccaneers.
It was the first time three running backs were selected in the first five picks. It will surely be the last.
Brown probably ended up being the best of the bunch, running for 4,815 yards and 36 touchdowns while averaging 4.3 yards per carry along the way in Miami. He was also a reliable receiver out of the backfield, catching 184 passes for another 1,491 yards and two TDs, plus he was the poster boy for one of the game's biggest fads in recent years: the Wildcat. But he also missed 20 contests due to injury and is now a free agent, and it appears the Dolphins have already moved on because they selected Kansas State's Daniel Thomas in Round 2 last month.
Benson was a colossal flop in Chicago, ruining his rookie season with a 36-day holdout and then wondering why he wasn't simply handed the starting job over hard-working veteran Thomas Jones. The Bears gave Jones away to the Jets for basically nothing following the 2006 campaign, and despite finally having the Windy City backfield all to himself, Benson averaged 3.4 yards per carry and missed the final five games of 2007 with an injury. Cast aside in favor of 2008 second-round pick Matt Forte, Benson does deserve a tip of the cap for resurrecting his career in Cincinnati, where he has rushed for 1,251 and 1,111 yards -- including a career-high 189-yard middle-finger effort against the Bears in 2009 -- the last two seasons, even if his average of 3.7 yards per carry as a pro leaves a lot to be desired.
Williams took off like a rocket right out of the gate, running for 1,178 yards and six touchdowns in only 14 games and earning Offensive Rookie of the Year honors from voters. However, that was as good as it ever got for "Cadillac" in Tampa Bay, as injuries slowed him down tremendously and he never averaged better than 3.9 yards per carry from 2006-10. Like both Brown and Benson, Williams is now an unrestricted free agent, and he may be the least likely to return since the Bucs got 1,007 yards and 5.0 yards per carry last year from LeGarrette Blount, who proved to be quite the bargain as an undrafted free agent.
In April, the first tailback drafted was 2009 Heisman Trophy winner Mark Ingram from Alabama, and he lasted all the way until New Orleans at 28th overall -- he was the lone ball carrier to hear his name called in Round 1.
Last year’s leading rusher, Arian Foster of the Texans, originally came into the league as an undrafted free agent out of Tennessee and only had 257 yards under his belt before exploding in 2010. With his 1,616 yards on the ground, 66 receptions through the air and 18 TDs, Houston finished third in the AFC South at just 6-10.
The Super Bowl-champion Packers came into the year with an unquestioned alpha dog at running back, as Ryan Grant had rushed for 1,203 and 1,253 yards in 2008 and 2009, respectively. But an ankle injury in Week 1 ultimately shelved Grant for the rest of the schedule, and Green Bay scrambled to split carries among the likes of third-down back Brandon Jackson and fullback John Kuhn the rest of the way. Then, seemingly out of nowhere, James Starks racked up 315 yards in four playoff games and was a major contributor in bringing the Vince Lombardi Trophy back to Titletown, even though he only got 29 carries total during the regular season.
Once the lockout ends and we finally have football again, the Packers should have a healthy Grant in the starting lineup. But Starks will have a role and Kuhn plans to return via free agency, and if Jackson isn’t a part of the club's future, Hawaii’s Alex Green was recently added in the third round. That is one crowded backfield. Grant and Kuhn were undrafted, by the way. Starks was a sixth rounder in 2010. Jackson, likely the odd man out, was the most coveted during the draft process, coming to Green Bay in Round 2 four years ago.
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Among the league’s top 11 rushers from 2010, only four were first rounders: Chris Johnson of the Titans, Adrian Peterson of the Vikings, Rashard Mendenhall of the Steelers and Steven Jackson of the Rams. Just as many were seventh rounders (the Giants’ Ahmad Bradshaw and the Browns’ Peyton Hillis) as second rounders (the Chiefs’ Jamaal Charles and the Ravens’ Ray Rice). Foster, once a practice-squad afterthought, topped them all.
Brown’s only option may be to sign elsewhere for the veteran minimum and be a reserve. Williams is in a similar spot, although his willingness to just compete as a complementary player and locker-room leader is commendable. Benson, after getting off to the rockiest start among the three high-profile backs in his draft class, could be rewarded with a new contract in Cincinnati once the NFL resumes business.
Still, it’s certainly worth noting that his main backup, 2009 sixth rounder Bernard Scott, averaged 4.9 yards per carry to Benson’s 3.5.
|John Crist is an NFL analyst for Scout com, a voter for the Heisman Trophy and a member of the Professional Football Writers of America.|