Running back’s have quickly become an endangered species at the top of round one. It’s only six years ago that three runners were taken in the first five picks of the 2005 draft (Ronnie Brown, Cedric Benson and Cadillac Williams). It’s not a big surprise that times have changed – plenty of teams are finding ways to get serviceable backs later in the draft. Only two of the league’s current top-ten rushing leaders are first round picks (Adrian Peterson and Steven Jackson). The very nature of the position encourages a tough work load leading to shorter careers, almost always ended by the time the player hits 30. When you add the extreme cost that accompanies the top few picks, it’s no wonder the NFL moved away from running backs and looked closer at long term investments at quarterback and both the offensive and defensive lines.
Could that might be about to change?
The rookie pay scale is going to have a greater impact on the draft than maybe some people think. Let’s look at the difference in salary for the 1st, 5th and 10th picks in 2010 and 2011 – before and after the pay scale arrived.
Sam Bradford (2010)
6-year contract worth $78m with $50m in guarantees and a maximum value of $86m
Cam Newton (2011)
4-year contract worth a fully guaranteed $22m
Eric Berry (2010)
6-year contract worth $60m with $34m in guarantees
Patrick Peterson (2011)
4-year contract worth a fully guaranteed $18.5m
Tyson Alualu (2010)
5-year contract worth $28m with $17.5m in guaranteed
Blaine Gabbert (2011)
4-year contract worth a fully guaranteed $12m
Players drafted within the top ten are now making as much money as players previously taken in the 15-20 range. Maurkice Pouncey’s rookie contract is worth only $1.65m less in guarantees than Blaine Gabbert’s, despite an eight-pick difference. If you were considering a running back with a top ten pick, in 2010 you would almost certainly be investing around 20-30m in guarantees at a position carrying a severe injury risk. Post-2010, that’s completely changed to a much more affordable number. We may be about to see a u-turn with teams now returning to the position as an early first round option, tapping into the short learning curve at the position for rookies.
Of course, there will always be teams who take the stance that drafting a running back in round one is a luxury. I suspect the Seahawks could fall into that category, given they passed on Mark Ingram last year (offensive coordinator Darrell Bevell was a big fan) and considering the previous appointment of Alex Gibbs and his philosophy that believes runners can be found without the high-end investment. That’s not to say they too won’t change their mind in this new climate, but Seattle’s priorities will probably continue to lie elsewhere.
Trent Richardson should go early next April, offering a cornerstone playmaker to a struggling offense. But what about Lamar Miller? Could he too leave the board early?
There’s a lot to like about the redshirt-sophomore from Miami. For the year he’s on 1108 yards with eleven touchdowns. Miller has ideal size for the NFL (5-11, 211lbs) and the kind of breakaway speed that will intrigue teams early in the first round. Perhaps his best attribute is patience – it’s reminiscent of Shaun Alexander’s days in Alabama. While Miller hasn’t got that same natural, smooth running style and elusiveness that made Alexander a star, the way he let’s the play develop before exploding into a cut is at an elite level. He seeks out running lanes and explodes through the gap, often making angles with a neat cutback or rounding the edge. He’s the kind of running back that makes things happen and won’t rely totally on good line play.
His ability to change direction quickly without losing speed is also unique. He glides in and out of cuts to avoid tackles and in the open field he can extend runs for big gains that would otherwise just be first downs. The fluidity of his open-field running style is comparable to Jeremy Maclin’s, albeit it in the body of a running back. On short yardage runs he’s got enough size and power to be effective and he’ll keep carries in the red-zone. If there is one concern about his running style, it’s quite upright and he exposes a lot of his body to the tackle. So far he’s avoided injuries, but it’s something to consider – not that it’s hindered other players who run this way.
Miller is a non-factor in the passing game, which is a slight concern. He only has 24 career receptions and a single touchdown – you’d like to see more considering how often running backs are used split wide and on screens these days. Neither is he a thriving blocker, but on the tape evidence I’ve seen so far he’s at least willing and this is an area that will improve with pro-coaching. These are minor concerns given how rounded he is as a runner and while he may not have the same brutish running style and size as Richardson, he looks faster on tape and has shown the same ability to dodge or break tackles consistently.
There’s no doubt he’s ready to have an impact on the NFL and he could provide a team with a young offensive core a nice weapon at running back. He may not join Trent Richardson among the first ten picks next April, but he has every opportunity to go in the top-15. That’s the range I expect to project Miller in my first mock draft for 2012, to be published soon.