Najee Harris and Travis Etienne could break the first-round running back trend

Alabama’s Najee Harris and Clemson’s Travis Etienne look like potential first-round running backs in the 2021 NFL Draft. However, selecting a running back in the first round isn’t exactly a popular decision these days. Most analytics types sneer at the thought of drafting a running back too early. Many NFL teams have followed suit in recent years, avoiding the position until the tail end of Round 1, if not later rounds.

Are Harris and/or Etienne worthy first-rounders? Let’s review recent history to determine if any running back — even the all-time ACC rushing leader or a player who looks like a Derrick Henry who can catch — is worth the use of a high draft pick.

Be sure to join PFN Chief NFL Analyst Trey Wingo and Chief Draft Analyst Tony Pauline every week on Draft Insiders as they break down all you need to know heading into the 2021 NFL Draft. Subscribe to our PFN YouTube channel and hit the notifications icon so you can tune in live every Wednesday at 9 PM ET. 

First-round running backs: The history

Only 17 running backs have been drafted in Round 1 since 2010. That’s a reflection of how devalued the position has become among NFL decision-makers. Based on the success rate of those 17 running backs, the skepticism is warranted.

Let’s break down how each first-round running back fared, starting with the beginning of the last decade.

C.J. Spiller (No. 9 overall, Buffalo Bills, 2010)

A burner from Clemson who produced one Pro Bowl season in 2012 but spent most of his career rotating with undrafted RB Fred Jackson. Like so many running backs, he was finished by his fifth year in the NFL.

Ryan Mathews (No. 12 overall, San Diego Chargers, 2010)

Mathews had a pair of 1,000-yard seasons for the Chargers but battled fumbles early in his career. Even in his best seasons, he was part of a committee with backs like Mike Tolbert, Ronnie Brown, and Danny Woodhead.

Jahvid Best (No. 30 overall, Detroit Lions, 2010)

A shifty all-purpose back from Cal, Best left the NFL due to concussion issues after just two seasons and embarked on a track-and-field career.

Mark Ingram (No. 28 overall, New Orleans Saints, 2011)

The 2010 Heisman Trophy winner from Alabama has enjoyed a long and productive career for the New Orleans Saints and Baltimore Ravens. Despite three 1,000-yard seasons, Ingram has almost always been a committee back.

Trent Richardson (No. 3 overall, Cleveland Browns, 2012)

One of the worst selections in recent history, Richardson was a standout at Alabama who turned into a slow-footed grinder that couldn’t find a hole if someone marked it with a flashing yellow arrow in the NFL. Richardson drifted to the CFL and the AAF and was recently involved with a Mexican football league.

Doug Martin (No. 31 overall, Tampa Bay Buccaneers, 2012)

Martin rushed for 1,454 yards and 11 touchdowns as a rookie. He then suffered a shoulder injury in 2013 and became a plodder. He bounced back for a 1,402-yard season in 2015, but that only fooled the Buccaneers into keeping him for two more seasons that saw him average 2.9 yards per carry.

David Wilson (No. 32 overall, New York Giants, 2012)

The Clyde Edwards-Helaire of the early 2010s, Wilson was a standout all-purpose back at Virginia Tech who the Giants drafted coming off a Super Bowl win. Wilson suffered a spinal injury in 2013 and, like Best, left the NFL for the track-and-field circuit.

Todd Gurley (No. 10 overall, St. Louis Rams, 2015)

You know the story here. Gurley was a truly stellar player for four seasons but was fading fast by the time the Rams reached the Super Bowl in 2018. Drafting Gurley may not have been a huge mistake, but signing him to a hefty contract extension clearly was.

Melvin Gordon (No. 15 overall, San Diego Chargers, 2015)

Gordon has one 1,000-yard season under his belt. He’s a fine committee back, which illustrates the problem with drafting a running back in the first round. Why spend a coveted selection on someone who will only split time with (and sometimes get outperformed by) an undrafted rookie such as Fred Jackson, Austin Ekeler, or Phillip Lindsay?

Ezekiel Elliott (No. 4 overall, Dallas Cowboys, 2016)

Like Gurley, Elliott was outstanding for four years but is now overpaid and falling off. If you don’t think his $90 million extension is hurting the Cowboys, ask why the team has been nearly silent in free agency, despite being one or two defensive signings from running away with the NFC East.

Leonard Fournette (No. 4 overall, Jacksonville Jaguars, 2017)

The Nick Foles of running backs, Fournette is a slow-footed battering ram who morphs into Playoff Lenny come January. Folks have strong opinions about Fournette. Let’s just label him a “somewhat useful role player” and concede that he was a bust as a top-5 draft pick.

Christian McCaffrey (No. 8 overall, Carolina Panthers, 2017)

The prototype of the modern running back who doubles as a slot receiver, McCaffrey was special for two years but suffered through an injury-marred 2020 season after signing a big contract extension. Spot a trend?

Rashaad Penny (No. 27 overall, Seattle Seahawks, 2018)

Penny was a typical Seahawks outsmart-themselves selection. He rushed for 2,248 yards in his final season at San Diego State but received a Day 2 grade on most draft boards. He has been a lightly-used, often-injured rotation player for three years.

Sony Michel (No. 31 overall, New England Patriots, 2018)

Michel was outstanding in the 2018 playoffs and Super Bowl. However, he’s been little more than a powerful committee back since. Michel’s more-productive Georgia teammate Nick Chubb was still on the board when the Patriots drafted him, but you know, something something Bill Belichick something something genius.

Saquon Barkley (No. 2 overall, New York Giants, 2018)

Barkley recorded one outstanding year, two injury-plagued years, and a serious knee injury in 2020 that could impact his future. Giants general manager Dave Gettleman is still hoping to have the last laugh with this selection, but he may end up waiting forever.

Josh Jacobs (No. 24 overall, Oakland Raiders, 2019)

Jacobs, yet another Alabama star, enjoyed back-to-back 1,000-yard seasons. It’s debatable just how much he is helping a Raiders team trapped in sub-.500 purgatory.

Clyde Edwards-Helaire (No. 32 overall, Kansas City Chiefs, 2020)

It’s also debatable just how much Edwards-Helaire helped the Chiefs return to the Super Bowl. Yes, he rushed for 803 yards and caught 36 passes, but Football Outsiders graded him as just above a replacement-level back. Perhaps if the Chiefs drafted an extra offensive lineman and just found a few more running backs named Williams to share the load…

Trey Wingo and Tony Pauline discuss first-round running backs

On the April 7 edition of PFN Draft Insiders, PFN Chief NFL Analyst Trey Wingo and PFN Chief Draft Analyst and Insider Tony Pauline discussed the wisdom of selecting a running back in the first round. Here’s an excerpt:

TREY WINGO: The more I think about this, the more I’m aligned with my former colleague at ESPN, Mel Kiper Jr., who has said “I’m not sure I would ever take a running back in the first round. And last season, of the top seven rushers in the NFL, exactly ZERO of them were first-round picks.

TONY PAULINE: If that running back you select in Round 1 is the player that you are sure is going to put you over the top, then I can understand it. I’m not talking about a team that’s drafting at the top of the draft. I’m talking about a team that’s drafting in the late 20s or early 30s that already has 10-11-12 wins but lost a conference title game. But running backs have short shelf lives, and few of them, after their rookie contracts are earning their big, big money.

TREY WINGO: I remember doing last year’s draft. The Chiefs were picking last. They picked up Clyde Edwards-Helaire. I thought it was a perfect fit. I actually chuckled: oh my God, he’s going from that system at LSU to Andy Reid’s system going forward. I think Clyde had a good year, but not a great year by any stretch of the imagination. It got me thinking that I might never go down that road again.

Lessons learned from the first-round running backs

As Gurley and Elliott illustrated (and McCaffrey may soon illustrate), signing a running back to a long-term contract extension after his fourth or fifth season is almost always a terrible decision. Teams continue to do so, however, because they assume every case is the exception. In fairness, many modern extensions (see Aaron Jones and the Green Bay Packers) are almost pay-as-you-go contracts, as opposed to Gurley’s and Elliott’s cap-busters.

On the other hand, few first-round running backs completely bust. Even players who are cited as first-round mistakes, like Martin or Fournette, typically enjoy a stellar season or two.

The problem is that for every Fournette having one great year atop a draft class, there are lots of Aaron Jones and Alvin Kamara-types having multiple great years in the middle or near the bottom of the same class.

As Pauline said in the previous segment, conventional mid-21st century idealogy suggests that it’s OK to draft a running back at the end of the first round to help an already-stacked roster reach the Super Bowl. Yet, most of the end-of-the-round backs on the list above (Wilson, Michel, Penny, Edwards-Helaire) have been ordinary to downright bad. It may be better to gamble on a truly outstanding back like Gurley, Elliott, McCaffrey, or Barkley early in the draft, then hope he can help you reach the Super Bowl during his three or four super-productive seasons.

That assumes, of course, that the team in question has a strong roster, yet is somehow picking relatively early in the draft. Oddly enough, there are a few examples of teams that fit that description in the 2021 NFL Draft.

First-round landing spots for RBs Etienne and Harris

Here are some potential landing spots for the two best running backs in this year’s class.

Los Angeles Chargers (13th overall)

Najee Harris would make an excellent “Thunder” back to Ekeler’s “Lightning.” He would aid in Justin Herbert’s growth by taking some pressure off and turning the occasional swing pass into a long gain. It’s not unrealistic to think that the Chargers could zoom to Wild Card contention now that Herbert is one of the NFL’s rising stars.

The Chargers have needs elsewhere and already came up short when drafting Melvin Gordon and Ryan Mathews in Round 1, but this is at least worth considering.

Arizona Cardinals (16th overall)

The Cardinals running back depth chart currently consists of Chase Edmonds and a bunch of guys you have never heard of. This seems like a natural landing spot for Travis Etienne, who would look exceptional in Kliff Kingsbury’s wide-open offense.

Like the Chargers, the Cardinals could feasibly spring into contention if J.J. Watt finds the Fountain of Youth and Kyler Murray takes another step forward.

Miami Dolphins (18th overall)

Brian Flores seems like a coach who wants to pound the ball off tackle. Tua Tagovailoa would certainly welcome Harris back to his huddle, and Myles Gaskin probably isn’t cut out to be a workhorse back. The Dolphins have high draft picks coming out of their ears and can afford to splurge.

New York Jets (23rd overall)

This is probably a bad idea. The Jets have needs everywhere and would be better off acquiring someone at a high-leverage position like edge rusher or cornerback. But Harris or Etienne would take some pressure off Zach Wilson, both in the offense and in the media spotlight by giving fans and reporters another big name to focus upon.

Pittsburgh Steelers (24th overall)

Another bad-but-feasible idea. The Steelers may believe an impact running back is just what they need to prop up Ben Roethlisberger, and Harris would look natural in a Steelers’ uniform.

Tampa Bay Buccaneers (32nd overall)

Fournette and Ronald Jones dropped a lot of Tom Brady’s short passes last year. Etienne could be the sort of James White/Rex Burkhead type Brady loves.

Final thoughts on first-round running backs

A total of eight running backs rushed for over 1,000 yards last season. Among them, Jacobs was the only former first-round pick.

Derrick Henry, Dalvin Cook, and Jonathan Taylor, who finished 1-2-3 in rushing yards, were all former second-round picks, as was Nick Chubb, who finished 7th. Aaron Jones (fourth in rushing) was a fifth-round pick. Both David Montgomery, a former third-round selection, and James Robinson (UDFA) tied for fifth in total rushing yards. Alvin Kamara, who finished third in the NFL in scrimmage yards, is a former third-round pick who was a committee back in college at Tennessee.

History tells NFL teams, again and again, to wait until Day 2 to draft a collegiate powerhouse rusher such as Henry or Taylor. If they miss out, there’s a half-dozen Robinson or Ekeler-types lurking in rookie free agency who will turn out to be almost as good (or perhaps better) than the Heisman candidates.

This year’s running back draft class looks a little thin. Still, collegiate superstars like Ohio State’s Trey Sermon or Oklahoma State’s Chuba Hubbard will be available well after the first round. North Carolina’s Javonte Williams and Michael Carter will also be on the board on Day 2. Why splurge on a Harris or Etienne when you can grab a more valuable position in the first round? Then you can take your pick from all sorts of committee backs in later rounds.

The only answer is that Harris may be a Gurley and Etienne a McCaffrey. If their great early-career seasons line up with your team’s Super Bowl window…look out.

It’s a heck of a gamble, and it explains why it’s so rare for running backs to get drafted in the first round anymore.

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