What Happened to the NFL Feature Back?

By Kyle Rowland on May 5, 2014 at 8:30a

Adrian Peterson was the seventh overall pick in the 2007 NFL Draft. Seventeen other running backs were selected after him. Six years later, 23 running backs were taken. But the position’s value was already in steep decline. Unheralded North Carolina tailback Giovanni Bernard was the first running back selected in 2013, 37th overall by the Bengals – the fifth pick of the second round.

It marked the first time since 1963 that a running back wasn’t taken in the first round. Only seven were drafted in the first four rounds. Trent Richardson – third overall in 2012 – is the lone running back to go higher than 27th dating to 2011, and he was traded in the middle of his second season.  

“If you look back at the draft 40 years ago, running backs were the most valuable commodity there was,” NFL Network analyst Mike Mayock said. “And today, with all the spread offenses and teams throwing the football 60, 70, 80 percent of the time, there's been a completely different emphasis in how you draft offensively.”

In a quarterback-driven league, running backs have gone the way of the rotary telephone. Not only have pass-happy offenses devalued running backs, the physical and violent nature of the NFL has created a short self life for ball carriers. It’s a trend unlike any other in sports history.

“Growing up watching the NFL and seeing running backs get drafted high, I definitely thought, ‘That’ll be me one day,’” Carlos Hyde said at the combine in February. “It’s still possible. I haven’t given up hope just yet.”

Imagine pitchers or power hitters losing significance in baseball. The NBA isn’t a big man’s game anymore, but there’s still a place for centers. Could the NFL one day be devoid of 1,000-yard rushers? Probably not, but only 13 running backs eclipsed that magical number last season.

Interestingly enough, the Super Bowl-champion Seahawks rode Marshawn Lynch for more than 1,500 yards and 12 touchdowns.

“I think teams have realized you don’t need an elite athlete at the running back position,” Eric Galko, director of scouting at Optimum Scouting, told Eleven Warriors. “If you have creativity as an offensive coordinator, you don’t need one do-it-all guy like Adrian Peterson. You can get by with three or four guys.”

Galko believes years like 2005, which saw three running backs selected in the top five, are a thing of the past. Transcendent players will still appear. Those monster contracts handed out to Peterson and Chris Johnson will continue to decrease, though.

The 2014 NFL free agent season saw Toby Gerhart, he of 276 career carries and five touchdowns, receive a $10.5 million deal from the Jaguars. He’ll make $4.5 million in 2014, $1 million more than Knowshon Moreno, who was a workhorse in the Broncos Super Bowl run last season.

It’s gotten so bad that Browns running back Ben Tate said last week that if given a do-over, he’d be a safety instead of a running back. Supply and demand is at the root of running backs’ slippage. The depth of this season’s draft class mimics Lake Superior. More than 21 underclassmen declared and there are a handful of seniors, including Hyde.

The need just isn’t there to reach early in the draft. It’s a nearly unanimous projection among draft experts that no running back will go in the first round for the second consecutive year. Hyde is slated by many to be the first taken and some believe that could happen as late as the third round. The later rounds rarely offer excitement, but a new trend could develop with impact running backs being selected in the fourth round and beyond.

It happened with Alfred Morris in 2012, when the Redskins picked him in the sixth round. He was an All-Pro in Year 1 and a Pro Bowler in Year 2. Morris’s immediate success further strengthened the thinking of front offices in not taking running backs with valuable first- and even second-round draft picks.

“Obviously last year with there being no running back going in the first round, I think there has just been a bigger emphasis on the pass in the NFL, and maybe I’m biased, but I feel like running back are just as valuable as anybody else on the field especially on the offense,” former Washington running back Bishop Sankey told Pro Football Talk. “We not only contribute on the ground but we also pass protect, protect the quarterback and we can also be used as an asset out of the backfield catching the ball.”

Hyde is the marquee feature back available. He’s equal parts size, power and speed. His frame and running style are similar to reigning offensive rookie of the year, Eddie Lacy. Like Hyde, Lacy enjoyed a standout college career, but plummeted in the draft – pick 61 – due to little demand.  

“Carlos Hyde is built to take hits for a long time,” Galko said. “He kind of looks like Adrian Peterson at times in terms of fighting off tacklers and getting extra yards. He doesn’t wear down as the game goes on.”

During a sometimes unstable four-year career at Ohio State, Hyde amassed more than 3,000 yards, including a 1,500-yard senior season. He scored 37 career touchdowns and gained 6.1 yards per carry, establishing a new school record.

“I definitely feel like I should be regarded as the best running back in this draft,” Hyde said. “I feel like my game does the talking, and if you watch the film you can see that for yourself.”

“You can’t just pass the whole game.”– Carlos Hyde

Versatility is what makes Hyde such a favorite among draft experts. There aren’t many 235-pound backs that can make guys miss, run over defenders and outrun those in pursuit. Hyde’s also shown he’s adept at pass blocking.

He’s overcome every roadblock put in his way. First came Fork Union Military Academy. When Hyde arrived at Ohio State, he played sparingly as a freshman. His sophomore season of 2011 was a mixed bag. The team struggled, but Hyde showed glimpses of the star he would become. There were also clashes with interim head coach Luke Fickell. Under Meyer, however, Hyde thrived for two seasons, save for an off-field incident last summer.

A decreasing need for running backs is just the latest setback for Hyde. His childhood vision of being a first-round draft pick might not be realized. Hyde isn’t going to sign a record rookie contract or become the face of his franchise. But he will enter his first NFL season determined to once again prove throngs of naysayers wrong.

“Teams are doubting us. They don’t think we’re capable of doing what we know we can do,” he said. “They’re just downplaying us, thinking we can just wait to get y’all. There are guys that have been drafted late that are having a lot of success in the league right now, so that’s kind of changing the GMs’ minds right now.

“You can’t just pass the whole game.”


Comments Show All Comments

BoFuquel's picture

Nobody; nobody finishes like Carlos. GO BUCKS!

I wish I didn't know now what I didn't know then.

+2 HS
chicagobuckeye's picture

Hey Kyle, only thing is it's Knowshon. Good read. 

Hovenaut's picture

The game has changed. Blame spread offenses...or Urban.

Yet the top RB in the draft this year comes from where?

rdubs's picture

I am not sure I understand your point.  If everyone ran Urban's offense RBs would be the second most valuable position (still behind QBs).  Urban runs a power run as his base play so it would make sense that he has a good RB.

+1 HS
Hovenaut's picture

The sarcasm won out - listening to Mike and Mike on the commute in earlier, same discussion about every down backs. Talk quickly shifted (as did my radio dial) to how the game has changed, spread offenses have taken over, etc. I immediately thought it was Urban's fault (meds hadn't kicked in by that point).

Mike Greenburg, to his credit, opened the topic by stating he felt Hyde was the best back in the draft. Just thought it ironic, UFM noted for his use of the spread, and a Florida kid coming to Columbus a few years ago and reaffirms the power back is indeed alive and well.

45has2's picture

As we de-evolve towards flag football the running back will become just another jitterbugging receiver. Oh well, we still have hockey and lacrosse where one can not only hit the other player but you can beat on them with a stick as well.

"I don't like nice people. I like tough, honest people." -W.W. Hayes

+1 HS
FROMTHE18's picture

I disagree that the value is in steep decline. Having a bruiser who can generate 5-6 yards a carry can only help the passing game and will wear down the defense, especially the LBs and CBs who have to make the tackle on a player either as big or bigger than them. I believe that if you are an effective bruising RB then you have tremendous value and the problem lays more in the fact there just aren't that many top shelf guys out there who can pound the ball for 20+ carries a game without getting injured. The 9ners need Frank Gore just as much as Colin Kaepernick or any of their other playmakers and like you said the Seahawks effective rode Marshawn Lynch to the super bowl. Sure, an offense that can score from the spread is tough to beat because of how fast they can move the ball, but if that offense is struggling to produce through the air or from running the spread option outside, you need to be able to produce up the middle. There are examples of spread type RBs, like McCoy, that are elite NFL players, but I think the need and thus the value of a bruising RB, especially one that can be consistent and stay healthy, is just as high as its ever been. 

+3 HS
hetuck's picture

One thing hasn't changed: late season weather: "When the autumn winds come like a pirate...." is pays to have a big back who can get you the tough yards, especially for northern outdoor teams like the Browns, Patriots, Bills, Jets, etc. 

Winning is a habit. Unfortunately, so is losing.

Vince Lombardi

+1 HS
mh277907's picture

I think you will see the return of the big powerful running back in the next couple of years - hopefully perfect timing for Hyde's second contract. Reason being - defenses have been forced to get smaller and quicker due to more and more spread offenses and the utilization of the tight end. San Fran and Seattle, the two best teams in the league, have proved that you don't need an elite QB who throws the ball all over the field to win anymore. Both of the these teams utilize the entire width of the of the field and, though, I don't ever see a team running a spread-to-run offense that is as run-heavy as OSU's was last season, I do see that style being successful in the NFL.


+1 HS
acBuckeye's picture

Pretty much what I was going to say, MH.

Defenses have gotten smaller in order to be able to cover the entire field. This leaves them susceptible to punishing runs up the middle, especially from guys like Hyde.

It's also a big reason why a few college programs, ie. Alabama, USC, Sparty, LSU, etc. have stuck with the pro-style offenses, despite most teams running a version of the spread. Defenses just aren't built to consistently stop the power-run game anymore b/c they're so worried about covering receivers and the sidelines. It's why these teams that still run the pro-style have still had success in today's day and age. Going up against the pro-style for a defense now days, is akin to going up against the triple-option 15 years ago. Teams rarely saw it, so they didn't know how to defend it.

I think the power back will make a return at some point, and teams will start valuing the RB position more down the road. Football is a game that constantly evolves, and teams always look for an edge. You can only put 11 guys on the field, so you have to find that edge somewhere.

+1 HS
rekrul's picture

No one puts Carlos in the 2nd round...



Out Work, Out Think, Out Play!!!

+7 HS
MikeNugents BigToe's picture

Upvote to you sir!


"Remember that 55 yarder against Marshall?" -Not Mike Nugent

Shangheyed's picture

Most teams would love to have him... the game has changed, but you still need to run effectively to win... that hasn't changed.  Can't wait to see him on Sundays.

DC-town's picture

I think it's two different conversations...the position has been devalued in terms of 'draft order / value' because you can get guys late or use the rb by committee-

there is obviously still a place for the position in offenses, but only truly elite rb's will have the big contracts because of the supply-  

if you're a 'decent' tackle or say center named Mack, you have the leverage in contract negotiations as there's a big drop off to the free agent pool or guys in the draft that can hit the ground running, rb- not so much 

'Piss excellence' -RB

cinserious's picture

Even the truly 'elite' RBs (of which Hyde and Lacy belong) won't get the big contracts anymore. Trent Richardson was the last of that kind. Having a great RB will always be coveted, especially a physical one with size, but teams just wont use a 1st or 2nd rd pick anymore on them. If they miss out on Hyde in the 2nd or 3rd rd, Gms feel just as comfortable drafting a lesser-known commodity.

Its kind of like the Denver Broncos of the late 90's/early '00's where the team made the RB (Terrelle Davis), now all NFL teams feel comfortable taking that approach.

One day I will valiantly become a political prisoner of 11W jail.

gumtape's picture

" I got news for you Mr. Brown, you haven't heard the last of me. You may think I'm shit now, but someday you're gonna be sorry you cut me. I'm gonna catch on somewhere else and every time that I pitch against you I'm gonna stick it up your f*ckin' ass! "

I think Hyde should heed the words of Rick Vaughn when he plays against all of the teams that will inevitably pass on him...

I can't imagine what an angry Hyde would be like. I think M*chigan knows.

High and tight boo boo

+1 HS
Bradyhokescholesterol's picture

Problem is the team that choses him will have already passed on him once.

BassDropper's picture

I believe someone may end up trading back in to the 1st round to take him if they truly need a RB. Too many teams in the early 2nd round have been linked to Carlos (Texans, Browns, Raiders, Jags) The Titans are one of the teams who reportedly is showing a ton of interest and they are picking behind those teams.


-1 HS
Deadly Nuts's picture

You don't deny El Guapo, El Guapo denies you.


PK's picture

Many teams are actually going back to a higher percentage of running plays.  The reason that RBs are being drafted later and not paid huge contracts is that their value over replacement isn't that great.  With the exception of a Peterson-type talent, it's a very fungible position.  And even with the guys like Peterson, injuries are a concern and their careers are often short.

NuttyBuckeye's picture

All I can say is: what a shame such a big and powerful back that has the speed to break long runs is no longer coveted in the NFL...

Carlos has the frame, size, and strength to be a 20+ carry back in the NFL, but this is no longer needed by many NFL teams.

What's round on the ends and high in the middle? Tell me if you know!