An oft-heard statement is that it's not necessary to draft a running back high in the draft, that it's the one position, outside of kickers and punters, that can be saved for the end of the draft. It's often said that with the position, you can just "plug and play" a running back as they are "a dime a dozen." I decided to take a look at that statement, to see if it's true or not.
In the chart below, you'll see every team listed with their starter, or starters, listed. You'll also see the round that the player was selected in the NFL Draft. It's my contention that the vast majority of starters, with a few exceptions, were selected in the top three rounds of the draft. Some of the players listed were injured for some or most of the season, but they were still considered the presumptive starter for the team, so it isn't a perfect list. That isn't to say you can only get a good player in the beginning of the draft, or that it's impossible to find value later on, as Arian Foster and Alfred Morris disprove, but as with any other position, a higher draft selection, and thus, more talent, equates to more production.
|Buffalo Bills||Fred Jackson/C.J. Spiller||UDFA/1st|
|Miami Dolphins||Reggie Bush||1st|
|New England Patriots||Shane Vereen/Stevan Ridley||2nd/3rd|
|New York Jets||Shonn Greene||3rd|
|Baltimore Ravens||Ray Rice||2nd|
|Cincinnati Bengals||BenJarvus Green-Ellis||UDFA|
|Cleveland Browns||Trent Richardson||1st|
|Pittsburgh Steelers||Rashard Mendenhall||1st|
|Houston Texans||Arian Foster||UDFA|
|Indianapolis Colts||Donald Brown/Vick Ballard||1st/5th|
|Jacksonville Jaguars||Maurice Jones-Drew||2nd|
|Tennessee Titans||Chris Johnson||1st|
|Denver Broncos||Willis McGahee/Knowshon Moreno||1st/1st|
|Kansas City Chiefs||Jamaal Charles||3rd|
|Oakland Raiders||Darren McFadden||1st|
|San Diego Chargers||Ryan Mathews||1st|
|Dallas Cowboys||DeMarco Murray/Felix Jones||3rd/1st|
|New York Giants||Ahmad Bradshaw/David Wilson||7th/1st|
|Philadelphia Eagles||LeSean McCoy||2nd|
|Washington Redskins||Alfred Morris||6th|
|Chicago Bears||Matt Forte||2nd|
|Detroit Lions||Jahvid Best||1st|
|Green Bay Packers||Cedric Benson/DuJuan Harris||1st/UDFA|
|Minnesota Vikings||Adrian Peterson||1st|
|Atlanta Falcons||Michael Turner||5th|
|Carolina Panthers||DeAngelo Williams||1st|
|New Orleans Saints||Mark Ingram/Darren Sproles||1st/4th|
|Tampa Bay Buccaneers||Doug Martin||1st|
|Arizona Cardinals||Beanie Wells||1st|
|St. Louis Rams||Steven Jackson||1st|
|San Francisco 49ers||Frank Gore||3rd|
|Seattle Seahawks||Marshawn Lynch||1st|
- Of the 39 players listed, 31 were drafted in the first three rounds of the NFL Draft.
- Of the top ten leaders in rushing yards during the regular season, eight were drafted in the first three rounds.
- Of the twelve teams that made the playoffs this year, eight took a running back in the first three rounds.
The main point to take away from this is that while it's not impossible to find talent late in the draft at the running back position, it's significantly easier to find it in the first three rounds, like every other position. As much play as the statement "a dime a dozen" gets applied to running backs, if you want to have a powerful rushing attack, you shouldn't skimp during the draft just for the sake of finding a million more later on. I don't want to suggest that you must always draft a running back high, especially if it's at the expense of another important position, but finding a gem of a running back late should be a pleasant surprise, not a way of doing business.