First-round running backs are scarce

Mark Ingram may be the only running back taken in the first round of the draft. What does that say about the future of the position? Marvin Gentry/US Presswire

Alabama running back Mark Ingram's specialty is running downhill.

But with the way this draft is shaping up, you must wonder whether the position he plays is in a downward spiral. Ingram is probably going to be the only running back taken in the first round.

Only three teams -- Miami, New England and possibly New Orleans -- have prime needs in the backfield. Ronnie Brown and Ricky Williams are unsigned, and Miami coach Tony Sparano is run-oriented. The Dolphins could have the luxury of trading down in the first round and still getting Ingram.

What's happened to the running back position?

Though there are plenty of 1,000-yard runners coming out of college, the NFL hasn't had too many draft classes recently loaded with top running backs. It's not that the position is in decline. It's just the luck of the draft this year.

At the combine, many of the top backs -- those who have the 210-pound-plus bodies that fit so well in the NFL -- ran subpar times in the 40. Ingram ran a 4.62 40. Mikel Leshoure from Illinois ran a 4.59. Of course, we saw last year that 40 times don't determine the quality of the running backs. Ryan Mathews (Chargers), C.J. Spiller (Bills) and Jahvid Best (Lions) all run sub-4.4 40s and had subpar rookie seasons.

The best rookie running backs last year were undrafted: LeGarrette Blount and Chris Ivory. Blount, a power back at 241 pounds, ran a 4.7 40 at the scouting combine in Indianapolis. Ivory wasn't even invited.

But the game is changing as teams adjust to the league being even more focused on quarterback play. More teams have gone more to two-back rotations, which lessens the demand for a 20-carry back. Last year, there were only six backs who averaged 20 carries a game. There were 12 20-carry backs in 2004 and 13 in 2005.

You can also see the number of backs starting to drop because of the spread offenses in college. Many college backs get their carries out of shotgun formation, and they don't have the luxury of following a fullback. Fullbacks aren't part of the college spread offenses. NFL teams must take players from other positions and try to convert them into the fullbacks.

Last year, only 14 running backs were drafted, in part because fullbacks weren't readily available for teams to draft.

Still, if good backs are available, teams will draft them. Five backs were taken in the first round in 2008. Three of the top five picks in 2005 were running backs.

But it's also clear that specialization has lessened the demand for running backs. Good offenses can get by with a downhill runner on first and second downs, a third-down back who can catch the ball well and block, and maybe a third back who can do both.

The average team runs the ball 27 times a game. Good offensive coaches can manage a decent running game by mixing and matching backs in the right situations and not overloading one featured back.

Sure, having an Adrian Peterson, Steven Jackson or Rashard Mendenhall makes it easier for offenses, but it's not like the 1970s when teams lived by the ground game. Today, the teams with the best quarterbacks win. The teams with the runners survive until they go against the opponents with better quarterbacks.

I still believe in the old formula used by offensive coordinators that says a good offense is one that combines running plays and completed passes. A good offense has 48 to 50 running plays plus completed passes. A great offense is one that combines 52 or more running plays and completed passes.

The better the running game, the easier it is to develop a young quarterback. Cam Newton, for example, would progress better in a Carolina offense as opposed to one, say, in Buffalo. The Panthers have the running back talent to average 30 or more running plays a game. If the Panthers can get 32 or more running plays a game, Newton would need to complete only 16 passes a game to be decent as a rookie.

It's no accident that Ben Roethlisberger did well as a rookie in Pittsburgh -- the Steelers could run the ball well enough to lessen the demands on him.

Running backs are still important, but in this draft, they are taking a backseat. It will be interesting to see whether Ingram, the one back who fits the potential 20-carry role, goes in the middle of the first round or toward the bottom.

John Clayton, a recipient of the Pro Football Hall of Fame's McCann Award for distinguished reporting, is a senior writer for ESPN.com.