IRVING, Texas -- For the last few years the running back position has taken more hits than a presidential candidate.
Since 2012, there have been only five running backs chosen in the first round, with none in 2013 and 2014. Maybe it is the curse of Trent Richardson, who was the third overall pick in 2012 by the Cleveland Browns and found himself traded in his second season and out of football last year.
But then the St. Louis Rams took Todd Gurley with the 10th overall pick, knowing he needed time to recover from a knee injury suffered at Georgia. In 13 games, Gurley had 1,106 yards rushing with 10 touchdowns and looks to be the game’s next great running back.
The Dallas Cowboys have a running back need, despite seeing Darren McFadden run for all but 129 of his 1,089 yards in 11 starts in 2015.
Could they take a running back with the fourth overall pick? Ability-wise there are no questions about Ohio State’s Ezekiel Elliott. He is the best runner available in the draft. He had 1,821 yards and 23 touchdowns for the Buckeyes in 2015. He also caught 27 passes for 206 yards and is considered a devastating blocker too.
When it comes to running backs, it’s not so much about talent, it’s about the long term. Teams picking in the top 10 want that player to be an 8-10 year foundational piece. Running backs have been feeling the pinch because historically production drops once they reach 30 years old, if not a little before that.
That’s why teams are leery to sign running backs to big free-agent contracts. The Cowboys would go only so far financially to keep DeMarco Murray because of their analysis of age and production for running backs.
“I think you look at backs a little different,” Cowboys executive vice president Stephen Jones said. “Most of the backs that you pick are ready to come in and play right now, unless there is an injury issue like Gurley. But he was still able to come in and be pretty productive even though he missed the first four to six games, whatever that was.”
The fourth pick in the draft this year is set to earn a four-year deal worth roughly $24 million, fully guaranteed. Teams can pick up the fifth-year options on their first-round picks after the third season. A top-10 pick earns the transition tag at their position.
This year, the transition tag is $9.6 million for running backs. That number should go down at least a little by 2020 because teams simply aren’t paying big money for runners these days.
By 2019, only Murray and LeSean McCoy are currently on the books for more than $9 million per year, and the chances that either plays out his contract by then are slim.
So the question becomes would you want a running back fresh out of college on a five-year deal worth, say, $33 million total? Is that more palatable than, say, signing a Lamar Miller in free agency for a similar price?
If you are hung up on the second contract, the answer will likely always be no. If you look at running backs as a position to churn through players, then maybe you say yes.
The Cowboys drafted Morris Claiborne with the sixth overall pick in 2012, believing they made a steal of a move to trade up for what was considered the best cornerback available. They saw Claiborne as an 8-10 year player.
In four seasons, Claiborne missed 24 regular-season games, intercepted three passes and the Cowboys did not pick up the fifth-year option. They hope to re-sign him as a free agent but will have a difficult time coming to an agreement on his price.
Claiborne is proof that there are no guarantees, despite the grade they had on him entering the draft.
Five years is a lifetime in the NFL, especially at running back.
If you are virtually guaranteed top-end production for a five-year run, especially with an offensive line the Cowboys employ, why care about years six through whatever?
“I think you would look at a back a little differently in terms of being successful if you can't resign them like DeMarco,” Jones said. “I think DeMarco was a great pick in the third round. We just made a decision that it wasn’t efficient for us to spend that much money for his second contract. We would have for the right amount of money. We would have liked to have had him at that point.”