How first-round rookie running backs have fared

EARTH CITY, Mo. -- Upon spending the No. 10 overall selection on running back Todd Gurley in this year's NFL draft, the St. Louis Rams helped reverse a recent trend in which backs have rarely gone in the first round.

In fact, with the Rams taking Gurley and the San Diego Chargers selecting Wisconsin's Melvin Gordon five picks later, the average draft position of the top two running backs (12.5) was the best in the past four years by five whole picks.

Gurley and Gordon were also the first running backs to go in the first round since the Cleveland Browns used the third overall selection on Trent Richardson in 2012.

So, that begs the question of why that trend started and how those running backs have fared once they arrive in the league.

According to ESPN Stats & Information, out of the last 10 running backs chosen in the first round, only two remain with the team that drafted him, and the Buccaneers just declined the 2016 option on Doug Martin.

The last 10 running backs drafted in the first round before Gurley and Gordon are Martin, Richardson, David Wilson, Mark Ingram, C.J. Spiller, Ryan Mathews, Jahvid Best, Knowshon Moreno, Donald Brown and Beanie Wells. Not exactly a murderers row of rushers, is it?

It's also the kind of list that can make teams want to avoid the top rushers. In fairness though, none of those players, save for Richardson, came with the kind of hype, talent and expectations that Gurley and Gordon bring.

From the backs taken in the first round in the last six drafts, only Martin ran for 1,000 yards as a rookie. That success was short-lived, though, as Martin had 950 rushing yards the next two seasons combined.

If you go back further to a bigger sample size, the numbers are far more favorable to first-round running backs. In the 45 seasons since the merger, there are only nine seasons in which a first-round back didn't lead the league in rushing. But it's instructive to note that four of those nine occasions have happened since 2010 (2010, 2011, 2013, 2014).

Of the top 13 rushers in the league last season, only Seattle's Marshawn Lynch (No. 4) was a first-round pick.

Of course, history doesn't always serve as a predictor of the future. And if any rookie running back is going to have success, it seems the Rams offer a prime opportunity. In each of the past two seasons, the team's leading rusher has been a rookie (Zac Stacy in 2013 and Tre Mason in 2014). Stacy and Mason managed to do that despite not playing much until Game 5 of their respective seasons.

So it stands to reason that Gurley will continue that trend. The Elias Sports Bureau says that a rookie back has led his team in rushing in three straight seasons only five times in league history, with the 2007-2009 Denver Broncos the most recent example.

The Rams drafted Gurley to be their bell cow and the centerpiece of the offense. Even if that doesn't happen in 2015 as he recovers from his knee injury, Gurley should offer the next big litmus test for taking a back in the first round.