MOBILE, Ala. -- As seniors at Nebraska and Minnesota, Ameer Abdullah and David Cobb were part of a Big Ten running back class that showed how vital the position can still be in the modern game. Now, they'll be part of a talented draft group that's trying to graduate into the NFL at a time where the running back market has been depressed.
Just six teams spent more than $10 million on their entire running back group in 2014, according to ESPN Stats & Information, with only 13 exceeding the average of $6.87 million for the position. Compare that to the NFL average for the quarterbacks ($11.807 million) and wide receivers ($12.401 million), and the financial impact of the league's well-documented shift toward the passing game becomes obvious.
This year's running back class has depth -- some analysts estimate as many as 10 backs in this year's draft could be solid pros -- and star power at the top with Wisconsin's Melvin Gordon. And yet, there have only been four backs taken in the first round since 2011, and the ones to go that high -- Trent Richardson, Doug Martin, David Wilson and Mark Ingram -- have fallen short of being stars. So as the running backs in the Class of 2015 prepare for the draft, they'll have some work to do if they want to convince teams they're worth a substantial investment.
"The more things you can do, the more valuable you become," said Cobb, who earned second-team All-Big Ten honors in 2014 and has stood out early during his time at the Senior Bowl. "It's kind of like a role player now -- you throw the ball so much. You have to be a special-teams player, you have to protect the quarterback. The more you do, the better off you'll be."
There are few true featured running backs in the league these days, and a large number of the rookies in this year's draft class could be preparing for time-share roles after careers where they've been a key piece of their offenses. But it's worth noting that six of the top 11 rushing teams in the NFL made the playoffs in 2014. That list also includes the 10-6 Eagles, the 9-7 Chiefs and the 9-7 Texans, who all narrowly missed playoff spots.
For the teams in the running back market (including the Vikings, who might be looking for another back depending on Adrian Peterson's future), there's plenty of supply available. It's up to the players in the draft class to stoke some demand.
"I think the best thing for any running back who's eligible for the draft right now is not to worry about [the state of the position]," Abdullah said. "That's when you start to over-reach and do too much. You can't worry about what the fad is in the NFL. Just try to be yourself."