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Are running backs worthy of first round Draft picks?

With speculation that the Bengals could target Dalvin Cook or Leonard Fournette in the first round of the 2017 NFL Draft, we wonder if it’s even worth drafting a running back in the first round.

Capitol One Orange Bowl - Florida State v Michigan Photo by Mike Ehrmann/Getty Images

With the 2017 NFL Draft coming up in a couple months and no obvious pick staring Bengals’ fans in the face, there is much speculation as to what direction the Bengals could go with the No. 9 overall pick. The smart money seems to be on defensive end or linebacker, but cornerback, wide receiver and running back could be in play, too, if the Bengals utilize a “best player available” approach.

If the Bengals grab a running back in the first round, it would likely be Florida State’s elusive three down back Dalvin Cook or Louisiana State’s big, fast, straight-line runner Leonard Fournette. Some like how Cook can create yardage out of nothing, while others like how Fournette can deliver devastating stiff arms and hits when his offensive line opens gaping holes for him to blast through. But, before the Bengals take a step forward with a running back, let’s take a step backward and see if first round running backs have proved to be worth the investment.

In my case study, elite running backs are those I consider to be future Hall of Fame candidates. They are players who were consistently dominant and easily worthy of a first round pick, if not also a top 10 pick, which is where the Bengals are picking in the 2017 NFL Draft.

Very good players are ones who are not Hall of Fame worthy, but were very productive. They’re capable of some great things on the football field. They would be worthy of a first round pick, too.

The solid players are ones who were good enough to become NFL starters, but were by no means special. They aren’t exactly players you would want to use a first round pick on, but if you could get them in the second or third round, you’d be happy.

The easily replaceable players are just that – easily replaceable. They consist of platoon players who sometimes were starters and sometimes were backups. They are guys who could make an active roster, but weren’t stars. Spending anything more than a mid-round pick on any of these players would be seen as a wasted pick in retrospect.

Draft busts are guys who should just never be drafted, expect maybe at the very end of the draft. Taking them before the end of the draft is a disappointment, and taking them in round one is an absolute disaster.

Since the year 2000, there have been 42 running backs selected in the first round of the NFL Draft. I’m not going to consider the running backs selected in 2015 or 2016 because their careers are too new to know how history will perceive them. So that leaves us with 39 runners selected in the first round since the new millennium. Here is how they have done:

Elite Running Backs (5%):

  • Adrian Peterson 111 total yards per game, 162 career touchdowns
  • LaDainian Tomlinson 109 YPG, 109 TDs

Very good players (13%):

  • Jamal Lewis 95 YPG, 62 TDs
  • Steven Jackson 95 YPG, 78 TDs
  • Chris Johnson 93 YPG, 64 TDs
  • Shaun Alexander 89 YPG, 112 TDs
  • Marshawn Lynch 87 YPG, 83 TDs
American Express Kicks-Off Their First Section 12 Pre-Seattle Seahawks Game Experience With Seahawks Legend Shaun Alexander Photo by Mat Hayward/Getty Images for American Express

Solid players (28%):

  • Doug Martin 92 YPG, 25 TDs
  • Larry Johnson 89 YPG, 61 TDs
  • Deuce McAllister 81 YPG, 54 TDs
  • Jahvid Best 78 YPG, 9 TDs
  • Joseph Addai 76 YPG, 48 TDs
  • DeAngelo Williams 72 YPG, 70 TDs
  • Cedric Benson 71 YPG, 33 TDs
  • Thomas Jones 70 YPG, 71 TDs
  • Rashard Mendenhall 70 YPG, 39 TDs
  • Willis McGahee 69 YPG, 70 TDs
  • Jonathan Stewart 68 YPG, 51 TDs

Easily Replaceable (28%):

  • Knowshon Moreno 80 YPG, 36 TDs
  • Ryan Mathews 77 YPG, 40 TDs
  • Darren McFadden 73 YPG, 33 TDs
  • Reggie Bush 68 YPG, 54 TDs
  • Mark Ingram 67 YPG, 36 TDs
  • Kevin Jones 65 YPG, 27 TDs
  • Cadillac Williams 62 YPG, 25 TDs
  • Laurence Maroney 60 YPG, 22 TDs
  • Ronnie Brown 56 YPG, 40 TDs
  • C.J. Spiller 55 YPG, 21 TDs
  • Beanie Wells 54 YPG, 24 TDs

Draft Bust (26%):

  • Trent Richardson 64 YPG, 19 TDs
  • William Green 52 YPG, 9 TDs
  • Felix Jones 51 YPG, 14 TDs
  • Michael Bennett 46 YPG, 19 TDs
  • Donald Brown 44 YPG, 20 TDs
  • Ron Dayne 42 YPG, 28 TDs
  • T.J. Duckett 34 YPG, 44 TDs
  • Chris Perry 31 YPG, 4 TDs
  • Trung Candidate 29 YPG, 8 TDs
  • David Wilson 26 YPG, 6 TDs
Baltimore Ravens v Cincinnati Bengals
Chris Perry

Less than one out of every five running backs selected in the first round ended up being worthy of a first round selection, while more half of the first round picks were either total busts or easily replaceable players. With that in mind, I’d be very hesitant to invest a first round pick, let alone a top 10 selection on either Cook or Fournette. Running backs can be found in every round of the draft and the position has become de-emphasized in today’s NFL. The historical returns on first round running backs don’t seem to be worth the investment. And with the struggles of the Bengals’ offensive linemen such as Russell Bodine, Cedric Ogbuehi, and Jake Fisher, it makes the potential investment seem even more hazardous.