The devaluation of NFL running backs has roots in New England.
The last time Bill Belichick used a first-round draft pick on a running back was 2006 when he selected Laurence Maroney with the 21st overall selection. The last time Belichick used a premium draft pick (first three rounds) on a running back was in 2011, when he selected Shane Vereen in the second round and Stevan Ridley in the third.
Maroney never rushed for 1,000 yards in a season and neither did Vereen. Ridley did … but was on the bench in 2014 when the Patriots won their first Super Bowl in 10 seasons.
Eighteen NFL teams have used first-round picks on a running back since the Patriots claimed Maroney, but only one team went on to win a Super Bowl with that back. Except that Rashard Mendenhall rode the bench in his rookie season, watching as a back who arrived in the NFL as an undrafted college free agent (Willie Parker) powered the Pittsburgh Steelers to that Lombardi Trophy.
The bottom line – when it comes to championships, running backs belong in the supporting cast.
The Patriots captured their fifth Lombardi Trophy last season with a three-deep at running back featuring players who entered the NFL as an undrafted college free agent (LaGarrette Blount), a fourth-round pick (James White) and a fifth-rounder (Dion Lewis).
Now Blount is gone, and the Patriots have the NFL’s 14th-ranked rushing attack with White, Lewis and two other backs who entered the NFL as a fifth-round draft pick (Mike Gillislee) and a sixth (Rex Burkhead). Lewis, in fact, rushed for 100 yards last week in a victory over Miami. White could easily have been the Super Bowl MVP last February after catching 14 passes for 110 yards and one touchdown and rushing for two others against the Falcons, including the game winner in overtime.
There is wealth to be found at running back in the later rounds of drafts. Since 2010, there have been 25 backs drafted in the fourth round or later who have started NFL games. Sixteen of them have posted 100-yard games, and two have posted 200-yard games. Six of those backs have posted 1,000-yard rushing seasons, and five have gone to the Pro Bowl.
Jay Ajayi was a fifth-round pick in 2015 who joined the likes of Hall-of-Famers O.J. Simpson and Earl Campbell with three 200-yard games in a single season (2016). He has been invited to the Pro Bowl, as has Alfred Morris (sixth round, 2012), Latavius Murray (sixth round, 2013) Devonta Freeman (fourth round, 2014) and Jordan Howard (fifth round, 2016).
Howard finished second in the NFL in rushing with 1,313 yards as a rookie with the Chicago Bears last season, and Morris finished second in the league with 1,613 yards as a rookie with the Washington Redskins in 2012.
Chris Thompson, a fifth-round pick by Washington in 2013, was leading the Redskins in both rushing and receiving this season before suffering a broken leg in Week 11. Samaje Perine, a fourth-round pick last April, replaced him in the Washington backfield and has rushed for 100 yards in each of his last two games.
Perine was one of nine running backs drafted in the fourth round-or-later who started in NFL backfields last weekend. Four other backs who arrived in the NFL as undrafted free agents also started games on the final weekend of November.
Undrafteds Thomas Rawls (Seattle, 2015) and Chris Ivory (2010, New Orleans) both have had 200-yard rushing games, and Blount has had two 1,000-yard seasons. Undrafted C.J. Anderson (Denver, 2013) has started in a Super Bowl and has been to the Pro Bowl. Late-round draft picks Lewis, Freeman and James Starks (sixth-round, Green Bay, 2010) also have started in Super Bowls.
Theo Riddick (sixth round, Detroit, 2013) led all NFL in running backs with 80 receptions for the Detroit Lions in 2015, and Thompson had a 100-yard receiving this season for the Redskins. Aaron Jones, a fifth-round pick of the Packers last April, has two 100-yard rushing games this season.
There are quality backs in every draft – and they aren’t all in the first round. Ask Bill Belichick.