Every year, every college program has one or more running backs with a high degree of skill. Many of them have the ability to thrive at the next level — if they have sufficient blocking and the ability to hold the football when it’s relentlessly attacked by NFL defenders and a basic knack for picking up blitzers in pass protection.
As a result, capable tailbacks can be found at every level of the draft. They also can be found beyond the draft. And every year there’s a fresh crop of them bubbling up to the NFL.
The latest example comes from Cleveland, where D'Ernest Johnson went from undrafted to the AAF (where he had to send direct messages to team Twitter accounts to get their attention) back to the NFL and, with injuries to those in front of him on the depth chart, a chance to gain 146 yards and to score a touchdown on 22 carries in a key game for the Browns.
It shows how many guys can do the job. It’s a tough, demanding position to be sure, one that results in plenty of injuries. Which becomes all the more reason to not invest first-round draft picks in a tailback without clear conviction that the running back will join the short list of all-time greats, and that he’ll have the durability to do so.
In 2018, the Giants foolishly used the second overall pick on running back Saquon Barkley. Yes, hindsight proves the folly of the selection. But the fact that he’s suffered through chronic injuries at the NFL level is no surprise. Running backs get hit, often and hard. They’re gigantic electromagnets rolling through an anvil warehouse. And the more a guy gets hit, the more likely he is to get injured.
Consider the kinds of car-crash collisions in which tailbacks are engaged. They’re running in one direction, and large, strong, fast men are running in a different direction. The physics point to an impact that inevitably will inflict injury.
This important caveat applies when drafting (or not drafting) running backs and when paying (or not paying) running backs. The position has become devalued because too many guys can do the job, and because every April results in a new class of capable tailbacks with much more tread on the tires, and much cheaper salaries.
The Giants could have had Josh Allen instead of Barkley. One year earlier, the Jaguars (who took Leonard Fournette at No. 4) and the Panthers (who took Christian McCaffrey at No. 8) could have had Patrick Mahomes or Deshaun Watson. Even though McCaffrey has been great when healthy, lately he hasn’t been healthy nearly enough.
It’s not his fault. It’s the nature of the position. Running backs have no protections under the rules, and they constantly run directly into a mosh pit of arms, legs, helmets, shoulder pads, and torsos. It’s amazing they don’t get injured more often.
And, frankly, it’s amazing that anyone would roll the dice on a high-risk position like tailback with a first-round pick.