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If the running back position has been devalued, someone may have forgotten to tell NFL general managers. While the workloads have never been smaller — only Le’Veon Bell surpassed 300 carries in 2017 — and the shelf life has never been shorter, elite talents continue to be taken early in the first round.
Todd Gurley, Melvin Gordon, Ezekiel Elliott, Christian McCaffrey, and Leonard Fournette were all top-15 picks over the past three drafts, even though positional value would tell you to steer clear with that type of investment.
In 2018, we could see three backs taken in the first round, with Penn State’s Saquon Barkley a lock for the top 10. He could be joined on day one by Derrius Guice and Sony Michel, even as the NFL refuses to pay money to running backs on second contracts not named Jerrick McKinnon.
Over the past eight seasons, just five free-agent running backs have been given more than $9 million in guaranteed money. In contrast, five free agent guards were given $10 million or more in 2018 alone.
So what gives? If the NFL seemingly thinks running backs are highly replaceable commodities, why is Barkley being floated as the potential second overall pick?
In short, it’s because he’s a 99th-percentile SPARQ athlete with outstanding skills as a receiver who also happens to be 233 pounds. He’s rare. Yet an argument could still be made that it’s simply not worth the investment.
So what will the NFL tell us about how it views the running back position on Day 1? How many first-round rushers will be selected, and which teams will make that investment?
Who Will Draft Lamar Jackson?
Without a doubt, the most explosive athlete who will be selected on Day 1 is former Heisman winning quarterback Lamar Jackson. For context on that claim, the Louisville Cardinals quarterback combined for more total yards and touchdowns in 2017 than Michael Vick totaled in his entire college career.
He also posted 330 more rushing yards than Saquon Barkley did last year while passing for 1,848 yards more than Josh Allen did.
A sensational athlete with an NFL arm, Jackson is easily the most exciting dual-threat quarterback to enter the league since Vick, yet he is clearly viewed as a second-tier prospect behind the “big four” of Darnold, Rosen, Mayfield, and Allen.
In a league that seemingly values how a quarterback prospect looks — i.e. big and tall — rather than how they play, Jackson seemingly has more doubters in league circles than he has fans. Inconsistent ball placement, a small frame, and an average arm are certainly justifiable concerns, but the Louisville quarterback possesses a set of skills that could give defensive coordinators headaches.
In 2017, we saw Houston Texans coach Bill O’Brien rework his entire offense to fit the skill set of Deshaun Watson, a quarterback with similar concerns regarding accuracy and arm strength, and he far exceeded expectations.
The Philadelphia Eagles had great success implementing the now (in)famous run/pass option (RPOs) into their playbook to assist in the development of another mobile quarterback in Carson Wentz.
And of course, Cam Newton has thrived in Carolina Panthers despite accuracy issues in large part because the coaches have tailored offensive concepts to maximize his ability as a runner and his gifts as a passer, however limited.
But for all the success coaches have had catering their systems to unique skills sets, there is still extreme hesitation league wide to try to win in an unconventional way. The road to success is certainly paved with the failures of Robert Griffin III, Tim Tebow, and Vince Young.
The coaching staff that takes a chance on Jackson clearly will think he has the capacity for greatness. But will they have the creativity to allow the young prospect to flourish? If so, Jackson has the talent to be a generational type of prospect at the most important position in football.
Color me intrigued.
Will Teams Hesitate to Draft Wide Receivers?
Few positions have had a worse return on investment over the past three years than wide receivers drafted in the first round. Will that fact, combined with the widely held view that this class lacks top end talent at the position, cause executives to pass on a position of need?
There is no doubt that teams like Dallas Cowboys, Buffalo Bills, San Francisco 49ers, Arizona Cardinals and Carolina Panthers have needs at the position, but will players get forced up the board as a result?
In the past three years, only Amari Cooper has made a Pro Bowl after being selected in the first round. The others selected there have mostly underwhelemed: Kevin White, Nelson Agholor, Breshad Perriman, DeVante Parker, Phillip Dorsett, Corey Coleman, Laquon Treadwell, Will Fuller, Josh Doctson, John Ross, Corey Davis, and Mike Williams.
In a league that revolves around the passing game, finding elite weapons on the outside will always be a priority, but given the recent history, how will teams approach the 2018 crop?
NFL coaches are quick to blame the college game for inadequately preparing prospects for the NFL, specifically when it comes to understanding the nuances of route running and reading defenses. But yet they continue to place heavy bets on physical talent over precision and then seem surprised when Cooper Kupp outperforms a player like Ross.
So who will teams target on Day 1? The names often floated are Maryland’s DJ Moore, Alabama’s Calvin Ridley, and SMU’s Courtland Sutton.
But Ridley tested poorly as an athlete, Sutton isn’t known for his separation skills as a route runner, and Moore doesn’t have much of a track record of top tier production.
So will the NFL be tentative about investing in such a valuable position that has generated so many flops over the past few seasons? Or will those classes be viewed as anomalies, allowing teams to go back to the well once again early in the first round?
What Will the Shocking Moment of 2018 Be?
The NFL Draft is nothing if not entertaining.
The past few seasons, especially, have made it abundantly clear to expect the unexpected — or even to expect the unbelievable.
The New Orleans Saints traded their entire draft and then some for Ricky Williams, Aaron Rodgers slid all the way to pick 24, and Tim Tebow was a surprising first-round pick.
So what will the 2018 draft have in store for us?
Rumors of Baker Mayfield being in the conversation for the top overall pick already has Twitter abuzz.
The Patriots certainly have been plagued with a number of unsubstantiated rumors about internal chaos. They have the draft capital to make waves, and would it be a shock to see Rob Gronkowski moved in the process?
When it comes to the NFL draft, chaos is king, and we shouldn’t expect anything different in 2018. It is must-see TV, which is strange considering we are still four months away from players actually putting on pads and playing a meaningful game.
Will the Trade Tsunami Continue?
After an offseason that featured a tsunami of trade action unlike anything we’ve ever seen in the NFL, the first round of the 2018 NFL Draft should be a continuation of transactions.
We’ve already seen three trades shake up the top 32 picks, with the Jets, Patriots, and Bills all making moves up the board. So who will be next, and which players will be the primary targets of these upward moves?
It is widely expected that the Bills will move up once again to acquire one of the big four quarterbacks, and that could ignite a massive gold rush to land the last man standing at the position in Lamar Jackson. Will a run on quarterbacks create desperate trades up the board for the Cardinals?
In addition to draft pick trades, could we also see big-time players get moved as teams maneuver around the board?
The 2018 offseason has already produced mega deals for Brandin Cooks, Cordy Glenn, Jason Pierre-Paul, Alex Smith…