It’s been seven years since the famous 2014 draft, in which no running back was selected inside the top 50. Bishop Sankey was first off the board at No. 54 overall, quickly followed by Jeremy Hill (55) and Carlos Hyde (57). Hyde is arguably the most successful running back from that class, along with Devonta Freeman (103) and James White (130).
That 2014 class joins 2013 as the only two classes of the past 20 years to go without a running back selected in the first round. With each successive season, however, the league becomes a little more pass-heavy and commits more readily to committee backfields that don’t require early-drafted running backs to roll. Just last season, with stud prospects like Jonathan Taylor, D’Andre Swift, and J.K. Dobbins all available, only LSU pass-catcher Clyde Edwards-Helaire went in the first round: at No. 32 overall to the Kansas City Chiefs. In three of the last five classes, only one running back has been selected in the first round outright.
When compared to those past classes, it’s reasonable to expect that the 2021 group will also dance along that line. With Alabama’s Najee Harris, Clemson’s Travis Etienne, and North Carolina’s Javonte Williams all clustered at the top of a generally weak running back class, the consensus RB1 in the league and in the media is unclear, which makes prognosticating a landing spot in the first round all the trickier.
Betting lines have moved to reflect this reality. Only recently in Sports Betting Dimes’ tracking has Harris passed Etienne as the favorite to go first off the board, while Williams—listed as a +700 player for much of the season—is at +500 at BetOnline. We don’t yet have odds that a running back will make it in Round 1, but reverse engineering that likelihood is made trickier when we don’t know who the clear consensus top back is. Remember, around this time last season, Edwards-Helaire was +900 to be the first running back off the board, behind Swift, Taylor, and Dobbins.
[Editor's note: As of April 8, we now have odds: Over 0.5 RBs drafted (-250); Under 0.5 RBs drafted (+170)]
In the first week of April last year, over 0.5 running backs in Round 1 was -340—more confidence than would be due, as it was Edwards-Helaire who ended up saving the bet with the last pick in the first round. This season, there isn’t as much talent in the class, so teams may not feel emboldened to wait for Day 2 to grab a value starter as they were in 2020. But there also isn’t as much need at the position.
We list running back as a primary need for only four teams: the Steelers (No. 24 overall), Cardinals (No. 16 overall), Dolphins (Nos. 3 and 18 overall), and Buccaneers (No. 32 overall). But the Steelers have endured significant talent drains on the offensive line and in the defensive backfield; the Buccaneers have two rookie contract running backs (Ronald Jones and Ke’Shawn Vaughn) in the building, just like the Steelers do. The weakest teams here at running back are the Cardinals and the Dolphins, but Nos. 16 and 18 overall are pretty early picks to spend on a top back. In the last three draft classes, the only running back selected that early was Saquon Barkley all the way up at No. 2.
If we limit ourselves to that later range, teams like the Buffalo Bills (No. 30 overall) and New York Jets (No. 23 overall) become candidates for a surprise running back pick as they take the best player on the board. The Jets’ running back room is perhaps the weakest in the league, and while the Bills have two Day 2 running backs in the building (Devin Singletary and Zack Moss), there aren’t many other holes to fill on their roster. But with the Bills’ pass-happy approach on offense and the Jets’ depleted defensive roster considered, it’s again tricky to commit either team to a running back pick.
Given the talent of Harris, Etienne, and even Williams, it’s still reasonable to expect a running back goes in Round 1. Teams stay true to their boards, and when you get to the back third of the first round, often only a few Round 1 grades remain for each franchise. If one of those players is a running back, they’ll make the pick.
But it’s tough to define scheme fits and valuation with our muddied view at the top of the class. Will the Bills view Harris as a legit three-down threat who fits within their pass-happy offensive approach? Will the Jets prioritize the home run speed of Etienne when their running back rotation last year all lacked that explosion and long speed combination? Will the Buccaneers draft to maximize offense in the waning years of Tom Brady’s winning window?
Another year, another discussion on running back value. But I’d imagine the streak stays intact this year with another Round 1 running back. And like every Round 1 running back before them, the pick will be hotly-contested at the time and examined for years to come.