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Ranking Every 1st Round RB Since 2012 NFL Draft

  • Daniel Olinger
  • May 16, 2023
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The Cleveland Browns ruined everything when they drafted Trent Richardson. 

Up until that point, running backs had a pretty good gig in the old National Football League. From 2000 through 2012, 39 different running backs were selected in the first round of the NFL draft, averaging out to exactly 3.0 halfbacks per year. But ever since the grand Richardson at third overall experiment of 2012, only 14 running backs have been selected in the first round of the past 11 NFL drafts, and three drafts have seen no running backs go in the first round altogether.

Richardson busted so spectacularly that NFL decision-makers rethought their processes and philosophies. The phrase “never take a running back in the first round” quickly trickled down to all levels of football fan discourse, and now every single announcement of a first-round running back is destined to get quote-tweeted into oblivion by accounts with handles akin to @draft_value. 

With two more first-round running backs going off the board this year in Bijan Robinson and Jahmyr Gibbs, let’s take a look at how each of those 15 first-round backs has panned out since the landmark Richardson disaster in 2012.

15. David Wilson (2012, New York Giants)

14. Trent Richardson (2012, Cleveland Browns)

While Richardson was the obvious tipping point that caused so many to turn on the running back position—not only for his on-field disappointment but also for the high-quality asset the Browns (and later the Colts) used to acquire him—there was a far worse running back selected in the first round of the 2012 NFL Draft. With the 32nd and final pick of the draft’s opening round, the defending Super Bowl champion New York Giants decided that they were playing with house money and put it all on David Wilson, a back out of Virginia Tech who had just finished his junior season with over 1700 yards rushing. Unfortunately for the Giants, Wilson would only rack up 504 total rushing yards over 21 games total in the NFL before he suffered a career-ending neck injury and was out of the game for good. 

Richardson made for better memes and was much more of a household name following his stardom at Alabama, but he still racked up over 2,000 total rushing yards in the NFL, while Wilson’s career was seemingly over before it even started.

13. Clyde Edwards-Helaire (2020, Kansas City Chiefs)

12. Sony Michel (2018, New England Patriots)

11. Rashaad Penny (2018, Seattle Seahawks)

Edwards-Helaire and Michel aren’t too far removed from the Wilson pick as perennial Super Bowl contenders decided to waste a first-rounder on a running back they thought might turn into a special weapon for them, only for both franchises to be perennially disappointed by their premium pick halfbacks instead. Both had their moments and are technically Super Bowl-champion players, but were ultimately replaced by running backs who panned out better despite being selected with later picks in Isaiah Pacheco and Damien Harris.

Penny is a different tale altogether and could be argued up and down this list for hours. His 5.7 yards per rushing attempt is quite literally the second-greatest average in NFL history for players with more than 300 career rushing attempts, placing him directly above names such as Bo Jackson and Jamaal Charles. He’s also never reached a mark of 800 rushing yards in a season and over the last three years has played a grand total of 18 games. Penny’s injury history has sadly defined his career to this point, talented as he may be. 

The NFL hasn’t totally given up on the former San Diego State Aztec, as the Philadelphia Eagles added Penny to their running back rotation for a contract worth up to $2.1 million this offseason, and many are excited to see what he can do behind the league’s best offensive line. Those five games where Penny is healthy and averages 150 yards per contest should be spectacular.

10. Travis Etienne (2021, Jacksonville Jaguars)

9. Najee Harris (2021, Pittsburgh Steelers)

Etienne and Harris are both in the “still super young so it’s hard to rank them” bucket. A lot of people are down on Harris after he was hyped up as potentially being worth the No. 1 overall pick in fantasy football drafts the year prior, only for him to trudge to a rather boring season. Etienne, meanwhile, remains fast and flashy as always, but only has one season on his track record to date following his Lisfranc injury in 2021. 

However, in the three collective seasons between Harris and Etienne in the NFL, three 1,000-yard rushing campaigns have been put together—even if Pittsburgh fans might want more out of Harris and Jacksonville fans might be worried about the overall longevity of Etienne. Only time will tell if either of them can make moves up this list, but both have seemingly surpassed the “bust” zone that some first-round running backs have fallen into.

8. Leonard Fournette (2017, Jacksonville Jaguars)

7. Melvin Gordon (2015, San Diego Chargers)

Fournette probably has the greatest name recognition ever for a running back who was largely underwhelming for most of his professional career. While he did put together a pair of 1,000-yard rushing seasons, his yards/attempt numbers were always brutal, and he was out of Jacksonville in just three years. He still has gotten a lot of hype during his time in Tampa Bay due to a couple of breakout playoff performances and the remnants of his sophomore season at LSU, where he was flattening 19 and 20-year-olds on the football field on a weekly basis.

Likewise, Melvin Gordon came in with quite the reputation after shattering records at Wisconsin and did have a solid tenure in San Diego-turned-Los Angeles. But following his contract hold-out and subsequent dropoff, it seems as though he wasn’t quite worth the 15th overall pick that was used on him back in 2015 despite making two Pro Bowl appearances.

6. Doug Martin (2012, Tampa Bay Buccaneers)

5. Josh Jacobs (2019, Oakland Raiders)

4. Saquon Barkley (2018, New York Giants)

3. Todd Gurley (2015, St. Louis Rams)

Martin was the one running back of the 2012 first round who did pan out quite well, finishing with more than 5,000 career rushing yards, two seasons with more than 1,400 rushing yards, and a first-team All-Pro selection in 2015. Not to mention, the 5-foot-9 back out of Boise State also compiled more than 1,207 receiving yards and nearly 150 receptions over the course of his seven-year career. No one will ever make the Hall-of-Fame case for Doug Martin, but he was undeniably a very good NFL player for roughly five years, which is more than enough for him to crack the top six of this list. 

Jacobs has been around just long enough to escape the “too young to tell” category that Harris and Etienne were thrown into. Though many were down on him following a subpar season in 2021, Jacobs bounced back to not only have his third 1,000-yard rushing season in four years, but quite literally led the league in rushing in 2022. Jacobs is a franchise running back and is the best rusher to come out of Alabama during the Saban era that was not named Derrick Henry. 

Barkley absolutely rules and has been nothing but brilliant when he’s been out on the field, but similar to the soon-to-be-discussed Gurley, the durability is just concerning. He had a major bounce-back last season as the catalyst to Brian Daboll’s wacky offense and New York’s surprising divisional round appearance, but he still has fewer career rushing yards than Jacobs despite being drafted a year before him. I gave Barkley the edge at No. 4 because, water gun to my head, I’d say he’s just better at football than Jacobs is, but I couldn’t argue with anyone who thinks that he should be placed lower on the list. 

Gurley is obviously one of the hardest players to rank on any list, let alone one for first-round running backs. Like Roy Hibbert went from being LeBron’s most problematic defender to out of the NBA in just two years, Gurley went from MVP runner-up in 2018 to unemployed by 2021. Still, over his first four years with the Rams, Gurley was nigh unstoppable, nearly won an MVP, and helped drag the Rams to a Super Bowl before his knee finally gave out. It’s quite possible Jacobs and Barkley pass him for career value in just a few seasons, but Gurley’s peak was great enough that neither is there quite yet.

2. Ezekiel Elliott (2016, Dallas Cowboys)

1. Christian McCaffrey (2017, Carolina Panthers)

Placing Elliott at No. 2 might seem blasphemous to some after the last few seasons of his career, but it’s important to remember what he did in Dallas over seven seasons: Two seasons as the league’s leading rusher, four different seasons with over 1,000 rushing yards, and never dipping below 876 rushing yards in a season, even in 2017 when he played only 10 games due to suspension, and still finished with 983 yards on the year. 

From 2016-2022, the Cowboys were in the playoffs four different times, made the divisional round three times, and could rely on Elliott as an above-average if not great running back each year. The contract the team gave him crippled the franchise moving forward, but that’s an indictment of how the decision-makers in Dallas decided to handle Elliott’s career with the team, not on the actual pick and production of Elliott himself. He’s been a damn good running back in his career and is third all-time in career rushing yards for the Cowboys behind only Emmitt Smith and Tony Dorsett. 

Why McCaffrey at No. 1? He’s had three 1,000-yard rushing campaigns, sure, but in his three other seasons combined he’s barely racked up 1,000 yards total due to two major injuries in 2020 and 2021. Well, it goes back to the “water gun at your head, who’s better at football?” argument. 

In a world where running backs are seen as a replaceable commodity, and passing is king, McCaffrey is the league’s most versatile weapon. In 2019, he became just the fifth running back in NFL history to finish with more than 1,000 receiving yards in a season, and just the third player to ever finish with quadruple-digit yardage as a rusher and as a receiver. McCaffrey isn’t just a ground-and-pound ball carrier, he’s a speed-crazy weapon that’s equally dangerous lined up at either running back or receiver, which is what made him so appealing to a team like the 49ers that thrives on dynamic talents at the skill positions. 

Only six seasons into his career, McCaffrey doesn’t quite have the long-term stats of some other backs on this list, but he is the best and most impactful football player of the bunch, and after another great season in 2022, has shown no signs of slowing down just yet.

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Daniel Olinger