GREEN BAY – Ka’Deem Carey was laughing, but he wasn’t kidding.
The former University of Arizona running back is well aware of how the NFL views his position these days. He just wishes someone would have told him a little bit sooner.
“Tell me about it. Nowadays, they're like, ‘You've got to go second, third round,’ Carey said during the NFL Scouting Combine in Indianapolis in February. “I'm like, 'Why in the hell didn't you tell me this a couple of years ago, that running backs are going extinct?'
“I'm just trying to bring back [the position] and to show we're definitely valuable. But I definitely would have went to corner or something. Shoot.”
Running backs are not, in fact, on the endangered species list. The ability to run the football is still vitally important in today’s game – although not nearly as it was during the halcyon days of the superstar running back. It’s just that teams have decided that the people who do the running are, well, disposable, as Knowshon Moreno and Chris Johnson found out this offseason.
There’s also the issue of the way the college game has evolved into a more wide open, spread offense game, making running back evaluation tougher. General managers and executives who are unsure of what they might be getting at the position are becoming increasingly wary of using a high pick on it.
“The majority are spread offenses, and they’re not emphasized as much so you don’t get to see as much production or dominance,” Pittsburgh Steelers general manager Kevin Colbert said. “So, you maybe don’t see a top running back, but several were taken in the second round and they ended up being productive players for their teams. If there is a great running back he’ll still go in the first round, regardless of what’s happening schematically.”
Carey was no slouch as a college running back. As a junior last season, he ran 349 times for 1,885 and 19 touchdowns, eclipsed the 100-yard mark in all 12 games he played. He left Arizona on a 16-game streak of 100-yard performances -- the longest such streak in Pacific-12 history – and ran for 3,814 yards and 42 TDs in two years as a starter.
He’s projected as a fourth-round pick. And he’s not alone.
Last year, for the first time in NFL history, the first round was devoid of running backs. (Five, including Alabama’s Eddie Lacy, who went to the Green Bay Packers, were picked in the second round.) Now, after it’d never happened before, it looks like it’ll happen for the second straight year: No back is projected to go in the first round when the teams make their 32 selections next Thursday night.
“It does kind of bother me. I feel like they are down on us,” said Ohio State running back Carlos Hyde, who is expected to be the first running back taken. “They don’t think we are capable of doing what we know we can do. They are kind of just down playing us: ‘We can wait to get ya’ll.’ There are guys drafted in the late rounds that are having a lot of success in the league right now . . . So it’s changing the GMs minds.”
What’s also changing the thought process is that you don’t have to have that one go-to, do-it-all back to be productive in the run game.
Although there were 13 1,000-yard rushers in the NFL in 2013, only two – Philadelphia’s LeSean McCoy (314) and Seattle’s Marshawn Lynch (301) – had 300 carries. Ten years earlier, in 2003, there were a whopping 13 running backs who carried the ball at least 300 times, including Miami’s Ricky Williams (392), Baltimore’s Jamal Lewis (387), Green Bay’s Ahman Green (355) and New Orleans’ Deuce McAllister (351), all of whom carried it more than 350 times. There were 18 1,000-yard rushers that season, led by Lewis’ 2,066 yards.
“I think it's a trend at every level that they're using multiple backs, so there is not always that one bellcow,” Arizona Cardinals general manager Steve Keim said. “And then you look at the trends of the draft, obviously the left tackles, the quarterbacks, the corners, those types of players are always going to supersede running backs, when you see that you can find fourth, fifth, sixth-round backs who are extremely productive.
"So history tells you that you can find those guys in later rounds but at the same time, when one comes along like Adrian Peterson and they're special, you take one and don't look back.”
Bucking this trend, meanwhile, are the Packers, who for years didn’t seem to view the position – or production in the run game, for that matter – as vital. Then along came Lacy, the No. 61 overall pick, who rushed for a franchise rookie record 1,178 yards (eighth in the NFL) on 284 carries (fifth) in essentially 14 games, having suffered a concussion on his first carry of the team’s Week 2 victory over Washington and having missed Green Bay’s loss at Cincinnati the following week.
After quarterback Aaron Rodgers spent essentially the entire 2012 season facing two-shell defenses with safeties playing back – to protect against the big pass play while daring the Packers to run on them – suddenly Rodgers had a running threat in his backfield. Until, of course, Rodgers suffered a fractured left collarbone Nov. 4 against Chicago, and defenses then began loading the box with eight or nine defenders to stop Lacy while daring the Packers’ backup quarterback parade to throw on them. Now, the Packers’ hope is to have both Rodgers and Lacy for a full season, forcing defenses to pick their poison.
“We’ve kind of gone up and down as far as opportunities through my time in Green Bay,” said Packers coach Mike McCarthy, who’s set to begin his ninth season. “We’ve had Ahman Green, who was more of a primary back. [Then we starting] putting most of the offensive burden on our quarterback, Aaron, and now we’ve gone back to balancing it out now with our running backs, particularly Eddie Lacy, and taking some of the heavy load off of Aaron.
“I think how the running back fits to your football team really dictates on the rest of your personnel and your running back. I don’t think they’re any less important. I think the importance of a running back who can play three downs as opposed to first and second down is a huge factor in how I view the value of each player.”
NFL DRAFT 2014: RUNNING BACKS
BEST OF THE BEST
1. Carlos Hyde, Ohio State (5-foot-11 7/8, 230 pounds, 4.61 seconds in the 40-yard dash): Rushed 208 times for 1,527 yards and 15 touchdowns last year as a senior. … Caught only 16 passes for 147 yards and three TDs. … Well-built, powerful runner who is solid in pass protection with some limitations as a pass-catcher. … Lacks great speed but has all the qualities of a workhorse back.
BEST OF THE REST
2. Tre Mason, Auburn (5-8 1/2, 207, 4.49): Carried 317 times for 1,816 yards with 23 TDs last season as a third-year junior. … Also caught 12 passes for 163 yards and one TD. … Small, quick, athlete who was the SEC offensive player of the year and showed big-time ability in big games. … Lacks ideal size and didn’t do much in the passing game, where he would make sense to contribute in pros. … May fit better in today’s NFL as multiple spread schemes fit his skill set.
3. Devonta Freeman, Florida State (5-8 1/4, 206, 4.55): Rushed 173 times for 1,016 yards with 14 TDs last season for the national champions as a junior. … Caught 22 passes for another 278 yards and one TD. … Compact but solid athlete with good vision to make up for lack of ideal size. … Durable player with good football IQ who has room to grow.
4. Bishop Sankey, Washington (5-9 1/2, 209, 4.55): Ran 327 times for 1,870 yards and 20 TDs last season as a junior. … Also caught 28 passes for 304 yards and one TD. … Instinctive runner with impressive production – he led the Pac-12 in rushing last year and set a UW single-season record – who comes from a pro-style offense and could be an immediate contributor.
5. Jeremy Hill, LSU (5-10, 205, 4.49): Carried 203 times for 1,401 yards and 16 TDs last season as a third-year junior. … Also caught 18 passes for 181 yards. … Has terrific size for an NFL back and can get yards after contact. … Doesn’t show great vision but does get through holes quickly. … Character risk following multiple arrests.
OTHERS TO WATCH
Andre Williams, Boston College; Terrance West, Towson (Md.); Isaiah Crowell, Alabama State; Charles Sims, West Virginia; Ka’Deem Carey, Arizona; Lache Seastrunk, Baylor; De’Anthony Thomas, Oregon; James White, Wisconsin.
“Growing up with my dad being who he is, it just taught me how to stay hungry and humble. I just learned a lot from him and he helped me throughout my success, how to maintain and how to handle it. … I love music, but me making it? It's not a pretty sight. That's my dad's forte, that's not me.” – Mason, on growing up with a well-known father – DJ Maseo from De La Soul.
Position analysis: For a team that didn’t seem to put a priority on the running back position, it’s hard to imagine the Packers being deeper there now. Behind reigning NFL offensive rookie of the year Eddie Lacy are James Starks, who returned on a two-year deal after perhaps his healthiest and most productive year as the No. 2 man behind Lacy; Johnathan Franklin, a fourth-round pick a year ago who managed a 100-yard performance amid an up-and-down rookie season; DuJuan Harris, the team’s lead back down the stretch in 2012 who missed all of last season with a knee injury but is expected to be fully healthy; and Michael Hill, a promising practice-squad prospect who spent time on the Tampa Bay Buccaneers’ 53-man roster a year ago. (And don’t forget fullback/folk hero John Kuhn, who re-signed on a one-year deal last month.)
“Depth,” coach Mike McCarthy replied when asked what he sees at the position. “You could write this too: It's important for all of our running backs – now, they were young last year – but it's important for all of them to be three-down players. It was something that was discussed a lot ... For the way we want to play on offense, we want players to be three-down players so we want to keep our substitution limited. That's an offseason goal of ours.”
Draft strategy: In his first eight drafts in Green Bay, Packers general manager Ted Thompson selected only four halfbacks: Brandon Jackson (second round, 2007), DeShawn Wynn (seventh round, 2007); Starks (sixth round, 2010); and Alex Green (third round, 2011). Then came last year, when he took a pair of running backs – Lacy in the second round and Franklin in the fourth – in the same draft. Lacy was a home run at No. 61 – some projected that the Packers would take him with their first-round pick at No. 26 – while Franklin had a quiet camp and even his best performance, a 113-yard effort in Lacy’s stead at Cincinnati in Week 3, ended with a fumble that was returned for a touchdown and cost his team the game.
Nevertheless, the group made it cool again to run the ball effectively, as the Packers snapped the longest regular-season streak without an individual 100-yard rusher – a whopping 44 games – with three different backs (Lacy, Starks, Franklin) all turning the trick.
With Harris returning to health and Starks’ somewhat unexpected return, it’s hard to imagine the Packers using any of their nine picks on a back, unless it’s a return man who’s listed as a running back. Starks’ presence is the biggest reason: A year ago, he only carried the ball 89 times, but he averaged an eye-popping 5.5 yards per carry and scored three rushing touchdowns. His two-year, $3.166 million deal included a $725,000 signing bonus and a 2014 base salary of $750,000, indicating that his return was something the Packers viewed as important.
NEXT: Wide receivers.
Listen to Jason Wilde every weekday from 9 a.m. to 10 a.m. on “Green & Gold Today” on 540 ESPN, and follow him on Twitter at twitter.com/jasonjwilde.