Once upon a time, National Football League teams drafted running backs high in the draft.
From the beginning of the common draft era in 1966 until the end of the 20th century, NFL teams used 56 draft picks within the first 10 selections of the annual talent draw to select running backs.
But as the game has taken more and more to the air, the perceived value of the running back has diminished.
Since 2001, only nine running backs have been taken within the first 10 selections of the draft, only two since 2008.
No running back heard his name called in the first 10 picks in 2013 or 2014.
Since 2010, only seven running backs have been drafted at all in the first round, none since 2012.
That’s what Wisconsin Badgers star Melvin Gordon is up against as he returns for his redshirt junior year in Madison.
Off a 1,609-yard season that included a whopping 7.8-yard per carry average and 12 touchdowns, Gordon opted to return to Wisconsin rather than enter the NFL draft last spring despite getting a second-round grade from the NFL draft advisory board—probably a high enough grade to be the first running back picked.
Instead, that honor went to Washington’s Bishop Sankey, who went 54th overall to the Tennessee Titans.
Gordon is on a mission this year.
“You hear a lot of things about running backs not being as important anymore,” Gordon told ESPN The Magazine for its Aug. 18 College Preview Edition. “Some people in the NFL may think they don’t need backs early in the draft. I want to change that.”
It was the glamour position for a long time. Running backs taken high in the draft in the 1960s and 1970s, the ‘80s and ‘90s went on to Hall of Fame careers, including:
- Floyd Little, sixth overall by the Denver Broncos in 1967
- Larry Csonka, eighth overall by the Miami Dolphins in 1968
- O.J. Simpson, first overall by the Buffalo Bills in 1969 (heard he had some issues after his NFL career)
- John Riggins, sixth overall by the New York Jets in 1971
- Walter Payton, fourth overall by the Chicago Bears in 1975
- Tony Dorsett, second overall by the Dallas Cowboys in 1977
- Earl Campbell, first overall by the Houston Oilers in 1978
- Marcus Allen, 10th overall by the Los Angeles Raiders in 1982
- Eric Dickerson, second overall by the Los Angeles Rams in 1983
- Barry Sanders, third overall by the Detroit Lions in 1989
- Marshall Faulk, second overall by the Indianapolis Colts in 1994
Of the backs taken within the first 10 picks since 2001, two of them are on their way to Canton. LaDainian Tomlinson went to the San Diego Chargers at No. 5 overall in 2001 and Adrian Peterson was the No. 7 overall pick of the Minnesota Vikings in 2007.
C.J. Spiller (No. 9 overall in 2010) may finally get a chance to be the guy in Buffalo this year. Trent Richardson, taken third overall in 2012, has already been traded once and the bust label is being thrown around with gusto.
So can Gordon reverse that trend?
“What people don’t understand is that Melvin will test out of this world,” said former Wisconsin coach Bret Bielema, who recruited Gordon and now coaches at Arkansas. “He has great speed and is so athletic and powerful, such a long strider.
“He reminds me a bit of Eddie George. I still remember our strength coach telling me when we signed him, ‘Coach, this is the biggest freak we’ve ever signed,’ and I’d say that’s going to become readily apparent to a lot of people over this next season.”
Will any of that matter when the names start flying off the board next spring?
“If they like me now, they’re going to love me later.”