Carolina Panthers

NFL trend is to cheaper, more specialized rotation of running backs

On average, NFL teams rushed about 42 percent of the time in the 2013 season, a significant emphasis on the ground game, but there is no emphasis on running backs in the first round of the draft.

The 2014 draft is expected to mirror 2013, when there wasn’t a running back taken in the first 32 picks, and the reason can be traced to the college game: With more teams using pass-heavy offenses, college running backs aren’t as prepared for the NFL as they once were.

Consequently, NFL teams are using different backs for different roles. That means less need for a do-everything back who gets first-round money, because role players are cheaper.

“I think teams are smart,” ESPN draft analyst Todd McShay said this week on a conference call. “At the college level there are very few guys who are 20- to 30-carry backs anymore. I think with a lot more spread offenses, offensive formations and teams just looking to get guys in space. The game has changed. There are just not the big, bruising backs who can do everything.”

Ohio State’s Carlos Hyde, Arizona’s Ka’Deem Carey and West Virginia’s Charles Sims are considered the top running backs in the draft, but none of them are expected to go in the first round. Of the 30 players who accepted invitations to the NFL draft green room in New York City, none are running backs.

“Teams are realizing, hey, there’s a short shelf life for these guys to begin with,” McShay said. “If we’re rotating guys in and out of this position ... maybe we should be spending on two backs what we used to be spending on one.”

In the case of the Panthers, they’re spending on two running backs what some teams would spend on four. Jonathan Stewart signed a five-year contract worth $36.5 million before the 2012 season, and DeAngelo Williams got a five-year, $43 million contract after the lockout that has since been renegotiated.

But the Panthers, with the help of mobile quarterback Cam Newton, have the most rushing yards of any NFL team since 2008. And in 2013, Carolina finished fifth in the league in time of possession, holding the ball for 31 minutes and 54 seconds a game on average.

“Thirty years ago, tailbacks were the most important thing to controlling the football and controlling the clock,” NFL Network draft analyst Mike Mayock said this week on a conference call. “Now everybody’s throwing the ball 40 times a game. But I do think it’s really intriguing – football is a cyclical game. I think it’s really intriguing that the two best teams in the league last year – Seattle and San Francisco, in my opinion – what was their recipe for success? They played great defense. They ran the football.

“So the best two teams in the league utilized the tailback and the run game, and I wouldn’t be surprised to see if that comes back in vogue.”

Panthers general manager Dave Gettleman said fewer backs are coming out of college from prototypical NFL run games. He pointed to Green Bay’s Eddie Lacy, who played at Alabama, as one of the few backs who can be an every-down back in the league.

An NFL running back’s skill set must include more than just carrying the ball. He has to be smart enough, and strong enough, to pick up blitzes, something Stewart and Williams do well. Second-year running back Kenjon Barner, who was in a spread offense at Oregon, is still learning how.

“What’s happened at the college level, those running backs aren’t doing any blitz pickup stuff,” Gettleman said this week. “That takes a lot of time, so you take a running back up in the first round he better be a three-down guy right now, and there can’t be any question in your mind that he can figure out the blitz stuff.

“It’s a real problem, it’s a real issue. And the number of running backs that come out of the college level with that ability, it’s scarce.”

Mayock said some backs may get first-round grades, but he doesn’t expect any to be chosen in round one Thursday night. Five backs were taken in the second round of last year’s draft. In 2012, five total were taken in the first two rounds.

“There’s going to be fewer – and I think it is part of the trend to a certain extent,” McShay said. “But I also think it’s the kind of players coming out. You’ll see 11 running backs from the end of the second round through the fourth round go, and that’s a high number.

“There are a lot of good backs in this draft, there are just not the exceptional backs that you would consider in the first round.”

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