JOHN L. PITTS: Runners vanish in first round

JOHN L. PITTS

JOHN L. PITTS

TUPELO

When the first round of the NFL Draft wraps up tonight, it’s unlikely any running back will have heard his name called.

It’s one sign of how much football, and the economics of the pro game, has changed in recent years.

Last year was the first time since the NFL began a “common” draft in 1967 that at least one running back wasn’t taken in the first round.

In the nine years since Eli Manning was taken with the first pick – yes, it’s been a decade – there were six quarterbacks taken first, along with two offensive tackles and one defensive end.

There hasn’t been a running back taken with the No. 1 pick since 1995, when the Cincinnati Bengals took Ki-Jana Carter out of Penn State. Carter was on three NFL teams for seven injury-plagued seasons and rushed for 1,144 career yards.

Which probably explains why there hasn’t been a running back taken No. 1 since.

But why have the best runners all but disappeared from the first round?

The rise of passing offenses is part of it, putting an emphasis on quarterbacks and the linemen to protect them. On the other side of the ball, it’s more important that ever to find defenders who can pressure the quarterback and shut down speedy receivers.

But the running back position doesn’t look like a good long-term investment, either. You can find an elite left tackle or middle linebacker and plug them in for a decade.

Even the best running backs seem to come with an expiration date, usually four to five years after purchase.

In that context, the evolution of the draft makes sense. At running back, you can now get “first-round talent” in the second or third rounds, maybe later, and you don’t have to pay the first-round price. Instead of one workhorse franchise runner, teams can sign three or four runners to use in different situations. If one of them gets hurt, just plug another one in there.

As my wife likes to say, “Buy two – they’re cheap.”

Random thoughts

• Just like every year, all NFL teams still waiting by phone for private eyes to assure them there are no other eligible Manning brothers out there.

• Tough quandry for my newspaper friends downstate – you can only use “What’s Up, Doc?” headline once on a story about new Southern Miss basketball coach Doc Sadler. Choose wisely.

• ACC football coaches have been calling the Tallahassee Publix non-stop for the past week, trying to hire away anybody who can say they’ve caught Florida State’s Jameis Winston.

• You can stop looters with four words: “Looters will be shot.”

John L. Pitts (john.pitts@journalinc.com) is sports editor of the Journal. He shares his random thoughts on Twitter @JohnLPitts.