NFL

Will there be a first-round running back?

INDIANAPOLIS — The seven-year streak of a running back landing in Round 1 is in serious jeopardy in the 2022 NFL draft.

A straw poll of talent evaluators Yahoo Sports has spoken with this week revealed that many teams don’t believe there is a guarantee of a running back being taken in the top 32 selections.

“There might be one, maybe, but I’d guess none,” one team’s assistant general manager said.

Then again, calling this a bad class of running backs isn’t entirely accurate, either.

“Good group, but you’re not looking at any one of them and seeing special,” a college scouting director said before the 2022 NFL combine.

The last time a running back failed to crack the first round was in 2014, when Bishop Sankey was the first back selected (54th overall), followed closely by Jeremy Hill (55th) and Carlos Hyde (57th). Seven backs have been taken in the first round in the past four drafts combined, but no back has landed in the top 20 picks in the past three years.

“I feel like that’s a goal in my mind, to be drafted early,” Michigan State’s Kenneth Walker III said Thursday. “And also just for other running backs as well. I feel like we’ve got to get them off the board, too.”

Evaluators believe that the league trend toward passing is a clear reason for that. Another is that likely it requires any back being considered high in the draft to have high value in the passing game.

“They’ve got to be really good as a receiver or [pass protector],” the director said, “and preferably both.”

Few of this year’s backs fit that mold to a tee.

Walker had a fantastic season for the Spartans, running for 1,636 yards and 18 touchdowns in 12 games. He rushed for more than 124 yards in eight of those games. But he has only 19 receptions in three years at Wake Forest and Michigan State, including 13 last season.

Walker knows that the catching question will follow him throughout the draft process — until he proves otherwise.

“I can catch out of the backfield or run routes if I need to,” Walker said. “You know, we didn’t have to [do that]. We had great wide receivers … using them in the pass game [is] pretty much the reason why I believe I didn’t catch too many passes.

“A lot of people question my hands and catching ability but being able to show them — whenever I get my chance — that’ll be great.”

Michigan State’s Kenneth Walker III is one of many talented backs in the 2022 NFL draft, but is there a Round 1 prospect this year? (Photo by Adam Ruff/Icon Sportswire via Getty Images)

Walker is among a group of similarly rated backs that includes Breece Hall of Iowa State, Texas A&M’s Isaiah Spiller, Florida’s Dameon Pierce, BYU’s Tyler Allgeier and perhaps one or two others who might be in the mix to be the first back selected. Sometime early on Day 2 appears to be the tipping point, but the evaluators we spoke with believed that the real value could start on Day 3 of the draft — Round 4 and on.

“We might see a run in the fourth, or maybe the third,” the assistant GM said.

But there are questions about their third-down values as well.

Hall is fairly accomplished in that area, having caught 83 passes over three seasons, and yet his pass-blocking skill looks unrefined and unreliable. Similar questions plague Spiller despite his respectable 74 career grabs. Pierce has shown some really good pass-block effectiveness at times but was underused in the receiving game. Allgeier caught 28 passes last season but only 46 for his career.

There’s also a crop of backs just below that level that is noted for their third-down prowess, including Notre Dame’s Kyren Williams, Georgia’s James Cook, Missouri’s Tyler Badie and Arizona State’s Rachaad White. But are any of them well-rounded enough to push for a higher draft status?

“I just know there are some one-role backs here,” the director said. “Not as many who do a lot of things at a really high level. But the guys who do what they do, do it well. It’s not a knock really.”

The one team that could keep the RB streak going

New Miami Dolphins head coach Mike McDaniel was asked about the value of running backs in the modern game. Perhaps the oddly charming McDaniel isn’t swayed by groupthink, but he views the position as being pretty vital.

“The value of the running back position — what value do you put on anywhere from a third to a half of the plays on a given offensive season?” McDaniel said. “You’ve got to realize that running backs, collectively, whether you do it part of a whole or one guy, you have about 300 to 400 some touches, so it’s incredibly valuable.”

It’s important to note McDaniel’s role as one of Kyle Shanahan’s most trusted coworkers in recent years — not just with the San Francisco 49ers the past four seasons, but in the pair’s past two stops together with the Cleveland Browns and Atlanta Falcons.

With the 49ers, Shanahan tasked McDaniel with being his run-game guru and coordinator. The 49ers have been one of the more consistently productive running teams in recent years, and it was McDaniel’s usage and design that have helped make that the case.

McDaniel said Shanahan was “very committed to giving me responsibility and empowering me and trusting me.”

Now in Miami, McDaniel laid out the idea clearly that he’ll be bringing the run game with him — and that’s it’s going to be a huge part of what they do.

“It’s of paramount importance,” McDaniel said. “We just have a concrete skill set that we found that can really flourish in a zone-blocking system.”

Whether that means the Dolphins, who pick 29th overall, will take a back in the first round is another debate entirely. Even McDaniel noted that “from a historical perspective” there have been many “mid-to-late-round draft (picks) that have more success at that position than some others.”

That includes last year’s 49ers sixth-round pick, Elijah Mitchell, who outplayed the team’s third-rounder, Trey Sermon, in their rookie seasons.

But there’s at least a case to be made that Walker might be a fit in Miami. Walker thrived in Michigan State’s zone-blocking scheme, which is the system McDaniel leans on. Mitchell, who faced similar questions about catching the football coming out last year, caught only 19 passes as a rookie but clearly was a difference maker.

“You look for good football players that are committed and passionate and maybe that challenge you as a coach to see, hey, what other way can we utilize his skill set?” McDaniel said.


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