If you were watching the NFL Draft last night, you might have been wondering where all the running backs were. It was a historically thin group, with a total of four selected by the end of Round 3. That was the fewest taken in the first three rounds since 2016, which itself was the lowest number ever. Disappointing for the key position in fantasy leagues.
Last year, for example, there were 11 running backs taken in the first three rounds, and five of those players went over 1,000 total yards or scored at least 9 touchdowns as rookies. It will be a lot harder to coax that kind of production out of this class, where the fifth player at the position won't be drafted until this afternoon.
And unfortunately, there seems to be a link between quantity and quality. There have been six other draft classes since 2000 where six or fewer running backs were drafted in the first three rounds -- 34 total running backs selected in those rounds in those years (4 in 2016, 6 in each of the other five seasons). Only a fifth (seven) of those running backs went over 1,000 total yards as rookies. Only a quarter (6-7, depending how generous you want to be) of the other 27 went on to have significant careers.
Table shows the six other draft classes with 4-6 running backs drafted in the first three rounds since 2000, sorted by total yards in their rookie seasons. I've bolded the ones I'd argue went on to have significant careers. There's some subjectivity (I included Eddie Lacy and his two good seasons, but left out a player or two that had one good year along the way), but more than twice as many misses as hits.
|THIN RUNNING BACK CLASSES (<6 IN ROUNDS 1-3), 2000-2020|
|2016||1||Ezekiel Elliott, Dall.||Ohio State||1631||363||1994||16|
|2013||2||Eddie Lacy, G.B.||Alabama||1178||257||1435||11|
|2004||1||Kevin Jones, Det.||Virginia Tech||1133||180||1313||6|
|2013||2||LeVeon Bell, Pitt.||Michigan State||860||399||1259||8|
|2013||2||Giovani Bernard, Cin.||North Carolina||695||514||1209||8|
|2009||1||Knowshon Moreno, Den.||Georgia||947||213||1160||9|
|2010||1||Jahvid Best, Det.||California||555||487||1032||6|
|2009||2||LeSean McCoy, Phil.||Pittsburgh||637||308||945||4|
|2009||1||Beanie Wells, Ariz.||Ohio State||793||143||936||7|
|2004||2||Julius Jones, Dall.||Notre Dame||819||107||926||7|
|2004||1||Steven Jackson, St.L.||Oregon State||673||189||862||4|
|2010||1||Ryan Mathews, S.D.||Fresno State||678||145||823||7|
|2013||2||Montee Ball, Den.||Wisconsin||559||145||704||4|
|2016||2||Derrick Henry, Tenn.||Alabama||490||137||627||5|
|2009||3||Shonn Greene, NYJ||Iowa||540||0||540||2|
|2010||2||Toby Gerhart, Minn.||Stanford||322||167||489||1|
|2004||2||Tatum Bell, Den.||Oklahoma State||396||80||476||3|
|2009||1||Donald Brown, Ind.||Connecticut||281||169||450||3|
|2010||1||C.J. Spiller, Buff.||Clemson||283||157||440||1|
|2016||3||C.J. Prosise, Sea.||Notre Dame||172||208||380||1|
|2013||3||Knile Davis, K.C.||Arkansas||242||75||317||5|
|2009||3||Glen Coffee, S.F.||Alabama||226||76||302||1|
|2003||3||Chris Brown, Tenn.||Colorado||221||61||282||0|
|2016||3||Kenyan Drake, Mia.||Alabama||179||46||225||2|
|2003||3||Justin Fargas, Oak.||Southern California||203||2||205||0|
|2004||2||Greg Jones, Jac.||Florida State||162||13||175||3|
|2003||1||Larry Johnson, K.C.||Penn State||85||2||87||1|
|2013||2||Christine Michael, Sea.||Texas A&M||79||0||79||0|
|2004||1||Chris Perry, Cin.||Michigan||1||33||34||0|
|2003||3||Musa Smith, Balt.||Georgia||31||0||31||2|
|2003||3||B.J. Askew, NYJ||Michigan||9||0||9||0|
|2010||2||Ben Tate, Hou.||Auburn||0||0||0||0|
|2010||2||Montario Hardesty, Clev.||Tennessee||0||0||0||0|
|2003||1||Willis McGahee, Buff.||Miami||0||0||0||0|
As we talked about elsewhere, Travis Etienne's landing spot isn't great. The same can be said about 3rd-rounder Trey Sermon (pictured; nice offensive system in San Francisco, but it's a team that already has a whole lot of running backs under contract). Najee Harris should start in Pittsburgh, while Javonte Williams need only move past Melvin Gordon in Denver, but not a lot to get really excited about.
We'll see what the fourth round brings today; it's not as if quality backs can't come out of the remaining rounds. But definitely a disappointing total no matter how optimistic you want to be, and not a lot of great players to target in fantasy drafts.