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A brief history of first round RBs: Will the Falcons select one that early?

A review of recent first round RBs shows that they’re usually more hit than miss.

Senior Bowl/Collegiate Images/Getty Images

This year the Atlanta Falcons find themselves in a very interesting spot with the No. 4 overall selection in the 2021 NFL Draft. Do they stay put and take a quarterback, or do they possibly trade down and collect draft capital? We’ll find out in a couple of months.

Until then, all we can do is review what the current options are and what the past tells us. Last week, we looked at the success rates of first round quarterbacks from 2008-2020. This week, we will look at how recent running backs have fared that were taken in the first round since 2010. For the Falcons to take one in the upcoming draft, it’ll take a trade down—people would rightly rebel if Atlanta took a back at #4—but in a new Arthur Smith offense that has found success in the recent past with a dominant ball carrier, we can’t rule out the team taking a hard look if they do move down.

Below is every running back taken in the first round since 2010:

2010

2011

2012

2013

  • None

2014

  • None

2015

  • Todd Gurley, St. Louis Rams (10)
  • Melvin Gordon, San Diego Chargers (15)

2016

2017

2018

2019

  • Josh Jacobs, Oakland Raiders (24)

2020

After looking at the list above, it’s been fairly balanced with first round running backs over the last decade, although you could argue their overall impact as Sony Michel and Leonard Fournette are the only players listed to win a Super Bowl. Those are certainly not the best backs on this list. however, and players like Ingram, McCaffrey, and Gurley did a lot more to lift their respective run games to near-dominant levels. Those teams have benefitted from that.

Given the cost and the hit rate, it seems like the sweet spot to get a solid running back is in rounds 2-3. Running backs such as Derrick Henry, Dalvin Cook, Joe Mixon, Alvin Kamara and Nick Chubb were all selected in those rounds, and the Falcons have had luck in the past even later (Devonta Freeman in round 4, for example).

Turning our attention to this year’s draft, currently the only running backss who may be selected that early on day one are Najee Harris and Travis Etienne. In 13 games for the Crimson Tide, Harris ran 251 times for 1,466 yards and had 30 overall touchdowns in 2020, mixing dominant production with a hard-charging style that would be a good fit for this offense. Etienne recorded 16 total touchdowns and rushed for 914 yards in 12 games for the Tigers. Both could possibly go in round one, but we don’t have a good feel for how the round is going to shake out just yet.

What we do know is that the Falcons likely won’t get either one unless a trade down scenario occurs or they fall into the second round. If they don’t prioritize Harris and Etienne in round 1, this draft does have several interesting prospects that the Falcons could find in later rounds. A few names to watch are Oklahoma’s Rhamondre Stevenson or North Carolina’s Javonte Williams, who would ideally both fit in Arthur Smith’s offense.

With the team’s current depth at running back, it should be expected that they’ll look to address the position as Smith’s offense excelled through it. Even if teams have had some success with first round backs, though, that’s not where we’d expect Atlanta to go this year.