IDEAL DRAFT RANGE: Late Round 2 to Round 4.
No position has seen its draft perception change so thoroughly and so completely as running back.
Last year was the first in which a running back was not selected in the first round; none came off the board until Cincinnati selected North Carolina's Giovani Bernard five picks into the second round. It seems likely that this year's first round will follow suit; there are no slam-dunk first-rounders in this year's class.
The value has not been evident, even for those who have been first-rounders in recent years -- particularly near the top of the draft. Two years ago, Cleveland made Trent Richardson the No. 3 overall pick; the Browns traded him to the Colts a year later, and his career 3.3-yards-per-carry average to this point has rendered him a disappointment.
Among the first-round running backs of recent years, the results are scattershot. The two first-round running backs in 2007, Adrian Peterson (No. 7 overall) and Marshawn Lynch (No. 12), have lived up to the billing, but the years since have been filled with players who were inconsistent, ineffective or hampered by injuries. And even the success stories of the first-round running backs since 2008 have fallen victim to the wear and tear that defines the position.
Nevertheless, six of the 12 1,000-yard running backs in the NFL last year were first-round picks, including Denver's Knowshon Moreno, a 2009 first-rounder. But of those 12 running backs, the only three to average at least 5.0 yards per carry were Kansas City's Jamaal Charles, Philadelphia's LeSean McCoy and Dallas' DeMarco Murray; all were taken between the 53rd and 73rd overall picks in their respective drafts.
The depreciation in running backs' draft value means that a running back like Auburn's Tre Mason, a sure-fire first-rounder a decade ago, is likely to fall into the middle of the second round. The drop in value continues until the last three rounds, when the value evens out relative to long-term history.
Teams are still pickng running backs. Last year, 27 were selected, more than all but one year since 2003, and the average of 23.5 running backs per draft class since 2010 is near the post-2003 average of 22.9 per draft. It's just that teams now select them a round or two later than they once did. Thus, a running back like Montee Ball should be evaluated over the long term against late first-rounders of previous eras.
RECENT BRONCOS HISTORY: The Broncos took Ball in last year's second round, and once he overcame fumbles and adjusted to the heightened demands of pass protection, he showed signs of being a bellwether back. He had his first 100-yard game in Week 13 at Kansas City, earning the trust that allowed him to relieve starter Knowshon Moreno. Ball was also first among NFL running backs with at least 500 yards in first-down ratio; he moved the sticks once every 3.42 carries, just ahead of the Chiefs' Jamaal Charles (one every 3.60 carries).
Ball was the 10th running back or fullback taken by the Broncos since 2003; only the Ravens have selected more in that span. The Broncos eschewed the position in 2010 and 2011; it isn't a coincidence that they did this after investing a first-round pick in Knowshon Moreno in 2009. Moreno remains the only running back in which the Broncos have invested a first-rounder since Bobby Humphrey, a supplemental pick in 1989 who cost the Broncos their 1990 first-round choice.
After using a second-round pick to take Clinton Portis in 2002, the Broncos' draft results at running back were mixed. The reasons were myriad: injury concern that never went away (Ahmaad Galloway, knee, 2003 seventh round), brief bursts of brilliance before a quick fade (Quentin Griffin, 2003 fourth round; Peyton Hillis, 2008 seventh round), victims of the natural attrition at the position (Brandon Miree, thumb, 2004 seventh round; Ryan Torain, knee, 2008 fifth round), and, of course, Maurice Clarett, the troubled 2005 third-rounder who never even had a preseason carry.
The Broncos have selected at least one running back in eight of the last 12 drafts and 18 of the last 23.
BRONCOS OUTLOOK: The attrition rate of running backs, the frequency with which young runners are selected or added as undrafted free agents and the potential departure of Moreno in free agency makes it a virtual certainty that at least one running back, and potentially more, will be added between the draft and the crop of undrafted signees shortly thereafter.
It would be a surprise if any new running backs are added in the first two days of the draft. However, if the Broncos address their remaining needs in free agency and have no pressure to target a specific position, they will have the freedom to select the best player available. That could mean a running back in the first two days of the draft for a third consecutive year.
But it seems more likely that a running back will be in consideration in the first half of Day 3, when the depth and quality appears better than it does during the first three rounds.