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NFL Endangering Senior College Running Backs

Take a look at this list of the record 65 players who declared early for the 2012 NFL Draft that begins on Thursday and tell me if you notice something many of the players have in common.

You give up?

Twelve of them play running back, and that’s not even including Washington RB Chris Polk and Utah St. RB Robert Turbin, who the NFL declared as seniors but turned down further eligibility to play in the pros. Think about that for a second. Fourteen players with college eligibility remaining left college football early out of the 120 FBS programs last fall, meaning nearly 12% of all of them lost a running back early to the draft.

Compare that with five quarterbacks, despite the fact quarterbacks enjoy a much greater upside in monetary rewards in the NFL draft with the decreasing importance of running backs in the pass-happy league.

This year’s early entries include running backs like Wyoming’s Alvester Alexander, Michigan St.‘s Edwin Baker, Nevada’s Mike Ball, Kansas State’s Bryce Brown, Southern Illinois’ Jewel Hampton and USF’s Darrell Scott - all of whom will likely go unpicked.

How have we gotten to a place where this is happening? There are several factors in play that will only push more running backs to declare early in the future.

#1: Decreased shelf life of NFL running backs: The size and speed of NFL defenders is so incredible right now that the burst of speed from a running back’s knees is so much more valuable than it’s ever been. Unfortunately, the pounding they are taking is also so much greater than before.

As a result, players like Shaun Alexander, Clinton Portis, Willie Parker, Priest Holmes and Larry Johnson can go from a Pro Bowl and Super Bowl level to out of the league completely in nearly the blink of an eye. Long gone are the days of runners like Emmitt Smith, who started for the Cowboys for over a decade.

This means a couple things. College running backs know their NFL shelf life is perpetually decreasing and they need to get paid as early as they can with as little punishment inflicted on their knees in college as possible. And it also means the turnover for NFL running backs is much greater, with franchises looking for new legs in each draft much more than they used to.

#2: Rate of NFL running back injuries: It feels like every week about half of the league’s starting running backs are out with some kind of injury given the incredible force of collisions they receive. As a result, teams always need a stable of carriers at their beckon call throughout the course of the season.

Take the Washington Redskins for example. Former Penn State RB Evan Royster went from practice squad member to back-to-back 100-yard carrier by the end of the 2011 season in D.C.

#3: Platoon backfields: Few NFL teams have one star running back anymore like Smith, which is bad news for players looking for mega-contracts but great news for second-string running backs that serve a specific role (i.e. goal line carries, extra speed) who are now getting more carries and money than they otherwise would.

#4: Decreased incentive to be a high draft pick: People are blaming the new collective bargaining agreement for the record influx of underclassmen to the ‘12 draft because of the rookie wage scale that limits the monetary upside to being a high first-round pick.

However, that’s not really the issue with running backs. After all, few running backs get picked in the first round anymore for the three reasons listed above. And even before the new CBA, the difference between the pay for a second-round pick and undrafted rookie was less than $100,000 - assuming you made the roster.

But the enormous rookie minimum of $375,000 from last year as part of the new CBA, up $65,000 from just two years earlier, does influence more underclassmen running backs to turn pro. No, it’s not the $78 million contract Sam Bradford saw before taking a snap for the St. Louis Rams, but it’s a huge sum to a middling FBS running back who think he’s good enough to make the league.

And more and more college running backs are making that assumption after watching players like ex-Marshall RB Ahmad Bradshaw (five picks away from 2007’s Mr. Irrelevant), ex-North Carolina third-stringer Willie Parker (undrafted in 2004) and ex-Tennessee RB Arian Foster (undrafted in 2009) go from afterthoughts on draft day to stars in the NFL.

#5: The four-year requirement to becoming an NFL free agent: If you didn’t already know this, you have to play in the league a minimum of four years to become an NFL free agent and hit your big pay day by either pitting teams against each other or being guaranteed a huge contract with a franchise tag.

The problem for running backs is that a player who stayed all four years in college will likely be 26 by the time he’s ready for the big money. While that doesn’t sound old, that’s the current age of the Titans’ Chris Johnson, who already looks like he is slowing down and would have made a fraction of his new $53 million ($30 million guaranteed) contract if he hadn’t held out before last season and Steelers  RB Rashard Mendhall is only 24 but looks finished as a top back after a crushing ACL injury that should keep him out all next season.

The former first-round pick now looks like he has been cast aside by the Steelers for Isaac Redman (undrafted), Jonathan Dwyer (sixth rounder) and John Clay (undrafted). Go figure.

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You see, unless you can drastically improve your draft stock by returning or won’t even get an NFL training camp invite after leaving early, there is almost zero incentive to stay in school other than a small pay increase and a slightly better chance to make the roster if you are drafted because you are given more opportunity in camp. However, I’d argue even that is offset by the fact a younger player has fresher leagues and is seen with more “upside” than one who stayed all four years.

And if things keep going like this, senior college running backs might end up on the endangered species list.

Jim Weber is the president and founder of LostLettermen.com. His column appears each Monday.

 
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