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Are Running Backs Ever Worth a First Round Pick? | Grading Recent RB Selections

We’re well removed from the days of Jim Brown. Heck, we’re well removed from the days of Adrian Peterson, and his prime ended while I was in my mid-20s. Never you mind my current age. The point is that teams are finding viable backs and high-end NFL offenses without having to spend top-dollar draft picks to get them. That said, there are still plenty of recent examples — even as recently as 2023 — of NFL teams using their first pick to take a running back. Is it ever worth it? Today we’re looking at first-round running back NFL draft picks from the last handful of drafts and determining if they were a valuable pick — and we’ll check out 2024 NFL Draft running backs like Jonathon Brooks for good measure.

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First Round Running Backs: Are They Worth It?

We’re going to operate with at least three years of data to make decisions, so Bijan Robinson and Jahmyr Gibbs are omitted from this list. They both were quite good in their rookie 2023 seasons, and also were pretty comparable statistically, but neither took the world by storm — so the jury is still out on their draft value.

Here are the factors in determining if a running back was worth a first-round pick:

  • How high were they drafted?
  • Were they an integral part of the offense?
  • Was their team’s offense good with them as an integral part?
  • Did the team have sustained success?
  • Was there a more valuable player drafted afterwards that reasonably could have been taken ahead of them?
  • Are they still a valuable player?

That last part is important since we’re only going back to the 2016 NFL Draft. If you take someone in the first round, you’re hoping they are still a valuable piece of someone’s puzzle for a full decade — and that’s part of the issue with drafting running backs. It’s hard for a running back to be valuable for 10 years. But it’s not impossible, so let’s dive in.

2021, Pick 24: Najee Harris, Pittsburgh Steelers

We get to start off with an easier one. Harris ran for 1,200 yards in his rookie season and was one of Pittsburgh’s best players, but the offense was in the bottom half of the league in points and yards. Harris went for 1,000 the next year as well — and again, the Steelers had a mediocre offense (including rushing offense). And in 2023, Harris was matched by Jaylen Warren in terms of overall use, though he did hit 1,000 yards rushing for the third straight season.

Were the Steelers bad the last three years? No, but the offense was. Harris was one of their better players, but he did not impact winning to such a degree as to merit a first-round pick. Players drafted immediately after him include the next back on the list and quite literally no other good players. Still, I feel good about the verdict here.

Was Najee Harris Worth His First Round RB Pick: No

2021, Pick 25: Travis Etienne, Jacksonville Jaguars

Now we get controversial to the point that anyone reading this questions whether I know football at all, which is right in the sweet spot. Sorry, but Etienne to me is a far better football player than Harris. Sure, he’s had a better quarterback — one with whom he has played since Clemson — but Etienne is as movable a back as there is in the league that isn’t named Christian McCaffrey. That’s where you want to be with a first-round back if you make such a foolish decision.

Etienne ran for 1,125 yards in his first season (2022) and caught another 300-plus, and then last year he again nearly got to 1,500 scrimmage yards. He’s an excellent all-around back, and the Jaguars were 10th and 13th in offense in Etienne’s two full seasons.

And I’m going to contradict all that and say: Not quite good enough. The thing working for Etienne is that he is on the upswing, while Harris seems to be getting phased out. Therefore, the edict is thus.

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Was Travis Etienne Worth His First Round RB Pick: Maybe

2020, Pick 32: Clyde Edwards-Helaire, Kansas City Chiefs

Edwards-Helaire is not nor has ever been a key part of the Chiefs offense (maybe rookie year aside). The fact that he has two Super Bowls I take as a personal affront.

Was Clyde Edwards-Helaire Worth His First Round RB Pick: No

2019, Pick 24: Josh Jacobs, Oakland Raiders

Now we get into the tougher questions. Jacobs is a very, very good running back who has a rushing title to his name and another pair of 1,000-yard seasons. He is also a perfectly competent receiving back.

In other words, he passes the first criterium with flying colors.

Unfortunately, the Raiders have not been particularly good with him as an offensive focal point, making only one postseason and ranking in the top half in total points only twice. Plus, his quarterback was perfectly competent, something a guy like Harris can’t really say.

Maybe his time in Green Bay will boost him a bit since Jordan Love seems good and the Matt LaFleur Packers use their running backs really effectively. Until we see that happen, though, it’s tough to make a call — so let’s turn to the 2019 draft picks that went after Jacobs.

The five picks after Jacobs were a series of disappointments in Marquise Brown, Johnathan Abram, Jerry Tillery and L.J. Collier, plus one good player in Montez Sweat. And the nightmare that was Deandre Baker. OK, I’ll bite. The Raiders did OK here.

Was Josh Jacobs Worth His First Round RB Pick: Yes

2018, Pick 2: Saquon Barkley, New York Giants

I’ll keep this one short, and now that he’s in Philadelphia, I think Giants fans will agree with me — as talented as he is, there is no way in the world that anyone can argue Barkley lived up to No. 2 pick value. Is he No. 2 pick talented? Maybe. But he’s played 16 games only twice and has four seasons of 1,000 scrimmage yards in six years. A No. 2 pick should be game changing.

Was Saquon Barkley Worth His First Round RB Pick: No

2017, Pick 4: Leonard Fournette, Jacksonville Jaguars

Nope across the board. No. 4 overall? Come on.

Was Leonard Fournette Worth His First Round RB Pick: No

2017, Pick 8: Christian McCaffrey, Carolina Panthers

You might think this is an obvious yes since McCaffrey is perhaps the best non-quarterback in the league. And I’ll spoil the verdict and say he is in fact a yes. But …

The Panthers were not a good offense with him as the focal point, and his injury history puts his value somewhat in doubt. But since he’s the only player on this list — and the first back since Adrian Peterson who would have been MVP in a just world — McCaffrey gets a yes. We’re going to end another paragraph with a but …

Patrick Mahomes went two picks later. Marshon Lattimore was the pick after that. This draft was actually quite loaded, so two running backs going top 8 was a little inexcusable. However, Cam Newton was still in Carolina and played OK in 2017, so it’s hard to criticize the Panthers for not taking a quarterback, especially one as volatile as Mahomes.

Was Christian McCaffrey Worth His First Round RB Pick: Yes


2016, Pick 4: Ezekiel Elliott, Dallas Cowboys

This is the hardest determination of them all. Was Elliott a massive part of the Cowboys offense? Absolutely. Were the Cowboys offenses good with him as a focal point? Yes, most of the time. Sustained team success? Check. Elliott was clearly among the best backs in the league through his first four years or so with Dallas. It’s the other categories where this comes into question.

A running back going fourth overall in this day and age is a massive swing. And Elliott did not bust at that position, to his credit, unlike, say, Fournette. That said, some of the high-value players who were in play for Dallas at No. 4 include: Jalen Ramsey (elite corner), Ronnie Stanley (elite left tackle), Laremy Tunsil (elite left tackle), DeForest Buckner (high-end interior lineman) and Jack Conklin (steady pass-blocking tackle). At least three of those guys going No. 4 would have put the Cowboys in better position than drafting Elliott did — and that bore out with Tony Pollard quickly stepping in and matching much of Elliott’s production in 2022.

The whole No. 4 thing and the players picked after Elliott are the biggest factors. Elliott has been better than Jacobs as an NFL back, but Jacobs went late in the first. True superstars at more important positions followed Elliott. It’s a tough call, and I refuse to commit.

Was Ezekiel Elliott Worth His First Round RB Pick: Maybe

2024 NFL Draft Running Backs

NFL Draft Odds: First Running Back Selected

Running BackSchoolOdds
Jonathon BrooksTexas-150
Trey BensonFlorida State+300
Blake CorumMichigan+450
MarShawn LloydUSC+700
Jaylen WrightTennessee+900
Odds From BetMGM

2024’s highest-projected running back is Robinson’s Texas successor, Jonathon Brooks. He seems to be the only back with a chance of going in the first round this year, as he went for 1,425 scrimmage yards and 11 total touchdowns last season. Brooks also averaged 6.1 yards per carry, showing great open-field ability, which is basically the most important factor for NFL backs these days.

That said, I’m yet to find a mock draft with Brooks going in the first. Most have him falling to the back half of the second, specifically to the Cowboys. As such, at least for one more year, I don’t have to defend my adamant “don’t draft a running back in the first” takes.

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