First of all, I want to point out that when it comes to evaluating college talent, I have a lot more Bobby Beathard in me than I have AJ Smith. I don't really have any good feel for any of the RBs coming out in the draft this year, so take what I have to say with a grain of salt.
I've mentioned some of this before in comments and even an old fanpost, but I thought I would lay it out here, put some meat on its bones, and do some research instead of my usual tactic of just spouting off theories and hoping no one calls me on it.
My theory about drafting running backs is that you should never do it in the first round (and maybe not on the first day) until you actually need them. There are a couple reasons for this, but they center on the fact that college RBs can come into the league and make an impact right off the bat. This isn't like a QB or WR who seem to take 2-3 years before things start to click. An RB is like a baby wildebeest who can run with the herd 5 minutes after being born. You don't need to groom an RB, you just need to give them the ball. Now, there are some things that an RB needs some time to learn, things like blitz pickups and when to take the sure 3 yards rather than shoot for the big gain and risk the potential 2 yard loss. These things are important, but not the most critical thing an RB does. The most critical thing an RB does is gain yards and score TDs, and that is something a rookie RB can do in week 1 of his rookie year.
By drafting an RB in the first round when you don't need him, you are doing two bad things for your team:
1. You are wasting an impact draft pick on a position you don't have a need in and don't need to groom someone for. In the Charger's case, we need OL, DL, and Safety, we don't need RB where we have an (former) all-pro plus one of the most electric players from last season.
2. Even though first rounders are expensive to sign, they are cheaper than a good running back on his second contract (3-5 year vet). By drafting an RB a year (or two) too early you are wasting one of their cheap years by having them on the bench. Soon enough, they will become a FA or get their contract renegotiated, and you will be out one cheap year, which can make a difference.
So let me show you some numbers. First of all, here are the leading rushers from last year:
|Steve Slaton (R)||HOU||1282||3|
|Matt Forte (R)||CHI||1238||2|
|Chris Johnson (R)||TEN||1228||1|
Note that there are three rookies in this list. In fact, every year since we drafted LT, there has been a rookie who broke 1,000 yards rushing. Some years as many as three, some years just one. Guys like Peterson, Portis, Addai, etc. Not that 1,000 yards is a sure fire indicator of a good back, but it is a good rough indicator that rookie RBs can be successful in their first year.
Let's look at it a different way. Let's look at all the RBs taken in the first round in the last 3 years and see how they have done.
We've got a bit of a mixed bag. There is definitely some production in there with 4 rookie 1000 yard seasons, with a few stinkers among the 11 RBs. Although if I use my imagination and think of Mendenhall not injured and Williams and Stewart not sharing carries their rookie years and McFadden not playing in football purgatory for his sins of encouraging the Wildcat formation, I think this list could have been more successful.
So, we've seen two ways of looking at it and both show that a rookie can make a positive impact at RB as the primary ball carrier right off the bat. I think someday we will know when LT's time is done. But it is not today. Between Tomlinson and Sproles, we should have a very good running attack this year. Drafting a RB and sitting him on the bench for a year would be a waste.
Someday we will know that LT is done, and when that day comes, we should draft an RB to replace him in the first round. Until then, we should continue to enjoy his skills and continue to take second day flyers on RBs. You never know, we might end up with another Michael Turner.