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NFL Draft: Reviewing the first-round RB selections

With the amazing rookie season that Ezekiel Elliott is having for the Dallas Cowboys, perhaps more and more NFL teams will be tempted to take running backs in round one. Since 2010, only 10 such backs were first-round picks, with Trent Richardson the highest selection at No. 3 overall in 2012. Here’s a look back at each.

Mark Pszonak contributed to this report.

MORE: Rivals Review: Ezekiel Elliott | NFL Draft stock report: Running back

Current RB rankings: 2017 | 2018

2012 – Trent Richardson – No. 3 overall


The skinny: Richardson committed to Alabama during the summer leading up to his senior season, but also took January official visits to Florida State, Florida and LSU before signing with the Tide. After an extremely successful three-year collegiate career with the Crimson Tide, where he rushed for 3,243 yards and 35 touchdowns, he was selected with the third overall pick by Cleveland in 2012. However, his NFL career has yet to come close to reaching the success he had in Tuscaloosa. Currently an unsigned free agent, Richardson saw time with the Browns, Indianapolis, Oakland and Baltimore before being released by the Ravens in April.

Farrell’s Take: Anyone who saw Richardson out of high school and says they could project him to be such a bust in the NFL is lying. He was huge, powerful, ran low to the ground and had good feet and excellent speed. He was our No. 6 overall player in 2009 and No. 2 running back behind only Bryce Brown, who was No. 1 overall that year. Heck, he could even catch the ball out of the backfield when needed. He’s one of the most physically impressive running backs I’ve ever seen, hands down.

2016 – Ezekiel Elliott - No. 4 overall

The skinny: Elliott committed to Ohio State in late March after a visit to Columbus. Elliott did take an official visit to Missouri a week before National Signing Day, but still signed with the Buckeyes despite his father having played at Mizzou. Elliott’s final two seasons with the Buckeyes were memorable, as he totaled 3,699 yards and 41 touchdowns. Selected with the fourth overall pick by Dallas, a great deal was expected out of Elliott as a rookie, and he has not disappointed. Playing behind a dominant offensive line, Elliott is currently leading the NFL with 1,005 yards rushing while chipping in with nine touchdowns. As he continues to flourish on the field this fall, he remains on pace to produce one of the top rookie running back seasons ever.

Farrell’s Take: Elliott is a physical freak, but he wasn't that way in high school. In fact, his speed was a bit of a question mark overall. Despite that question, he was still a Rivals100 prospect and a player we liked very much. We just didn’t see how much he’d develop from the end of his high school career to his freshman year at Ohio State, and he continues to add to his talents. His vision was always there, but the speed you see now on NFL turf is not the same as we saw back in high school.

2010 – C.J. Spiller – No. 9 overall 

The skinny: Spiller took an official visit to USC during his senior season and then visits to Clemson, Florida, Florida State and Miami in January before committing to the Tigers on National Signing Day. This came as a big surprise to many, as the Seminoles and Gators were considered the leaders leading up to signing day. Spiller totaled 4,909 yards of offense and 51 touchdowns during his four-year collegiate career before being selected with the ninth overall pick by Buffalo. Injuries have plagued Spiller during his NFL career, and after five seasons with the Bills he made a move to New Orleans, then Seattle and now the New York Jets, where he is the third-team back.

Farrell’s Take: Spiller was our No. 1 all-purpose back out of high school because he could do so much. He could bounce it outside with his speed, catch the ball with ease and he was a special teams star waiting to happen. Near the end of the rankings cycle he also showed us his toughness between the tackles at a few all-star events against elite talent. He’s one of the best all-purpose backs we’ve ever ranked and he lived up to his potential at Clemson despite not getting enough touches.

2015 – Todd Gurley – No. 10 overall

The skinny: Being from North Carolina, there was a big push for Gurley to stay home, but in the end he committed to Georgia over the Wolfpack and Tar Heels. Despite tearing his ACL during his junior season, Gurley still had a memorable playing career in Athens while becoming one of the more exciting backs in the country. The injury obviously caused some concern among NFL teams, but the Rams still decided to select him with the 10th overall pick. Despite the fact that he was brought along slowly as a rookie, Gurley still won the Offensive Rookie of the Year with 1,106 yards and 10 touchdowns. After such an inspiring start to his NFL career, Gurley’s second season has been disappointing. With only 515 yards, three touchdowns and an average of 3.1 yards per carry, defenses have keyed on him this fall. To this point the Rams and Gurley have not responded.

Farrell’s Take: He should have been a five-star. I kick myself and said so even before he emerged as a freshman star. While everyone else had fellow North Carolina running back Keith Marshall, also a Georgia signee, as the man, I fell in love with Gurley's size and speed at the Shrine Bowl. Had he played in one of the two major all-star games, he would have been a five-star and I'd be bragging right now, but national top 50 is good. People compared Leonard Fournette to Adrian Peterson, but this is the guy who had that same running style as Peterson.

2010 – Ryan Mathews – No. 12 overall

The skinny: Mathews took an official visit to Nevada in January, but a few days later he committed to Fresno State during his visit there. He signed with the Bulldogs despite a late push from USC. Mathews had three productive seasons with Fresno State, which included 1,808 yards and 19 touchdowns during his third and final year. Selected with the 12th overall pick by San Diego in 2010, Mathews showed flashes of potential during his five seasons with the Chargers but never lived up to expectations. He signed with Philadelphia as a free agent in 2015, and while splitting carries has continued to be productive yet unspectacular.

Farrell’s Take: A three-star as an athlete back in 2007, Matthews played running back, quarterback and linebacker, and could have made an impact at numerous positions. How could a player who rushed for 3,396 yards and 44 scores as a senior while adding 851 passing yards and 11 more touchdowns through the air end up as a lightly recruited three-star? Welcome to 2007 when it was much easier for prospects to slip through the cracks and film was relied upon through snail mail. Matthews attended one Nike Camp I can remember and didn’t stand out. He probably benefited from turning down USC for Fresno State where he could see the field easier and put up huge numbers.


2015 – Melvin Gordon – No. 15 overall

The skinny: Gordon originally committed to Iowa in the weeks leading up to his senior season, but gradually re-opened his process. Finally, in early December of his senior year, he decided to stay close to home and committed to Wisconsin. Gordon produced a historic career with the Badgers, which was highlighted with his 2,587-yard, 29-touchdown season in 2014. Selected with the 15th overall pick by San Diego, Gordon was never able to hit his stride during his rookie season. However, this fall he looks more like the back who dominated college defenses in Wisconsin. Gordon has helped the Chargers’ offense become one of the more balanced units in the league this year to the tune of 838 yards and nine rushing touchdowns,

Farrell’s Take: Gordon was a big back who was famously advised in a scouting report to move positions to linebacker by a former analyst. That was the culture of the running back position back in 2011 before guys like Gordon, Gurley, Derrick Henry and others emerged as bigger, taller backs. Nowadays, it's commonplace for backs to be 6-foot-1 or taller, and we have learned much from players like Gordon. A big-time, powerful back with an upright and unrefined running style out of high school, Gordon was a four-star outside our Rivals250 in 2011 and made himself into a great back. He ran much higher than his listed 6-foot size and has been listed at 6-foot-1 and even 6-foot-2 since.

The skinny: Ingram took official visits to Alabama, Iowa, Arizona State, Michigan State and Wisconsin before committing to the Crimson Tide on National Signing Day. This came as a stunner to many, since his father, Mark Ingram Sr., played and was a star with the Spartans. Ingram’s time at Alabama is most remembered by his 2009 Heisman Trophy winning season, which culminated in a national championship for the Crimson Tide. Selected with the 28th pick by New Orleans, Ingram has spent his entire NFL career with the Saints. While he has never reached stardom in New Orleans, he continues to be a reliable back for the Saints.

Farrell’s Take: A four-star athlete out of Michigan back in 2008, Ingram played running back and cornerback and could have played on either side of the ball. He had eight interceptions as a senior to go along with 2,546 yards rushing and 38 scores over his final two seasons. He had sneaky speed for a back with fairly good size and a great burst. As a Rivals250 prospect we liked him quite a bit, although we never saw Heisman or first-rounder out of high school.

2010 – Jahvid Best – No. 30 overall

The skinny: While Best considered California, Oregon, Notre Dame, Michigan and USC, it was the Golden Bears and Ducks who grabbed official visits. A few days after returning home from his visit to Berkeley, he decided to end his process with a commitment to Cal in mid-December. At Cal, Best jumped onto the national radar during his sophomore season when he rushed for 1,580 yards and 15 touchdowns while averaging 8.1 yards per carry. Selected No. 30 overall by Detroit, Best showed flashes of his potential during his two and a half seasons in the NFL; however, numerous concussions ended his playing his career prematurely. He was last seen competing for the St. Lucia track and field team in the 100 meters during the 2016 Summer Olympics.

Farrell’s Take: A Rivals100 prospect out of high school, Best had great speed and could break away easily at that level. He also had a great jump cut, was sneaky strong for his size and could catch the ball. We liked his ability to contribute on all three downs and as a special teams standout, and he showcased that in college and in flashes at the NFL level.

2012 – Doug Martin – No. 31 overall

The skinny: Martin never saw his recruiting process take off, which ultimately resulted in his commitment to Boise State a few days after his December official visit. While he glided under the radar during his recruitment, he exploded onto the scene with the Broncos. After finishing his collegiate career with 3,431 yards and 43 touchdowns, Martin was selected with the 31st overall pick by Tampa Bay in 2012. Martin made an immediate impact as a rookie with 1,454 yards and 11 touchdowns, but then struggled with injuries in both 2013 and 2014. He regained his form last season with another impressive season, but has seen injuries limit him this fall to only three games and 118 yards to this point.

Farrell’s Take: No one wanted Martin aside from Boise State, and much of it had to do with a 4.73-second 40-yard dash at a NIKE Camp, which labeled him slow. Remember, this was 2007 where you had only one chance or so to impress and Martin had an off day and it hurt him. He didn’t start playing football until high school because he was a basketball player and he wasn’t tall, thick or fast out of high school despite putting up nice numbers. Martin obviously proved everyone wrong.


2012 – David Wilson – No. 32 overall

The skinny: While Wilson had numerous offers from top programs, an unofficial visit to Virginia Tech during the summer resulted in his commitment to the Hokies. After two promising, yet unspectacular seasons at Virginia Tech, Wilson burst onto the scene in 2011 with 1,838 offensive yards and 10 touchdowns, which earned him 2011 ACC Offensive Player of the Year honors. After being selected with the 32nd overall pick by the New York Giants in 2012, Wilson only lasted 21 games in the NFL before a neck injury ultimately resulted in his retirement in 2014.

Farrell’s Take: Wilson was a national top-50 prospect and a track star as well. He had everything you want in a feature back – thick legs, explosion, elusiveness, power and a great work ethic. I remember going down to his remote part of Virginia to see him in person and came away impressed even though the game was cut short due to a power surge. Wilson was so humbled with how far I traveled to see him that he apologized for his performance, which was very good, but also for the outage, which he obviously had nothing to do with. He was a great kid and a great running back.