INDIANAPOLIS — The top running backs at this week’s NFL scouting combine came of age in a bygone era, back when gas was $2.50 a gallon and the men who played their position still fueled much of the league.
As recently as 2005, three tailbacks were selected among the top five picks in the draft — Auburn’s Ronnie Brown and Cadillac Williams and Texas’ Cedric Benson.
Yet this is no longer your older brother’s league.
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Prospects like the University of Toledo’s David Fluellen and Ohio State’s Carlos Hyde are vying to enter a remade NFL as pass-first offenses continue to remove the sheen from a once-prized position. A running back was not taken in the first round last spring for the first time in 50 years, and analysts expect the devaluing of the position will continue in May.
For Fluellen, the trend offers hope he will flourish no matter where selected. For Hyde, it yields motivation to crash though a new ceiling.
Hyde on Friday declared, "I definitely feel like I should be regarded as the best running back in the draft" — and yet that distinction does not make him a projected first-round selection. Hyde is widely seen as second-round material, as are Tre Mason of Auburn, and Arizona’s Ka’Deem Carey.
"Yeah, it does kind of bother me," Hyde said of the changing philosophy. "Teams are doubting us. They don't think we're capable of doing what we know we can do. They're kind of just downplaying us, [thinking] we can just wait to get y'all. There are guys that have been drafted late that are having a lot of success in the league right now, so that's kind of changing the GMs’ minds right now."
Hyde is right. Take, for instance, the NFL’s top four rushers last year — Philadelphia’s LeSean McCoy, Chicago’s Matt Forte, Kansas City’s Jamaal Charles, and Washington’s Alfred Morris. None were first-round picks.
"If you look back at the draft 40 years ago, running backs were the most valuable commodity there was," NFL Network analyst Mike Mayock said. "And today, with all the spread offenses and teams throwing the football 60, 70, 80 percent of the time, there's been a completely different emphasis in how you draft offensively.
"It starts at quarterback, it goes to wide receiver and left tackle, and even lately, it’s gone to tight ends that can stress teams vertically on defense."
Fluellen is mindful of the shift but hardly concerned.
"It doesn't matter where you go," he said Friday. "You can be successful. I feel like you've got to play with a chip on your shoulder, even if you do get picked in the mid to late rounds."
At the combine, he hopes to continue casting aside any doubts created by the injuries — first an ailing back, then an ankle fracture — that cost him all or parts of the Rockets’ last five games. Fluellen, who checked in at 5-foot-11, 224 pounds, believes he "turned a lot of heads" at the Senior Bowl.
Now, as he goes through a cyclone of interviews, exams, and drills, his goal for as long as he can remember suddenly feels real.
"The NFL's always been a dream of mine since I was little playing with my friends, running around, catching the football, pretending I'm Randy Moss," said Fluellen, who is fourth all-time at UT with 3,336 rushing yards and flashed that backyard versatility with 80 career receptions.
Hyde spent Friday making his case for both his position — "You can’t just pass the whole game," he said — and why he is the best at it.
What separates him? The 5-11, 230-pound Hyde said, "Not too many of the [other backs] are 230 and going to run what I’m going to run in the [40-yard dash]."
He hopes his time is in the 4.4-second range, though analysts say 4.5 seconds is a more realistic goal. Either time would offer an emphatic answer to one of league decision-makers’ two biggest questions about Hyde, along with character concerns. Hyde said teams have prodded him about his three-game suspension to start the season, which stemmed from an incident at a Columbus bar last summer. (The case was dropped when the alleged female victim declined to press charges.)
"They've been asking what happened, and they ask me what I’ve learned," said Hyde, who ran for 1,521 yards and 15 touchdowns last season. "I feel like I've learned to cherish this game of football, because any minute it can be taken away from you, just like it almost was."