Nearly three years ago, a reporter asked a young(er) Theo Riddick what he hoped to showcase at his pro day. “Hands, quickness, [ability] to run routes out of the backfield.” Fast forward to the Lions’ 2015 campaign, and all of that was on display for the Notre Dame alum. The third-year back tied for the league lead in receptions among running backs with eighty catches and amassed 697 yards along the way, which was second only to Danny Woodhead, who racked up 755 for the Chargers. To say the least, Riddick’s emergence was a bright spot in yet another disappointing season for the Detroit fanbase.
Riddick, who was a sixth-round pick in Mayhew’s vaunted 2013 draft class, is in the final year of his rookie deal. He recently expressed his openness to a contract extension with the Lions. But, there’s a new sheriff in town in Bob Quinn, and with him comes a new philosophy.
In his Combine press conference, Quinn was asked a question about Eric Ebron, who was infamously taken in front of Aaron Donald and Odell Beckham in the first round of the 2014 draft. He offered some praise for the tight end, but added that he wanted to see Ebron make another jump, saying “By year three, you know what you have.” We saw what Riddick did in his third NFL season last year, so it’s safe to assume Quinn knows what he has. That makes a contract extension a no-brainer, right? Not necessarily.
The problem is, we’re at a point where running back is no longer a premier position in the league. This decade, only nine running backs have been selected in the first round. That’s an average of just 1.5 per draft. In two drafts, 2013 and 2014, no running backs were taken in the first at all. From 2000-2009, 32 running backs were picked in the first round, and no fewer than two were selected in any given year. That equates to more than double the average of this decade. This downward trend is a harbinger: the star running back is a dying breed. Ever ahead of the curve, the Patriots never placed a premium on the position during Belichick’s tenure, and Quinn’s time with New England (2000-2015) began during The Hoodie’s first year as head coach.
Out of 144 draft picks from 2000-2015, the Patriots selected just ten running backs, two of which were fullbacks, with an average draft position of 127th overall, which averages out to the late third, early fourth round, depending on whether or not you want to ’round up.’ They only ever took one in the first (Laurence Maroney, 21st overall in 2006) and even passed on selecting a running back in nine of sixteen drafts. These running backs spent, on average, just three years with the team (I’m not including James White, their 2014 fourth-round selection, in this calculation because he is still on the team.) That means that the average New England RB’s career with the team is just as short as the average NFL career. Needless to say, very few of those players received second contracts.
Perhaps the most practical example of New England’s attitude towards running backs could be the case of Danny Woodhead, the very man who beat Riddick for the most receiving yards among running backs in 2015. Woodhead played for the Patriots in 2010-2012 after starting his career out as an undrafted free agent with the Jets. He was initially claimed off of waivers, and then was extended for two years on a 2-year, $1.675M deal. After a promising 2012 campaign (116 total touches, 747 total yards, and 7 TDs) Belichick let him hit free agency, where he signed a 2-year, $3.5M deal to go to San Diego. That money doesn’t seem like much, but his average annual salary would have been more than the total worth of his previous deal. One way or another, the Pats didn’t want any part of that.
“The Patriot way” is, admittedly, a tired narrative, but it’s what Quinn knows, and it’s what works. New England won four Super Bowls in his time with the team, all the while investing very little in the running back position. As good as Riddick is, he’s a one-dimensional player, which is to say he’s replaceable. Even if his asking price is seemingly low, Quinn’s time with the Patriots indicates he’ll likely pass on re-signing Riddick. If he can draft somebody to fill Riddick’s role, and save a few million a year over the course of several years in the meantime, he’ll do it. Like it or not, there are plenty of running backs in the college ranks who bring to the table what Theo Riddick tried to show at his pro day nearly three years ago.