After drawing rave reviews following his pro-day at Alabama, it looks increasingly likely that Trent Richardson will be off the board when the St. Louis Rams make their selection at No. 6.

Salary cap constraints have changed how teams determine value. That’s why we’ve seen tackles Jake Long and Joe Thomas taken so high in recent years. Finding a franchise left tackle in the middle rounds of the draft is rare, while finding an above average running back certainly isn’t.

From Jeff Legwold of the Denver post:

“More and more teams, with the salary cap always staring them in the face, are moving forward with the idea that the first round may not be the place to go hunting for a running back — that the real value at such a high-impact position, with a short tenure at the top end of the performance scale, is down the board. There is also the fact that none of the league’s top six rushers last season were former first-round picks, so the argument not to go there has plenty of merit.”

With that in mind we decided to take a look at running backs selected within the top five picks of drafts dating back to 1990. Due to injuries and prolonged journeys to find one’s self (love you, Ricky Williams) we decided to use career per game averages for both rushing and receiving along with career touchdown totals.

Player Draft Year Active Seasons Games Played Career Rush Yards/P Game Career REC Yards/P Game Career TDs
Blair Thomas (1-2) 1990 7 64 34.9 8 9
Garrison Hearst (1-3) 1993 10 126 63.2 16.4 39
Marshall Faulk (1-2) 1994 12 176 69.8 39.1 136
Ki-Jana Carter (1-1) 1995 7 59 19.4 7.9 21
Curtis Enis (1-5) 1998 3 36 41.6 11.9 6
Edgerrin James (1-4) 1999 11 148 82.7 22.7 91
Ricky Williams (1-5) 1999 11 147 68.1 17.7 74
Jamal Lewis (1-5) 2000 9 131 81 14.3 62
LaDanian Tomlinson (1-5) 2001 11 170 80.5 28.1 162
Ronnie Brown (1-2) 2005 7 92 53.8 16.2 39
Cedric Benson (1-4) 2005 7 91 63.4 8.1 32
Cadillac Williams (1-5) 2005 7 82 49.2 12.2 25
Reggie Bush (1-2) 2006 6 75 42.3 32.5 36
Darren McFadden (1-4) 2008 4 45 58.4 26.5 20

A couple names immediately stand out. LaDanian Tomlinson will be a first ballot Hall-Of-Famer, and his numbers indicate why. Marshall Faulk’s talent, longevity, and prowess as a pass-catching running back already have him in Canton. Jamal Lewis, Edgerrin James, and Ricky Williams all achieved consistent success for long periods, and subsequently warranted their high selection.  After a tremendous 1998 regular season, a brutal ankle injury in the playoffs derailed an otherwise promising career for Garrison Hearst.

There are also your garden variety busts. Curtis Enis, Blair Thomas and Ki-Jana Carter are names noteworthy for making it nearly impossible for Penn State running backs to be given a second look by NFL talent evaluators.

Then we have the recent selections. Darren McFadden looks like a legitimate top five back in the league if he can overcome lingering injury issues. Ronnie Brown and Cedric Benson have gone through peaks and valleys in their careers. Brown is no longer a featured back, and Benson salvaged his career with Cincinnati after bombing in Chicago. Cadillac Williams, like his former Auburn teammate, is no longer a featured option. Reggie Bush, perhaps the most intriguing of the group, had a breakout season with the Dolphins in 2011 after being given a chance to carry the ball on a consistent basis.

As our draft profile on him showed, the scouts are confident Richardson will become a force in the NFL. Whether he can have the longevity to  justify a huge investment from either the Browns or Bucs remains to be seen.

For one last bit of analysis we also decided to look at top 5 picks on a positional basis from 1985 to 2000.

Position Players Taken Pro Bowler Hall Of Famer
Linebacker 16 9 1
Quarterback 14 7 1
Running Back 12 7 2
D. End 10 5 2
Corner Back 9 5 1
D. Tackle 7 5 0
O. Tackle 6 5 0
Wide Receiver 4 2 0
O. Guard 1 1 0
Safety 1 1 0
Tight End 0 0 0
Center 0 0 0

Some things in the NFL remain constant. What’s changed is the prevalence of running backs selected at the top of the draft.

If the Browns truly are deciding between Ryan Tannehill and Richardson, recent history, the fragile nature of the running back position, and the league’s transition into a passing era tell us they’ll be wiser to take the Texas A&M product at No. 4.