It wasn't all that long ago -- try 2008 -- that the formula for drafting a running back was simple: If you projected him to be a consistent 1,000-yard rusher at the NFL level, you made him your first-round pick.
There were five running backs drafted in the first round that year, keeping with the notion that the position was highly valued. But with more and more teams using a pass-first attack, and with more teams finding quality runners lower in the draft -- or even some who were never drafted at all, like Houston's Arian Foster -- running backs are closer to dime-a-dozen category than blue chip. At least when it comes to draft-day positioning.
Consider: In the last three years combined, there have been only six first-round running backs, including one (Alabama's Mark Ingram) last year. And that trend is almost certain to continue, with Ingram's former teammate, Trent Richardson, projected as the only first-rounder tomorrow night.
"Most teams try not to take us like they used to in the first round," Richardson said. "Hopefully I can change that, or more guys in this draft can change that."
Richardson will certainly get that chance, because he's almost certain to be taken near the top of the draft, perhaps as high as No. 4 to Cleveland. And who knows? Maybe there's a team willing to trade a bunch of picks to move up and grab Richardson, who appears to be as close to a can't-miss prospect as Minnesota's Adrian Peterson, the seventh overall pick in 2007.
There is no doubt in Richardson's mind that he will be a quality return on the investment, no matter how high he goes.
"Not to be cocky or anything, but I work on my game every day, and even if it's not physical stuff, I work in the classroom," said the 5-9, 228-pound Richardson, who rushed for 1,679 yards and 21 touchdowns last season. "When it comes down to it, I'll be the dude that's on the field and getting the ball on third-and-3 or fourth-and-1."
Confidence is clearly not in short supply with Richardson.
"Everybody knows I can run the ball," he said. "I've never been caught from behind, so if anyone wants to question my speed, just look at the tape. When it comes to playing football, any game you want to just look at it and try to find a negative. A lot of people try to find a negative in your game and there aren't too many negatives I have. I don't fumble. That's one thing that I do not do."
Richardson starred at Escambia High School in Pensacola, Fla., the same place another NFL star got his start. Emmitt Smith was a 1987 graduate of the school and went on to a Hall of Fame career with the Cowboys. Richardson hopes for a similar result.
But it's not Smith he likens himself to. It's a combination of last season's Giants backfield, Ahmad Bradshaw and Brandon Jacobs. FYI: Bradshaw (seventh round, 2007) and Jacobs (fourth round, 2005) were both low-round picks.
"I just try to have my own game, but I see me in both of the running backs from the Giants," Richardson said. "When it comes down to it, those are guys I've been watching my whole career and growing up."
Richardson now has a chance to carve out his own legacy, and in the process help restore the reputation of his fellow running backs.
"It bothers me a lot because we're getting pounded on every down," he said. "When it comes down to it, everyone needs a running back, and they've got to use that running back. The value of a running back isn't the same, and it's crazy to us."
Richardson now plans on doing his part to change that perception. He'll find out Thursday night where the proving ground will be.