This year’s NFL draft boasts perhaps the most dynamic group of incoming running backs in recent memory. At least three rushers are projected to be taken in the first round, and that begs the question: Are running backs once again being valued as worthy first-round selections?

The NFL went two years without a back selected in the opening round of the draft in 2013 and 2014. Todd Gurley and Melvin Gordon broke the trend in 2015, and Ezekiel Elliott was the lone running back taken on the first night last year.

Gurley became a superstar after a 1,100-yard, 10-touchdown debut season and Elliott threatened the rookie rushing record by producing 1,631 rushing yards and 15 touchdowns in 2016.

Elliott’s stunning rookie season was a major boon for the value of the running-back position, paving the way for prospects Leonard Fournette, Dalvin Cook, and Christian McCaffrey to capitalize in 2017.

Fournette was described as a man among boys during his three years in college, McCaffrey broke the NCAA record for all-purpose yards, and Cook’s game-breaking speed and acceleration helped his program reach the College Football Playoff in just his first season.

The growing perception around the league is that running back is the most interchangeable position on the football field. Take the Super Bowl champion New England Patriots as an example. They’ve committed to a running-back-by committee approach and the results are unmistakable. They’re far from the only team to employ the philosophy.

NFL teams would rather shell out money for a passer, pass-rusher, pass-catcher, or pass-defender than invest in the run game. That reality is not lost on former rushing stars Adrian Peterson and Jamaal Charles who wish to continue their careers but have yet to sign with a new team.

Whether running backs truly become valued as first-round picks going forward will rest on the first-year performances of Fournette, Cook, and McCaffrey.

Elliott’s situation was unique. He was the consensus top pick in last year’s draft and he landed on a team with one of the best offensive lines in football. This year’s crop of runners may not have that luxury.

We’ll have to wait until the end of the month to find out where the top backs in this year’s class end up, but should this trio produce in their first year and any of Alvin Kamara, Joe Mixon, D’Onta Foreman and Co. emerge as starting-caliber ball carriers in the NFL, the value of the running back position may finally be restored.

(Photos courtesy: Action Images)

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