By the time the Houston Texans got around to choosing Domanick Davis last year, the draft was into its second day, exactly 100 prospects had been selected, and seven other running backs were already off the board.
And by the time the 2003 season had concluded eight months later, the Texans had one of the best young runners in the league and the offensive rookie of the year, with Davis just the latest example of a trend in which many franchises believe they don't have to exercise a first-round choice to unearth a productive tailback.
Although the former LSU tailback didn't even move into the Houston starting lineup until the sixth game, he still carried 238 times for 1,031 yards and eight touchdowns. So how good were those numbers? Consider this: The seven backs chosen ahead of Davis in the 2003 draft combined for just 166 rushes, 648 yards and three scores.
Not a bad dividend for shrewd general manager Charley Casserly on a modest investment of $559,000, the total of Davis' signing bonus and '03 base salary. Not a bad cautionary reminder, either, for those teams which might be tempted to "reach" into the first round in two weeks, and gamble on one of the flawed tailback prospects in this year's pool.
If recent history is an indicator, there is probably as good a chance that the leading rookie rusher for the 2004 season will come from the third or fourth round as from the quartet of tailbacks that comprise the consensus top group. It could be, say, the lesser-known Tatum Bell of Oklahoma State, who as a rookie outperforms high-profile backs such as Steven Jackson of Oregon State or Virginia Tech's Kevin Jones. The emerging Ran Carthon of Florida or Arkansas' Cedric Cobbs could end up rushing for more yards than Greg Jones of Florida State or Michigan's Chris Perry.
"It's a draft that probably has more overall depth (at tailback) than it does star quality," acknowledged one AFC general manager who allowed he hopes to find a viable tailback prospect at the end of the first day or early on the second. "You look at the top guys, and just about every one of them has some kind of a wart, something that gives you pause. I don't know that we'll have more than two (backs) in the first round."
In fact, since the NFL adopted the seven-round lottery in 1994, there have been only 30 tailbacks chosen in the last 10 first rounds. Not since the 2000 draft, which included first-round busts Ron Dayne and Trung Canidate, have there been more than three tailbacks in the first round. The last two drafts produced just two first-round tailbacks each.
Of the two tailbacks chosen in the first round last year, Larry Johnson (Kansas City) had cameo appearances in six games and carried 20 times, and Willis McGahee (Buffalo) never got on the field, as he rehabilitated from the catastrophic knee injury suffered in his final college game. Between them, McGahee and Johnson banked slightly in excess of $5 million, or nearly 10 times what the Texans paid for Davis.
"Denver proved that you don't have to have a first-round running back to have a first-rate running game," said Philadelphia coach Andy Reid. "That doesn't mean you're going to ignore the great running back. But there is certainly precedent for being able to find guys a little later on in the draft."
Remember the adage which held that running back, because of its inherent skills set, was a position where rookies could step in and make an immediate splash? Well, indeed, there have been tailbacks -- like LaDainian Tomlinson, Edgerrin James, Marshall Faulk, Eddie George, Jamal Lewis and Fred Taylor -- who upheld that bromide. But on the flip side, there have been first-round tailbacks who failed to stir so much as a ripple, not just as rookies but throughout their careers.
Going back to '94, the first year of the seven-round draft, the leading rookie rusher has been a tailback chosen outside of the first round on five occasions: Curtis Martin (1995), Corey Dillon (1997), Mike Anderson (2000), Clinton Portis (2002) and Davis (2003).
The consensus top four tailback prospects in this year's draft features players of rare size, but none of whom is considered a gamebreaker. Recent "pro day" workouts by the quartet have resulted in pedestrian 40-yard times, average change-of-directions drills, and just as many questions as answers. Conventional wisdom is that Jackson of Oregon State could be a top 10 choice, but no one will be surprised if he slips to the middle of the first round.
Once again, the run on runners is anticipated somewhere in the second round, continuing into the third. That is where the bargains have been, at least in the past several years, and where personnel directors are most likely to go trolling again.
If there is one tailback prospect who scouts universally feel has a chance to be "special," it is, indeed, Jackson, who rushed for 1,500-plus yards in each of his two seasons as a starter. Not surprisingly, after Jackson, beauty is in the eye of the beholder and largely based on a team's particular style of offense.
Surveying general managers and scouts on how they rank the top tailbacks is an exercise in diversity. One personnel chief, whose team plays a large quota of one-back sets, talked at length about how Greg Jones could be an immediate factor for his franchise. Another personnel director, whose team features a West Coast-style offense, didn't even have the Seminoles star among his top five backs.
It is, acknowledged most scouts, more subjective than ever at the tailback position. And as the last several years have demonstrated, riskier than ever, as well. What used to be a relatively easy position to evaluate has become a far murkier process. And faced with spending millions of dollars on a first-round tailback who could flop, and making just a modest investment on a middle-round runner who could be the next Domanick Davis or Clinton Portis, teams are increasingly opting for the latter.
Len Pasquarelli is a senior writer for ESPN.com.