By Nick Wagoner

In a league that is now widely viewed by its many analysts and wannabe analysts as a “passing” league, one of the ever-present debates is how a running back fits into all of that.

In other words, what’s the value of a running back in today’s NFL? Is a good one worth spending big dollars on for a long term contract? Is a great one worth taking near the top of the NFL Draft?

There is much to consider for teams entering this month’s draft as one running back is considered to be so talented and unique that all previous beliefs of where a running back should be drafted in the current landscape of the NFL should be tossed out the window.

That player is Alabama’s Trent Richardson, a player so tantalizingly talented that if you didn’t know his position, he might be considered the best player in this year’s draft. But since he plays running back, debates have raged whether he should even go in the top 10, let alone the top five.

From the Rams’ perspective, Steven Jackson still has some gas in the tank but even he acknowledges that he’s closer to the end than the beginning. It’s not likely Richardson will even be available to the Rams with their first-round pick, No. 6 overall, but if he was they’d have to consider Richardson as an ideal backup to Jackson in the short term and a high quality long term replacement.

“I like Richardson,” NFL Network analyst Charley Casserly said. “I think he is the second best player in this draft and a complete back. I think he can run inside, he can run outside, he can catch the ball, he can block, he can run after the catch. He’s got some power as a runner; he’s got good instincts and vision. I really like the guy and I think he’s a top 5 pick every year historically. I value him and the position. I think if the Rams took him it’d be a great move because Steven Jackson is not going to play forever.

So, why the trepidation? The theory goes that running backs are a major health risk to begin with because of the pounding they take on a weekly basis. Further, there’s a school of thought that you can find top notch backs late in the draft or even as undrafted free agents such as Houston’s Arian Foster.

“What’s interesting is since 2005, I think there’s been seven backs in the top 10 and a number of them, guys like Cadillac Williams, Ronnie Brown, Reggie Bush, all of them have had just one 1,000-yard season and only one. Injuries have hurt them all,” Casserly said. “Richardson is a heck of a player, I think he should go to multiple Pro Bowls but history says this guy is going to get hurt within that first five year period. Now, would I take the risk? I would take the risk, yes.”

Richardson comes with a complete skill set and less tread on the tires than many top notch backs after sharing carries for most of his time with the Crimson Tide.

The questions about Richardson have nothing to do with his ability as a player and everything to do with his position. Chad Reuter, Casserly’s colleague at NFL Network believes that though Richardson is an even better prospect than Minnesota back Adrian Peterson, drafting him wouldn’t be a slam dunk.

Even though the Rams will likely be a run heavy offense and Richardson could fill the Eddie George role for new coach Jeff Fisher, Reuter believes it would be tough to pull the trigger on the pick.

“He is one of the top six or seven players in this draft but I would have real reservations about taking him, I would,” Reuter said. “If you look at the top running backs in the league every year, look at how many of them are on playoff teams. It’s great to have one but look at the Giants, Packers, Saints, Patriots, they all won Super Bowls with running games but they didn’t have one running back. If it works out that it goes 1, 2 then Kalil, Blackmon and Claiborne and they are at 6 and they have got to make a decision whether to take Richardson or not, I would not say that’s a bad pick if they take him because he is clearly part of that group. Even with that all said, I don’t know how you pass on one of the top six players so I wouldn’t say it’s a bad move on their part but boy I would have some reservations about that.”

For what it’s worth, Richardson is scheduled to visit with the Rams on Monday and would likely get some serious consideration should he somehow fall past Cleveland at No. 4 and Tampa Bay at No. 5, a proposition that isn’t too likely.

Should the Rams not find themselves in position to select Richardson, it’s safe to assume they will still target a running back or two at some point in the draft, perhaps even as early as the second round, where the Rams have a pair of high picks.

At this point, it seems Richardson is the only surefire first round choice among the backs which could leave some very interesting options in the remaining rounds, depending on what you’re looking for.

“Picking a running back has really become like picking a flavor of ice cream at Baskin Robbins,” Reuter said. “They’re all good in a way within a certain range. It’s just the flavor you want that day. So if you want speed then you want David Wilson or maybe Isaiah Pead in the third round. If you want power, you take Chris Polk from Washington, maybe Robert Turbin from Utah State in the fourth round. That’s what you kind of want. In today’s NFL, running backs are mostly role players. So if you want speed, you go one way and if you want power you go the other way. There’s depth at that position in this draft.”

Wilson, Miami’s Lamar Miller and Boise State’s Doug Martin are generally considered the second tier of the running back group and all could be under consideration for the Rams as early as round two.

Beyond that, there are some interesting choices that could include Pead, Turbin, San Diego State’s Ronnie Hillman and Oregon’s LaMichael James. James is scheduled to make a visit to Rams Park for a pre-draft visit and would be an interesting complement to Jackson with his speed on the outside.

James isn’t likely to be gone before the third round, though; as Casserly believes he doesn’t quite fit the narrative that he’s the next Darren Sproles, a comparison that almost certainly would have James at worst in round two if it were apt.

“I struggle with the guy,” Casserly said. “He’s got speed but he’s not a big guy and he plays like a small guy, too. He goes down easy. Maybe I’m not seeing him right but that’s kind of my opinion of him. I have great value for a guy like Sproles who was more physical and ran inside. I see a different guy in Sproles. A change of pace back with some speed is something the Rams could certainly use, though.”

Considering that behind Jackson, the Rams have no proven commodities, it’s entirely possible they’ll use a valuable pick on adding a back. That back may be a long term replacement or it could be someone who is more complementary to Jackson but it’s probably a safe bet that the Rams will find a back or two at some point in the draft.

Top Five Running Back Prospects

1. Trent Richardson, Alabama
2. Lamar Miller, Miami
3. David Wilson, Virginia Tech
4. Doug Martin, Boise State
5. LaMichael James, Oregon

Sleeper: Robert Turbin, Utah State

Florida RB Chris Rainey is a speedy player who could have some value for a team in the later rounds.

Top Five Fullback Prospects

1. Bradie Ewing, Wisconsin
2. Cody Johnson, Texas
3. Chad Diehl, Clemson
4. Alfred Morris, Florida Atlantic
5. Ryan Houston, North Carolina

Sleeper: Jermaine Robertson, Arkansas State