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NFL free agency could push running backs out of Round 1

If you see an interview with a potential draft pick at running back over the next month or two, they just might steal a line from Rodney Dangerfield and say they don't get no respect.

That's certainly the case when you look over NFL Media analyst Daniel Jeremiah's latest mock draft, which doesn't include a running back in the first round. Bucky Brooks and Charles Davis' mock drafts don't have a running back going until the Browns' No. 26 pick.

With free agency beginning Tuesday, the situation could get worse for running back prospects before May rolls around. Combine a soft free-agent market with a lack of agreement on which running backs merit a first-round grade, and this year's draft could be a long one for running backs.

Around the League's list of the top 101 free agents in 2014 includes eight running backs, no small feat, considering how devalued the position has become in the age of splitting carries. The list of unrestricted free agents is long, meaning there is a healthy number of cheap, short-term options for a club looking to fill needs at the spot.

Teams might simply opt to pass on a running back in the early rounds of the draft, knowing there are free-agent options such as Darren Sproles, LeGarrette Blount or Maurice Jones-Drew. Backups who have either hit free agency, such as Rashad Jennings or Toby Gerhart, or have been cut, such as Michael Bush, could also present a good low-cost, low-risk alternative to spending a draft pick.

That could mean trouble for first-round hopefuls such as Ohio State's Carlos Hyde.

While NFL Media analyst Mike Mayock said he believes Hyde solidified his status as a late-first-round to mid-second-round pick with a strong pro-day workout -- especially by showing his skills as a pass-catcher -- Hyde still hasn't flashed his speed for scouts in the 40-yard dash after tweaking his hamstring at the NFL Scouting Combine.

Hyde isn't the only top RB prospect dealing with an increasing number of knocks. Auburn's Tre Mason, a top five prospect at tailback according to Brooks and Mayock, was a bit of an afterthought at Auburn's recent pro day and still has to deal with criticism about his pass-blocking skills, size and injury history. LSU's Jeremy Hill is considered a first-round talent carrying the baggage of a second- or third-day pick. Bishop Sankey led the Pac-12 in rushing last year -- and has risen to become Mayock's top tailback after the combine -- but still carries a third- to fourth-round projection for some before his pro day at Washington.

Also working against the group is the overall depth at wide receiver, defensive line, offensive tackle and cornerback in a loaded draft class. It's not hard to see a team, for example, becoming enamored with the size of a wide receiver such as Kelvin Benjamin late on the first day or perhaps go after a pass rusher such as Kony Ealy before addressing other needs.

If a run on quarterbacks happens late instead of early in the first-round, that could cause a domino effect that pushes running backs even further down. With so many quality players coming out of college this year, a pick based on value -- rather than on needs or talent -- could determine where a running back is selected.

Another factor to consider: Running backs projected to go in the middle rounds, such as Stanford's Tyler Gaffney, UCF's Storm Johnson or Alabama State's Isaiah Crowell, have the talent to potentially contribute early on, giving general managers even more options to find a fit this spring.

2014 NFL Draft Winds
College Football 24/7 takes a look at the rumors connecting draft prospects with NFL teams leading up to the 2014 NFL Draft.

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» Tracking teams' interest in top prospects

This year could really show how much teams value running backs in their system. It could reveal whether teams think they need a back to win right away or can find somebody they can develop.

"Most teams designate a position where they need to target it in free agency," former Pro Bowl running back LaDainian Tomlinson said on NFL Network's Total Access. "If you can't get a running back in the draft at a high position, you may want to target it through free agency. Remember, guys in free agency are always a short-term solution. When you're looking at guys in the draft, you're looking to build on those players."

There's talent to be had among the backs coming out of college this season, but the early rounds of the draft are unlikely to bear that out. If any running backs are planning to head to New York for the draft, they might want to book an extra night (or two) just in case.

Follow Bryan Fischer on Twitter @BryanDFischer.

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