There's no need to take a running back in the first round, but let's dispel with the notion that running backs grow on trees and that any team can pick some guy off the street and turn them into a 1,000 yard rusher.
That only works against the Colts.
Talent matters in the NFL and it's undeniable that running backs selected earlier in the draft are more productive than their later- or un-drafted counterparts. It's also fair to acknowledge that the position has undergone a drastic shift in value.
What this graph shows is the average draft position of the top five running backs selected in the NFL draft. There's been a gradual incline, which means that, on average, running backs are being selected later and later every year.
Running backs have seen a negative hit in length of career, contract value, and draft position, but that doesn't mean that they are any less valuable.
There were 21 running backs that picked up 1,000 or more yards from scrimmage in 2015 and 17 of them were drafted in the top 103 of their respective drafts; 15 were selected in the first three rounds. One of the 1,000 yarders was the undrafted Danny Woodhead, and 755 of his yards were as a receiver.
While the 2015 season was weird with regards to top tier running back production, the make-up of the 1,000+ yard gainers wasn't anything out of the ordinary. Roughly 20-25 running backs have cracked 1,000 yards from scrimmage each season over the past 25 years. Over the past five seasons, 76% of the 1,000+ yard seasons by running backs have come from a player selected in the first four rounds of their respective draft.
Over the past five seasons, 30 running backs have had multiple seasons with 1,000+ yards from scrimmage and 22 of these players were selected in the first three rounds. If a team wants a reliable multi-season rusher, they might want to look into selecting a player in the second day of the draft.
The good thing about evaluating running backs is that they're fairly predictable, when compared to other positions in the draft. From a physical standpoint, quality 10/40, three cone, and shuttle times, along with strong vertical and broad jumps does a pretty good job of projecting players that have the capacity to excel or fall flat in the NFL.
Actual film work is necessary, of course, but the physicals do a good job of separating players that scouts have positioned on a similar tier.
We'll be better able to make a projection of players after the combine, from February 23rd to 29th. February 26th is when the running backs will be tested.