Former Auburn running back Tre Mason has left no room for interpretation with his comments -- he believes he's the top running back in the 2014 NFL draft class and that distinction deserves to be rewarded with a first-round selection on Thursday.
The NFL Draft process doesn't lack for egos, but Mason's confidence isn't misplaced. His production for Auburn last season (an SEC record 23 rushing touchdowns, 304 yards in the SEC Championship Game), his skills (a claimed 4.3-second 40-yard dash time) and the 10 pounds of muscle he's added to his 5-foot-8 frame this winter all back up his claim.
"I should be the No. 1 running back in this draft," Mason said at the NFL Scouting Combine. "We played against the top competition and I showed my skill against that. I have to believe that numbers don't lie. I feel like I put up a lot of numbers this year and it should be able to speak for itself."
But Mason is not competing solely against his peers -- he's also going against a new wave of NFL pessimism toward the running back position.
The shift in thought about running backs has been swift and dramatic. As recently as three years ago, running backs were picked as high as No. 3 overall. But last year's NFL draft was the first in 50 years in which a running back was not selected in the first round. The 2014 Draft is expected to continue on that trend.
Every-down, workhorse backs like Marshawn Lynch and Adrian Peterson have proven to be exceptions to the new rule of the NFL, where running backs work in tandems of two or three, and a back staying productive after age 28 is as rare as a winning season in Cleveland.
In the era of advanced statistics and data study, the truth is in the spreadsheets, and they show that the life of an NFL running back is essentially over at age 26. And for the majority of NFL running backs, that 26th birthday comes before their second NFL contract.
That has led the NFL to declare running backs "disposable", if not actively, then by the way they're treated in the draft and free agent markets. And the first round of the NFL Draft is the place to add "franchise" players who will contribute for a decade, not running backs who won't make it to their second contract.
"Teams are smart, the game has changed," said ESPN draft analyst Todd McShay last week. "Teams are realizing that there's a short shelf life with this position. (They're thinking) 'Maybe we should be spending with two backs what we're spending on one.'"
Trainer Tony Villani was tasked with helping make Mason a first-round pick. Villani believes he's done that by adding weight to Mason's frame while maintaining his electrifying speed and pinball running style.
"Shorter, squatter backs don't have breakaway speed like Tre," Villani said. "We added weight while keeping that explosiveness. There aren't a lot of guys who can take a hit and then pull away. When you have someone like that, you get them on the field on first, second and third down."
But even Villani admits that the disposable running back movement might be too much to overcome.
"I don't think the running back has changed as much as the NFL has changed," said Villani, who trained former Baltimore Ravens 2,000-yard rusher Jamal Lewis. "If you do have a workhorse running back. ... You see the pounding that they take, putting two years in one year. ... It's hard for a running back to make it to the fifth or six year."
Indeed, durability is the biggest concern NFL teams have about running backs, and that's proved problematic for Mason, who broke the scaphoid bone in his wrist last season. Mason has refuted reports that he needs to have surgery on the wrist, but a small broken bone might be enough to scare teams away from selecting him early in the draft.
Mason has put himself in position to buck the NFL trend and remain a productive force for a decade -- which could make one team look smart for picking him in the first round, or leave 31 other teams regretting not doing so -- but it'll take more than one player to reverse the NFL's new way of thinking. The latest projections have Mason being selected in the middle of the second round.
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