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Opinion: Not a great day for the first-round running back crowd

Matt Warren is Associate Director of NFL coverage for SB Nation and previously covered the Bills for Buffalo Rumblings for more than a decade.

Way back in April, we were having a stirring debate on who the Buffalo Bills should take in the 2021 NFL Draft. There were two clear camps with a couple other outliers; defensive end and running back. On Sunday night, one of those positions balled out and one of those positions was a nothing-burger, and it wasn’t just with Buffalo. The Chiefs showed exactly why it was always a luxury pick.

The blueprint was simple: “Look what the Kansas City Chiefs did with their offense. They were great already and added Clyde Edwards-Helaire to give them an even more potent offense.” In 2020, the Chiefs added a dynamic playmaker to their backfield using their first-round pick.

Or at least that was the plan. Through 18 regular season games, CEH has certainly had some big moments, but on the whole he’s been disappointing for a first rounder. He’s averaging 61.5 rushing yards per game along with 19.9 yards per game receiving. He has seven total touchdowns. Respectable numbers, for sure, but not game-changing.

Then you look at the other side of the ledger and see the Chiefs’ defense, badly lacking in secondary help outside Tyrann Mathieu. Couldn’t they have better spent that pick on a cornerback? Could they have helped the offense by instead helping the defense? They gave up big play after big play in their secondary with a bare cupboard.

Buffalo, knowing they needed to stop Patrick Mahomes, instead invested in a pass rusher and the dude did it in his first game against the Chiefs. In the third quarter on the doorstep of Buffalo’s end zone, first-round pick Greg Rousseau stuck out his arboreal arms, knocked the ball up into the air, and came away with the pick. Buffalo used that first-round pick to upgrade another part of their team with young, cheap talent instead of adding another weapon down the list on offense.

General manager Brandon Beane was helped along in his decision by the Pittsburgh Steelers and Jacksonville Jaguars, who picked the top two running backs before Buffalo was even on the clock. We will never know what he would have done if either of those backs was available. But if Buffalo had Najee Harris or Travis Etienne, their offense wouldn’t be significantly better but it’s probably safe to say their defense would be significantly worse both now and in the future. They’d have a hole at a position they think is the most important in stopping opposing offenses.

Ultimately, this conversation comes down to sustainability and resource allocation. Buffalo invested heavily in their defense, with big-time contracts on the back end and at linebacker and lots of high draft picks up front. On the offense, they used first-round picks on Josh Allen and Stefon Diggs but have filled the rest of their skill positions in the middle rounds and with cheaper free agents.

It’s hard for me to advise spending consecutive third-rounders on running backs with their limited shelf life, but a first-round pick would have been too much for me. Even before the injury to Edwards-Helaire sidelined him for the second half, the game Monday night showed why.