The Value of the Running Back in Today’s NFL

It’s no secret the running back position is incredibly undervalued in the NFL. The fact that three of the most notable stars from the running back position have held out over the past two years (Le’Veon Bell, Ezekiel Elliot, and Melvin Gordon) proves that this isn’t just an isolated issue.

While the Rams decided to pay their star runner, we are watching the Cowboys and Chargers drag their feet because of how hard it is to justify paying top dollar for the position. With that in mind, I felt like taking a closer look at the strategy of GMs and teams when it comes to the running back position.

Why so Undervalued?

Several factors have led to downward pressure on running backs’ salaries in recent years. The first and most obvious is the depth of the position. There are cheap – and talented – options coming out of college every year, which makes it tough to justify paying top dollar for a veteran option that isn’t significantly better.

High-end starters are routinely found in rounds 2-4, or even later. Because there are so many other factors that go into a running back’s success, the drop-off from the number one runner to the number two isn’t as significant as it is at most other positions. The running back is beholden to the talent of his offensive line. If the line can’t block, the back isn’t going to have a good day. If the line does its job at a high level, it doesn’t matter as much who’s caring the ball.  At this level, every runner is good enough.

Another issue with the position is the tendency for injury. The physically demanding nature of playing running back in the NFL   The average NFL career is 3.3 years compared to the 2.57 years an average running back stays in the league.

The injury risk works against the back in two ways. First, there will always be hesitation from front offices to give big money to a player that could so easily get hurt and never be the same again. Second, once the rookie contract is up, most running backs’ best years are already behind him, so the player never gets the opportunity to get paid beyond the standard rookie wage.

Taking a Running Back with a Premium Draft Pick

While the “new” conventional wisdom is to avoid spending high draft capital on running backs, there has been somewhat of a reversal of that trend in recent years. Since 2015, there have been 5 running backs taken in the top ten of the draft. That doesn’t sound like a big number, but it really is. That’s 15% of the NFL that has sunk premium draft capital on the least-valued position in the NFL. Technically, it’s 12.5% of NFL GMs, because Dave Gettleman did it twice, with the Panthers and Giants.

The results are tough to argue with. Todd Gurley, Ezekiel Elliott, Leonard Fournette, Christian McCaffrey, and Saquon Barkley are all fantastic runners that have taken the NFL by storm. There is no one doubting these players. But, with all we know about the running back position, why spend premium picks?

There is a much lower bust potential on first-round running backs, especially backs drafted in the top ten. Of the guys we’ve already talked about the only player that you could question is Fournette, and I would argue a hamstring injury caused the majority of his struggles in his second season after a very good rookie year. There are plenty of mitigating factors, but, in general, teams that make the move to draft a high-end running back believe they are one piece away. One electrifying offensive weapon away from dominating the NFL. For some of these teams, the theory proves successful.

The downside of that strategy is playing out with the Zeke holdout, but more on that later. The Cowboys and Jaguars arguably showed the world why drafting running back early can be the right move.

The other side of the same coin shows us franchises that grossly miss-diagnose their own team. Dave Gettleman drafted Christian McCaffery eighth overall for the Panthers and Saquon Barkley second overall for the Giants. Both drafts were deep at the running back position and both situations involved passing on players that could have improved Gettleman’s team at more desirable positions.

Gettleman must have felt the Panthers were a couple of explosive playmakers away from being back in the Super Bowl because they doubled down on speedy playmakers with the Curtis Samuel pick in the second round.

This belief is at least understandable. The Panthers were a good, albeit aging, team that was looking to get back to the big game. If it weren’t for injuries, the past two seasons may have been different.

The Manning family must have had all the game tape from 2017 burned because there’s no way anyone in that front office could have watched Eli Manning’s play and honestly believed they were one playmaker away. They famously passed on a quarterback, subjecting Saquon Barkley – a true generational player – to playing for an awful team for the foreseeable future. Both teams would probably have been better off addressing the position later in the draft.

The Jeff Fisher led Rams took Todd Gurley in hopes of bringing their offense to the next level. Fisher never got to enjoy it, but rather set up the next head coach with the cornerstone of an offensive powerhouse. This is also an example of a team that paid a running back before he had the chance to hold out. They set the bar with the Gurley contract last season.

 

Player Team Age Total
Value
Avg./Year  Total
Guaranteed
Fully
Guaranteed
Free
Agency
Todd Gurley Rams 25 $57,500,000 $14,375,000 $45,000,000 $21,950,000 2024 UFA
Le’Veon Bell Jets 27 $52,500,000 $13,125,000 $35,000,000 $27,000,000 2023 UFA
David Johnson Cardinals 28 $39,000,000 $13,000,000 $31,882,500 $24,682,500 2022 UFA
Devonta Freeman Falcons 27 $41,250,000 $8,250,000 $22,047,000 $18,297,000 2023 UFA
LeSean McCoy Bills 31 $40,050,000 $8,010,000 $26,050,000 $18,250,000 2020 UFA

Top 5 highest paid RB’s according to Over the Cap

Taking a running back early isn’t a risky move. You are almost guaranteed to hit on a very good playmaker. Fans will be excited about the new star. Jersey sales will skyrocket, and every analyst will project how much better the offense will be with the new weapon. While it may be easy, it isn’t a good way to build a team – not unless the team is already built to run. You wouldn’t build the foundation of your house with marble, would you? It might look nice, but it won’t hold up long-term.

Quantity over Quality

The NFL has been treating the running back position like yesterday’s trash for quite a while now. Teams have made a living Some GMs are better than others at building their team the right way.

Colts’ GM Chris Ballard. He has addressed the running back position by spending fourth-round picks on Marlon Mack and Nyheim Hines in 2017 and 2018, respectively. Ballard is excellent at evaluating talent, and maybe even more importantly, maneuvering in the draft for the highest possible value. The Colts have taken four linemen in the top 40 picks, and a stable of running backs that didn’t cost more than a fourth-rounder. That is an excellent way to build a great running team. (Doesn’t hurt to have Andrew Luck throwing the ball, either!)

John Lynch, the GM of the 49ers, doesn’t have the track record of a Chris Ballard, but he has made some interesting choices with the way he has the running back room. Instead of drafting backs, he’s found value in free agency and undrafted free agency. The cool thing about what he is doing is, instead of having your traditional lead runner who is complemented by a third-down back (see the Mack/Hines combo,) they have 3 backs that are all essentially the same type of player.

Tevin Coleman, Jerick McKinnon, and Matt Breida are all quick scat backs with the ability to help in the passing game. The only issue with this method is how expensive free-agent RBs are. Tevin Coleman (two years, $10 million) and Jerick McKinnon (four years,$30 Million) were each signed to a rare second contract for a running back. That’s over $12.5 million a year for the two lead Niners’ backs. Not the type of value you should be looking for when guys like them found in the middle rounds for a fraction of what SF is paying these veterans.

The Eagles haven’t had a true franchise running back since Chip Kelly traded LeSean McCoy for peanuts. They have gotten by with serviceable backs that were all relatively cheap. The highest draft capital they’ve spent on a running back in the past five years is Miles Sanders in the second round last April.

Howie Roseman is one of the best team builders in the NFL. He has acquired talent at the position by trading for solid runners on rookie contracts. They gave a fourth-round pick to the Dolphins for a Jay Ajayi rental (he played out the rest of his rookie contract and was not resigned). This past off-season they took Jordan Howard off the Bear’s hands for a sixth-rounder. This team has successfully assembled an assortment of young backs that will most likely never see a second contract with the Eagles. The position is essentially free for the Eagles.

As we take a closer look at the position around the league, there is an obvious answer to the running back question. Draft young talent late in drafts. Assemble a group of players that can all work within the system, and don’t plan to sign any of these guys to second contracts, because you’ll find yourself spending too much on a position that should be the great bargain bin of the NFL. This is an inherently cold and unforgiving way of treating the men that play the position, but the NFL is a business and when it comes down to it, this is the best way to build a running back room.

Mommas don’t let your son grow up to play running back.

What to do With the Elite Backs

The aforementioned strategy is nothing new, and it works for about 85% of the NFL. But let’s look back on the teams that have elite runners on the roster. The teams that have designed their offense around a running back. Regardless of how utterly short-sighted that is in today’s NFL, there are teams that find themselves in the position.  The Cowboys and Chargers are each currently trying to sign their star running back to a deal that doesn’t overpay the player (by market standards).

The Chargers are in a position of power because, while Gordon is an integral part of the offense, the entire team isn’t revolving around Gordon and his ability to run the ball. They have also stashed solid backups behind Melvin to allow for more flexibility. Austin Ekeler and are serviceable starters that can carry the load if Gordon holds out.

The Cowboys are stuck, for all intents and purposes. They may not want to pay Zeke, but they’ll have to. The team is completely dependent on a dominant running game to control games. Zeke is the centerpiece of a team that doesn’t have a backup ready to fill the void.

The Cowboys have other guys to pay, including Dak and Amari, but this team still runs through Zeke.  Are they willing to play hardball and risk changing the team philosophy to pass-first? I don’t believe they are in the position to do that right now.

These are not the last teams that will face this problem. Saquon Barkley, Alvin Kamara, and Christian McCaffrey are among many running backs that will be expecting a payday in coming years. The Cardinals and Rams bit the bullet and signed their franchise runner relatively early, which, in theory, would get the player paid for the entirety of his prime years and have an extremely team-friendly deal on the back end should his play regress. That’s one approach, which works for teams without major money going other ways. It works, and it comes without the media circus distracting the team from real football.

The Steelers famously refused to pay Le’Veon a long-term deal worth what he was asking. Bell was asking for wide receiver money, which he obviously never got. of about $13.1 million a year over the next four years with the Jets.

Bell left $15 million on the table to take what amounts to $35 million guaranteed. Obviously, he avoided injury and kept himself fresh for an entire season, but that is still money he will never get back. Will that be a warning to future stars?

Right now, Gordon and Elliot are still under contract. They can’t hold out an entire year, because they would still be contractually obligated to play the following season. The only option for the player is to play the league minimum six games to accrue a season and hold out the rest of the year, but even then that is millions of dollars being left on the table for a bigger payday that may never come. These are factors working in the team’s favor. The downside to refusing to give in to demands is the bad press that will come if the team starts to lose. That’s when leverage shifts to the side of the player.

As far as the current holdouts are concerned, the situation is worth monitoring. The outcomes of these individual holdouts could set the standard for years to come. Or, maybe it was already set last year. Only time will tell.

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