The Devaluation of Running Backs
A lot has been made about how running backs have been falling further and further in the draft. In the last two years, not a single running back has gone in the first round. Contract values are not increasing at the same rate as other positions and free agents are finding it tougher and tougher to make big money. A position that used to be considered the lynchpin of the offense, almost as important as quarterback, is now an afterthought. How did this happen?
The NFL has systematically changed the rules to favor a passing game over the years. First increasing pass interference calls, then adding illegal contact, and recently increasing the illegal contact threshold. Quarterbacks and receivers are becoming more and more refined with increasing demand and the passing game is growing. When Dan Marino threw for 5,000 yards in a season, people wanted to dub him the greatest of all time. Now Mathew Stafford can do it. While a running game is still crucial, obviously, the points are coming from passing.
Running back is one of the most violent positions in the NFL and it takes a big tole on the players. Most running backs break down after, or nearing, 30 years of age. Meanwhile a good QB can play at 40. Some corners and receivers play into their late 30s. Meanwhile former All Star backs like Steven Jackson and Chris Johnson become nothing more than #2 backs with their speed and strength decreasing. While a transcendent player like Adrian Peterson could likely play into his mid 30s, this type of player is not only rare, but also impossible to predict early on. With a short shelf life, it's hard to give out big money or a high draft pick to a player who won't be with the team for quite as long. Once a player gets some tread on the tires, his value, as well as his production, often starts to plummet.
Taking a RB at the top of the draft is extremely risky. In the last 13 years, not a single running back drafted in the top 6 (the Jets pick at #6 if you don't know/remember) has attended a single Pro Bowl during his career. During that time, every other position in the NFL had at least 1 Pro Bowler. The best they got was 2005 pick Ronnie Brown, who was elected as a Pro Bowl reserve player one time; in 2008. If you think it's because there weren't many running backs selected, you should know that there were 6 RBs selected in the top 6 over the last 10 years. For contract, only 3 safeties and 2 tight ends made it into the top 6 over the same time frame: All of them made it to at least one Pro Bowl as a starter. All 6 running backs combined for only 6 total career 1,000 yard seasons. None had a single season with 1,300 yards or more and Cedric Benson is the only one to even break 1,200 once (averaging an unimpressive career best of 4.2 yards per carry.) Benson is also the only back to break every 6,000 yards in a career...with 6,017.
In contrast to the dearth of talent for top pick running backs, almost every other position has Hall of Fame caliber players picked in that time frame. Some of the stars include Julius Peppers, Andre Johnson, Larry Fitzgerald, Phillip Rivers, Sean Taylor, Mario Williams, Vernon Davis, Calvin Johnson, Joe Thomas, Matt Ryan, Ndamukong Suh, Greald McCoy, Eric Berry, Cam Newton, Von Miller, Marcell Dareus, A.J. Green, Patrick Peterson, Julio Jones, Andrew Luck, Sammy Watkins, and Khalil Mack. Reggie Bush, who doesn't even have 1,300 career carries in 9 years (an average of fewer than 150 carries per season), is the only player to last more than 8 seasons. Only a single running back drafted in the first round played in more than 10 NFL seasons during that time frame, Steven Jackson, who completed his 11 season this year with no effectiveness remaining in his game (also, though Willis McGahee's career technically lasted 11 years, he sat out his rookie season due to injury and played in only 10 seasons.)
The last 2 running backs taken in the top 6 were Trent Richardson and Darren McFadden. Both players have been miserable in recent years, with Trent Richardson's #3 overall pick turning into a total bust. He has since been traded, considered overweight, and suspended for 2 games. On top of that, his career average for yards per carry is 3.3 and the longest run of his career isn't even 35 yards. McFadden hasn't run for more than 750 yards in over 4 years and hasn't averaged more than 3.4 in the last 3 years. Almost half of the running backs selected in the first round over the last 7 years have had to quit the game within 4 years due to injury (David Wilson, Chris "Beanie" Wells, Jahvid Best) and several others have seen dramatic reduction in their production, such as Darren McFadden. Running back has some of the most memorable busts in the last decade, including some of the biggest disappointments not named JaMarcus Russell.
The Price Tag
Under the new CBA, first round picks get paid a lot more than late round picks, and this is regardless of their position. The last running back taken in the top 6 was Trent Richardson, who got about $20.49 million for 4 years, averaging just over $5.12 million per season. For contrast, #1 overall pick Andrew Luck got about $22.11 million for 4 years, averaging just under $5.53 million per year. Cam Newton, also #1 overall the year before, got just under $22.03 million for 4 years, averaging just under $5.51 per season. Last year's #3 overall pick was also a quarterback, Blake Bortles, who got a very similar contract to Richardson, averaging about $5.16 million per season. Now, what does a top tier QB cost? The top 13 highest paid QBs in the NFL all earn $16 million per year or more. And running backs: $4 million per year or more. Only one running back earns more than $10 million per year in average salary, and that's Adrian Peterson, who is a freak of nature competing to break the rushing record despite missing a season and tearing an ACL, and he is still at risk of getting cut for cap purposes. Elite backs in the NFL like Marshawn Lynch and Jamaal Charles both got $7.5 million or less per season. Only 4 running backs earn more than that. There are 22 defensive linemen, 15 linebackers, 14 wide receivers, and 17 offensive linemen who earn more than $7.5 million in yearly salary. The only position with fewer is tight end, with only 2 players, as tight end is also an underpaid position.
Now if you get a Le'Veon Bell for $5 million per season in round one, you've got a pretty good deal. You're probably saving about $3-5 million per season. If you get JJ Watt for $5 million per season in round one, you have a massive competitive advantage. You're likely saving more than $11 million per year. If you got Andrew Luck for $5 million per season in round one, you just aren't playing fair. You're likely saving more than $15 million per season, possibly up to a ridiculous $20 million per season in savings. Per season. Add in the 5th year option and you're saving almost $100 million in cap space over 5 years. Okay, okay, I know; that's best case scenario. But even if you just get someone like Muhammad Wilkerson or Sheldon Richardson (players I would claim are at equivalent to, or lesser than, the value of Le'Veon Bell in relation to other players at their positions), you will still save $5 million or more per season. The average starting running back not on a rookie contract earns between $3-7 million, with a few exceptions at the top like AP and Lesean McCoy. That's less than average players at most positions. Edge rushers, offensive/defensive linemen, corners, wide receivers, and quarterbacks all earn significantly more. Even run stuffing inside linebackers, a position that is also being phased out slowly, earn a bit more.
The Two-Back System
Because of the pounding NFL running backs take, more and more teams are switching to a two-back system. Very few running backs can remain healthy as workhorse backs, and they often wear down by the end of the season. Many have accredited the postseason troubles of Hall of Famer Barry Sanders and future Hall of Famer LaDainian Tomlinson to being overused in the regular season (game planning by superior competition didn't help either, though.) There are very few 3 down backs left in the NFL. There have only been 2 running backs to top 300 carries in each of the past 2 years, whereas in the past it would often be 3, 4, or even 5 times as many players carrying the load. If you want to keep your backs healthy and fresh, you may need to keep switching them up. On top of that, many running backs are not effective in certain circumstances. Even though LeSean McCoy makes over $10 million per year, he is not a workhorse back. McCoy is not good in pass protection and, while not terrible, is not a great receiver out of the backfield. Players like Adrian Peterson and DeMarco Murray who can run with speed and power as well as pass protect and pick up blitzes at a high level are extremely rare. Even Adrian Peterson isn't a good receiving threat out of the backfield. Not a lot of running backs can be three down players, and it is a big commitment to invest a high draft pick and pay a player big time money to play only 66% of the snaps.
A top 6 running back is disproportionately expensive while also having a disproportionate risk of busting. In addition, running backs have the shortest average length of careers. Running backs also have the highest rate of injury, and it's not even close. So what it comes down to is this; a top 6 running back comes with more risk than ever before. According to recent trends, you are taking a player who will cost more than market value, has the highest risk of injury, has the shortest career length, and has the lowest chance of achieving Pro Bowl level play. This makes it seem increasingly likely that a running back will not be picked in the top 6 again for an incredibly long amount of time, unless there is a truly complete, once in 3 generations type player. Among the top running backs in the NFL (let's just say Adrian Peterson, Jamaal Charles, Marshawn Lynch, Le'Veon Bell, LeSean McCoy, DeMarco Murray, Arian Foster, and Alfred Morris) only two were selected in the first round. Two were selected in the 6th round or later, as well. Only 1 first round pick was selected as a starter for the Pro Bowl and only 1 first round pick attended it. The same is true for undrafted players. The top 10 running backs in yards per carry included only 1 first round pick in Marshawn list, who was dead last. There were 3 undrafted players ahead of him on that list, and the top player was a 7th rounder. It's not hard to see why NFL general managers are unwilling to pull the trigger on a running back in the first round when recent history suggests that they are A) a high risk to bust B) one of the least cost efficient positions in terms of average salary C) a position with the shortest career length and highest injury risk D) most likely to split snaps and E) start to lose effectiveness at a younger age than other positions F) equally likely to get an undrafted or late round pick that succeeds at a similar level.
Okay, I know it sounds like I'm also devaluing the position. I really do think that running back is an important position and if you can get a really good one, he can change the fortunes of your team. Marshawn Lynch is the heart and soul of the Seahawks offense and without him, they are likely not winning either of their last 2 NFC Championship games. Le'Veon Bell turned the Steelers into a division winner after looking lifeless on offense one year prior. Adrian Peterson is a monster and runs with speed and power that is rarely seen in the NFL. If you can get one of those players, you do it, no questions asked. But these guys are the exception to the rule. The career leader in yards per carry, Jamaal Charles, isn't a first rounder. The last two rushing leaders weren't first round picks. You don't need to use a first round pick for a quality NFL back anymore. But if, and this is a big if, you are assured there is a player of that elite caliber available to you in the draft, you take him. Would I take a running back at #6 overall? No, I wouldn't. I would say the same thing, for similar reasons, about the guard/center/tight end positions as well. Would I take one of these positions in the middle of the first round? Absolutely.