The Enigma Known As Running Back Value

The National Football League has changed. Over the past several seasons, we’ve witnessed a fundamental philosophical shift in the way offenses operate. Gun-slinging quarterbacks, elite athletic marvel wide receivers, and a few rule changes have made one thing very clear: the NFL is now a passing league.

While there are many franchises that still love to run the ball, it’s become quite apparent that vertical offenses are all the rage these days and that brings me to a discussion about one of football’s most perplexing positions; the running back.

The Enigma Known As Running Back Value

There was a time when running backs were viewed as the backbones of NFL offenses and among the most important players on the field. With the modern renaissance of teams employing running-back-by-committees (we’ll call them RBBCs from here on) and the emergence of the passing game and spread formations, the way that running backs are viewed by coaches and front offices has changed in recent years.

At least on the surface it seemed that way. In the 2013 and 2014 NFL drafts there wasn’t a single first round selection spent on a running back. Not one. Prior to 2013, the last time no running back was drafted in round one was 1963, a full fifty years ago, and it wasn’t because the pool of runners was particularly shallow.  The 2013 and 2014 drafts produced several exciting NFL tailbacks including Le’Veon Bell, Eddie Lacy, Jeremy Hill, Andre Ellington, and many more. Certainly some of these star players might have been first-rounders in years past, particularly Lacy who came out of Alabama with a quite a bit of hype.

Furthermore, the money had seemed to dry up for free agent runners as well. In 2013, Reggie Bush was the biggest free agent fish and received a four-year, $16 million dollar deal from the Detroit Lions, a decent payday, but hardly bank-breaking. In 2014, the top range contracts received by players like Donald Brown, Toby Gerhart, and Ben Tate averaged approximately $3.5 million annually.

With the changing landscape of the NFL, no first round rushers being selected for two consecutive years, and relatively cold free agent markets, it seemed like the running back had been devalued to an unsettling degree, but then a funny thing happened: things started to change.

For starters, the 2015 free agent running back class received much more lucrative compensation than their counter-parts from years prior. The average annual values of the new contracts received by this class were substantially higher than what we’d seen in years. DeMarco Murray ($8 million per year) was the prize of the class but Shane Vereen, C.J. Spiller, and Mark Ingram all received $4 million a year or more as well. None of this even mentions the new deal the Buffalo Bills signed LeSean McCoy to that averages $8,010,000 annually, or the two-year $24 million dollar extension the Seattle Seahawks gave Marshawn Lynch in the off-season.

The Lynch, Murray, and McCoy contracts in particular showed a willingness to spend on the position that NFL teams haven’t shown in years, and suddenly the prospects of running back’s and their inherent value to franchises seemed to improve. On April 30th, 2015 the prospects figure to get even brighter.

The streak of years that no running back has his name called in the first round is almost certain to end at two. The 2015 draft features a very talented and deep class of runners that many see as the best selection since the 2008 draft which featured such household names as Jamaal Charles, Matt Forte, Chris Johnson, Ray Rice, and many others.

The consensus about this year’s group is that Georgia’s Todd Gurley and Wisconsin’s Melvin Gordon are two of the better running back prospects to come along in some time and it would be quite surprising if one or both of them weren’t drafted in the opening round. Other talented backs like Boise State’s Jay Ajayi, Indiana’s Tevin Coleman, Alabama’s T.J. Yeldon, Miami’s Duke Johnson, Nebraska’s Ameer Abdullah, and several others all  figure to be prominent day two selections, as well.

With a class this talented poised to enter the league, the position’s immediate prospects look even better. While the days of a running back seeing 25 to 30 touches a game every single week are a thing of yesteryear, the position is still highly important to success in the NFL, and I think that a lot of front offices took notice of the successful formula of building a strong offensive line and running game that the Dallas Cowboys employed so effectively last season.

Only time will tell if the events of the recent past and immediate future are signs of what’s to come, or if the focus on the position we’re currently seeing is merely a result of a stronger class of free agent and draft-eligible runners.

 

ATHENS, GA – SEPTEMBER 27:  Todd Gurley #3 of the Georgia Bulldogs walks off the field between downs against the Tennessee Volunteers at Sanford Stadium on September 27, 2014 in Athens, Georgia.  (Photo by Kevin C. Cox/Getty Images)